Is smart-trainer racing here to stay?

The problem with Ironman age-group world champion Ruth Astle returning to Hawaii as a neo pro is that by the standards of 2019, she’ll have to slum it. “We were supported better than 90% of the pros,” she told 220, describing the Zwift house that played host to the group of high-performing amateurs the online software firm sponsored last season.

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Roll on a few months and it’s not just a house on the Big Island the smart-trainer brand has infiltrated, but the home of just about every triathlete the world over. Those supplying online training software have seen a spike in interest as rampant as a Covid-19 tracking graph.

Over 60% of the Kona pro field were converts, and many more are hopping on to host group rides with thousands of amateurs. Zwift won’t release subscriber numbers but says 25% are triathletes.

The message devotees have been preaching for years has filtered to the mainstream and it’s a virtual epiphany for technophobes wrestling with the social acceptance of being on two wheels in the real world. Now it’s going up a gear.

A Super League Triathlon team was pitched against pro cyclists on Zwift. Ironman has already jumped onboard and launched its Virtual Club with rival software firm Rouvy. But there are teething problems. Ironman’s Facebook Live coverage was a painstaking watch, only livened by three-time world champ Mirinda Carfrae’s novel DNF when husband Tim O’Donnell tripped over the power cord and yanked it from the mains.

The bigger risk though is authenticity. It’s known that treadmills struggle with calibration and the majority max out at 20kph. And as the stakes increase, so does the spotlight on subterfuge. An individual’s personal ‘pain cave’ can be hard to police. ‘Losing’ 20kg from your racing weight is an obvious deception, but more high-tech hacks extend to squeezing the trigger of an Xbox controller to increase the watts.

The whiff of cheating’s contentious enough anyway, but even more so when Ironman is doling out 70.3 World Champs slots, or prize money is on the line. To combat the problem, Zwift has re-launched ZADA, which now stands for Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis (originally the Zwift Anti-Doping Agency) that evaluates analytics around performance to spot potential red flags.

Are Ironman’s virtual 70.3 Worlds qualifiers a good idea?

Whatever your view, smart-trainer racing is no passing fad. Platforms were seeing a rise in popularity before the virus hit and the UCI, cycling’s governing body, had already struck a deal with Zwift to develop an eSports platform. Even the International Olympic Committee has made overtures in the direction of ‘more healthy’ eSports. The IOC cannot ignore an industry worth nearly $200 billion that attracts a predominantly younger audience. Its president Thomas Bach even cited Zwift as a blueprint to follow.

How fast the cadence of this new world? The treadmill and the turbo trainer once had all the appeal of a blister and a saddle sore, now they’re a golden ticket to join an increasingly popular virtual club.

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