Jess Pratt had given up on her dream of becoming a professional cyclist.
She began racing at the age of 11 and competed in several events before pursuing a career in nursing.
“It was a massive goal of mine to turn pro but I just thought coming from Australia, working as a nurse, it’s not going to be possible,” Pratt said.
But a spontaneous decision to take part in a virtual cycling competition changed the course of her life.
She initially signed up to help improve her fitness while juggling shift work, but the grand prize of a professional cycling contract was in the back of her mind.
“It felt too dangerous to ride after working all night and it’s quite dark in the mornings too, so this filled the barrier,” she said.
“It was much easier to get on the trainer and do a solid work-out.”
The online cycling and training program, run by the Zwift Academy, offers everyday people from across the world the chance to secure a 12-month contract with the Canyon SRAM team.
The fitness app allows users to interact and compete in virtual worlds, while the video gaming aspect is attracting younger people to indoor cycling.
A new breed of e-athletes
“It’s a different discipline compared to traditional road cycling,” Wesley Sulzberger, general manager of Zwift Australia, said.
“It’s aggressive, short, sharp racing, so we’ll see some unique athletes emerge on the world stage from the living room or wherever they may be.”
Pratt went on to win the coveted contract and is now based in Spain, riding on the Women’s World Tour.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Pratt said.
“Coming from Australia and racing people from all over the world felt surreal. I’m still pinching myself.”
It has also paved the way for a career in esports.
Pratt has been named in the Australian team for the inaugural Cycling Esports World Championships in December, an elite competition that will be raced from competitors’ homes.
Game-changer for equality
During lockdown, Pratt took part in the world’s first Virtual Tour De France.
The event was an historic step towards gender parity.
It featured a women’s race alongside the men, with equal coverage, sponsorship and prize money.
“To be racing the virtual Tour de France from my own living room against the world’s best was unbelievable,” Pratt said.
“We raced equal distances to the men, which is pretty crazy because there’s obviously no women’s Tour de France.”
The actual Tour de France has been a male-only event since its inception in 1903.
The world’s top female riders’ race in La Course — a one- or two-day race that started in 2014 and was added into the World Tour for the first time in 2016.
Sulzberger competed at the Tour De France in 2012 and represented several teams, including Australian pro team GreenEdge, during his professional career.
He said the virtual adaption is a landmark achievement for gender equality in sport.
“It’s a real game-changer,” Sulzberger said.
Like the virtual Tour De France, the esports World Championships will take place on the Zwift platforms.
Both the men’s and women’s events will be raced over equal distances, on identical courses and with equal prize money.
It’s a move hailed by many, including Olympic cyclist and former world champion, Kate Bates.
“Sport across the board has some trouble in equity, certainly women’s cycling is probably a decade behind the men’s,” Bates said.
“What esports offers is absolute equality, from the broadcast to the prize money.
“There is no other sport in the world that can say that.”
COVID-19 esports boom
The coronavirus pandemic has fuelled esports meteoric rise, helping fill the massive gap left by traditional sport.
“In a challenging year, esports has provided riders with an opportunity to continue to train and compete at all levels, resulting in a virtual cycling participation and racing boom,” Steve Drake, chief executive officer of Cycling Australia, said.
Sulzberger said the boom was an unexpected but welcome surprise.
“No one could predict that we’ve have a Virtual Tour de France and now, in the same year, an esport world championships utilising the Zwift platform,” he said.
The investment value of the Zwift platform recently surpassed $1 billion for the first time, after $625 million in funding was secured from investors.
By 2025, the global esports market is tipped to be valued at more than $3 billion, and there are plans for it to feature at the Olympics.
“We’re definitely on track to making this an esport for the 2028 Olympics,” Sulzberger said.
Esports at the Olympics?
It’s a goal Pratt’s already eyeing.
“The idea that it could be at the Olympics sounds pretty awesome,” she said.
“I think a lot of people would love to see that and it’s 100 per cent something I’d aspire to.”
Bates says the advantages of cycling as an esport are many and varied.
“I think esports have a big future in the Olympics and even for the next generation,” Bates said.
“It’s gaming, so they’re very engaged and it’s really a way to combine physical abilities with the virtual world.”
It’s not just for the younger generation.
Bates believes esports will provide more longevity to female athletes who want to return to their careers after having children.
“You can now have maternity leave and continue to be a professional athlete in a way that we’ve just never had access to before,” she said.
It may even bring some athletes out of retirement.
“To think they’ve got a world championships and potentially an Olympics,” Bates said.
“I never considered pinning on a number again in the real world of cycling but esports it is luring me back.”