Jon Mould is a professional cyclist from Wales. In 2018, he won a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games road race, just losing out to Australia’s Steele von Hoff in a sprint finish of the 168km race. Mould has raced all over the world, but in the winter season of 2019, most of his cycling has taken place within the comfort of his home, competing in digital racing competitions on Zwift.
Zwift is a training app for cyclists that enables riders to connect their indoor trainer setup to a virtual world of cycling. In the Zwift world, cyclists can race or partake in social rides alongside users from around the world. Cyclists create an avatar on the Zwift app and, using readings from the indoor trainer, as well as weight and height inputs on their profile, the avatar’s speed and therefore relative progress is determined by the cyclist’s own outputs. If the indoor trainer being used is what is known as a smart trainer, then the resistance on the user’s bike will automatically change as the gradient of the virtual road in the virtual world of Zwift changes. Watching their avatar on their phone, laptop or TV, cyclists can race on famous routes such as Prudential RideLondon, UCI World Championship courses such as Richmond, Virginia and Innsbruck-Tirol, as well as fun “Watopia” routes such as a loop around Central Park in New York. There is even a track inside a bubbling volcano.
Whilst most users of the app are amateur cyclists, for professionals such as Mould, Zwift has created an elite league called the KISS Super League. In this league, teams of professional cyclists compete in weekly races, streamed live for audiences around the world to watch on Zwift’s Facebook and YouTube channels. Mould and his team, Madison-Genesis, have done exceptionally well in these races and Mould himself has won many of these weekly rides.
So appealing have these virtual races become for the greater cycling community that the British Cycling Organisation held the first ever national eSports cycling event in March of 2019. The best riders in the virtual cycling world were invited to compete in the event after placing in the top ten in a qualifying race. The top ten included Mould, as well as riders such as Stevie Williams, Ian Bibby and Olympic gold medallist Dani Rowe. Televised on BT Sport in the United Kingdom, finalists travelled to the broadcaster’s London studios on the day to compete alongside each other on their indoor trainers. The eSport scene is growing in popularity every day and big players in the industry, such as Zwift, have high hopes that eSports may even one day be included in the Olympics. At this very early stage of virtual cycling, however, there have been some challenges, including what the Zwift community is calling the “Weightgate” scandal.
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It was a typically cold and rainy morning in London. On Monday the 27th of April 2009, with a busy week of travelling ahead, South African billionaire Christo Wiese checked in at London City Airport – a favourite amongst businessmen for its proximity to the city. It was also a convenient option for Wiese, just an hour’s drive from the Ritz Hotel, where he had stayed the night before. This Monday, Wiese was on his way to Luxembourg, but on the coming weekend, he was attending a wedding in Russia, and he still wanted to be back in South Africa during the week to cast his vote in the nation’s general elections.
Arriving comfortably at the terminal before the departure of his flight to Luxembourg – with his return ticket to London booked for the same day – everything was going smoothly, until Wiese reached security. At the security gate, Wiese placed his hand luggage on the conveyer belt and as the bag rolled through the airport x-ray machine, it immediately attracted the attention of the custom officials. Wiese was pulled over and upon searching his hand luggage, officials found that his bag was stuffed with thousands of bound £20 and £50 notes. In total, there was £120 000 – more than two million South African Rand in today’s terms. Not surprisingly, airport authorities were suspicious.
Taken to a secure room for questioning, Wiese explained that the money came from a safety deposit box at the Ritz Hotel in London. It was transported there from a strong box in a London branch of the Swiss bank UBS and he was now taking it personally to be deposited at his bank in Luxembourg. The officials had meanwhile located Wiese’s checked-in luggage and began examining its contents. In that bag, officials discovered an even greater stash of elastic-bound bricks of cash, with a value of £554 920. In total, between the hand luggage and the checked-in bag, Wiese had been planning to carry £674 920 in cash on an international flight – over R12 million in today’s terms.
Wiese explained that the money was from the sale of diamonds back in the 1980s. In his younger years, Wiese had bought a diamond mine on the banks of the Orange River in partnership with one of his friends, Johan de Villiers – a 22-year-old article clerk. Wiese’s timing on the entry and exit of his venture into the diamond industry was near perfect, buying in just before the boom in the 1970s and getting out just before the collapse of the diamond price in 1981.
Despite his explanation, however, the authorities still wanted to know why he had kept the money in cash all these years and had not deposited it in a bank. Wiese claimed that he had kept the money in cash because he did not want a paper trail, as it was frowned upon to keep money overseas as a South African during the 1980s and early 1990s. By depositing traveller’s cheques and keeping the money in a safety deposit box, there was no paper trail. The retail mogul argued that the situation was all above board and even offered the customs officials the contact numbers of his accountant and a contact at UBS, to further clarify his story.
And indeed, Wiese knew exactly what he was doing. When travelling between countries in the European Union, there is no limit to the amount of cash one is allowed to carry across the borders within the economic zone. If entering or exiting the EU, one is only allowed to travel with up to £10 000, but on a flight between London and Luxembourg, this did not apply. The apprehensive airport staff had no grounds upon which to detain Wiese, but the customs officials had the right to seize the money under the suspicion that it was laundered, until a judge ruled otherwise. Wiese would have to go to court to get back his millions.
The initial ruling in 2010 by District Judge Snow of Westminster Court was that, without proper documentation to account for the source of the funds, the money was to be forfeited as the court believed it was the proceeds of criminal activity. Wiese appealed the decision, hiring one of the top Lawyers in the UK, Claire Montgomery, to plead his case – the same lawyer to defend Shrien Dewani, who was accused of hiring a hitman in South Africa to kill his wife, Anni Dewani. It took a year and a half, but Wiese eventually got back his money, minus the £30 000 spent in court to overturn the original ruling. Wiese has subsequently considered suing British authorities to claim back the money he lost in the legal process.
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After winning back-to-back races in the Zwift KISS Super League in early 2019, Jon Mould was invited to compete in a Zwift exhibition race in New York. Being a highly publicised event with great riders from around the world in the field, the organisers wanted to make it as controlled and standardised as possible. One control was having riders weigh in before the race – a procedure that is not usually undertaken in ordinary Zwift races, generally relying on an honesty system when it comes to riders entering their weight and height on the app. But when a lower weight is entered than what is factual, riders gain a crucial power-to-weight advantage – one of the most important ratios in cycling.
Standing on the scale that day in front of the race officials, Mould weighed 76 kilograms – three kilograms heavier than the weight he used on his Zwift account whilst racing in the KISS Super League just a few days before. Prominent Zwift cyclist and outspoken Australian Shane Miller, aka GPLama, called out Mould on his popular YouTube channel for “weight doping” – deliberately understating his weight on his Zwift profile to gain a power-to-weight advantage over his competitors. Many of Miller’s 85 000 niche YouTube channel subscribers were incensed.
Defending himself against the vitriolic attack by Miller, Mould claimed that the long-haul flight from the UK to the US, along with some overeating during the trip, had resulted in his unexpected weight gain. For the organisers of the event in New York, it did not seem anything out of the ordinary and they simply asked Mould to update his weight on his Zwift profile before the race. But for many Zwift fanatics, the incident served as indisputable evidence that what they suspected might be happening was in fact happening – at every level, Zwift riders were weight doping.
After the accusations that Mould had weight doped, Chris Pritchard, a professional cyclist who has represented Scotland in the Commonwealth Games, created a YouTube video to investigate how drastically a weight change would affect a rider’s performance in Zwift. By racing the same track with different weights, Pritchard demonstrated the extent to which understating your weight has a direct advantage in improving a rider’s power-to-weight ratio, or watts-to-kilograms (W/kg). In the video, over the course of a 64km race, a 67kg rider with a height of 183cm – simulating the measurements of Mould – was up to 25 seconds slower in a solo ride than the 63kg version of the same rider with the same height.
Whilst 25 seconds may not seem like much, in professional events, where the margins are miniscule and races often come down to a sprint finish, having almost a half a minute handicap is a massive advantage – and this was just in a solo race. When riding in a peloton, the advantage of an increased power-to-weight ratio becomes even more pronounced. The drafting effect when racing on the back wheel of a teammate or competitor significantly decreases the energy needed to maintain the speed of the peloton, with the front rider creating a slipstream for the riders behind him. Without this effect, the energy needed for a solo rider to maintain the same speed as the peloton over the course of a race is almost impossible, owing to the continuous turn-taking of the front position in the peloton by what are known as the super domestiques, those who ride on behalf of others. The watts-to-kilograms ratio thus becomes crucial for a rider to keep up with the group, because if they are dropped, without the required power-to-weight ratio, they have little chance of catching up with the peloton. In this scenario, the 25 seconds difference in a solo ride, as measured by Pritchard, can quickly become minutes of lost time in a non-time-trial race – a race in which drafting has a significant influence.
In the app, there are no consequences for amateur riders on Zwift who tinker with their weights to gain an advantage over their virtual counterparts. However, with the recent growth of third-party intermediaries such as ZwiftPower – a website that organises and tracks races on Zwift for a large community of riders – the administrators of the website have started to suspend obvious weight dopers from their race rankings and overall standings. In their very active forum, Zwift riders openly name and shame profiles who they believe are cheating and, following a quick investigation by administrators, the cheaters are suspended.
In the world of Zwift, the trivial weight doping issue is perhaps symbolic of a far more complex idea – the difference between a game, played purely for recreation and enjoyment, and a sport, as an event that involves serious competition. This dichotomy is succinctly captured in a comment on an online Zwift forum, regarding “To cheat or not to cheat”. In the forum, a new rider asks if it is acceptable to change his weight in a non-competitive group ride to keep up with the group, even though he would be lying about his true measurements. A veteran Zwift rider responds, “If it’s just for funsies, group ride, workout etc., do what you want. If it’s a race, stay legit. No one likes a weight doper.”