Over the last few years, the virtual training platform Zwift has become a mainstream training tool for amateurs and pros alike. Matt Hayman famously became one its most powerful advocates when he explained that training on Zwift had helped him to his 2016 Paris-Roubaix win.
More recently, several new initiatives have been announced aimed at making Zwift not just a training tool, but a platform for a whole new discipline of cycle sport: eRacing.
First, the UCI announced in September last year that it would hold an eSports World Championships. Then in December, British Cycling revealed it would be holding its first eRacing Championships in February or March this year. And now, Zwift has set up a new ‘KISS Super League’ consisting of 15 Pro Continental and Continental teams, as well as a number of women’s teams (numbers yet to be confirmed).
The men’s series of the KISS Super League kicks off this evening (19.00 GMT). Four Team Wiggins Le Col riders will be competing from the Pinarello store in London at an invitation-only event. But in every other sense, it will be a virtual occasion. Riders from the other teams will be joining the race in various locations from across the globe. Whilst fans and curious observers can tune in to Facebook to watch the action unfold.
The idea of eRacing has resulted in Marmite-like reactions on social media. Purists have dismissed it as a sub-genre of cycling that cannot in any way replicate the nuances ‘real’ bike racing. On the other hand, fans have celebrated it as an innovation that will help cycling move with the times and engage with a whole new potential audience.
Are you tuning into the first KISS Super League race tonight?— The British Continental (@BritishConti) January 23, 2019
Here at The British Continental, we remain open-minded. We’re cautiously curious. Cautious, because there is an inner purist inside of us with deep, romantic attachments to racing in its more traditional formats. But curious because it’s clearly a platform that teams are embracing. Four British Continental teams are part of the inaugural league: Madison Genesis, Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes, Ribble Pro Cycling and Team Wiggins Le Col. And in a time when the sport’s funding model is fragile, eRacing could offer important commercial opportunities for teams.
So when we interviewed two team managers on Monday, Roger Hammond (Madison Genesis) and Tim Elverson (Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes), we took the chance to get their views on the new KISS Super League.
Part of their rationale for joining the KISS Super League, they said, was to be at the forefront of a new innovation in the sport. Hammond told us:
The way traditional cycling in the UK has been is going to get less and less valid as we go forward. So unless we adapt, it’s going to continue dying off. One of the things we signed up to straightaway is the KISS Super League. We’re just trying to be part of any kind of innovations to make cycling more sustainable in the UK.
Elverson echoed this sentiment:
It’s a new thing so it’s better to be in it when it starts than when it’s taken hold and it’s hard to get in it.
The KISS Super League also fits with how their riders’ train nowadays. Here’s Hammond again:
For us, it’s something that riders use anyway. Most professionals I know now, riding in the World Tour level down to our level, are using the platform anyway. So to have a racing league on it it just seems to make sense to me.
We’re using at part of training, I’m not going in it with preconceptions of what you can achieve because there’s so many variables with Zwift I’m not sure you should get too drawn into it and we will just be doing it to be competitive and use it as a real solid training.
I think the possibilities are quite immense. I think that’s a part of my philosophy in cycling, that we have to take the racing to the people now, rather than expect them to come to us all of the timeRoger Hammond, Madison Genesis
Hammond also highlighted that Zwift’s new initiative had the potential to get more people engaged in cycling and bring the sport to new audiences:
If it encourages another 10 people to ride a bike and gives a child an opportunity to ride a bike and be part of it, why not … they’ve created something that turned me from a ‘non-turbo training rider’ into somebody that actually fairly looks forward to it.
So I think the possibilities are quite immense. I think that’s a part of my philosophy in cycling, that we have to take the racing to the people now, rather than expect them to come to us all of the time. And this is one way of bringing it into people’s living rooms really in an interactive way.
There are also commercial considerations for teams. Elverson, for example, highlighted that being part of the KISS Super League was important for the team’s sponsors:
Wahoo is a new partner of ours and obviously Zwift is a major thing for them so they were keen we do it. Canyon are tied up quite heavily with Zwift, so they were keen we do it.
I have explained that there’s a small chance that it will go horribly wrong for us because we could drop out.Tim Elverson, Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes
Both managers recognised that there could be logistical and technical issues with eRacing, at least to start with. Elverson’s Canyon riders, for example, will be doing tonight’s race from their training camp in Calpe:
I have explained to [Zwift] that there’s a small chance that it will go horribly wrong for us because we could drop out. I mean, it’s four guys that are going to be outside in Calpe, the WiFi’s rubbish and we know it drops out, so we’re going to be doing it off mobile phones and we’ll see what happens. But it should be a bit of fun.
And is it something that the teams are taking seriously from a racing perspective? Elverson suggested that the riders would be aiming to win, but that having fun and getting some training benefit was also key:
If we do well in it great. We want to represent ourselves well but you know, we take it for what it is. Hopefully, it’ll be just some really good hard sessions and a good bit of fun.
Clearly, teams are taking this first league seriously, even if it isn’t at this stage a key priority for them. The question is, might that change in the future? Will it go beyond a series of hard-but-fun competitive training sessions and become a core part of the racing calendar for teams? Only time will tell…
Many thanks to Roger Hammond and Tim Elverson for sharing their views.
For more on this topic, check out Chris Durham’s considered blog post on the pros and cons of eRacing.
Featured image: Zwift