UCI Cycling Esports World Championships: in the name of innovation

Next week’s UCI Cycling Esports World Championships (on 9 December) will be a first for cycling and a major step forward for Esports in general.

To the delight of the UCI’s newly-appointed Innovation Manager Michael Rogers, who has joined the International Federation’s Sports Department.

“It’s not only exciting, it will be a historic moment,” declares the retired professional cyclist who was crowned UCI World Champion in the individual time trial in 2003, 2004 and 2005.  “A digital version of the UCI World Champion’s jersey will be awarded to the respective winners of both the female and male categories. That’s not only a milestone for cycling, I would call that a milestone in sport.”

A self-confessed computer nerd, Rogers put his fascination for computers and software aside to concentrate on his cycling career which spanned 16 years and included, on top of his three UCI World titles, Olympic bronze (in the individual time trial, Athens 2004) and three Grand Tour individual stage wins (one in the 2014 Tour de France and two in the 2014 Giro d’Italia).

But when he hung up his bicycle in 2016, it did not take the Australian long to reunite with his passion for computers. In the last years of his cycling career, he had already seen prototypes of the first Tacx Neo trainer, and had been introduced to Eric Min who had set up the initial version of Zwift.

“When I connected the dots in my head of how software, or even better a ‘cycling game’ could control the new generation of home trainers, while simultaneously syncing everyone’s position in virtual space in real-time via the internet – I was instantly hooked,” says Rogers. So hooked, that the day after his retirement from competition, he became involved in the cycling Esports platform VirtuGO, of which he was General Director for 3 years.

In an interview about VirtuGO in 2018, he was asked if he thought pro cycling competition would turn to the virtual world.

“To be 100% honest, I didn’t think a UCI World Championships would take place within two years,” he says now. “But I’m happy I was wrong.”

The former cyclist has memories of a more monotonous method of indoor cycling during his own career.

“I did a lot of training on the home trainer as a pro cyclist.  I discovered very early in my career that training indoors gave the biggest bang for your buck.  Training indoors was a little less engaging compared to today’s offerings, so it makes me laugh when I reminisce about all the hassles of creating CDs to help time pass and avoid boredom.”

With the technology now available for training at home, Rogers is far from surprised by the rapid rise in popularity of cycling Esports. Quite aside from the practicality for people juggling sport with work and family commitments, or hampered by bad weather and modern-day traffic, the ex-pro sees cycling Esports as a creator of opportunities.

“What is extraordinary about cycling Esports is its ability to remove physical barriers and bring cyclists together. Cycling Esports is impartial to your geographical location. It doesn’t matter if you’re situated in the most remote location in the world, if you have a home trainer, a device and an internet connection you’re good to go.  You could be a mother riding together with her friends while her newborn takes an afternoon nap, or part of the local cycling club which is able to hold its events during a worldwide pandemic. Cycling Esports uses technology to create opportunities for people to come together, have fun and stay fit at the same time.”

Converted since the first appearance of smart home training options, Michael Rogers is convinced that the first ever UCI Cycling Esports World Championships will see the specialty grow even further.

“I really look forward to seeing a successful production, a happy and very proud Cycling Esports community and to contributing to the creation of more opportunities for Cycling Esports going ahead.

“With world-class fields in both the Women’s and Men’s categories, I think spectators can expect to see some explosive racing. What rider won’t give it their best to make history and become the first winner of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships!”