It's official, and for a few select British cycling esports elites, the 26 January announcement is the first step toward the sport's ultimate goal. British Cycling announced the 17-rider roster representing Great Britain in the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships on February 18, 2023. For seven Rainbow Jersey hopefuls, the journey's just begun.
"It's a really long journey! I think about eight hours," according to 29-year-old Oxford-based Lucy Harris, thrilled to represent her country for the first time.
She intends to make the drive herself if her dad isn't free, who shared her daughter's joy at the announcement: "When I qualified, I immediately started crying and called my parents, so I can only imagine how much more intense it will be, live, at the real thing!"
Joining her will be Esports World Championship veteran and Toyota CRYO RDT teammate Charlotte Colclough, who will be making the six-hour drive from Cambridgeshire.
"At first, I thought about whether my nerves would cope with competing with an audience watching as I get nervous even at home! I was also a bit put off at the thought of people watching my pain faces live! But after giving it some more thought, I realised that it is an amazing opportunity and that I have to go for it! It will make the event memorable, whatever result I achieve in the race, and it will be nice to share it with teammates in person."
Lucy and Charlotte are a part of the seven-rider British contingent participating in the first-of-its-kind live "In Real Life" physical final. The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and Zwift, along with partners EventScotland, Glasgow Life, and the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships, will play host to athletes from British Cycling as they battle for the Rainbow Stripes. The event takes place in The Engine Works, Glasgow, and acts as an exciting World Championship kick-off for the city.
The melding of esports and real-life world-class performance is a priority for the UCI, stating, "Bringing athletes together and allowing spectators to witness the physical performance of elite-level competitive cycling has always been a goal of the UCI.
"Coming out of the Covid-19 challenges, the UCI is excited to be able to host some of the top-tier esports cyclists in a live final for this third edition of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships."
Also, for the first time, racers will face a new race format and courses. On January 26, Zwift's game release included a Scotland map, marking new territory as the only virtual destination explicitly created for a Cycling Esports World Championship. The Glasgow-inspired virtual offerings will give the racers a visceral sense of the real-world routes as they test their strength and smarts against the new three-race gauntlet.
According to a spokesperson representing EventScotland, the excitement is building because “The map has taken inspiration from the Scottish landscape and the city of Glasgow, which alongside other venues across Scotland, will play host to the inaugural 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships this year. It will be exciting for both fans in the live audience in Glasgow and those watching the virtual race around the world as it will build anticipation for the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships from 3 – 13 August.”
In the first race, dubbed The Punch, the starting field of 100 will battle for thirty qualifying positions on the 13.8 km rolling route. Following repeated hill climb selections of the 8.5km route with 162m of elevation gain, ten racers will remain after the second race, called The Climb.
"The event will provide the perfect kick-off for the upcoming UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow and across Scotland, as the new Scotland map takes inspiration from the Scottish landscape and the city of Glasgow, passing through landmarks and some of the same roads that will be used at the event in August, with the finish line being a close replica of the arrival at George Square," adds the UCI.
The final race, aptly named The Podium, pits the racers against short, punchy climbs, eliminating one through each segment archway until only three remain. The right and privilege to represent their country in the Rainbow Stripes go to the deserved victor.
EventScotland is hosting the event, and their spokesperson speaks to the enormity of the occasion. “Alongside our partners, EventScotland is excited to be hosting the ‘In Real Life’ Final element as part of the wider Cycling Esports World Championships taking place virtually around the world on Saturday, 18 February.
"The opportunity to host this physical event came about as part of Zwift’s status as the Official Virtual Fitness Platform of the inaugural 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships, which will see 13 UCI World Championships across seven cycling disciplines take place in Glasgow and across Scotland this August.
"This is the first time EventScotland has supported an Esports event, reinforcing Scotland’s reputation as a world-leading events destination.”
The event will go down in The Engine Works, a former steelworks from the 1800s located on the Forth and Clyde Canal banks in Glasgow.
The momentous nature of the event is not lost on the UCI, whose spokesperson highlights, "The unprecedented format of the competition, with the three races “The Punch,” “The Climb” and “The Podium” has been chosen to bring more thrills to the event and push the contenders to their limits. The new concept moves away from the traditional scratch race format to maximise the viewing experience for fans. An engaging fan experience is always at the heart of sports, and this evolution can hopefully increase the engagement with audiences across the world, ultimately adding a new dimension of interest for the cycling esport discipline."
Eleven-time UCI World Champion and six-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy is no stranger to Zwift and will be on hand to answer questions from the live audience and become acquainted with the athletes.
"It is going to be so exciting to watch the athletes compete in person as they take on the virtual peloton, bridging the gap between real-world effort and the virtual race," says Hoy.
Glasgow native and second-time World Championship racer, Toyota CRYO RDT's Natalie Stevenson, has extra motivation: "The live event is in my home city, during a big year for cycling in Scotland with the World Championships here in the summer, and for me, this opportunity, at home, is a once in a lifetime, so the decision was always going to be yes to the live event."
The decision was also easy for British Men's team member Movistar’s Jimmy Kershaw, who will make the five-hour drive from Nottingham: "I was excited because I love racing in front of people, and at times, I get mates around for big races to make me more hype, so it will be cool to race with the team in the same room and should help with tactics too."
Live-hosted online events are not new to the esports world. The April 2018 CVR World Cup in Los Angeles saw cyclists from every corner of the globe rubbing elbows in the city's Velo Sport centre for the chance at a piece of the season's $100,000 prize purse.
The head-to-head slugfests on identical equipment set a standard for fairness and thrilled onlookers. Commentators Hunter Allen and Dr. Chris Haskell described the action blow by blow while assimilating the hoards of available performance data. CVR set the stage for a new type of cyclist and introduced the world to riders who've cemented their legacies as legends of the sport, like Belgium’s Lionel Vujasin, a pre-race World Championship favourite.
"Ensuring fair play across all cycling disciplines remains a key priority for the UCI," notes their spokesperson. "A range of performance verification processes have been put in place for the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, whereby athletes are obliged to follow established protocols and instructions. Zwift is working with a reporting system and collection of data points that allow for a clear identification of the performance authenticity and accurateness in order to ensure a fair competition for all athletes."
The racers competing at the live final in Glasgow will also be using identical equipment. Wahoo, the UCI's official partner, supplied each athlete with a Wahoo Kickr smart trainer, believing that using the same high-quality equipment means everyone competes on a level playing field, ensuring the prestigious event's fairness.
Many elite esports competitors believe live events add another dimension of scrutiny and equity. However, in the wake of several high-profile cheating scandals at the sport's highest level, fall short of agreeing it eliminates cheating.
Like Colclough, who finished 18th last year, says, "I think racing live will reduce the chances of cheating. Having commissaires watching the pre-race verification checks and riders using provided technology setups will improve fairness. Unfortunately, in all sports, some will find ways to attempt cheating, so I'm not sure if it would totally eliminate it."
Then there's the question of whether competing in a remote live venue is an advantage or puts the racers on an uneven playing field. Harris has an interesting take, saying, "It's more stressful and involves more travel, so I can see the downsides. But I firmly believe that diamonds are made under pressure, and I'm optimistic that the opportunity to race live will push me to produce my best possible performance."
Colclough concurs, sharing, "I am someone who likes my pre-race routines, my familiar setup, and having a whole new environment may be a disadvantage for me in many ways, so this worries me. But I'm hoping I can use the positive energy and excitement of the day to give myself an advantage in a different way!"
For many on the Great Britain esports squad, the challenges were too much to overcome to make the journey to Glasgow. For this young and evolving sport, many athletes faced barriers, be it financial or work obligations, that prevented them from accepting the invitation. The time and expense are simply too much. Incidentally, the standard ticket to attend the event is £30.
“We will be providing accommodation for those athletes attending the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships ‘In Real Life’ final in Glasgow on 18 February,” notes an EventScotland spokesperson.
Despite the challenges, esports athletes acknowledge the excitement, exposure, and elevated equity standards that live events bring.
Representatives state: “EventScotland is working to make Scotland the perfect stage for events by developing an exciting and innovative portfolio of events that provide world-leading authentic experiences for locals and visitors. We are excited to be hosting a number of riders in Glasgow to be part of the ‘In Real Life’ physical final that will be held in front of a live audience for the first time while they compete online against the rest of the riders from around the world in the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. It will be interesting to see how this is received both by the audience and by other cities and countries who may look to follow our lead in the future. The rise of hybrid events allows event organisers and audiences to engage in a flexible and innovative way, and is a model we will continue to see.”
When asked if she sees a day when racers will contest the World Championship exclusively in front of live audiences, Colclough said, "Yes, Esports has grown so much in the couple of years that I have been competing, so hopefully, this will continue. As popularity levels increase, it would be nice for spectators to have this opportunity to watch live coverage of the sport at its highest level."
Kershaw agrees for a different reason. "I think if they want absolute fairness from every rider, this is the way it should go."
For these reasons, many around the sport believe live audiences for prestigious events are the future of esports. The UCI has a vision: "One of the many benefits of cycling esport racing is its accessibility, allowing athletes to participate from anywhere in the world. Rather than transitioning to an entirely live format, hybrid events are a more likely development, with athletes competing from all over the world in different settings."
The future is bright for all World Championship hopefuls, whether under the bright lights of a Glasgow convention centre or their dimly lit basement. Good luck to Lucy, Charlotte, Natalie, Jimmy, and all of the racers!
The Esports World Championships takes place on Saturday 18th February, with off.road.cc editor Aaron Borrill one of the starters in the elite men's race. Live coverage starts from 6.15pm on Zwift's YouTube channel.
A physical therapist with over 25 years of experience, Christopher Schwenker is on a journey to give back to the cycling community for rewarding experiences and fulfilling relationships through the pages of his virtual cycling blog, The Zommunique.com. He rode his bike across the US in 2022 to raise awareness of his cycling-related non-profit, The DIRT Dad Fund.