The first-ever eCrit National Championships: Gimmick, great spectacle, both?

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It’s a little after 8pm in the heart of Ballarat. Traffic management crews charge up and down Sturt Street with purpose, pulling advertiser bunting off roadside barriers and loading those barriers onto trucks.

The crowds have dissipated and light is fading from the sky. The day is drawing to a close and the criterium titles at the 2019 Australian Road National Championships have all been decided.

Well, almost.

Just two blocks away, roughly 100 people are packed into a small event space to watch the first-ever eRacing Criterium National Championships. The concept is about as odd as it sounds and walking into the venue, it takes a moment to understand exactly what’s going on.

Lined up at the back of the crowded room are six riders — three female, three male. All are pedalling furiously on stationary trainers, their eyes glued intently to the screen in front of them.

They’re riding on Zwift, the virtual training tool slash racing platform that has become near-synonymous with indoor cycling in recent years. Above and behind the riders, six large TV screens mirror what the riders see, helping those gathered to make sense of the action.

Not that it’s easy to make sense of. A bevy of virtual riders flit on and off screen as numbers and names change with seemingly every pedal stroke. With each screen showing something different, it’s a lot to digest.

Two commentators pace back and forth among the crowd, microphones in hand, helping to describe the action to those gathered. They’re enthusiastic and entertaining, but it’s hard to hear anything they’re saying over the EDM beats a nearby DJ is blasting through the venue’s PA.

In short, this isn’t your usual national criterium championship.

The riders are racing just 16km — four laps of Zwift’s undulating 4km Volcano Circuit. After temperatures nudged 40ºC for the real-world crits in Ballarat earlier in the day, there’s something appropriate about seeing the eCrit racers fly past giant pools of roadside lava.

There are two races going on in front of us — a men’s race and a women’s race — but we’re only seeing a small part of each. This criterium championship is being raced by dozens around Australia — anyone with a Cycling Australia racing license can login from home, join the race, and vie for a national title. Foreigners aren’t eligible for the title but they can join too, and several have.

It makes for an odd viewing experience. Our attention is fixed on the riders directly in front of us. We can see the grimaces they wear, the ever-growing puddles of sweat on the floor beneath them, the effort they’re producing. Those racing at home appear to us only as avatars and names that flash on and off screen. We can’t see their suffering.

But suffer they must, because the riders in front of us are no slouches. The three women are all professionals: Tiffany Cromwell (Canyon-SRAM), Sarah Roy (Mitchelton-Scott) and Lauren Kitchen (FDJ). All competed in the real-world criterium championship just an hour or so earlier, with Roy dashing to second place.

The three men are amateur Kierin Lewis, three-time MTB national champion Brendan “Trekky” Johnston, and semi-pro roadie Ben Hill (Ljubljana Gusto Santic). Hill, like the women to his right, also competed on the road this evening.

All six riders are at their limit as they enter the final kilometres of the short race, but none as demonstrably as Hill. The Canberran jerks violently from side-to-side on his golden Gusto frame, willing every ounce of energy from his body. He’s paying for his repeated attacks on Sturt Street earlier.

Hill’s got plenty of support in the room, not least from his fiancée Bec Wiasak. Wiasak didn’t just race the real-world criterium earlier in the evening, she won it in commanding style, putting enough of a gap into her rivals in the sprint that the timekeepers gave her a one-second gap over the field. She’s still wearing her green-and-gold jersey and gold medal as she leans forward from the front row, yelling encouragement to Hill.

The riders sprint for their virtual finish line and the crowd, somehow, gets even louder. Lewis is the best-placed finisher among the men, crossing the line in 19th. Hill is 25th while Johnston is further back in 53rd.

The female pros get closer to victory, but none manage to crack the top five. Roy takes sixth after narrowly pipping Kitchen on the line — a thrilling overtaking manoeuvre that whips the crowd into a frenzy. Cromwell is down in 12th place.

Somewhere, far away from the excitement of this Ballarat venue, the two winners are probably celebrating their national titles. Perhaps they’re in a garage or spare bedroom, wiping away sweat and having a well-earned drink. Perhaps they’re completely on their own, in what would be a stark contrast to the experience of the six riders in front of us.

It’s hard to say — the most we’ve seen of the winners is their respective avatars. Indeed, we only know that Jesse Riley and former pro Vicki Whitelaw are the winners because their names top the leaderboard at the end of the race. Those watching the livestream might have a better sense of how the race unfolded.

For the established cycling fan, virtual racing makes for a strange viewing experience. It’s more like watching a videogame than it is a sporting contest. Having riders race in person helps bridge the gap between the real and the virtual but it also serves to create a starker contrast between the two.

There are those we can see in front of us, riding hard, sweating, struggling. And then there are those that we see only as a collection of pixels on a screen. That the winners come from the abstract second group creates something of an anti-climax for those of us in the room.


The full live-stream of the two races.

This eCriterium Championship has been officially sanctioned by Cycling Australia — the first ever event of its kind. And later this weekend, all going to plan, Whitelaw and Riley will be presented with real-world green-and-gold jerseys for their efforts. For cycling purists, this mightn’t sit well.

It could be argued that videogame racing — with its outlandish fictional courses and temporary power boosts — isn’t real bike racing. That awarding a national champion’s jersey for virtual racing cheapens the value of the jerseys handed out in “real” disciplines.

But there’s another argument to be made. Sure, there’s something silly about awarding a national champion’s jersey to the fastest rider in a videogame bike race — and a 16km bike race at that. But where’s the harm in doing so?

It’s all too easy to compare virtual racing to real-world racing and to see it as something gimmicky, frivolous and ultimately inferior. But view virtual racing as its own entity, it’s own sub-discipline of the sport, and you’ll get a different perspective.

Just hours after defending her national criterium title on the road, Bec Wiasak was on hand to cheer on her fiancé Ben Hill in the eCrit championships.

Sure, racing indoors on a trainer can never replicate the real-world chaos and excitement of a bike race. The bumping of elbows, the jostling for wheels, the feeling of the wind in your face. But that doesn’t devalue the experience. It should be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn’t.

Ultimately, sport is great because of the unknown — we don’t know what’s going to happen in a given contest, a given race. That’s true in real-world bike racing and it’s also true in virtual racing.

And like it or not, virtual racing is here to stay. Zwift recently announced it had raised $120 million in its latest funding round, a chunk of which will go to growing its e-sports offering, not least the KISS Super League, the first esports competiton featuring pro cycling teams.

Cycling Australia should be applauded for getting in on the ground floor, for embracing virtual racing in a way that no other national federation has yet done. The idea of an eCriterium National championship mightn’t be for everyone, but at the very least, getting 100 people in a room to watch pros flog themselves for prizes is a lot of fun. And in a sport that takes itself as seriously as road cycling does, there’s certainly a place for more fun.

The riders mightn’t have been enjoying themselves, but those in attendance — including commentator Pat Shaw — certainly were.

***

As the races end, the six riders in front of us peel themselves wearily off their bikes and towel down. They may have been riding on stationary trainers rather than on the road, but there’s plenty to the post-race ritual here that’s familiar to viewers of “normal” bike racing.

The exhausted riders chat to another about how the race unfolded, the moves they missed, what they could have done differently. Viewers chat excitedly to one another about what they just witnessed. Commentators interview the riders about the experience.

Just like on Sturt Street hours earlier, the crowd in the venue gradually starts to thin out. The riders disappear to rest up and recover, especially those that are racing in the Nationals road races in less than 48 hours time.

The 2019 Australian Road Nationals are only just getting started. It would seem that the same is true for virtual racing.

CyclingTips’ editor in chief Caley Fretz helped contribute to this report.

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