Australia has its own virtual racing squad with the AERO (Australian E-Sports Racing Organisation) team launching recently with the goal of seeing Australians racing and winning the top online races in the world.
The recent restrictions on social gatherings world-wide have seen the racing world move indoors, with races on Zwift and other virtual cycling platforms taking riders at home on their trainers and transport them to virtual worlds for racing and training. While this has seen a lot of change within cycling, and a growing acceptance of the place of e-racing in the sport, the AERO squad has been a passion of team founders (Tully Lyster, Brad Norton and Nick Squillari) for much longer than the current coronavirus situation.
“The current COVID situation has amplified the exposure for what we’re trying to do and we’ve seen the platform on Zwift grow enormously,” said Lyster in conversation with Australian Cycling Insider. “But this is a long-term vision to support our riders indoors on Zwift, and to complement their IRL (in real life) cycling aspirations.
“We’ve got a core group of Men and Women who are really keen to ride the big Global events and take on the best Amateur and Pro Teams on Zwift. We will also build and support an U23 Squad, a Masters Squad and a Community Team that can represent the brand, the sponsors and have fun on the platform.”
AERO already boasts a strong men’s contingent, with Ben Hill, Nick White (both Team Bridgelane), Jay Vine (Nero Continental), Marcus Culey (Team Sapura) and Cameron Roberts (GPM-Stulz) the cream of the crop when it comes to cycling below the WorldTour level. The women’s team isn’t as highly credentialled, but contains up and comers like Emily Watts (Subaru-Giant), Bre Vine (Step Fwd-Suzuki) and Breanna Hargrave (Subaru-Giant), as well as established riders like Sam de Riter (ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast) and Bree Wilson (Roxsolt-Attaquer).
As Lyster explains, they’ll be put up against tough competition with Zwift world-level racing a notoriously difficult scene to crack.
“It’s been a passion and a goal for some to help the best Aussie boys and girls to enjoy the virtual platform, train together and race together,” said Lyster. “There are some serious races and for the really elite it’s about putting in that pathway to take on the best e-sport teams in the world in the Zwift classics and the Pro-Am events.
“The top races are exclusive and invite only, so not just any rider or team would be able to do this. You have to have a reputation within the community of transparency and legitimacy and I think AERO leads the way here with our riders IRL credentials supporting their Zwift results in game”.
That focus on honesty and transparency is a constant battle for online platforms, and most who’ve raced online formats will have their own tales of being beaten by competitors pushing seemingly superhuman power numbers. Higher levels of Zwift racing are monitored and tested more stringently, with power tests, weigh-ins, data analysis and real-world rides factoring in to determine if a rider is cheating or not.
“All the riders will be dual-recording with their power meters and Bluetooth trainers,” said Lyster, “they’ll be conducting weigh-ins and exposed to ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis) testing. It’s an early start, but I think we’re approaching it responsibly with the right riders.”
It’s another stage for riders hopeful of taking the next step up to show their wares, particularly with a paucity of racing on at the moment, so it’s little surprise to see riders from across the sport take up the call to join AERO. What then follows is the balancing of sponsorships and road team commitments from the virtual to the real world.
“The intent is to work with NRS (National Road Series) teams as well,” said Lyster. “If it’s the situation where one of our riders is also on an elite team our focus is to work with them and complement their real-life focuses. We can help in a small way and expose them to a global platform and a global audience within Zwift with people watching from around the world.
“We can help some of these kids raise their level on the world stage. The legitimacy of some of the riders invited to these Classics and Pro-Am is world class, and they might be noticed by an overseas team where they wouldn’t have been before. That’s what we’re passionate about.”
The team is built for the long-term, with sponsors of the indoor cycling scene jumping aboard alongside traditional cycling sponsors and equipment providers. As the primary driver behind getting the team up and running Lyster is hoping that he can draw upon his experience racing with the top virtual teams in the past to build an Australian powerhouse.
“I’m trying to be in the shadows,” said Lyster. “I’m in the fortunate position where I raced on some of the top Zwift teams in the world, and having Brad and Nick their supporting these guys in AERO says a lot about our intentions as a Team.
“Rhianon Norton is also doing a fabulous job in overseeing the women’s squad. The women’s team are continuing to be extremely competitive across all races, and we hope to see some up and coming female riders interested to join also.
“We’re setting things up professionally with sponsors and partners that are keen to help out the riders. Obviously, riders might have contractual obligations and commitments with their real-life teams and there won’t be any conflict in those cases. Koda Nutrition is a major sponsor, but if a rider is sponsored by another nutrition sponsor through their real-life team, then there’s no requirement for them to brand Koda on a stream or during a race.
“We’re also taking on a junior team, we’re talking with Cycling Victoria about exposing some high-end juniors to the racing. A young 17-year-old racing with the likes of Bre Vine, Emily Watts, Jay Vine, Nick White or Ben Hill is pretty exciting even though it’s a virtual platform.”
With further announcements expected in the coming weeks as Lyster manages the high volume of applications for the team, the squad isn’t set as of yet but contains some interesting names to see Australia represented by its own team on the virtual world stage.
By Jamie Finch-Penninger
AERO Men’s – Elite/U23
Ben Hill, Nick White, Jay Vine, Cameron Roberts, Marcus Culey, Harley Moore, Sam Eddy (U23), Pat Eddy (U19), Dalton Stretton (U23), Liam Edwards (U23), Zac Barnhill (U19), Brad Norton (Elite/Masters), Nick Squillari (Elite/Masters)
AERO Women’s – Elite/U23
Ayla Rudgely, Bre Vine, Emily Watts (U23), Breanna Hargrave, Jenny Pettenon, Rhiannon Norton, Sam De Riter, Julia Atkins, Lisa Jacob