YORKTON - The division between sport and entertainment has always been a bit blurry – professional wrestling pretty clearly smacks dab in the middle of the two with one foot firmly planted in each.
Now the line is being blurred even farther with the emergence of esports – typically a multiplayer video game played competitively for spectators, typically by professional gamers.
The question of course is whether maneuvering a joystick is a sport?
For the purpose of this column, that is however, not a rabbit hole of debate to veer into, although this is very much about esport, in particular the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.
If you are not familiar with cycling esport, no worries, neither was I until I stumbled upon it recently online.
The world championships for online bicycle road racing is an event organized by the Union Cycliste Internationale. The first edition was held on December 9, 2020, featuring a men's and women's event over a virtual 50 kilometer route with 483 meters of simulated elevation gain on the Zwift platform.
But, it was the recent 2022 edition of the race held Feb. 26, which interested me as I noted Canadian Thom Thrall finished eighth among 81 men, and was a breath away from topping the field.
The race was topped by Australian Jay Vine in a time of 1 hour, 15 minutes, 41 seconds. Thrall in eighth was four seconds behind.
Of note other Canadians in the field included; Noah Ramsay 42nd, Leandre Bouchard 45th, Oliver Dowd 60th, and Kris Yip 67th.
An email to Cycling Canada, and I was soon interviewing Thrall to learn more about the sport.
Interestingly, the 31-year-old rider, who now lives in Nashville, is a relative newcomer not just to ecycling but cycling in general.
“I am relatively new in the cycling world,” he said, explaining from the time he was 12 through to 25 he was a competitive flat water sprint canoer, with “an ambition to go to the Olympics.”
But, when he didn’t qualify for the 2016 Olympics, he made a decision.
“At that point I wasn’t ready to commit to another four years,” he said, adding he basically hung up his paddle and walked away from competitive sports.
Thrall went home, relaxed, even gained some weight, with no desire to compete again.
Then his wife bought him a bicycle in 2018 as something he could go and enjoy with friends.
But Thrall said he has a touch of a character flaw, when he starts something he strives to be the best.
“I can take it too seriously,” he said, adding with his bicycle the rides very quickly became longer and harder.
The interest would lead him to eventually train for a Quebec City to Mississauga organized by the company he worked with. He rode well enough and others were telling him he had a knack for riding.
A transfer to Singapore, had Thrall packing the bike because it is a “really bike friendly” place, and riding was a way “to connect with people.” It also proved the place Thrall would hook-up with a pro race team out of Thailand, and begin seriously competing.
“I did all kinds of races,” he said.
But, yet another job transfer had him headed to Toronto, and the realization there would be several months of snow and winter where road races weren’t going to happen.
“So I bought my first trainer,” said Thrall.
The trainer connects to a bicycle as a sort of interface with the ‘game program’ allowing riders to bike through varied ‘worlds’ and courses.
Through the interface the differences within a course are reflected in the actual ride, for example it becomes harder to pedal up a hill.
For example, the recent championship was held on “Zwift’s New York course is a fantasy world based on the Central Park of 100 years’ time and is a feast for the eyes. Rolling, curvy and scenic roads at ground level sit below elevated transparent roadways, complete with flying cars, and sleek sci-fi buildings,” detailed www.uci.org
Thrall said just on the Zwift platform there are 10 different ‘worlds’ with each offering 10-15 routes to ride.
“The first few times you just take in the scenery,” he said, adding the variety is great. “. . . I really enjoy it . . . The experience of riding indoors.”
While Thrall would again transfer, this time to Nashville, his attention focused on riding indoors.
“I do ride outside but I haven’t raced much outside in a couple of years,” he said, adding with esport “. . . I kind of get the fix I’m looking for.”
And, Thrall said indoor riding/racing is actually safer, noting he has been hit by a car riding outside.
“Safety is a huge, huge upside,” he said, adding in road races crashes among riders causes lots of serious injuries and that is eliminated with esport.
“It’s much easier to stay healthy,” said Thrall.
Of course there are challenges to esport cycling, in particular staying cool in a room while exerting maximum effort for a couple of hours.
“You want the room as cold as possible because you heat up so quickly indoors,” said Thrall, who turns up the air conditioner and operates multiple fans to help keep cool.
There are also some ‘video game’ perks within the sport. At intervals within the course competitors at the championship each received a series of ‘power-ups’ they could then use in the race. For example, a feather power-up had the program reduce a rider’s weight for 15 seconds as an advantage, with another increased speed for 15 seconds, and a third increased draft for 30 seconds. It became a strategic element when to use the advantages.
Soon Thrall was competing again, this time connected with competitors around the world. While he did not qualify for the world championships in 2021, he was ready for the recent edition.
Down the road, could esport cycling be in the Olympics?
Thrall doesn’t see why not, noting esport cycling incorporates a lot of aspects from other biking disciplines, but is still “unique enough”.
It would also open the Olympics to a vast new world, yet be clearly a sport event with physical effort at its core, said Thrall.
“I think it’s a nice bridge . . . to a huge market,” he said.
While Thrall has hopes of bettering his eighth in 2023, he will next focus on the Canadian Esport Championship March 12.
“I’d love to win that national jersey,” he said, adding the race on the RGT Virtual Cycling Platform will be a course mimicking the actual streets of St. Catherines, Ont.