The column: How I learned to stop worrying and love virtual racing

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Computer games are something you play, not watch, right? They shouldn’t work as a spectator sport, surely? After spending several hours in front of the Zwift Tour for All this week we decided that – somehow – it does

Photographs: Zwift
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Last week I experienced an epiphany. 

As attentive readers will already know, although younger than some riders and most of you – yes, we know our demographic – I am nonetheless of an age where I’ve started to find some technological innovations a bit baffling and, shall we say, something of a challenge to adjust to.

I’ve never really understood the appeal of watching people play computer games, for example. I’m not critical of, or judgemental towards, those who do enjoy it – 15 million daily Twitchers can’t be wrong – I’ve just never felt it was for me.

Then last week the Zwift Tour for All came to our screens, broadcast live on Eurosport and streaming direct to my bedroom. I tuned in for the same reason George Mallory supposedly decided to climb Everest: because it was there. And because I had an article deadline to meet for the magazine. And because I could technically call it “work”.

So I wasn’t exactly an open door, but it didn’t take much to push me ajar.

I liked the virtual landscapes. The little details like messages “painted” on the “road.” I enjoyed it when they picked up power-ups that lifted their watts per kilo to superhuman levels. If anything I’d take the concept even further and give them blue shells and banana skins with which to sabotage each other. Mario Kart fans know what I’m talking about.

Some of the commentary may have triggered a few flashbacks to the odd late night at university, under the influence of… studying, but I enjoyed those too:

“We’re about to go into the volcano/head underwater/launch into outer space now,” says Rob Hatch, adopting as serious a tone as he might for the finale to a Tour de France stage. I’m only making one of those up, by the way.

I enjoy seeing their different setups through their webcams. From the minimalist to the maximalist; from iPad-only to big screens and sponsors logos strategically displayed. Some of them even have a sort of soigneur – presumably a partner or young child who has been convinced this counts as fun – in attendance to mop their sweaty brow.

I enjoy watching the pros suffering too. If you think about it, it’s a rare occasion in a regular race when a rider’s eyes aren’t hidden behind an oversized pair of dark glasses.

Possibly my favourite thing about the whole presentation is that the women’s racing is giving absolutely equal billing with the men’s. The distances of the races are exactly the same, with neither on at an obviously “better” time than the other. Word reaches Rouleur that this decision was made at the urging of a certain former pro, and present presenter, whose name may or may not be an anagram for Denial Dolly.

My only real objection to the presentation is that I cannot countenance these swish balcony or bedroom setups being described as a rider’s “pain cave”. Okay, one or two might actually be located in a cellar but there are enough cringeworthy cliches in the pro cycling vocabulary already, don’t you think?

Sure, you have to somewhat suspend your disbelief, but there’s no doubt that you are actually watching real sporting competition, as some of the finest cyclists in the world go toe-to-toe.

What’s more, simply by switching it on you are actually supporting the sport, by giving value, in the form of your attention, back to the team sponsors.

I wouldn’t go as far to say that I now “get it” (gaming, as a spectator sport, that is) but I am genuinely enjoying it. I still suspect, like gaming itself, virtual racing will remain more of a participation event than a spectator sport but it’s an additional dimension that you can easily imagine will allow cycling to reach newer, younger audiences.

The Rouleur Longreads Podcast: Watopian Ideals

No-one, not even Zwift themselves, expects it to replace real life road racing. When that returns it will serve to complement, while for now, in a very welcome way, it fills a very real racing hole in our lives. More please. 


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