This is the last segment of a three-part series exploring Zwift racing’s challenges and opportunities. Part one focused on spectating, part two on broadcasting, and now we’ll take a look at the actual race participants.
I’ve broken this into two posts because there are so many challenges and opportunities for Zwift racers today. In this post we’ll focus on getting Zwift set up, making race entry and results work smoothly, and mitigating cheating. In a follow-up post we’ll focus on the actual racing experience (team dynamics, pack dynamics, etc).
Ready? Let’s dig in!
Challenge: Getting Set Up
Let’s start at the beginning.
For many cyclists, Zwift is still too difficult to set up and use. While a tech guy like me loves the wide variety of platforms Zwift runs on (PC/Mac/iOS/AppleTV and soon Android) and the variety of cycling hardware it supports, all these options confuse newbies.
On top of that, racing on Zwift requires even more setup, namely getting an account activated on ZwiftPower and making sure you join the right category when it’s time to race. Accomplishing these tasks isn’t easy or straightforward for a Zwift rookie.
Opportunity: Make It Idiot-Proof
As much as it pains me to say, Zwift needs to take a page out of Peloton’s playbook. Or maybe Apple’s. Create a simple hardware-based solution anyone can buy, plug in, and be up and running on Zwift quickly. Yes, continue to support a wide variety of platforms and trainers, but create a dead-simple solution which is sold on Zwift.com.
On the software side, Zwift’s user interface could be streamlined and various bugs could be fixed, all in the name of making the experience more pleasing to new users. And as much as I appreciate ZwiftPower (it’s what makes Zwift racing really work), we need a simpler solution for viewing/managing race results. There shouldn’t be a need to register at another website, or to go anywhere but Zwift Companion or Zwift.com to view race results. Bring that ZwiftPower functionality in-house and streamline it, ZwiftHQ!
Challenge: Unrestricted Entry
Today, anyone can race on Zwift in whatever category they’d like. Silly, right? You won’t find this in outdoor racing, where the reg booth verifies rider categories for safety and fairness. Yet somehow on Zwift it’s been allowed to persist since beta days. It results in two things:
- Lower-category races getting blown up by stronger riders
- Weaker riders entering too high of a category then being discouraged because they get dropped quickly
Neither of these situations needs to exist.
Opportunity: Create a Groundbreaking Classification Scheme
There’s a big opportunity here for Zwift to create a methodology which classifies riders automatically. It could be as simple as implementing what ZwiftPower already does, which is tracking a rider’s 20-minute critical power and categorizing them based on their 3 best performances in the last 90 days. It could be as complex as CVR’s intricate results-based scheme from early 2017. Or something in between.
If a rider is new, only allow participation in “open” races until they’ve established enough of a history for classification.
Organizers could still hold “open” (no category) races if they’d like, but the standard race setup would follow the default Zwift categorization scheme, and riders would be automatically placed in the appropriate category. Simples.
Challenge: Confusing Results
Zwift Companion shows race results, but those results are very different from what ZwiftPower shows. Why?
- Because thanks to GDPR ZwiftPower can only display riders with a ZwiftPower account. Many Zwifters don’t have a ZwiftPower account.
- Because race organizers can modify results on ZwiftPower, whereas they have no control over the results shown in Zwift Companion.
Serious Zwift racers know that the real results live on ZwiftPower. But many Zwifters race regularly and have never created a ZwiftPower account, which means the number of results on ZwiftPower is always lower than what you experienced in-game.
Here’s a sample of results from a race I did this week. (The screenshot is ZwiftPower, the phone is Zwift Companion.) 24 riders finished according to Zwift Companion. But only 13 show up on the official ZwiftPower results. Did I get 6th or 10th? Depends on who you ask!
Opportunity: Deliver Immediate Results. Beat IRL.
Coupled with requiring riders to enter races in the correct category, Zwift could display much more accurate race results in-game and on Zwift Companion immediately after the event.
As a next step, perhaps Zwift would need to create an interface for race organizers to further alter and finalize those results. But I think automated controls are the way forward, and the way for Zwift to protect itself and the race organizers.
This sort of solution would actually be better than what we get outdoors, where we finish a race and have to sit around in our sweaty chamois waiting for officials to finalize results. Cross the line, see the results, go eat breakfast. What a time to be alive!
Challenge: Weight/Height/Watt Doping
This is a big one, isn’t it? In a sport known for scandalous cheaters, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen “e-dopers” since Zwift racing’s early days. Apart from sandbagging (racing too low of a category, addressed above) cheating on Zwift typically happens in one of three ways:
- The Biggest Loser: enter a lower weight, climb and accelerate faster.
- The Shrinky Dink: enter a lower height, get less air resistance: go faster.
- The Watt Assist: ride a miscalibrated power meter/smart trainer and get watts you aren’t giving.
(To be fair, many Zwifters have done some form of watt doping without realizing it. Many cyclists have never trained with power, and they don’t know if holding 350 watts for an hour is impressive or not. This is especially common on virtual power setups, where something as simple as not tightening the resistance knob sufficiently can move you from Cat 5 to World Tour level.)
It’s worth noting that the sorts of cheating outdoor cycling famously deals with aren’t even on the list of common Zwift cheats. While “outdoor cheating methods” have certainly been used on Zwift, it’s much too easy to cheat using weight/height/watts. Nobody is even paying attention to banned substances!
Opportunity: Break New Ground, Boost eRacing’s Reputation
To date, Zwift has tried to mitigate cheating by holding real-world finals and (recently) bringing ZADA back to life to verify performances of top Zwift-sponsored races. These methods are smart and get the job done, but they are very resource-intensive. Which means they aren’t scalable.
What we need is some automated way to verify that a rider’s weight, height, and power numbers are accurate. Much stronger minds than my own have tried to figure out a solution to this quandary for years, so I don’t expect to be able to solve this problem here. But I will offer a few ideas:
- Make Weight and Height Public: maybe if you want to race, you’ll need to accept that people will be able to see your profile’s weight and height history. This would stop much of the tomfoolery we see now.
- Improve Calibration Tech: surely there is a calibration technology/methodology that would be difficult to game. Perhaps it’s done automatically during a ride at random times, or perhaps the device simply never needs calibration, like the blessed Tacx Neo. We shouldn’t be able to game calibration at this point, hardware manufacturers! Fix it!
- Partner with Governing Bodies: if a rider is a registered USA Cycling Cat 2 road racer, I can believe them holding of 4.0 watts per kilo in a Zwift race. What’s that? You say they’re only a cat 5, with 2 outdoor races to their name? Hmmm… might want to check that.
- Show Avatar Weight and Height: avatars on Zwift don’t accurately reflect your profile’s weight and height. Making avatars which match the actual weight and height of a profile would make it pretty easy to spot those who are way out of bounds–and it would add nice visual variety to the peloton.
- Strava Cruncher: if heart rate monitors were required for races and Strava data could be automatically pulled from outdoor efforts, Zwift could crunch numbers and automagically decide if a rider’s Zwift performance matches what they can do outdoors. Verification in the cloud.
- Create Verification Methods: create different ways for riders to be verified, like having them complete a sanctioned test at their local bike shop, linking up their cycling license, automatically analyzing their outdoor Strava data, etc. This wouldn’t verify every result, but it would provide much-needed verification of a rider’s abilities, even a “reputation score.” If the verification methods were simple enough, certain Zwift races could begin to require verification as a condition of participation.
Obviously, there is no quick solution to solve the cheating problem. But a variety of methods could be smartly employed to knock cheating down significantly.
Zwift has the opportunity here to innovate in a groundbreaking way. If they can create automated verification methodologies/technologies which can reliably verify race performances, everyone wins. Racers will have a better time, and Zwift racing will receive a welcome reputation boost.
There is much to be done if Zwift wants cyclists to embrace its eRacing vision en masse. The entire system needs to be simplified on the frontend (signing up, race results, etc) while growing more powerful on the backend (performance verification, event/results management). This is no small task, but Zwift has two things in its favor: a strong community with lots of Zwift racing experience, and a good chunk of working capital to fund development.
Zwift has certainly grown more focused on eRacing in recent months, but it will take at least several more months of strong focus to develop a platform which racers can truly embrace. I’m looking forward to seeing how things progress this year.
Watch for the follow-up to this post, continuing the discussion of challenges and opportunities for riders.
We’ll dig into the actual game experience: pack dynamics, team tactics, routes, gamification, etc. So much more to discuss!
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the challenges and opportunities Zwift racing holds for riders today, especially related to my points above. Share below!