With their 2020 season in jeopardy, a desire to provide Saskatchewan’s cycling youth with a way to stay motivated and work on their skills during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Caleb Bender to explore the idea of virtual cycling competitions.
“There’s only so much you can do to keep yourself excited to race, especially at the ages of some of the junior riders,” said Bender, who has represented Saskatchewan in cycling at the Western Canada Summer Games and recently finished a junior career. “I know the junior years were really instrumental in learning a lot of new things about tactics, about racing, how to race, what works, what doesn’t and virtual competitions was the best alternative.”
In order to bring his idea of virtual competitions to life, Bender worked closely with the developers of the RGT: Cycling app. Before the pandemic, the app had rarely been used for virtual competitions, instead, it was typically used for indoor virtual training.
The app is attached to a cyclist’s own bike on a smart trainer that then creates an avatar on the TV that reacts to a cyclist’s power output and other data. In turn, the app sends information back to the trainer simulating the terrain and other aspects of competition — like hills and other racers — so the cyclist is always having to adjust to what’s happening on the course. The app also has a unique integration called Magic Roads that allows users to upload custom routes with GPS coordinates from Google Maps.
“This is a platform we’re used to using, especially being a Saskatchewan athlete where you end up being stuck inside for 5-6 months of the year when you can’t train outside,” explained Bender. “So it became a matter of understanding the platform and learning as we went.”
At first, in late March and early April of 2020, the thought and hope was that virtual competitions would only be needed to fill in for cycling’s spring races. With that initial timeline in mind and following discussions with the Saskatchewan Cycling Association and the provincial coach, Bender’s original plan was to create a joint series between Saskatchewan and Manitoba riders.
By late April 2020, it became apparent that any in-person competitions for the season were unlikely, so Bender changed the scope of his plan and brought his to idea to Cycling Canada. The National Sport Organization was quick to get on board seeing it as an excellent way to bring together the country’s junior riders.
“This was the only opportunity we’d seen at a national level where it focused on those riders,” said Josh Peacock, Events and Partnerships Manager with Cycling Canada. “So it was an opportunity for them to really, truly race against their peers and see how their training was coming along and how they were stacking up against their fellow athletes across the country.”
Cycling Canada’s involvement encouraged other provincial teams from Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia to join. It also allowed for a partnership with the Canada Games Council that gave teams and athletes the chance to “try” the 2022 Niagara Canada Games course after the coordinates were uploaded.
“It started as this really humble Sask initiative that took off,” said Peacock. “We had some of the nation’s biggest provincial team coaches out there bringing athletes, talking strategy and really supporting it.”
The need for the virtual competitions has carried over into 2021 as many provinces are still under varying degrees of COVID-19 restrictions. Enthusiasm for the virtual races hasn’t appeared to dwindle, though, as Bender noted that a three-week series held in late January and early February had a turnout that would rival a junior national competition. It’s those kinds of numbers that lead Peacock to believe that virtual racing is here to stay, even when in-person competition resumes.
“It was already a discipline for us, but the pandemic really accelerated how it was recognized nationally and internationally, so it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “I think, if anything, it’s going to grow in popularity and be one of the most popular cycling disciplines moving forward.”
And while the growth and success of the virtual competitions has been great and well received by national and provincial sport organizations as well as coaches, for Bender, the greatest accomplishment has been the enjoyment of the athletes.
“What we’ve heard from athletes is that they’ve been loving it and that’s really gratifying in its own right because that’s really who it was for.”