The Virtual Cycling Craze is Quickly Cooling Down
Most cyclists are probably familiar with indoor training apps such as Zwift, Rouvy, and RGT. While virtual cycling already existed before the pandemic, these platforms rapidly gained popularity in 2020 and 2021 as they allowed cyclists to continue training despite quarantines and lockdowns. Thankfully, these companies were able to capitalize by introducing new events and features that kept people entertained and, more importantly, engaged in training. However, as the need for strict lockdowns begins to dissipate, the demand for indoor cycling technology has also declined. As a result, recent developments in the virtual cycling industry are not pointing towards a bright future for the industry. There have already been sudden mass layoffs at Zwift, which the company asserts is in line with their plans to scale back on hardware and focus their efforts on the core Zwift game experience. Even one of the biggest names in indoor trainers, Wahoo, also cut 50 jobs in both hardware and Wahoo SYSTM divisions even as they announced their acquisition of another indoor trainer giant, RGT.
A familiar setup for most indoor cyclists.
We here at Haftners sought a subject matter expert for opinions and commentary on the matter. Zommunique writer and founder of cycling-related non-profit The DIRT Dad Fund, Christopher Schwenker, said about the sudden layoffs, “The news blindsided the Zwift virtual cycling community. Although, in retrospect, we should have seen it coming. During the pandemic, at the height of Zwift’s surge in popularity, the peak number of Zwifters on the platform at one time was 43,265 on January 5, 2021. The numbers have dipped dramatically and now fall in the range of five to ten thousand. With arguably a 75% drop in subscribers, the level of workforce is a significant challenge to sustain.”
These sudden job cuts and layoffs beg the question: Is virtual cycling in trouble?
Where Is Virtual Cycling’s Place in the World of Cycling?
While the popularity of these programs may be waning, they still offer several compelling benefits that make them worth considering for cyclists of all levels.
Convenient Train Anytime, Anywhere Ethos
Anyone that has tried to exercise in the middle of winter can attest that it can be challenging to find the motivation to get up and move when it's cold and dark outside. However, digital training platforms like Zwift, Rouvy, and Wahoo RGT provide cyclists with a convenient way to get a workout indoors, regardless of the weather outside.
When the weather outside is like this, it is tempting to not hook up the trainer.
These apps are also highly engaging as they have features where you can ride virtual recreations of particular real-world routes such as the roads of Surrey Hills and Mount Ventoux. Rouvy even offers AR functionalities that place your avatar in the middle of real-world courses. And because you can use them in the comfort of your own home, there's no need to brave the elements to get some exercise.
Progressive Workout and Fitness Data for Efficient Training Sessions
One of the best benefits of virtual cycling is the ability to train with unparalleled focus. There is no need to stop at junctions or wait for the traffic lights in the virtual world. Instead, cyclists can just follow workout plans full-throttle all the time. With virtual cycling, athletes can approach training sessions scientifically with proper progressions without having to deal with outside influences such as traffic situations and adverse weather conditions. Virtual cycling also effectively eliminates chances of getting mechanical issues. This way, virtual cycling is the ultimate tool for helping athletes map out a game plan to improve their fitness most efficiently.
Before the popularity of virtual cycling programs, most people were already familiar with the spin bike setup, which made the transition from the gym to the indoor trainer a little easier for some.
Increased Engagement Via Gamification and Curated Communities
Virtual cycling platforms have become masters at keeping cyclists engaged. From uploading interesting routes, both fiction and non-fiction, to introducing challenges and power-ups, these platforms don’t have a shortage of components to keep athletes coming back for more. Some platforms use 3D; some go even further by introducing AR and video technology. However, the end goal of these efforts is the same - to keep cyclists engaged. With these technologies, cyclists can immerse themselves in a realistic environment similar to real-world cycling. Want to ride the Tour de France route? There’s no need to travel to France, as it’s recreated in the virtual world through these platforms. Rouvy even provides the visualization along with progressive resistance along the route.
One method of indoor cycling is with a VR headset.
Furthermore, these digital platforms are also prime candidates for introducing engagement tactics that just can’t be recreated in real-life road cycling. Zwift, for example, is a master at gamification. By adding power-ups and bonuses to their events, Zwift gives their users tactical tools to give them an edge against the competition.
Lastly and most importantly, the thriving online and offline communities built on these virtual cycling platforms have become one of their biggest draws. One of the best things about virtual cycling is that it allows people to connect with others who share their passion for cycling, even if they live in different parts of the world. When so many people felt isolated, virtual cycling provided a way for people to come together and create a sense of community. And for those who love to cycle, what could be better than being able to ride with friends from all over the world? “Many cyclists first try Zwift for the engagement and gamification, but stick with it and make it a part of their lives because of the thriving community aspect,” says Schwenker.
Controversies of Virtual Cycling
During the height of the enforcement of social and physical distancing protocols, virtual cycling was the platform of choice for people looking to compete in races. Therefore, UCI, the sport’s international governing body, saw it as an opportunity to introduce the eRacing category through Zwift under different names such as indoor championships and eSports championships. This comes after several major bike racing events had already gone digital the year before, such as the Digital Swiss 5, which featured a host of professional men’s teams competing on Rouvy. However, this transition to eRacing proved to be a can of worms as cyclists began to question whether virtual bike racing has a place in a world slowly opening up after the global health crisis.
One of the most concerning aspects of eRacing critics often point to is that it’s easy to cheat. Unfortunately, a couple of high-profile cheating incidents have already been recorded in the category’s short existence.
One of the most significant cheating incidents in eRacing happened in March 2019 when the winner of Zwift’s British Cycling-backed event, Cameron Jeffers, was found guilty of using a bot to acquire a virtual bike faster than everyone else. So in a way, Jeffers engaged in what can be described as a digital form of doping. As expected, this isn’t the only incident of cheating in a Zwift event. In 2020, two women were caught cheating by manipulating data. However, the two women, Britain’s Lizi Duncombe and Israel’s Shanni Berger claim that they did not intentionally manipulate the data. Instead, they claim that the data discrepancies were due to equipment malfunction and data corruption in one way or another.
Digital doping can take many forms, some versions have the rider actually using the bike but manipulating the data, in some versions the user does not even need to be on the bile.
Inaccurate Equipment Recording
In some instances, cheating might not even be intentional but rather an equipment malfunction. Some power meters, for example, read more power than the actual power generated by the cyclist, giving them an unfair advantage over their competitors without the rider even knowing about it. Some circumstances may affect the accuracy of a particular piece of equipment that can provide an added handicap to certain riders. A cyclist who resides in high-altitude locations, for example, is already at a disadvantage as the oxygen levels are generally lower than his competitors who live in typical elevations. Some critics have insisted that events for points or results should be raced in similar conditions on similar hardware, which is a difficult feat for most organizers.
One environment where organizers could control the factors of an indoor race.
When asked about the difference between wilful cheating and inaccurate equipment recording, Schwenker states, "Zwift is criticized for the cheating stigma surrounding the competitive environment, rightly so on many accounts but unfairly on just as many. The reasons and details are outlined in this article I wrote for CyclingNews and this post published to The ZOM. Zwift has an extensive framework in place to detect aberrant data and sanction the violators. They can do much more, and many platforms have committed to taking those steps. MyWhoosh has thrown their hat into the ring and has made significant ground in this area which I explained in this article I published on CyclingNews."
It’s Not Real Cycling
Critics also suggest that virtual cycling is not real cycling because some elements of road cycling just cannot be replicated in a digital world. Aerodynamics, bike handling, and other aspects road cyclists need to consider cannot presently be incorporated into virtual cycling. In addition, cornering and descending skills, two very crucial aptitudes in road cycling, are also unfortunately near impossible to recreate in the current iteration of virtual cycling.
The Future of Virtual Cycling
With the rapid decline of active users and subscriptions of virtual cycling platforms in recent months, it’s easy to see why some companies have decided to temper their expectations and cut some jobs. However, this does not mean virtual cycling has no place in the industry. For one thing, the cheating crisis does not affect their core user base. In an article on Cycling News, Zwift’s PR director, Chris Snook, says that only around 20% of their users compete in racing events, 50% use it for training purposes, and 80% engage in leisurely riding on the platform. In other platforms such as Rouvy and Wahoo-RGT, metrics are expected to hover in similar ranges.
We asked Schwenker about what virtual cycling platforms are doing to maintain a stable community after the peak during the pandemic, here is what he had to say, "Primarily by building on the framework of what has made them highly successful. That offers the cyclist and fitness enthusiast a convenient, interesting, and reliable way to further their fitness and scratch their competitive itch. The gamification of virtual cycling platforms like Zwift is highly motivating and engaging and gives cyclists a fun and effective alternative to real-life riding.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Zwift is the community. Many cyclists first try Zwift for the reasons mentioned, but stick with it and make it a part of their lives because of the thriving community aspect. I belong to a team of over 12,000 members, many of them I interact with daily. We have shared vulnerable moments and have been there to support each other. I’ve created a non-profit to provide financial assistance to my team members, DIRT (Dads Inside Riding Trainers), called The DIRT Dad Fund.
Zwift and the other platforms will need to listen and respond to the community's needs to thrive in the future. Whether that is a more efficient onboarding process, easier-to-understand tech, or more enhanced gamification, the community is what will drive the ideas for evolution."
We also asked about the possibility of another mass layoff, if even on another platform, "It’s impossible to predict the future virtual cycling landscape and trust that the corporate management is structuring to withstand and absorb fluctuations in the marketplace. More so, the competition provided by the Wahoo-RGT merger will drive innovation as the many platforms seek the subscriber’s dollar."
So, the argument that the vulnerabilities of these platforms are causing a massive exodus of users may be premature. Instead, the current downward trend may be attributable to the availability of public roads for training and organized races. Likely, the demand for virtual indoor cycling is only just normalizing. “Virtual cycling and eSports will never replace real-life road racing, nor should they be,” says Schwenker. Instead of recreating the real-life road racing experience, these platforms rightly choose to focus on improving the assets that set them apart, such as gamification, curated communities, training convenience, and progression. By showcasing these features, virtual cycling may just find its niche in a post-pandemic world, even if it’s not as large as it used to occupy.
About this week's guest contributor,
Christopher Schwenker is a physical therapist with over 25 years of experience, currently on a journey to give back to the cycling community by rewarding experiences and fulfilling relationships through the pages of his virtual cycling blog, The Zommunique’, and his cycling-related non-profit, The DIRT Dad Fund. He is setting out on a cross-country ride to raise awareness of the virtual cycling community soon, and you can follow along here.