Lt Col Bharat Pannu on his home trainer (Photo: courtesy Bharat)

As COVID-19 swept across the planet, many bicycle races got cancelled. Lockdown restricted access to the outdoors and people were forced to refashion their chosen sport for pursuing it indoors. Runners attempted marathons indoors; cyclists pedaled on their home trainers..

Computer programs promising virtual rides have been around for some time. Amid pandemic and lockdown, they zoomed in popularity. It wasn’t long before bicycle races embraced the technology.

In early April 2020, one of cycling’s famous events – the annual Tour of Flanders – had an online digital version, won by Belgian cyclist, Greg Van Avermaet. According to those who followed the race, the format featured a shortened distance of 30 kilometers compared to the event’s real distance of 250 kilometers. This was partly because the event was a demonstration of technological possibilities and partly because riding in race mode for three hours on the home trainer was considered challenging enough. On April 3, in an email communique to those who had registered to participate in Race Across America (RAAM), the event’s organizers informed that the 2020 edition of the race was being cancelled. Some 20 days later, on April 24, VeloNews reported that Australian journalist Rupert Guinness who was among those scheduled to attempt 2020 RAAM, had set the ball rolling for a virtual reality version of the race. The report said that more than 800 people from around the world has signed up with expressions of interest to race.

RAAM – its route runs from the US west coast to the east – is one of cycling’s toughest endurance races. It is also fairly well known in India now, having been attempted thrice by that pioneer – Samim Rizvi (he would try it four times altogether; in 2011 he finished just outside the race’s 12 day cut-off), before the Mahajan brothers (Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan) placed first in the two-person male under-50 category at 2015 RAAM. In 2017, Lt Col Srinivas Gokulnath became the first Indian cyclist to complete the race within cut-off in the solo category; he was followed to the finish line by fellow Indian, Dr Amit Samarth. This year as RAAM goes virtual in mid-June, Lt Col Bharat Pannu will pedal his avatar across a digital American landscape comparable to the distance and elevation gains of RAAM. He will be racing in the solo category. Bharat, who is a familiar face in ultracycling in India, has been training for RAAM for the past couple of years. His 2019 attempt was prematurely terminated following an injury he sustained while training in the US. The subsequent 2020 attempt appeared lost due to pandemic till it found an extra lease of life in Virtual RAAM (VRAAM).

Based in Bengaluru, Bharat will move to Pune for VRAAM, scheduled to commence on June 16. The virtual race has three categories – the full 3000 mile-length of RAAM, the shorter race built into RAAM called Race Across West (RAW / in this instance: VRAW) and the60, which involves riding one hour every day for the 12 days of VRAAM. The overall cut-off for VRAAM remains the same as in the real race – 12 days. According to the virtual event’s website, “ all ride distances will be stunning road segments in the USA. They will not be the actual RAAM course.’’ The virtual race covers a total distance of 4542 kilometers and entail elevation gain of 73,739 meters. The technology platform used is FulGaz. As per details available on the FulGaz website, the VRAAM route is composed of iconic and interesting rides from the US. It has also been mentioned that since the actual route of RAAM is not being followed, sometimes a segment may repeat. The real RAAM is done with support vehicles and support crew. Bharat had planned all that before the 2020 edition of the race was called off. His crew was largely drawn from the community of cyclists in Pune. They will be supporting him for VRAAM too. “ I would have liked the attempt to be staged at a venue accessible to the public. But the present circumstances don’t allow that. So it will be at a private location,’’ he said.

A view of Oceanside pier in California, traditional starting point of Race Across America (Photo: Rajeev G)

At the heart of the VRAAM attempt will be the present day home trainer. Bharat has been using a smart trainer for the past few years. While virtual reality means he avoids being physically present in the US, a multi-day endurance race like VRAAM will have challenges despite rider being stationary. In fact, one of these challenges relates to the physical restrictions associated with cycling on a trainer. In the outdoors where bicycle moves on open road, the cyclist meets every turn and climb with a body language that is freer and more versatile than what is possible when bike is rooted to one spot. As may be imagined, when the bike is locked into trainer and the whole contraption stays stiff and incapable of lateral flexion, dynamic movements of the sort possible in normal cycling become impossible. There will be no leaning into curves, no weaving, very little of standing up and pedaling. You are limited to an utterly linear delivery of power. Repeating this over a long period of time takes a toll. The issue of saddle sores could be more pronounced in this kind of cycling because you don’t have room for postural adjustments that allow relief. “ When riding your bike outside, the bike moves and flexes in response to your body, kind of like a dance… a stationary bike doesn’t move, so there may be a bit more friction and as the rider moves side to side…,’’ Tracy McKay, Bharat’s US-based coach pointed out. The neck is another critical part that endures stress during distance cycling. Extended hours of cycling are known to fatigue the muscles holding the head up. For VRAAM, Bharat will have the computer screen showing his avatar, hooked up to a TV screen for bigger image. Slip into his saddle and imagine it – you can’t keep that TV screen in poorly thought through location and endure the resultant strain on the neck endlessly. You have to plan its position well; as Bharat said, keep it in line with his most comfortable riding position, maybe at an angle that is tad lower than normal to be easy on the neck.

The biggest challenge is none of the above. Human beings thrive on variety, multiple stimuli and three-dimensional eyesight. The actual course takes you through mountains, arid country and plains. All of these settings have very palpable ecosystems. They challenge the rider but also retain variety in the experience. Confined to where he is, Bharat will have little change in weather and no change in surroundings. His perception of world he is cycling through will be the two dimensional display of a computer program. Advanced smart trainers exist that allow lateral flexion to an extent and also simulate feel of terrain. But replicating the outdoor experience entirely and convincingly is still a long way off. “ VRAAM is basically a mental challenge,’’ Bharat said. What he may end up battling the most is – monotony. “ As always the mental aspect is the real challenge…VRAAM provides some visual stimulation to provide sense of change and progress. At the same time riding in stationary (format) with all creature comforts available may prove very tempting to step away from the bike more often. The brain creates interpretations of what we are experiencing to help manage and safeguard our well being. For the riders, staying on the bike must be more important and valuable than getting off the bike,’’ Tracy said. He also pointed out that hydration / nutrition requirements for VRAAM will be different.

Given he will be pedaling in contained ambiance Bharat estimates he won’t have to worry of outdoor risks like traffic, taking a tumble or falling off the bike. “ I believe I will be therefore taking less rest and keeping the momentum going,’’ he said. According to Tracy, VRAAM and RAAM are similar and different at once. “ VRAAM should not be looked at as a simple video game… it is not a training event. It is its own unique challenge that’s never been done. Technology allows riders and their crews to look at rider data heart rate; elevation, relief, load, etc. it will be tough! Good Training for RAAM, yes and vice versa…’’ Tracy said.

Major Sandeep Kumar (Photo: courtesy Sandeep)

Besides Bharat who will be attempting RAAM in the solo category, there is Major Sandeep Kumar who will be participating in VRAW. Sandeep started out in running; he was part of a group from the army that did 50 half marathons in 50 days. He moved on into ultrarunning and the triathlon. In 2016, he secured podium position at a triathlon of full Ironman dimension, held in Chennai. “ I was doing cycling also during this period but it is a sport requiring time and attention and I didn’t have enough to spare given the nature of my work,’’ he said. Becoming part of Bharat’s crew for the 2019 edition of the well-known Indian ultracycling event, Ultra Spice, changed that. The race provided the army officer a ringside view of what went into ultracycling. Sandeep was included in Bharat’s team for 2020 RAAM, as crew member overseeing nutrition. Then pandemic struck and RAAM got cancelled. When VRAAM was announced, he decided to support Bharat and also attempt the shorter VRAW. “ We were already training on smart trainers. So attempting VRAW made sense. However cycling indoors for long will be challenging,’’ he said. Additionally, there are three members of Bharat’s original support crew for RAAM who will attempt the60. Unlike in RAAM, a race roster wasn’t available for VRAAM making it a bit difficult to ascertain if there are other Indian starters besides the said five.

 (The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)


Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Within the classic trinity of endurance sports – swimming, cycling and running – cycling has been early candidate for creativity by technology.

As life slipped indoors due to COVID-19 and lockdown, swimming pools shut and running got severely curtailed. But cycling stayed partly afloat thanks to the home trainer.

The concept of trainer is not recent by any yardstick. According to Wikipedia, the “ dandy horse,’’ also called Draisienne or Laufmaschine was the first human means of transport to use only two wheels in tandem. Invented by Baron Karl von Drais, it lacked pedals but is regarded as the first bicycle. He introduced it to the public in 1817-18. In the early 1860s, the Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement, in their design, added a mechanical crank with pedals on an enlarged front wheel – this was the velocipede; the first bicycle to enter mass production. Look up the history of the bicycle trainer and you will usually find a photo of a velocipede trainer from 1884. So it would seem: as of 2020, the bicycle is roughly 203 years old and the trainer, 136 years old at least.

The velocipede trainer resembles an early form of the stationary bike or exercise bike. It makes no effort to hide its immobility. What we today recognize as the home trainer, packages that trait into a piece of specialized equipment or accessory – it is an adjunct converting regular bicycle into a stationary bike.  This home trainer now comes in various finishes, the most advanced of which is the smart trainer. The latter category allows you to experience a ride in virtual reality (akin to gaming environment). Using specialized software you can link a responsive trainer to a digitally mapped cycling route. You see yourself on computer screen as an avatar responding to the physical effort you put on trainer. In high end programs, you can compete with others in the digital ecosystem of a race of your choice. Needless to say, in these months of pandemic, technology platforms promoting virtual cycling have gained popularity while the home trainer has sold well with select models out of stock on some websites.

The best known of cycling’s emergent technology platforms is Zwift; it is described on Wikipedia as “ a massively multiplayer online cycling and running physical training program that enables users to interact, train and compete in a virtual world.’’ It is made by a California-based company called Zwift Inc, cofounded by Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin. As of 2018, Zwift had 550,000 user accounts, that page said. But this number is from before the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown accompanying the pandemic is known to have hugely increased the traction for programs like Zwift (some media reports have estimated user base at a million plus). “ The companies creating these platforms were investing in technology and marketing earlier itself. The pandemic and the lockdown that followed grew their user base exponentially,’’ Nigel Smith, Head Coach, Kanakia Scott Racing Development, a road racing team based in India, said. It wasn’t possible for this blog to get an idea of the scale and value of the relevant potential market. What we do know is that cycling is one of the world’s biggest sports and among humanity’s popular forms of physical activity; there is separately a rising army of gamers and programs like Zwift appeal to both dedicated cyclists and those in the overlapping borderlands of cycling and gaming. According to, Zwift – it was founded in 2014 – has so far raised $ 164.5 million including a December 2018 instalment of $ 120 million. A podcast by Rouleur magazine also cited similar figures. Additionally, the Crunchbase page said that as per Privco, Zwift had a post-money valuation in the range of $ 500 million to $ 1 billion as of December 19, 2018. A December 2018 report on regarding the $ 120 million raised, mentioned that according to its co-founder and CEO, Eric Min, the startup was “ approaching unicorn status.’’

Screenshot of FulGaz’s version of the UCI 2020 World Championships ITT course in Aigle, Switzerland. The home trainer adjusts resistance based on the actual course elevation profile (Photo: courtesy Naveen John)

There is a December 2014 interview with Eric Min by Kelli Samuelson, available on the Zwift website. Two paragraphs therein provide an overview of the company’s inception. Min and his partner Alarik Myrin had co-founded Sakonnet Technology. It worked out well and the duo thought: why don’t they start the next venture together? “ We were looking at different industries, but it seemed all the great ideas were already taken! The turning point was when my older brother Ji, a private equity professional, advised me to stick to what I know best. Alarik had been encouraging me to take a hard look at cycling since I was so passionate about the sport. But whatever we decided to start together, it had to be consumer focused with the technology at the core of it and the business had to scale,’’ Min has been quoted as saying. At this point in time, due to family commitments and work, he was doing most of his cycling indoors. “ It had dawned on me that the indoor cyclist was being underserved and that the indoor experience hadn’t really changed all these years. It still wasn’t fun or social! Then I had a moment of eureka. What if we could take something that was historically mind numbing and turn it into entertainment? What if we could take advantage of video game technology, social networks, and friendly competition, and package that experience for the indoor cyclist?’’ Min explains in the interview.

Late April 2020, as news appeared of the push to host a virtual reality version of Race Across America (RAAM), the program involved was FulGaz. There are differences between the nature and texture of these programs. “ Zwift appears more interested in the blend of cycling and gaming. It is not above creating a make believe gaming world around cycling. There are already elements of equipment upgrade and trade using points earned, built into the format. It is also more social. That seems to be their preferred trajectory. On the other hand, FulGaz – it is an Australian company – appears focused on making their version of virtual reality as close to real life as possible. They offer some iconic cycling routes in digital format, which your avatar cycles through. The first type of product should appeal to the larger crowd combining cycling and gaming; the second should appeal to the more serious cyclist. That is what I would think,’’ Naveen John, among India’s leading bicycle racers, said, when asked about how the market was getting split between the various programs on offer. Are these technology platforms indicative of a whole new world of obsession opening up within cycling?

There are aspects of cycling outdoors that may not be acquired if your interest is restricted to excelling only in virtual reality. Aside from software, the core of this new paradigm is built of home trainer and bicycle. Once a bicycle is mounted on a trainer, its feel and behavior is different from riding outdoors. “ You pick up bike handling skills and bunch riding skills by cycling outdoors,’’ Nigel said. However there are critical variables in the equation – technology and the push of virtual reality to progressively become as close to reality as possible. Already high end trainers exist that can simulate the feel of terrain and permit a degree of flexion for bike mounted on it. But if you push gaming further, then what you wish for in the realm of fantasy may exceed what you normally need in the real world of cycling. Not surprisingly, there have been moves by companies currently in the programming sphere to get into related physical hardware. This is why the simple and tempting question of whether performances in virtual reality will outdo performances returned in the real world (example: which will be faster, RAAM or VRAAM?), doesn’t make complete sense. The two are not exactly comparable; it is not apples to apples.

The two worlds – their nature, their potential and their challenges – are mutually different. However, at some levels, there would be benefits transferable to each other’s distinct universe. Nigel did not think that there could be coaching totally focused on excelling for home trainer-based virtual reality. He feels the general push is still to cycle outdoors and excel there. “ There is a way to race and excel on these technology platforms and it is not necessarily the same as riding outside. I think what a coach would look for is a well-rounded athlete and not merely an efficient cardiovascular system on a pair of strong legs. However, training on the home trainer lets you focus on specifics,’’ he said. Another example of potential synergy was reported by Cycling News – a story from the Zwift Academy program begun in 2016, in partnership with Canyon-SRAM.  The article quoted Eric Min describing Zwift Academy as “ an entirely new means of identifying talent.’’ The 2019 Zwift Academy had nearly 9000 woman participants, a growth of 80 per cent compared to the previous year. Jessica Pratt of Australia who topped the program secured a one year contract and the final spot on Canyon-SRAM’s roster for 2020, the article said.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Further, between June 2020 (time of writing) and same time a year ago, there is a palpable difference as regards general interest in cycling’s virtual reality avatar. “ About a year ago, I recall there was a debate comparing cycling in the real world and the same in virtual reality. At that time, sentiment was definitely favorable to the outdoors,’’ Nigel said. The divide isn’t that sharp now. What the pandemic unleashed in home trainer-based cycling, may well be a genre that becomes a world by itself. There are reasons why this line of thought merits attention.

For some time now the Olympic movement has been studying the world of gaming. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had said that competitive gaming could be considered as a sporting activity. There have been reports since indicating that the 2024 Paris Olympics may have e-sports in the list of sports for demonstration. The earlier mentioned December 2018 report on quoted Min as saying, “ our goal is to bring Zwift to the Olympics.’’ In September 2019, NBC Sports reported that IOC and Intel have partnered for the Intel World Open, an e-sports competition to be held before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (the 2020 Olympics have since been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In December 2019, an article in Business Insider said that in recent clarifications (following the 8th Olympic Summit held earlier that month) the IOC has said its interest is confined to games based on real sports. According to it, “ the committee floated the possibility of embracing video games that make use of virtual or augmented reality to add a physical component to gameplay.’’ In other words, the IOC wants you to move, be physically active; plonked down on a chair and pushing buttons won’t do. In this new matrix, cycling sits pretty. Programs like Zwift and FulGaz require you to be actively pedaling on home trainer. “ From the ranks of established sports, I think cycling has a good chance of making that cut as regards e-sports at the Olympics,’’ Naveen said. That is of course, assuming the Olympic movement is still interested in e-sports and the programs currently fascinating cyclists continue to be partial to physical activity.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)