There’s no doubt about it, Zwift racing is tough stuff. You may not have to navigate corners and dodge riders, but you do have virtual wind, varying terrain and surface types to deal with, so you need an acute awareness to react in the race setting to stick with the bunch and be in with a shot at the end. There’s a lot of new skills to learn, but that means a lot you can get better at too...
A race situation can bring out your very best so it’s well worth sticking at it, even if the results aren’t all you hoped at the moment. It’s super motivating to push the hardest you’ve ever gone before as you desperately try to hold the virtual wheel up and over the top of a climb with the group. Being able to stay in the bunch for longer allows you to dig deep and get the most out of the whole race, even if you aren't challenging for the top positions... yet.
Improving your fitness so you can drop the big watts is of course going help you, but what’s going to get you there quicker is learning the tricks of the platform. If you’re one of those gifted humans whose watts per kilo are out of this world but you’re still getting crushed by an “indoor expert”, well this advice is for you too.
We spoke to one of the hitters in the virtual world, Mike Cuming of the indoor specialist team Saris + The Pro’s Closet, to find out his top tips to get you crushing your opponents. Mike previously rode for the Madison Genesis continental team and currently sits second in the UK Zwift rankings, although it’s from his new base in Australia where he’s actually riding.
Here’s what he had to say about how you can up your Zwift racing game...
Beginning with the finish may seem odd, but everything is exaggerated in the dig to the line so it’s a good starting point for understanding how the platform works.
With the final sprint it’s all about preempting that kick to the line and then driving all the way: “It’s not like a sprint on the road, it’s more about the timing,” Mike says. “You can be putting out three or four watts per kilo less than someone, but if you get the jump right, you’ll win it.”
“With a kilometre to go, I find it’s important to be near the front, but not on the front because you’d just get swamped from behind,” Mike explains. “It’s all about timing it to perfection - you’re trying to ride the wave.”
Essentially, hide in the wheels and get up to speed before launching your winning move.
“When you get to the 300 metres to go marker or if you see everyone else's watts per kilo turning into red numbers on the side - which indicates everyone is starting to sprint - you’ve just got to put your head down and don’t look at the screen anymore,” Mike says. “Just concentrate on sprinting, push, push, pushhh.”
Sometimes it can be a bit of a drag race to the finish Mike admits: "You’ve just got to squeeze a bit more out.”
Power ups are your friend. They can take the edge off when you’re suffering to hold on or they can be the platform for launching your killer attack or sprint to the line.
Mike says: “If you don’t have an aero power up coming into the sprint, it’s so hard to do well. You’ve got to keep an aero just in case you’re there at the finish to use it.”
As dropping a power up usually comes at a crucial point in the race, you want access to a controller to press the power up easily so you have it exactly when you need it to obtain the benefits. If you’re having to stretch to reach it you’re going to see a drop in watts which partially negates the bonus of having a power up...
One solution is having your phone by your side on a little table with the Zwift companion app open, another is mounting your phone or a Zwift racing device to your handlebars.
The VO2 Project has its e-racing controller for swift power up launching. You can also flick between the different camera angles and there’s a push to talk button for Discord chats too (for keeping in touch with your mates/teamies during the race).
Moving about and maintaining your position within the Zwift bunch is a challenge, and these skills take practice to develop.
Mike recalls: “When I first started, I was going to the front, then to the back, then pushing on back to the front.”
First things first, you’ve got to be keeping alert: “I’m terrible at concentrating,” Mike admits. “Sometimes I’ll get distracted and all of a sudden I’ll be five metres off the back.
“If you get in the right spot, in the middle to the front of the bunch, then you keep seeing the wave of riders and you can react.
“Raise your watts just a little bit and keep doing that. By doing those little accelerations all the time it’ll keep you up near the front.
“Whereas if you get pushed to the back then it’s harder, because you then have to make a big effort to get back up to the front again - if you’re switched on, you’ll be able to save energy.”
It takes practice to judge how many watts you should increase to stay in the middle- to front-sweet spot. If you notch it up too high, you’ll hit the front and a whole load of wind that’ll send you backwards.
“If you know the course that you’re racing on, that definitely helps,” Mike says. “In a real world race, if you know there’s a crosswind section coming up you know you don’t want to be at the back.
“It’s not as bad on Zwift, but with the bigger bunches, if you go to a section that’s hilly or on dirt, you don’t want to be cruising at the back.
“If you’re at the back and then 10 to 15 people start going really hard, you don’t see it because you can’t see the watts per kilo numbers rising immediately on the right.”
It’s best to pre-empt when the big efforts are going to happen.
“If you know there’s a climb coming up you know to stay switched on and get to the front,” says Mike.
He recommends making a bit of an effort to try to stay at the front of the bunch so at least you know what’s going on.
“I’ve been caught out many times, even just on rolling sections.
“If you’re too far back and all of a sudden the bunch goes and you’re a couple of seconds behind, you can’t get back on because it’s just too quick.
“Definitely keep an eye out on what’s happening with other riders’ watts per kilo where you can - it shows you if someone is attacking and it’s a good indication of how hard you need to be going.“
Continue to sit in the wheels and follow riders as much as you can up the climbs. Drafting still makes a difference here so make the most of it to preserve your energy.
Mike says: “If it’s a long shallow climb, around 4 or 5 percent, you can definitely get some benefit from drafting off people.
"It’s a lot easier staying on the wheels.”
While the big climbs may be the most daunting and where you may be worried you’ll be clawing the pedals to stay on the wheels, it’s the smaller climbs that can really catch you out. You may have the strength, but positioning is very important on these punchy gradients.
“The pace is pushed up before the climb starts, more so with the smaller climbs,” Mike notes.
With this in mind you want to pre-empt when the pace is going to start rising. You can do this either by taking a look at the course beforehand and writing down some cues about the climbs, or by keeping an eye on the upcoming profile chart displayed in the top right hand corner of the screen.
“On a 30 second to a minute long climb it’ll always be fast going into the bottom of it, and then even faster going up it.
“It ramps up gradually a kilometre before as riders are trying to get into position in time.”
Basically it’s similar to the finish, but just on a smaller scale: “You’ve got to time it right into the bottom of the climb, try to carry as much speed going into it as possible, hold this momentum through and then power on over the top of the climb,” says Mike.
As well as paying attention to the upcoming profile, increasing your trainer's difficulty alters how steep the climb can feel, and this has its benefits.
If you’re suffering in the race it can be hard to keep on glancing up to check what elevation is coming up.
Given the pace tends to really ramp up on the climbs, being reminded that you have hit the ascent is useful as you can then start stamping on the pedals, and hopefully not get left behind.
This realism effect doesn’t need to be turned to the max; setting it to 50% will allow you to notice changes in the gradient without having to grind with a low cadence.
It’s even better if you are aware the short, punchy climbs are coming up so you go into it with speed, but at least with the realism effect you’ll be nudged at the bottom so you can’t get left too far behind.
With all this talk about hills, it’s worth pointing out that you can avoid such courses if you put some effort in beforehand.
Zwift races are held on such a range of courses you’ll be able to select one which best suits your abilities by checking out the deets before you enter.
When checking out the races on the companion app, you can see the distance and elevation total. While this is a good starting point, head on over to Zwift Power to see how the elevation gain is split up. It might be that it’s all up one final climb at the end like the NYC KOM After Party or Innsbruck KOM After Party course.
For miles of flat, go for Tempus Fugit. If you like the short, punchy climbs, smash it on the Richmond UCI Worlds, or if you want a climb that’ll go on for longer head over to the London Loop.
Zwift races start off hard. Super hard.
“It’s just savage,” Mike sighs. “But just get through that first kilometre and then you’ll be alright - it always settles down after a little bit.”
To power through those first brutal two or three minutes, you are going to want to get your legs going beforehand though.
Mike adds: “I’d get on, half an hour before and do a warm up that I used to do before time trials.
"Slowly ramp up, nice and gradual, then I do a couple of sweet spot efforts for five minutes, followed by two 30 second in the saddle hard efforts. Then just take things easy until the start.”
A key part of your Zwifting set up, that applies to all indoor riding, is having an effective cooling system in place. You want a fan, a fairly powerful one.
You can’t perform at your best if your body is too hot and without a breeze inside, you can overheat really quickly.
If you’re really suffering with the heat you could try some indoor specific kit such as the NoPinz SubZero collection that’s designed to actively cool the body’s core temperature, with pockets in which ice packs can be placed included on the bib shorts.
Also consider drinking more electrolytes during and after the workout, because you’ll be sweating a lot more.
Have a go at these tips and let us know how you get on in the comments below. Smash it up, recover and try again!
Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.