Inside ZRL, the world’s biggest weekly team cycling series

Some 1,900 teams fill 126 divisions for a series that hinges on collaborative efforts — and it's run by two men on Zwift.

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Every week, more than ten thousand riders around the world hop on their trainers to race with their teammates in the Zwift Racing League, which is wrapping up its second season today. While Zwift itself has countless individual races, the ZRL’s format is unique as it includes team time trials, points races, and a ranking structure based solely on cumulative team performance.

It is wildly successful.

Former professional racers and regular recreational riders alike vouch for how effective the team format is at building camaraderie and motivation.

Ted King is one such convert. The former road pro turned gravel entrepreneur was surprised at how the team dynamics pulled him in.

“If you told me two months ago that I’d enjoy my Zwift Racing League experience, I’d laugh,” said King, who was convinced to join a team by his friend Kevin Bouchard-Hall. “Now I truly look forward to my Tuesday night race sessions. It’s entirely that community of guys on my team that make it fun. We communicate all week, we razz each other, we lift each other up.”

For the team time trials, each team’s time is taken on the fourth rider across the line. For the points races, points are available at intermediate sprints, KOM/QOMs, and at the finish line. And then, instead of a time-based general classification, race wins are determined by tallying up each team’s points. The format rewards team strategy and group effort, not just getting one rider across the finish line first.

Run by Martin Carew and Steve Milliken in conjunction with Zwift, ZRL has its origins in a team time trial series originally set up by Milliken as a passion play.

“The team time trial format started off as a race run between 3R and ATP Racing, just as a club thing,” Carew said “Steve [Milliken] had a Saturday race that proved a rip-roaring success.”

In 2018, WTRL was created as a Thursday night weekly time trial series.

Martin Carew has taught himself several programming languages to facilitate the registration and scoring of team- and points-based events run on Zwift.

Carew got involved on the data side of things, originally just working off a spreadsheet, pulling data from ZwiftPower.

Carew’s background is in business analytics, and soon he had automated things through Excel.

“I started bugging Nathan [Guerra] at Community Live to get coverage. Our races weren’t just a bunch sprint at the end. They offered a whole new strategic approach. For the first time ever on Zwift, we have a team sport. You had to actually physically work together, and collaborate on the strategy, and the thought process.”

As the series in popularity, Carew taught himself multiple programming languages to accommodate results and team registration.

Soon, the pair were drawing 5,000 riders every Thursday, in 800 to 900 teams, across 13 events. And when COVID-19 shut down the world, the TTT series exploded.

At first, Zwift was not keen on what Carew and Milliken were doing.

“Zwift came down quite hard on us about the data sharing when they didn’t understand our series,” Carew said. “I got a little bit miffed at the harsh email I received, and reached out to WTRL community, and said you need to go into your profile and say you’re okay with data sharing.”

The team time trial format, first used to great popularity with WTRL, is a cornerstone of ZRL racing. For ZRL season 2, three of the eight races are team time trials.

Soon, Zwift reached out about forming what is now the Zwift Racing League. Originally, the name was going to be the WTRL Community League. But after conversations began in the summer of 2020, ZRL launched in September. Some 8,000 people raced in the first Tuesday event.

Now, Zwift itself runs the premier division of ZRL, where cash prizes are on offer and a high level of performance and weight verification is involved. Carew and Milliken run the community divisions of ZRL, where the bulk of riders participate.

Paid by Zwift to host races

Carew and Milliken are now paid by Zwift to run the community divisions. For season 2, which consisted of three team time trials and five points races, some 126 division hosted 1,900 teams.

Carew has applied for a Guinness Book of World Records entry. “There is no other esports league the size of what we run at the moment,” he said.

The team format requires a minimum of four riders and a maximum of 6 riders per race. Divisions are set up by power-to-weight ratios, based on a rider’s three best 20-minute power performances recorded on ZwiftPower.

“I come from Rugby,” Carew said. “And the team spirit extends so far beyond the sport itself. You train together, you compete together, you go to the pub together. You share pain and everything else in life.”

“This ZRL format is similar. We get messages from people who call this a godsend, that they have been put in touch with new virtual friends all over the world, no longer lonely,” Carew said. “It’s not just the event itself, but the relationships you get when you build a team like that.”

For ZRL team time trials, each team must coordinate when they leave the starting pen based on their starting time. While riders have requested that Zwift create separate start times for each team, Carew says that he likes the format that requires discipline and coordination.

King credits Bouchard-Hall for roping him into the ZRL, where they race under the Velocio banner with Olympian Geoff Kabush and Stanely Cup champion Andrew Ference.

“Kevin puts together hilarious post-race race report montages,” King said. “We could be accused of being a beer league with a knack for indoor riding. Then, in the races themselves, we communicate on Discord. It’s really opened my eyes to the level of involvement you can have in virtual racing, just learning about the courses, diving into climbs, studying power files endlessly, and learning the who’s who of online racing.”

“Besides being a fun addition to my weeknight, it’s hands down the hardest bit of training I do these days. I can only push myself so hard during trainer intervals or outside on the fat bike this time of year, so I’m blasting through early-season power records with ease during the races,” he said. “It’s amazing the extra bit of oomph you can find when you know there’s someone chasing you down in a virtual bike race somewhere in the world on their home-gym too.”

“I actually won my first race two weeks ago,” he said. “In my six years of dabbling in races, I think I’ve cracked the podium once. So that was a hoot.”

The prevalence of cheating in Zwift

Carew often received 400 emails a day, and he tries to answer them all. Often they have to deal with results; sometimes there are accusations of cheating. But Carew, who has studied Zwift race files as his full-time job now for months, says actual intention cheating on Zwift is rare.

“One bugbear of Zwift is that people involved in racing are quick to turn to social media and it gets bullish,” he said. “We deal with a few things out of the public eye. There is no need to have someone weighing themselves publicly. Most people out there are not deliberately cheating. Looking at 100 people with something wrong with their data, one might be cheating, but 99 are people who don’t understand how to use their technology properly.”

“People can be very [accusatory], but that is not sporting,” Carew said. “If you got beaten by someone, you need to look at how you can improve. There is no race in real life where if you got beaten by someone you would storm up and demand to see their power meter. Whereas in Zwift that is perfectly normal.

“Anyone we are concerned about, we contact them. Generally, we get to a friendly consensus that something is wrong or that everything is fine, and away we go. Reputation is leading the way for us in how we work.”

Season 3 of the Zwift Racing League starts in April.

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