Track Cycling

Imogen Cotter enjoying a Zwift rise in world of e-cycling – The Irish Times

‘Get off that computer game!’ is still the war-cry of many Covid-addled parents yet, when it comes to cycling that is literally where all the action remains right now.

Twelve months ago the virtual racing platform ‘Zwift’ was as unknown to the general public as ‘Zoom’ or ‘TikTok’.

Pre-Covid, sticking your bike on a turbo-trainer connected to a computer screen and fogging up the windows of your spare room/garage/garden shed was the exclusive preserve of dedicated Lycra-bums in cycling and triathlon, especially in winter.

But, with the world confined to barracks, , a computer-generated training and racing platform, went stratospheric. It’s become the go-to for everyone from bodgers to pros and even ran a ‘virtual’ and World Championship in 2020.

For (27) it’s now providing a unique opportunity that could yet provide the big cycling break she craves. Cotter was vehemently opposed to creating a ‘pain cave’ when her coach Ronan McLoughlin suggested she have a go at the Movistar Team Challenge in January.

“I think what I actually said was ‘please God, no! It’s so hard,’” says the Clare woman who had, significantly, reached Zwift’s ‘academy level’ semi-finals last year during a period of injury.

And now she has won one of the five female team slots on offer by Movistar, who are the first WorldTour outfit to set up a separate e-cycling team. Her first competitive e-race for them, in Zwift’s Premier Division, is next Tuesday.

As always her boyfriend Niels will be beside her in their spare room in , roaring her on and keeping the cooling fans whirring, just as he did while she battled her way through four rounds of virtual-cycling’s equivalent of the X-factor.

No one was more surprised to make the team than herself.

Imogen Cotter is now based in Belgium where she has been impressed with the community-based cycling culture.

“I started out in the ‘open community’ races and made the top five to qualify to the next round which featured all the riders in the Premier Division that Movistar had invited in.”

After two more qualifying rounds she was through to the 30-woman final.

“I was only sixth in it but I think they took everything else into account and they’re looking from a marketing point of view too,” she says.

“The final was a crit [criterium] circuit which isn’t my strength at all. We had some difficult ramp tests, then a break, then a 30km race with a 20-second sprint in each lap. It was full gas the whole time, absolutely relentless.”

The contract is for a year and described by Movistar as a ‘collaboration’.

There’s no pay and riders are expected to do lots of promotional work but they get sponsored bikes and gear and a profile that could yet open other doors for the woman from who moved to Belgium in late 2018 to try to become a professional cyclist.

Originally a distance-runner who medalled in her teens at All-Ireland cross-country and 3,000m/5,000m, Cotter ended up in track cycling in 2017, via Cycling Ireland’s talent transfer scheme.

She was part of the national track squad, based in Majorca, in 2018, “living off the Bank of Mum & Dad and aiming for the European Championships but then I wasn’t selected.”

Slinking home to have a pity party crossed her mind but she decided not to waste her fitness so headed to Belgium for three weeks, where an uncle lived. Without the pressure of a stop-watch, through which all track cycling is so finally calibrated, she was quickly smitten by Belgium’s community-based cycling culture.

Cotter has a one-year contract with Movistar’s e-cycling team

“I realised ‘wow, this is why people like cycling!’ It’s their equivalent of the GAA really. You’ll be racing on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, in a little town in the middle of nowhere, and they shut it down completely to make sure the circuit goes smoothly.

“People line up all around a 7km loop that you might do 12 times, some with their garage doors open, sitting out having a beer. It was a real eye-opener for me.”

She is still an amateur, competing for her local club Keukens Redant but regularly racing against professional riders in fields of up to 175 riders.

Making the transition from track to the argy-bargy of the peleton against world-class riders was a huge challenge. So was moving to where she lives in , near , a famous climb on the Tour of Flanders.

Cotter earns a living from coaching (she has a sport and exercise science degree from the University of Limerick) and some social media but worked initially in a local factory, putting cakes on a conveyor belt and not speaking a word all day because no one spoke English and she hadn’t a word of Flemish.

Her language skills, like her bike handling and race craft, have since improved and she was second in the 2019 Irish road championships. Her good form last summer earned her a ‘stagiaire’ (trial) and the opportunity to race De Ronde and Brugge-De Panne with Belgian UCI team Ciclotel, but unfortunately that team then folded.

She’s hoping her race CV will eventually lead to a pro contract, like the five Irish women, (including current and former Irish champions and Alice Sharpe) currently on the books of Team Rupelcleaning, another Belgian continental-level UCI team.

Getting and keeping pro contracts is precarious for all cyclists but even harder for women who race just a third of the men’s calendar and attract less investment, sponsorship and media coverage. World Cycling (UCI) has committed to enforcing equal base contracts at some stage but e-cycling, with few overheads, looks like the sport’s most egalitarian arm yet.

South Africa’s (a Giro Rosa and La Course medallist) told Rouleur magazine recently that she earned more from one hour of e-racing (€8,000 plus two endorsement deals) ‘than some female cyclists are earning in one year.’

“Trek-Segafredo and Movistar are now giving the same minimum salary to their women and men but, on other teams, it’s not like that,” Cotter notes. “That’s just depressing – women doing the same work but not getting paid the same.”

Yet she’s encouraged by “more conversations now about equality in cycling”, citing the pay-gap furore at the recent Bianche in .

The initial pay out for the top five women was just €6,298 – one fifth of their male counterparts. But, after just five days of crowdfunding, the women’s purse rose to €31,876 and actually exceeded the men’s.

“When inequality is noticed and gets broadcast now, especially through social media, the public hear. Companies and teams can’t get away with it anymore,” Cotter says.

Belgium’s tight national lockdown has just been extended to the end of April so while real cycling races tentatively resumed in the past fortnight they will remain sparse for the foreseeable. The irony that Covid and ‘virtual’ racing could give her the leg-up she needs is not lost on Cotter.

“I could never imagined this would happen. With no racing outdoors Zwift was good training and a great way of using whatever frustration and negative energy I had during lockdown for something positive.

“We’re going to get training camps with the Movistar team, so I’ll get to pick their coaches’ and physios’ brains and meet people like [Alejandro] and Annemiek van Vleuten. Maybe this will open doors for me, maybe it won’t. It’s still brilliant training and I’m excited to see where it takes me.”