Virtual racing is set to get a lot more popular with Zwift launching the first professional e-racing league this year, and British Cycling has announced a new virtual reality championship as well with an actual national jersey up for grabs. If you’re keen to get involved but not sure where to start with racing in Zwift, here are some of our top tips.
Sign up to Zwift and get a trainer
It goes without saying that you’ll need to register with Zwift and get a suitable trainer to strap your bike to, preferably a smart trainer as these provide power measurement and make riding the virtual roads of Zwift much more realistic. This guide has everything you need to know about Zwift and choosing a trainer setup to suit your budget.
Find a race
So you’ve got yourself set up on Zwift, now you need to find a race. Luckily that’s real easy, there’s a list of events at the Zwift welcome screen but you can also use the companion app or visit this Zwift webpage which provides a full list of upcoming races with a description of the type of race and the rules for the race.
There are different types of races to choose from, from flat courses to hilly routes. Your weight will impact how you go on a flat or hilly course, lighter riders will be at an advantage on the hills but a disadvantage on the flat roads, so pick a race to suit you and your strengths.
There are also handicap races which are fun because lower categories set off first and are chased by the higher categories which can be motivating and entertaining.
Choose the right category
Racing on Zwift is very accessible. Like real road races, Zwift races are divided into categories, A being the hardest and D the easiest based on your power to weight ratio. The best advice is to start in a lower category and see how you get on. Categories tend to merge on the road so don’t be surprised if find yourself racing amongst lower or higher category racers.
The categories are organised by w/kg, which is your power to weight ratio. You can determine yours from an FTP test, but if you haven’t done one of those you might have a good idea what your sustainable w/kg is from riding around Zwift and other events. Here are those categories:
- A category – FTP of 4.0+w/kg
- B category – FTP of 3.2-3.9w/kg
- C category – FTP of 2.5-3.1w/kg
- D category – FTP of 1-2.4w/kg
One word of advice, the numbers are only a suggested average and you’ll most likely, particularly at the start, have to put out more watts than your category, so don't be surprised if you're producing a number in excess of the race description.
Category selection is done on an honesty basis. This is perhaps an area prime for improvement, maybe Zwift selecting a suitable category based on your FTP or recorded data?
For seeing how you’ve got on after a race, www.zwiftpower.com is a really useful website that, provided you grant it access to your Strava data, records all your important data and lets you analyse your race and see how you compared to your rivals. It also recommends if you should move up or down a category, something that Zwift itself does not but perhaps should.
Get a good warm-up, races start with a bang!
I can’t overstate this enough, get a really good warm-up before you join a race. The races start fast and hard so you’ll want to have your body primed and ready to go full gas as soon as the timer begins. There's no rolling out gently with a neutral zone like a road race, it's like a crit race if you've ever done one of those.
Avoiding getting dropped in the first five minutes can be a challenge. That’s why warming up is so important, but it’s worth tolerating the pain because often the races do settle down into a rhythm once this initial shakedown has occurred.
“Races start HARD. Hang on there - like with crits, the races in Zwift start hard, but they do ease off. Often you will be in the red for the first few minutes of the race, but get through this and you can settle in. Some racers wind up the power a few second before the race starts - this means they will be able to get a fast start as they will already be up to speed,” says Zwift’s Chris Snook. That's good advice, listen to him.
Once the initial excitement has calmed down you might find yourself in a group and you can then work together and ride as a pack before sprinting for the finish line. Don't give up if you get dropped, it's likely loads of other racers will be dropped too and if you continue you'll most likely find yourself riding in a small group. Yes you're no longer racing for the win but you can still ride hard and get a good workout.
Enter the race early to get gridded near the front
As important as getting a good warm-up is before a race, so too is entering the race early because that way you’ll be gridded near the front of the group, giving you an instant advantage. Better to slide back through the group or set the pace than chasing on from the back of the peloton.
Close the gap!
Getting dropped is never good so try and do your best to close gaps as quickly as possible, because once you get dropped it’s really hard to close the gap. "As Ian Bibby said after round 1 of the KISS Super League, let gaps open up behind you - not in front,” explains Zwift’s Chris Snook.
Zwift has developed in-game drafting so that riding in the slipstream of another rider really makes a noticeable difference. Tuck up behind the rider and you’ll be stuck to their wheel and you’ll be able to conserve energy as you won’t have to produce as much power to maintain the same speed. How do you know if you’re successfully drafting? Your virtual rider, or avatar, will sit up.
“On Zwift, it’s so hard to close a gap if it opens, so we wanted to close down any moves very early. That’s maybe a difference to real-world racing, where you would let the gap go a bit more and then use the power of the peloton to close it down,” explains Ian Bibby following his victory in the first round of the inaugural KISS Super League.
“On Zwift you can’t let those gaps go and if you’re in the middle of the bunch and there is a gap, it’s very, very hard to get back across.”
Tactics do matter
You might think there’s no place for tactics in a virtual race, and that it’s just a case of how can output the most power. Not so, says Zwift’s Chris Snook, who offers this advice.
"Like in real life racing, there are key places to attack in Zwift. You need to learn these points. Certain parts of courses can see gaps go out very quickly - you need to learn these. Deploying PowerUps in races at the right times can make the difference between winning the sprint or forcing a breakaway.
"Knowing how the races work gives you an advantage at the start - get an early PowerUp, start hard etc. Make friends in races - you can still message in racing - try and form an alliance and work together to break away. Learn when you need to put the power down - getting on the power at the right moment can see you put the hurt on your opponents while you are easing back."
Turn the trainer realism down
Smart trainers are incredibly effective at providing a realistic riding experience on the climbs or descents of the various virtual worlds, but one tip we’ve found to smooth out the climbs and reduce the reliance on gear changes to adapt to the terrain. You can do this by moving the trainer difficulty slider down a bit as in the picture below - it's set a 50% by default.
It basically reduces the resistance changes on hills. What it doesn’t do is reduce the power required, you still have to pump out the same watts, it just makes the effort more consistent on the ups and downs. It also helps those with smart trainers from not getting dropped on the downhills versus people on basic trainers that don’t replicate the ups and downs.
Make use of the PowerUps
Not all races allow the use of power-ups, but many do, and they can be a useful asset if used smartly.
PowerUps are given out randomly by Zwift and you need to grab one before you join a race. They are earned any time you ride through the start/finish, KOM or sprint banner. There are PowerUps that provide an aero boost, lower your weight or give you a draft boost, and if used at the right time can be a useful benefit.
“Insider tip: when warming up, you can pick up PowerUps. You can keep these PowerUps when you join the race, so if you struggle at the start of races generally, see if you can pick up an aero PowerUp,” says Zwift’s Chris Snook.
Use the mobile companion app
Having the mobile companion app to hand on a phone or tablet is a really useful way to keep track of groups and use PowerUps.
Get a towel and massive fan
It goes without saying but indoor training can be hot and sweaty, and racing amps up the intensity level so you’ll definitely need the biggest most powerful fan you can get and also a towel for mopping up the sweat.
Stay hydrated and fuelled
You’ll work up a sweat so make sure you hydrated and fuel adequately before a race, and then aim to stay hydrated during a race. A typical race might last an hour and you’ll burn through a lot of calories, just as you would in a real-world race. If you’ve fuelled up before the race you shouldn’t need any additional food during the race, but some people might prefer to have a gel to hand or do one before the race starts. It's personal preference.
Choose the fastest bike
We didn’t realise the bike choice would make any difference in a virtual race, but apparently, it can, according to this blog post by Zwift Insider.
It reckons the Tron Bike is the fastest bike but you do have to complete the Everest Challenge to unlock it. Following that is the Cervelo S5, Trek Madone, Canyon Aeroad and Zwift Aero. Don’t forget the wheels too, with the Zipp 808 wheels apparently being the fastest wheels. You do have to earn these frames and wheels and you only do that by riding around Zwift. So get pedalling.
Do you Zwift race? Got any tips you can add? Let us know down below.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.