Virtual racing is getting a lot more popular: this year will see the first ever UCI world championship jerseys handed out on Zwift and in response to the current lack of racing on roads and circuits British Cycling has announced a calendar of events on the platform with races on Tuesdays and Thursdays and workouts on Wednesday. You might not be in any danger of bagging yourself some rainbow stripes, but if you’re keen to get involved in racing online then here are some of our top tips.
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.
So you’ve got yourself set up on Zwift, now you need to find a race. Luckily that’s really 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 now time trial events too, both on the flat Tempus Fugit route across Fuego Flats in Watopia, and up the Bologna TT course.
There are also handicap races, which are fun because lower categories set off first and are chased by the higher categories. That can be both motivating and entertaining.
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:
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 well in excess of the race description for the first few minutes until things settle down.
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.
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.
“Hang on there - like with crits, the races in Zwift start hard, but they do ease off", says Zwift’s Chris Snook. "Often you will be in the red for the first few minutes of the race, but get through this and you can settle in. Many racers wind up the power a few seconds before the race starts - this means they will be able to get a fast start as they will already be up to speed". 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.
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 chase on from the back of the peloton.
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.
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."
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 used to good effect is 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 to not get dropped on the downhills versus people on basic trainers that don’t replicate the ups and downs.
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. There's even one that makes you invisible to the other riders for a short time, perfect for attempting a breakaway!
You can pick up PowerUps when warming up, and you can keep a PowerUp when you join the race. So if you struggle at the start of races generally, see if you can pick up an aero or drafting PowerUp before the race starts and take it to the line.
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.
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.
Make sure you are adequately hydrated and fuelled before a race, and then aim to stay hydrated during a race. A typical race might last up to 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.
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.
ZwiftPower is a really popular third-party race results website. It shows results the second the race has finished, listed by category with lots of detailed information that lets you see how you fared against your fellow racers. It also’s a good way of weeding out any abnormal results.
Check it out at https://www.zwiftpower.com
Do you Zwift race? Got any tips you can add? Let us know down below.
David worked on the road.cc tech team from 2012-2020. 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, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes.