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Zwift racer banned for six months and sacked by team for hacking data during world championships qualifier

8.5w/kg for four minutes? Nothing to see here…

A Zwift racer who qualified for the 2023 UCI eSports World Championships has been sacked by his team and banned from racing for six months after the stunning ride that earned him his spot in February’s championships was found to be the result of a hacked data stream.

South African Eddy Hoole, a member of the Toyota CRYO RDT racing team, astounded commentators during a European and African continental qualifying event for eSport’s flagship event, breaking away from the bunch from the bottom of the final ramp to the finish before flying past the race’s erstwhile leaders to secure the win, and with it, an automatic place at the world championships.

Hoole’s barnstorming ride, however, raised a few eyebrows from the commentators and the almost 6,000 people tuned into the race’s livestream.

As reported by DC Rainmaker, mountain biker-turned-Zwift broadcaster Nathan Guerra even described the South African’s effort as “something we’ve almost never seen before”, and “what I thought was absolutely impossible”.

And, just like the days of turbo-charged ascents up Alpine passes in the 1990s, where if it seemed too good to be true, it probably was, Guerra’s incredulous reaction has been almost immediately vindicated.

Yesterday, Zwift published its ‘Performance Verification Board Decision’ concerning Hoole’s suspicious performance, concluding that the Toyota-backed rider purposefully cheated, and banned him from the sport for six months.

Zoning in on Hoole’s effort up the final climb, Zwift found that the South African had averaged 526 watts for the four minute 16 second effort.

Eddy Hoole Zwift stats (Zwift)

Hoole’s suspicious figures

According to the report, “given the rider’s weight, this equates to a sustained average power output of approx. 8.5 W/kg, a performance that requires a VO2max of over 90 mL/min/kg.

“For comparison, these values are significantly greater than those that have been measured for Olympic Pursuit Champions and World Record Holders (average power output over 4min, approx. 7.5 W/kg) or Tour de France GC winners (VO2max, approx. 85 mL/min/kg).”

Pretty damning, then.

Crucially, and even more damning, Zwift noted that “there is no circumstantial evidence that might suggest that the rider is a globally significant World Class athlete. For example, the rider does not have any IRL [in real life] cycling (or other IRL sport) results, and their typical training load amounts to around three hours a week of low intensity cycling on Zwift.”

An independent test taken by Hoole to prove his credentials found that he could only manage an average of 400 watts during a similar effort.

Also, while the numbers from Hoole’s power meter – broadly in line with his race stats – showed that it was significantly miscalibrated, Zwift pointed out that the trainer the rider was using last month, and which recorded the data acquired by the platform, is self-calibrating (such as the Wahoo Kickr or the Tacx Neo), with a manufacturer claimedaccuracy of +/- one percent.

“Deliberate manipulation of data”

So what was going on with Hoole’s Bjarne Riis-esque numbers?

Analysing the rider’s data streams from his computer to Zwift’s servers, the platform found that one of Hoole’s data channels disconnected shortly after he joined the pen, and just minutes before the race started. Zwift also discovered that Hoole’s other races showed a similar pattern where one specific channel would disconnect just before the racing got underway – though no disconnections, interestingly enough, took place when he was simply training.

Zwift said: “It is notable that the disconnected channel normally carries analytics information about the riders system – in particular information such as the equipment that the rider is using.

“Zwift considers the absence of this analytics information to be equivalent to the presence of a masking-agent in anti-doping – for example, it would allow the rider to change their paired device from their trainer to a computer-controlled device that gave falsified power information, without such a change being recorded by Zwift’s servers.”

As DC Rainmaker noted, this could mean that the rider was inserting a device or some form of software into the middle of the data stream to change it, allowing him to artificially boost his figures.

> Zwift U-turns on ban for user who exposed weight-doping hack

When questioned about this evidence, Hoole provided no answers, but instead deleted 150 dual-recordings from Zwift Power (a site used to prove race data) and also deleted or made private all of his social media profiles.

Concluding that Hoole’s ride was the result of a “deliberate manipulation of data”, Zwift banned the South African from racing until 12 May 2023 for “bringing the sport into disrepute”.

Following Zwift’s report, the Esports Team Toyota CRYO RDT confirmed that they had “terminated their relationship with Hoole”.

The team said in a statement:

CRYO RDT / TOYOTA CRYO RDT has at its roots a goal of promoting fair and transparent sport. Since inception we have required all our riders to comply with all aspects of Zwift Esports Rules regardless of whether they race at Elite level or not. The rider in question had all elements in place and had previously been verified in elite level racing.

As can be seen from ZADA’s determination the nature of this case is such that the team would not have the means to suspect/identify/investigate circumstances such as these as they require access to Zwift Server log files and an in-depth knowledge of how to interpret these. However, it was clear to the Management Team that as a result of initial information received from ZADA without any plausible explanation from the rider there was only one decision open to us.

Esports requires a basis of trust on the part of all involved to ensure that the sport is fair, and we have and will continue to work with ZWIFT / ZADA in an effort to achieve this. We are saddened by this situation and will now study in detail ZADA’s report to establish any lessons which we can learn from it.

> World's first eSports pro cycling team sacks rider for cheating on Zwift

The recent boom of eSports and virtual racing has coincided, naturally, with a surge in the number of racers willing to cheat the system.

The most high-profile instance to date of a cyclist being sanctioned for cheating on Zwift relates to Cameron Jeffers, winner of the inaugural British eRacing national championships in 2019, the first time any national federation had staged such an event.

> Zwift national champion stripped of title because he didn’t earn the ‘Tron’ bike he rode within the game

Following the men’s race at the BT Studios at London’s Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park, Jeffers was found to have manipulated data prior to the event to unlock a Zwift Concept Z1 bike – popularly known as a “Tron” bike – to give himself an advantage over his competitors.

He was stripped of his title, fined £250 and handed a six-month suspension from all racing, with the title awarded to James Phillips, who came second on the day.

Meanwhile, earlier this year Zwift was forced into a rapid u-turn after initially shadow banning a user that found, tested, and highlighted a known weight-doping hack.

Lucian Pollastri had received a 30-day partial ban from the platform as Zwift felt his actions were promoting the hack, but Zwift’s CEO later apologised to Luciano and vowed to fix the problem.

Ryan joined as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.

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