Anyone who spends any time racing Zwift Racing League (ZRL) or any of the other Zwift racing series and also has a Facebook account is pretty much guaranteed to have encountered “the cheating debate.” Accusations, screenshots, high dudgeon, the works.
(It’s something you don’t really encounter in bike racing “in the real world” as the options for cheating are so limited and difficult to detect. That said, in one of the more competitive Gran Fondos here in Mexico City I did once overtake the same guy three times, without him overtaking me. The third time round, I actually saw him joining the course from a side street. But I digress…)
I’ve been Zwifting on and off since 2015, mostly for training purposes rather than to compete, although I have done a fair bit of racing since ZRL started. In 2018 I started a psychology degree, which in my final year required me to do a project. I selected the option to do a survey because I’ve always been interested in the idea of cheating in sport and online cycling struck me as a great subject for a survey. It turned out there was no published research on it either.
The objective was to see if existing research on Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) would be replicated in online cycling. AGT contends that athletes compete to demonstrate competence, which is either measured by reference to personal improvement/mastery of skills/capabilities (task goal orientation) or by reference to externally focused benchmarks such as beating other competitors (ego goal orientation). Research also suggests a link between achievement goals and moral attitudes, including attitudes to cheating, with a positive association between ego-oriented athletes and cheating.
My results were consistent with this theory. In terms of attitudes to cheating and sport in general, respondents were less motivated by ego goals (e.g. a desire to win or beat others) than in other published surveys of this type and more motivated by task goals (a desire to objectively improve their own performance). There was a lower acceptance of cheating than in similar surveys of athletes in traditional sports, although those tend to involve high-performing athletes rather than a cross-section of amateurs.
But the bit that I think really interests the Zwift community is how much and what type of cheating goes on. In the survey I identified 7 different behaviours that might be considered “cheating”, with some more egregious than others. I got nearly 600 responses in 10 days as a result of posting a link on various Facebook pages, with the results set out in the table below.
- 80% of respondents were male category racers, 20% female
- Over 50% of respondents were from the UK, about 20% from the USA, and the rest from 25 other countries
- Largest single age group was the 40s, followed by 30s and 50s, with those three groups making up 85% of responses
- 70% of respondents raced in B or C categories
- Nearly half had done over 50 Zwift races and 2/3 had also raced outdoors (of whom significantly less than 1% admitted to ever cheating when racing outdoors)
How Much Cheating?
About 46% of participants admitted to “cheating” at least once, although only 7% admitted to cheating often.
Self-reported cheating behaviours (at least once)
Consistent with the opening paragraph, only 12% of participants thought cheating on Zwift was common or very common among their teammates and friends, while 60% felt cheating was common or very common in general on Zwift.
Views on commonality of cheating among friends/teammates vs in general
The statistically significant predictors of cheating behaviour on Zwift were:
- Participants’ overall attitude to cheating
- Their approach to weight measurement (i.e. whether they rounded down their weight, etc.)
- The number of races they had done
This may suggest that the more races someone does the more cynical they become about cheating or perhaps simply that the more races someone does the more likely they are to have failed to update their weight at least once. Interestingly age, gender, race category and views about the legitimacy of online cycling as a sport didn’t seem to significantly predict “cheating behaviours”.
Cheating… Just Enough
One of the more interesting results was the apparent conflict between participants’ general anti-cheating views and the relatively high occurrence of occasional “cheating behaviours”. Participants were generally task-orientated, yet nearly half admitted to doing something that could be considered cheating at least once.
Mazar et al. (2008) have shown it is common in the face of potential rewards for dishonesty for people to cheat just enough to gain an advantage, but not enough to undermine their conception of their own honesty. In other words, individuals have a self-prescribed amount of dishonesty that they can permit without undermining their own self-concept of themselves as fundamentally honest.
In the case of online cycling, this might be occasionally failing to update one’s weight ahead of a race even if you know it has increased, but not so often as to undermine your sense of your own honesty.
Of course, like any methodology, surveys have their drawbacks. In this case, the sample was self-selecting – I sought volunteers. So maybe those who are anti-cheating were more likely to participate? Also, social desirability bias means that even when a survey is anonymous people can be reluctant to admit to behaviours like cheating which are seen as socially undesirable. So there are caveats to the results.
Wrapping It Up
Overall the data is interesting (if only for the 3 people who admitted to using an e-bike!) and it has certainly generated some online debate. If I were to follow this up with more research, I’d want to do something qualitative with in-depth interviews to try and get under the skin of some of the apparent conflicts in the data between anti-cheating attitudes and what appear to be occasional cheating behaviours.
My own view is that it’s best to use Zwift as a wonderful training platform and enjoy the racing for what it is and the performance improvements it brings. Hopefully the various controls that WTRL, Zwift, and others are implementing at the very top end will prevent any cheating that does go on from having an impact when the results really matter. Ride on!
What (if anything) surprises you about these survey results? Comment below!