Back in January 2019, I founded the world's first 'professional' eracing team: Coalition Alpha (Then, Canyon ZCC). We were the first team to have all riders on the same trainers and then later, using the same powermeters. We were also the first team to publicly outline our transparency guidelines on our website long before many of the points became mandatory for elite races. So, we have a track record and reputation for leading from the front, doing things before anyone else and pushing for change. It's in our DNA.
When I started Zwift Racing in early 2016, we didn't even have pens... just a bunch of riders meeting at the start line of KISS Europe races and trying not to false-start. When I think about what it was like back then and where we are now, a lot has changed, largely for the better. However, much of that progress has happened at the elite level, where more and more rules have come into play. It is now more challenging than ever to cheat at the elite level – although it does still happen. However, for the rest of us mere mortals – things haven't improved all that much: it's still easy to cheat and it's arguably even easier to sandbag than it was before.
When people think of cheating on Zwift to gain extra watts, they think of trainer manipulation; fiddling with tension screws or dodgy spindowns. Luckily, many of these options for cheating have become less prevalent as the quality of hardware has improved.
However, the number one way of cheating is still endemic in amateur racing and also undetectable in elite racing: weight doping.
Weight doping is the easiest way to cheat and the most prevalent because it requires no effort to do, and race organisers do not want to touch it. At the elite level, it would take some effort to manipulate a pair of scales, but not impossible. At the amateur level, it can be done by either entering a made-up weight of your choice or the slightly more honest scenario of riding using an old weight.
If you take a look at riders from the Zwift Racing League, which is by far the biggest racing series in the world, then you will see that the vast majority of riders do not update their weight. Some of them have never updated their weight since they opened their Zwift accounts. A lot of people do it on purpose, but there is also a huge swath of people who just don't consider it important, or how it can affect performance in-game.
Why weight matters
To move your avatar forward in Zwift, you need two values: watts, which is a dynamic value, and weight, which is fixed. Watts / Weight = w/kg. This allows a degree of equalisation whereby lighter riders can still compete side-by-side with heavier ones, even though their absolute watts will be considerably lower. See the table below:
In theory, all of these riders should be able to ride together on Zwift and compete at the same level, whereas, in real life, absolute watts would play a more significant part, especially on the flat. Of course, the exact calculations for how your avatar moves in Zwift relies on some other factors, but the fundamentals are the same.
So, if you want to increase your w/kg, you can do one of two things:
- Increase your watts
- Lower your weight
For most people, the only way to increase watts is through training. But losing weight (at least on Zwift) is a lot easier to accomplish. Hypothetically, let's say all our riders listed above are riding on an old weight recording, and since then have gained 3kg. In this example, the riders would have artificially added 10w to their FTP simply by not updating their weight. For 5-minute power, it is a boost of 15w.
Now, whilst the benefits are not massive, this is just what you get from a 3kg difference. Increasing your FTP by 10w in the real world requires a lot of effort, especially for those racing in the A & B categories. So, it is a tangible increase, even if the number seems relatively small. 10w at FTP can be the difference between riding with the group and getting dropped.
But here's the thing... if you were manipulating your hardware to increase your power output, then there would be uproar and you could be banned from racing. But because people get the same benefits from using the wrong weight, it is somehow considered acceptable. This is a moralistic fallacy that is widespread and is harming our sport by making it unfair.
Numbers are easy; the topic is not
As far as Zwift goes, weight is a simple numerical value. But for many people out there, weight is a deeply personal issue and can be connected to how we think about our self-worth. So, finding a balance between fair racing and people's often genuine concerns about their weight can be challenging. In the Coalition, we are fortunate to have an amazing network of captains and other volunteers who are there to help and listen to our riders. Their feedback when I was outlining the updated verification process was also invaluable and they helped ensure that we did whatever we could to consider those riders who struggle with the topic of weight. I believe we have found a balanced approach, and undoubtedly, we will continue to evolve how we do things and listen to our community in the process.
We also understand that perhaps riders who are new to the team might not have fully appreciated the difference using up-to-date weight can have on in-game performance. It's important to us that we don't judge riders for what they did before, if they share the same values as us and want to help improve the sport we all love.
This is what it means to be a welcoming community that invites members to grow with it.
What do we do differently?
Now, many people argue, albeit poorly, that it is just a bit of fun and why take it so seriously? Well, imagine playing Monopoly, and every time around the board, the banker takes an extra £100 more than they are supposed to. I would presume that most people would not be happy with that, as whilst the game is supposed to be fun, there are still a set of rules and instructions in place to make it fair for all players. So, the argument that we shouldn't care is particularly weak. Also, if you were racing on the road, everyone would be racing with their real weight, and I am positive there is still fun to be had; you cannot lie to physics.
So this is why our community in the Coalition takes rider weight more seriously than any other team racing at the amateur level. Fair racing has been in our DNA since the very beginning, and our members understand that. This is why every rider who races in Coalition colours during the Zwift Racing League must provide a weigh-in verification ahead of each round. It is our process that ZADA now uses for elite races such as the Zwift Grand Prix. But as where elite riders have to weigh-in within two hours of every single race, we feel it is enough for one video at the start to act as a benchmark and then ask riders to keep their weight up-to-date throughout the six weeks of racing.
We also offer streamlined weigh-in options for riders racing in the D Category and for those returning to race and have a verified weigh-in from the past 4 months. It's not a perfect solution, but it is fair for the amateur level and sets a benchmark for others to follow.
A call for more teams to follow our lead
We would love it if more teams committed to fair racing and took the time and effort to help their riders. We run over 50 squads globally, which makes us the third-biggest team in the Zwift Racing League. If we can implement a programme for fair racing, then others could do the same. If any teams out there are interested in how we do it or want some advice, then we are also more than happy to talk to you about it.
I also hope that in the future, race organisers will do more to moderate riders who do not update their weight, and even better yet, would be a technical solution that removes the need to weigh yourself and manually enter the data. But this feels a long way off at the moment. For now, let's do what we can to improve and grow the sport.
Thank you to everyone in our community. We're leading the way forward together.