One of the fastest-growing sports in the world is eSports. Participation is in the millions, and market size value is in the billions. The rapid growth of eSports was primarily due to the pandemic, and there are no signs of it slowing.
With platforms like Zwift, cycling racing lends itself easily to the eSport world, seeing growth in both participants and viewers alike. I thought I’d take a closer look at this phenomenon since several friends have gotten heavily involved. I’ll admit, before looking into this topic, I had very little knowledge of how it worked and, more importantly, how the organizers kept athletes from doping ― physically and mechanically.
I asked several questions of Zwift and pro eSport cyclist Kristen Kulchinsky to educate myself about the sport.
For those readers not familiar with Kristen, here are a few stats:
DOB: June 8, 1981
Location: Montauk, NY
Profession: Artist/Goldsmith in addition to professional E-Sports Cyclist
Previous Sports: Swimming & Running
Zwift level: 50
eSports Career Highlights
- #1 ranked female in the world on Zwift Power
- 9th place in the UCI E-Sports world championships
- 2nd WTRL Gravel Series – Stage 1 Jungle circuit
- 2nd WTRL Gravel Series – Stage 2 Jungle circuit
- 2nd USA Cycling Race League By Saris Pro Closet La Reine
- 2nd USA Cycling Race League by Indoor Specialist Bologna
- 1st USA Cycling Race League by Indoor Specialist Tempus Fugit
- Everesting (Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and complete repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest)
- Fastest female segment time on Ventop
Sheri: Can you provide some background for the RBR readers who are unfamiliar with how eSport racing works?
Zwift Spokesperson: From community racing to elite competitions like the recent UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, there are lots of ways to race on Zwift. All of them work the same way: By setting up your bike on a trainer at home, you can enter a virtual environment that lets you compete with others riding in their homes.
Zwift racing is broken into four categories. Beginners race in D and experienced riders in A. To figure out where you fit in, you’ll complete an FTP test, and then you can start to join community races.
Most people race for fun and fitness, while some people have their sights set on higher-level competition. You can read a complete how-to guide on racing here.
Sheri: What’s your equipment / pain cave setup? (e.g., smart trainer, bike, platform, fan, TV/laptop)
Kristen Kulchinksy: My pain cave has moved quite a few times in the last couple of years, used to be a view of the Williamsburg bridge, but currently, I have an awesome view of the bay out on the east end of Long Island. (Last week, I looked up from my Zwift workout and saw a dolphin!)
I use my Virginia Blue Ridge Twenty24 Felt bike with my Zipp front wheel and for dual recording, I have a Quark crank power meter and a Garmin bike computer. For the world championships, they send all the same smart trainer, which was the Wahoo V6, but I use a Taxc Neo 2T. I use two Wahoo KICKR Headwind fans. Keeping cool is key so depending on the weather, I put the AC on or open the doors to get a breeze. To run Zwift, I use a Macbook pro and recently got a bigger monitor by LG, which has been amazing to see everything bigger!
Sheri: Do you train differently for eSport racing vs. an outdoor race?
Kristen Kulchinksy: Currently I am only an Esport racer and team captain of VBR Twenty24. It’s very important to have a high 1 min power, 30 second power and that kick, which I was working on with my coach Josh Lipka this year for that final sprint to the finish, which was key for the Grand Prix series that Zwift put on this year and also the world championships. I do prefer longer efforts though so I try to find races that suit my love for long climbs and efforts.
Sheri: How many hours a week do you train? Is it all indoors on a trainer, or do you ride outside, too?
Kristen Kulchinksy: I train 12-16 hours a week, it’s all inside. During the summer, I go outside, but it’s for the joy miles. I do want to try a hill climb race, maybe this summer. We’ll see!
Sheri: You are the #1 ranked female in the world on Zwift Power. Explain how that’s calculated.
Zwift Spokesperson: You can read all about Zwift Power, including how the rankings are calculated, here.
Sheri: Obviously, there are different rules for an eSport race vs. a road race. What precautions are in place to avoid “doping”?
Zwift Spokesperson: ZADA, a third-party data analytics agency who are able to look at all historic and current performance data for athletes and make sure that what they are seeing are in line with reasonable performances. For the esports world championships, we have ITA (International Testing Agency), which can show up and test athletes for traditional doping. Have everyone weigh themselves 1-2 hours before the race and submit a video that measures height and weight and then ZADA kicks in at the Zwift GP level, but can also monitor activity on the platform.
Community races have category enforcement, which doesn’t allow riders to go down in category. Prevents sandbagging. And can also push people up a category. So if you’re last in a B race, then you can go back down to C, all based on your last 2-3 races.
Sheri: Where do you see eSports going over the next 3-5 years?
Kristen Kulchinksy: Esports is going huge places and it’s been an amazing journey so far with Zwift and has come so far already with the UCI world championships, the premier league and Grand Prix, which brings in tons of viewers.
I would love to see it in the Olympics. I think that would be so exciting. People love the races and find it exciting to watch us race in our pain caves. I think the new formats they have been trying really have been a success. As more and more people find the platform, it’s been exciting to see the new talent (and competition) arise to the pro and elite races.
Sheri: You are part of the Twenty24 team. How does the organization tie into junior cycling?
Nicola Cranmer, Owner/General Manager Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24 Pro Cycling Team: Virginia’s Blue Ridge TWENTY24 has had a junior team since its inception over 19 years ago. Creating a pathway for young female athletes is really important to our program. It’s not always our goal that these young athletes become professional cyclists, one of the most rewarding things that the team can do is to connect them with collegiate scholarships through cycling.
We use the Zwift platform to ride with our athletes who live in all parts of the country. It’s a wonderful way to get the junior team together and build our program community. We currently have 28 juniors on the team, which is a record for us. During the pandemic lots of young girls lost their communities, whether it was in school or in the playground and Zwift was a big replacement for connecting with these teenage girls so our junior program doubled during this time. Our professional athletes serve as mentors to the junior athletes and this is often through Zwift.
Sheri Rosenbaum regularly contributes articles and reviews products for RBR. She’s an avid recreational roadie who lives in the Chicago area and a major advocate for women’s cycling, serving on the board of directors and volunteering with the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. Click to read Sheri’s full bio or visit her web site sunflowersandpedals.com.