Just over a year ago, the team Alpecin-Fenix in which cyclists of the stature of Mathieu Van der Poel, Tim merlier and Jasper philipsen he was making a surprising announcement. I had reached an agreement with the cycling app Zwift so that the winner of your virtual competition Zwift Academy obtained a professional contract in 2021. In other words, it opened the window to professionalism to whoever was faster and more powerful by spinning a reel connected to the internet. It seemed then a mere advertising action aimed at promoting an ‘app’ that previously sponsored the Belgian squad and, of course, in part it was. But it has turned out to be much more.
The winner of that eSports competition last year turned out to be Jay vine, a 24-year-old Australian civil servant who had barely entered the amateur field and had started his career in mountain biking. The foreseeable thing was that the boy would not go beyond being, in the best of cases, a decent gregarious in low-level races, but his results have shown the opposite, becoming the leader of the Alpecin in some tests. In his 38 days on the asphalt this season he managed to be second overall in the Tour of Turkey, fifth in the queen stage of the Return to Burgos and third in a stage of the Back to Spain… Despite suffering a fall that same day. The Australian official is now a resident professional cyclist, like so many, in Girona.
When we signed the agreement, we did not expect the winner to perform so well.
Vine’s success caught even his own team unexpectedly. “When we signed the agreement, we did not expect that the winner would be a rider who would give that performance. We knew that he would have a decent level, since, if not, he would not be able to win, but not that much. It was difficult to predict that it would perform so well ”, the general director of Alpecin-Fenix explains to this newspaper. Philip Roodhooft. However, the head of the Belgian team also clarifies that for them it was not an advertising operation at all, but “a new way of discovering talent through a tool that became very popular during the pandemic.”
The cycling ‘apps’, in effect, became fashionable during confinement, although they already existed for some years. In many countries, including Spain, professional runners were deprived of going out to train in the open air for several weeks, so they resorted to these types of tools, which gave them the opportunity to pedal with the exigency they wanted and share easily. your performance data with coaches and fans. It also gave the option for professionals and amateurs to compete together, albeit virtually.
“As a result of this boom during the pandemic, we decided to get involved in this project to be able to learn more about eSports as a sports discipline,” adds Roodhooft about a way that even the most successful team in the peloton, the Quick step Deceuninck, has decided to explore. At the end of August they announced the hiring as ‘stagiaire’ (a kind of probationary runner during the last months of the season) to Jason osborne, an Olympic rowing champion in Tokyo whose main aptitude for the jump to cycling was his victory in the eSports championship organized last year by the International Cycling Union. On his second day in the peloton, this German rower-cyclist achieved ninth place in a time trial.
We have great news!
UCI Cycling Esports World Champion Jason Osborne, rowing gold medalist at the World Cup and silver medalist at the Olympic Games, will participate as the star of Deceuninck – Quick-Step: https://t.co/HWX33sgnAw pic.twitter.com/qMSe8SJUvW
– Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) August 30, 2021
Based on these two examples, the question is whether eSports can become a barn for cyclists in the short term or if the success of Vine (and perhaps Osborne) is an exception. “I do not know if we will set a trend and more teams will bet on this route, but that it has already been opened is remarkable, because five years ago it was unthinkable that happened ”, remarks the boss of the Alpecin-Fenix.
ESports does not tell you if someone is going to be technically capable of performing in a race
“We have not handled that possibility,” he says for his part. Markel Irizar, team scout Trek-Segafredo, and justifies it: “My personal opinion is that someone who wins in eSports is probably because they have a lot of physical potential, but it does not tell you if they will be technically capable of performing with guarantees in a race later. There are runners who give very good numbers in stress tests, which amounts to the same thing, that later they are not able to transfer them to the road. And I, who dedicate myself to ‘scouting’, every day I give more importance to technique ”.
Roodhooft, despite its alliance with Zwift, does not hide the shortcomings of this detection method either. “There are factors that are not measurable on platforms like Zwift, such as mastery on the bike and the ability to move in a peloton. There is also no wind or fans, cyclists who make the transition have to deal with that. ” “I can be very good on the ergometer, but If I go to La Concha I won’t have a clue, because I don’t know how to row in the sea, how to manage the waves, how to put the paddle in the water… With cycling apps, the same thing happens ”, adds Irizar. It also coincides with that reading Juanjo Oroz placeholder image, sports director of the Spanish team Kern Pharma: “Only physical potential is measured and not technique, which is essential for a road test. For us, it is still far from being a parameter that alone tells us that a cyclist can be a professional. If it is put together with other data, it can be useful, as one more indicator, but not the definitive one ”.
I can be very good on the ergometer, but if I jump into La Concha I won’t have a clue
“I remember that Ivan Raña, who was a fantastic triathlete and had a lot of ‘motor’, had to go through a period of adaptation to road cycling. Even those who come from mountain biking need it, which, being also a very technical discipline, is so in a different way ”, warns Irizar. Among the cases of successful transitions are the triple winner of the Vuelta Primoz Roglic, that he was a ski jumper before he was a cyclist, and Michael Woods, third in the 2018 World Cup (the one who won Alejandro Valverde), who was dedicated to athletics in middle distance events. This same year, the Bora-Hansgrohe has incorporated Anton Palzer, one of the best mountain skiers in recent seasons, and the Burgos BH to the triathlete Ander Okamika.
“We understand that it is a useful tool in various aspects that is going to evolve, that it is starting, and we do not close our eyes before this new trend, but I do not see potential for quarry”, deepens the director of Kern Pharma, who like the Trek Segafredo for the moment has decided not to bet decisively on the recruitment through eSports. Are you missing out on the next world champion or the Back to France? “Well, nothing is impossible, but it seems very difficult for that to happen in the near future,” they acknowledge from Alpecin. What does not take away so that next year they rehire a champion eSports cyclist, of course.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.