CYCLING / VIRTUAL REALITY: IS IT THE PROVERBIAL TIP OF THE ICEBERG?

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 crunchbase.com, 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 sportsbusinessdaily.com 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 sportsbusinessdaily.com 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.)

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