The satisfaction and availability that make cycling esports appealing to athletes and enthusiasts raise an important question. As we extend the boundaries of online competition, how can the sport ensure a fair playing field when athletes compete globally using an array of hardware from various manufacturers? The standardization of hardware is one solution to this issue.
“We are quite advanced in the approval of smart trainers,” said UCI’s Head of Innovation and Esports, Michael Rogers. “We are prepared to announce something within two to three months.”
Rogers revealed the UCI’s intentions during an interview with The Zommunique’ following a recent press conference in Abu Dhabi, UAE, to announce the 2024 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship on MyWhoosh.
It came in response to an inquiry into how the UCI plans to address concerns about digital doping and the perceived culture of cheating in cycling esports.
Smart trainer homologation is an independent certification process that evaluates and verifies the accuracy and reliability of different hardware available on the market. A motor is employed to supply a known power to the trainer linked to highly precise torque and rotational measurement sensors. The system assesses a trainer’s baseline and dynamic characteristics, examining its reaction to the varying power requirements of a race scenario across the entire spectrum of an athlete’s performance.
Creating a device and protocol to characterize smart trainer behavior is critical for ensuring fair competition and providing competition organizers and governing bodies, such as the UCI, with the tools to make informed decisions about the integrity of the sport.
“Everyone calculates their metrics differently as power,” Rogers acknowledges the problems associated with variation in smart trainer accuracy across manufacturers.
“We have been working with a university for two years on a protocol for trainer accuracy standardization.”
Rogers shook his head with a wry smile when asked to share more details about the collaboration. However, an April 2021 report on the Purdue University College of Engineering website pulls back the curtain on the innovative work of the Ray Ewry Sports Engineering Center and potential insight into their collaboration with the UCI.
“In partnership with Purdue University, the UCI is creating a trainer homologation process that evens the playing field and ensures that all athletes have access to an open and fair competition,” Rogers said during an interview for the site.
The group of engineers and PhD candidates Patrick Cavanaugh and Teal Dowd, under the leadership of Professor of Engineering Jan-Anders Mansson, recognized the pressing need for smart trainer homologation. “In traditional sports, like the racquet in tennis, the equipment is the interface between the environment and the athlete,” says Cavanaugh. “In virtual cycling, the trainer is no longer the interface; it is taking the place of the environment, and we need to ensure that all trainers perform the same.”
Their journey into this concept began after observing the virtual Tour of Flanders, a UCI WorldTour race, where Greg Van Avermaet emerged as the virtual victor. However, what caught Mansson’s team’s attention was the fact that all the top finishers were utilizing the same trainer.
“There are different models, different brands, and even different models from the same manufacturer, and they all have their small differences,” Rogers reiterated the necessity for standardization.
Dr. Mansson and his team have a long and successful history in standardizing sports technology. They began working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2009 in conjunction with FINA, the International Governing Body of Swimming, for the homologation of swimsuits after 94% of all the races won in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were by swimmers wearing the Speedo LZR Elite swimsuit.
Mansson’s relationship with the UCI began with the homologation of bicycle frames and motor detection and included smart trainers in 2020.
The team at Purdue University is the first to create a homologation system for virtual cycling. This achievement is a significant step toward standardizing virtual racing across all levels of competitions, including international events like the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships and the Olympics.
Also Read: “The Olympic Esports Games will start in 2025 and will include cycling esports” —says UCI President
The testing protocol comprises a fully automated 2 to 3-hour process evaluating power range, resistance accuracy, and hardware reaction to stress factors such as temperature fluctuations. It generates a data analysis plot illustrating the trainer’s response to various slopes and torques across a full dynamic range, simulating racing scenarios. See this June 2022 article published in Engineering of Sports for an in-depth description.
“Different stresses will induce different behaviours in different models,” explained Cavanaugh, “thermal stress being one of them.”
As an athlete uses a smart trainer during a race, it generates resistance that must be dissipated as heat, profoundly affecting the unit’s performance. The impact comes into play during races of different durations or competition formats consisting of multiple shorter races.