In the virtual world, winning and losing is all down to the data. Are the avatars up the road beating yours fair and square? David Bradford gauges the state of play.

In many ways, e-racing has been our saviour over the past year. Having a competitive outlet to replace all the cancelled outdoor events has kept us sane, fit and distracted from lockdown monotony.

But anyone who’s developed an e-racing habit will attest that it comes with a certain level of doubt and distrust: are the avatars ahead of mine really putting out more power and deserving their place ahead of me in the results? 

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We decided to conduct a survey to find out how CW readers feel about the state of fair play in the virtual realm. Of the more than 800 who responded, 96 per cent said they doubted e-racing was a level playing field.

This was deemed to be no big deal by the 45 per cent who race indoors purely as a fun way to test themselves, but for those more serious about e-racing who want to rate themselves against others, fairness matters. It was time to find out why e-racing is so plagued with dubious performances, and whether anything can be done to make the results as realistic as the virtual parcours.

Is your trainer telling the truth? 

The chief limitation on e-racing fairness is the accuracy of equipment being used –  currently a very mixed bag. In community racing, Zwift – understandably wanting to keep the platform as accessible as possible – allows riders to compete using anything from the most advanced smart-trainer to a basic wheel-on ‘dumb’ trainer combined with a speed sensor.

In the latter case, Zwift estimates power based on wheel speed – a method with a relatively low degree of accuracy. Using a power meter provides greater accuracy, but even then, there are discrepancies between different types and brands, as we will see. The greatest assurance of accuracy comes from using a direct-drive smart-trainer or smart-bike.

In our survey, 61 per cent said they use this type of equipment for their e-racing. Less than five per cent said they relied on a speed sensor and estimated power. No surprise, then, that three-quarters of those surveyed told us they believe their e-racing power is accurate – they’ve invested in serious equipment and are doing their best to play fair. But what about the far wider pool of riders we’re going up against?

Read the full article in the March 25 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine. You can order single issues to be delivered direct to you, or subscribe during our spring sale and get five issues for £5.00

David Bradford
David Bradford

David Bradford is fitness editor of Cycling Weekly (print edition). He has been writing and editing professionally for more than 15 years, and has published work in national newspapers and magazines including the Independent, the Guardian, the Times, the Irish Times, Vice.com and Runner’s World. Alongside his love of cycling, David is a long-distance runner with a marathon PB of two hours 28 minutes. Having been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) in 2006, he also writes about sight loss, equality and social affairs.