Calling all the heroes - the future of virtual racing

(Image credit: PA)

Virtual racing went from strength to strength during lockdown, but what does the future look like for this arm of the sport? James Shrubsall investigates.

"Would-be super-rich cycling megastars wanted - apply within." Oh, you haven't heard? Cycling esports is here to save bike racing and it's in need of heroes. Big thighs a requirement.

OK, so calling cycling esports — also known as virtual cycling, eracing and often, in a Hoover-equals-vacuum type way, Zwifting — the saviour of cycling could be something of a stretch. But anyone who thought Zwift and its fellow virtual cycling platforms were simply a way of passing the time while on lockdown is in for a surprise.

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It is also a new and exciting blank canvas which carries a fraction of the cost and time commitments of traditional road racing, with endless content opportunities via the social media accounts of young and eager millennials. For teams, sponsors, and riders wanting to emulate their Call of Duty esports brethren with their seven-figure earnings, what's not to like?

"I'm pretty sure that in two years' time, all the WorldTour teams will have their own esports division," says Movistar CMO Juan Pablo Molinero. The Spanish team have just become the first WT outfit to set up their own 'Eteam', which will be completely separate from the road team. It even contains two British riders Steph Clutterbuck and Jimmy Kershaw.

"Our idea was to do this all on virtual — raced on virtual, developed there, grown there... not putting professional road riders into virtual cycling, but creating our own heroes, and our own stories," he says.

The team's talent ID programme was held last month and consisted of a series of Zwift races designed to recruit 10 riders (five men, five women), in a similar way to how the Zwift Academy recruited riders for the NTT and Canyon-SRAM teams. The difference being that the winners of the Movistar Team Challenge will be racing in their sheds, garages and living rooms.

For readers who enjoyed watching the stars of the WorldTour racing in big virtual races last year, such as the Tour de France and World Championship, it might come as a disappointment to learn that this is unlikely to be the way forward. As Molinero says, the virtual cycling of the future will have its own stars.

And the next time those big races are promoted in the virtual world, it is those new names that you will see racing, he adds — at least where Movistar is concerned.

"People might say 'but we want to see Alejandro Valverde, or Enric Mas, or your other road riders. The answer is 'no, listen, we have something better. We have a better team for virtual cycling because they are created for that. 

“They may not be super well-known heroes yet, but I'm pretty sure they will win. Against Nibali and Nairo Quintana and Alaphilippe and all the other guys thrown in to participate in virtual, our team will win," Molinero insists.

You can read the full article in the March 25 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine, on sale now. If you're not going to the shops you can order individual issues of the magazine, or take out a subscription. In our Spring Sale you can get five issue for just £5.00

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After cutting his teeth on local and national newspapers, James began at Cycling Weekly as a sub-editor in 2000 when the current office was literally all fields. 

Eventually becoming chief sub-editor, in 2016 he switched to the job of full-time writer, and covers news, racing and features.

A lifelong cyclist and cycling fan, James's racing days (and most of his fitness) are now behind him. But he still rides regularly, both on the road and on the gravelly stuff.