This year (2020) was supposed to be my first attempting the age-old sport of time trialling. I’ve been cycling with a club regularly, as well as cycle commuting for around two years now. I’d recently decided then, that it was time to really knuckle down and really get the wheels turning.
I live in the UK, which experienced its 10th wettest year on record in 2019, so I had already invested in a turbo trainer. But, I’ll admit it, I was at first a little reluctant to engage with all the technological advancements in indoor bike training. I never thought I’d want and/or need an online training platform. After all, I have been teaching spin classes for years now! I was perhaps arrogant enough to think I could keep myself entertained, while riding in isolation, easily enough.
I was wrong. Group exercise is great, it’s fun and engaging. You make friends and connect with like minded people, while doing something you love! Peddling away, while staring at a blank wall in your house, is not quite as much fun. It was only a matter of time before I signed up to Zwift.
It was an absolute revelation. From group rides and meet ups, to riding round the various Zwift worlds, and even jumping on fitness challenges; my indoor training had been transformed. Zwift had brought back what i love the most about cycling; the social element of it! Zwift allowed me to connect with riders from all around the world, but, there was one itch I was yet to scratch. It was time for me to try one of the famous Zwift Races.
My first race was not a great success. I set off too hard, did not anticipate the forthcoming climbs en route, ran out of laptop battery, and then, when I eventually got back online, wasted power ups in a vain attempt to make up for lost time. It was an uncomfortably steep learning curve. But I wasn’t going to let that put me off and, after a few more events, a little bit of research, and learning all that I could by watching some of the incredible pro races Zwift have been hosting; I’ve now put together my top 5 tips for beginner Zwift racers.
Zwift races always start FAST. Joining the race early (I’d say at least 10 – 15 mins) can be a great way to help you get off well. This will give you the chance to make sure you are thoroughly warmed up. Also, you can then check all of your equipment is connecting properly. It is also worth noting that the earlier you arrive to a race, the further forward you’ll be positioned in the start pen.
By being toward the front of the pen at the start, you have a better chance of getting in one of the front groups, and, perhaps more importantly, less chance of getting stuck behind one of the dreaded gaps that form in the first minute or so of racing. Equally, if you’re having an off day, being towards the front of the group gives you a lot more wheels to catch a draft from, if you start to fall off the pace a little.
Zwift races start hard, as riders push for position in groups, and try to form break away packs. So, you can expect to be pushing a much higher power than usual for the first few minutes (maybe 5 -6w/kg). After a few minutes of hard racing however, things should calm down, and you can find a group of riders, of a similar pace to yourself, to work with on the road.
As with outdoor racing, riders in Zwift can take some advantage of drafting. That is, the programme is designed so that in Zwift you can take advantage of sitting behind another rider (or riders) to conserve energy for later in the race. Sitting near, but not on, the front of a pack, can be an advantageous position, as you can benefit from drafting, but still keep an eye on what other riders in the race are up to. Being in the front also puts you in a great position to respond to any attacks, or keep on top of breaks that start to form.
Zwift races feature five performance-enhancing power-ups that can be used to your advantage during your race. Each brings its own special ‘boost’ that can really give you the upper hand, at pivotal moments in a race.
Aero Helmet Boost makes you 25% more aerodynamic for 15 seconds, so is great for use on the flats and descents when there is no one around to draft, for example when you’re trying to catch a group. The aero helmet can also be used, to great effect, to implement a downhill attack.
Truck Draft increases the draft effect you are experiencing by 50% for 30 seconds, so it’s great to use at higher speeds on flats and descents especially when you’re in the draft of a fast rider!
Featherweight reduces your online weight by 9.5 kgs for 30 seconds, so is great for launching an uphill attack, or keeping up with a group on a tough climb.
Invisibility (Ghost) makes you invisible to other riders for 10 seconds. This gives you the chance to launch a surprise attack, and try to get far enough ahead that your rivals do not have the chance to catch on to your wheel.
Breakaway Burrito makes you undraftable for 10 seconds, so ideal to use when attacking, as it means your competitors have to work harder to keep up with you.
Zwift races are all different. They have their own lengths, and each take place on different courses. Just as in a race on the road, it is a good idea to be familiar with the route prior to your event. This can help you to pace your race an plan your strategy. It can also help you respond effectively to what is going on in the race, and, save yourself for a big sprint finish.
Using the onscreen map can also help you to plan your strategy as, if you know the course in advance, you will then be able to see what is coming up next on route. It can also help you to see where other groups of riders are; if you are catching up, or in danger of being caught behind a dreaded gap.
It might take only a matter of seconds to turn your fan on, but in the fast and furious world of virtual racing; that can be the difference between the lead pack and hanging off the back. It is soul destroying to start a race, put 100% effort in for x amount of time and then come away with nothing (trust me, I leant the hard way). So, ensure that you have any drinks and race nutrition (especially for longer races) prepared in advance, and make sure your laptop/ watch are fully charged before your race
It is very easy on a Zwift race, to get carried away, especially at the start, when you see your competitors pushing out 6 or 7w/kg. This can lead to you pushing way too hard too soon. Have a strategy in your mind, and (while it is important to be adaptable) try to stick with it. Always make sure you have a little something left for a big finish.
I normally race all year. I participate in fell races in Spring/Summer and race cyclocross through the Autumn/Winter. It’s a bit full-on, but I wouldn’t want it any other way! I initially thought the break over lockdown might actually do me some good. However, after only a couple of weeks, I was missing the fun and intensity of racing, so, like Meg, I turned to Zwift.
Here’s my tips:
I normally do better on the climbs and not so good on the flats in real life, but it’s completely the other way around on Zwift. However, I guess I’m not normally racing cyclists from all over the world. Because, this was the case and I was getting dropped on any slope over 2%, I quickly ditched the hilly races and went for the Crit style events, with perhaps a short climb or two which helps split up the racing.
Yes they are absolutely horrible, but it will gives you a good idea of what category to enter for your first race. However, if you want to go straight to racing go for category D and then move up the categories based on your watts per kg.
I second Meg’s advice on this one, as I have wasted far too many power – ups by using them at the wrong time. Also, I always seem to forget the length of the race. This has seen me sprinting for the wrong gantry or wondering why the racing has just gone crazy, when I thought we had another lap! I now study the length of the course and commit this to memory before the start.
Well it did for me anyway. I seem to always be either moving through to the front of group or drifting back through it and sometimes off it! Unlike the real world, there is no soft pedalling in the pack. Take the pressure off and you could find your self dropped immediately. Time triallers must do well on Zwift.
Even with all the crazy things I’ve see during some races (i.e: riders coming past me like they are on motorbikes and many floating away from me on the hills even though I’ve hit 500 watts +), if you manage to get in a group of riders with a similar ability, you’ll enjoy great racing. So ignore the position overall, concentrate on racing the group you are currently in and if you win that sprint, well you’ve won a race (of sorts). This is exactly the beauty of Cyclocross. I’m never racing for the win, but I’m still racing as hard with riders of the same ability as me and we are having just as much fun.
Overall the most important thing with any training platform is to enjoy it. Have fun exploring different worlds, and playing around with all the power –ups. Virtual racing should motivate you, at this difficult time, so don’t be put off by the competitive element. Embrace the challenge and RIDE ON!
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