When I started on Zwift in 2015/2016, the barrier to entry for equipment was much different than it is today. I was very early to market with a power meter, and not long thereafter, a Cycleops PowerBeam Pro (an early wheel-on smart trainer), much to the chagrin of my bank account. For several years, to have the lightning bolt next to my name in the rider list and forced feedback from my trainer was somewhat a rarity, and understandably so! You couldn’t get a true power reading on Zwift for under four figures, and that was simply prohibitive or impractical for most riders, relegating the majority to the somewhat dreaded and fiddly speed/cadence sensor experience (or as I referred to it, magnet mess).
Fast forward to the 2020s, and things have changed drastically. The benefits of trickle-down technology have made using power meters or smart trainers all but ubiquitous and at an “affordable” cost; for most with the disposable income to pursue cycling and incur a subscription cost for Zwift. It’s difficult to find someone on Z-power these days, but when you do, they often fall into three categories.
- Good faith casual rider who wants a simple way to jump on Zwift and get in some riding, but not particularly concerned with power metrics or “enthusiast” level Zwifting.
- The newer Zwifter - feeling out the platform and learning the ropes. That person will eventually either fall into bucket 1 or upgrade to a setup with power.
- The cheat - There are still myriad cases of abuse of Z-Power to gain an advantage on races and on segments. We all know that there is ZERO fidelity in the Strava leaderboards when it comes to official Zwift segments. as you can’t go even 100 deep and find someone with legitimate power output from a trusted source.
Regardless of which bucket a rider falls within, it is indisputable, at this point, that Z-Power is grossly inaccurate and routinely produces artificially high power values.
Weight doping is tough enough to contend with, but it does have its limits. You can only push your weight so low, but your power is limited to what your legs can do. I am in no way condoning this form of manipulation, but rather focusing on something Zwift can control. That leads me to attack the pernicious effects of Z-Power and ANT+ simulators that are highly manipulable and damage the experience for riders on the Zwift roads every day.
Historically, Zwift has had very loose policies surrounding these types of things (especially Z-Power) to remain inclusive and not penalize members who could not afford a power-driven setup. And to be clear, I think that approach was a good one. However, I believe it is time to revisit enforcement guidelines with the changing landscape on Zwift. It doesn’t take much more than a quick browse of nearby riders to determine the vast majority are riding with power. Within this environment, it is pretty easy to detect certain setups, and I contend it is time for Zwift to start “shadow banning” Z-Power and ANT+ simulators from results for segments and races. There will always be people who look for ways to bypass the system to gain an advantage, but can we at least address the low-hanging fruit?
Let’s say you are on a training ride on a lousy, rainy day, and the last thing you want to do is be on your indoor trainer; you fire up Zwift because it makes riding indoors more engaging, immersive, and fun. Your ride around the roads of Watopia, deciding to throw in some efforts on the KQOM segments for intensity and you want to go for a top 5 leaderboard standing; only to find that the leaderboard is glutted with superhuman results. Does that stop you from doing your ride? Nope. But it certainly impacts the potential reward center of your brain which can get you to reach beyond your PBs with some healthy competition. Despite the “ride your own ride” chest pounding, Zwift is a social platform that people use, in large part, to seek that competition, and I don’t think it is ridiculous to desire some legitimacy in leaderboards. Of course, this extends to racing as well; but, I don’t think I need to belabor that point here, as it has been talked to death… category enforcement has been a big help, but bad power numbers can still ruin results.
I contend that, given the ubiquity of power-driven setups, Zwift can start to consider equipment-based disqualification/omission of results in real-time, universally across the platform. Don’t impact people’s ability to ride, simply eliminate them from the standings - or alternatively, have Z-Power leaderboards so that like can be compared with like. The ANT+ simulator DQs/omissions will certainly be a heavier lift; however, I believe AI can detect the difference between simulators and real power by combining power monitoring with metrics like HR and cadence. There is variation in those metrics from a real rider that is either not present in a simulator, or too routinely randomized to be a “real” rider. I have been able to detect this just by eye on many occasions when I have seen a potential “flier” on the road. If we aren’t going to ban that type of user from online gameplay, at least eliminate some of the incentives i.e., standings.
To steel man my own case here, I know that there will still be a concern that this may be unduly harsh to those remaining on a speed/cadence setup; however, my response is that we “allow” people to participate in recreational sports with all types of equipment in the real world; yet we draw the line at competition. We don’t let e-bikes, for instance, in racing because it provides an unfair advantage. Why allow an unfair virtual benefit in competition on Zwift?
Another concern would be the efficacy of the controls put in place. There have been occasions where honest riders have been penalized with the cone of shame or DQed because an algorithm makes a decision based on pre-set limits, which may inappropriately flag legitimate data that happens to fall multiple standard deviations from the mean. I believe that these occurrences, albeit frustrating, are exceedingly rare, and are outweighed by the benefits they produce for the community. My contention is that the same would apply to enhanced equipment enforcement.
If this forum teaches us anything, it is that Zwift will never please everyone, but I think this type of change can please most… Just my two cents.