Can 'Virtual Racing' Ever Replace The Real Thing? We Found Out

·3-min read
Photo credit: (USA  Duathlon) Steve Wallace/Creative Concepts Photography
Photo credit: (USA Duathlon) Steve Wallace/Creative Concepts Photography

Holden Comeau, a former pro triathlete, is 600m from the finish line of the Zwift National Championship race. He is in third place, pedalling steadily to maintain his lead against the 750 or so competitors behind him. He sees the two cyclists ahead start to pull away, but he waits until the 100m mark to make his move.

When it’s in sight, he stands up to deliver his maximum sprinting power – 1,353 watts – into his pedals. It’s just enough to edge past the leaders to win the race and make him Zwift’s top-ranked rider. Comeau sits up, pumps a fist in the air and erupts with joy.

This is racing on Zwift, a virtual racing platform for cyclists and runners that has logged a threefold increase in rides in the past year. It’s e-sports meets racing IRL: your legs power your avatar through a course that looks like the setting of a digital game.

Before the pandemic, the highest number of people racing on Zwift was about 16,000. Now, it’s more than 35,000. When workouts and everything else moved indoors in the spring of 2020, the IRL races that everyone had been training for were mothballed. Technology, race directors and the competitive spirit stepped in to fill that void.

In 2020 alone, New York Road Runners put on 18 virtual races– including the New York City Marathon – and the organisation has no plans to abandon virtual racing in 2021. USA Triathlon sanctioned roughly 100 virtual events in 2020 – up from close
to zero in 2019.

Even as in-person races start to reappear on our calendars, organisers are keeping virtual events in the mix. They give people from around the world an easy way to connect – and compete. Someone from Paisley could run the same race as a Parisian and appear on the same finishers’ chart. They can even “do” the race together on Zoom.

Virtual races helped Spartan race competitor Tim Frame, 55,to hit a fitness peak. He had been a regular at in-person events, travelling on weekends to compete. “I was in the mindset of ‘Let’s party with the crowd and do a fun run,’” he says.

On his own, however, he focused on his performance metrics and found new motivation there. The knowledge that he could take on a virtual race from home nearly every day – and that it would earn him points on a leader board – drove him to complete 95 Spartan races since COVID-19 hit. “It changed how I competed against myself,” he says. “I’m
in the best shape of my life.”

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