This year (2020) was supposed to be my first attempting the age-old art of time trialling. I’ve been cycling regularly, and cycle commuting for about two years now, so, I’d recently decided it was time to really knuckle down and really get the wheels turning.
My partner and I live in Manchester, which experienced its 10th wettest year on record in 2019, so we had both already invested in turbo trainers. But, I have to admit, I’ve been a little reluctant to engage with all the technological advancements in indoor bike training. I never thought I’d want and/or need them. After all, I have been a spinning instructor for over 5 years. I was perhaps arrogant enough to think I could keep myself entertained indoors easily enough.
I was wrong. Group exercise is great, it’s fun and engaging. Peddling away, while staring at a blank wall in your house, is not. It wasn’t long before we paid our money to Zwift.
It was a revelation. From group rides and meet ups, to just riding round the various Zwift worlds; my indoor training was transformed. Zwift had brought back the social element to my cycling; allowing me to connect with riders from all around the world. But, there was one itch I was yet to scratch; my need for speed. It was time to take on one of the famous Zwift Races.
My first race did not go to plan. I set off too fast, didn’t think about the race route, ran out of laptop battery, and then, when I eventually got back online, wasted a power up in my efforts to make up for lost time. The world of Zwift racing has been an uncomfortably steep learning curve. But after a few ever improving events, a fair amount of research, and learning what I can from watching some of the incredible pro races Zwift have been hosting; I’ve put together my top 5 tips for beginner Zwift racers.
So, here goes…
The start of any Zwift race is always FAST. It’s a good idea to join the race early (I’d say at least 10 – 15 mins). This will give you the chance to warm up thoroughly, check all of your equipment is connecting properly, and also, the earlier you arrive to a race, the further forward you’ll be positioned in the start pen.
Position can be everything at the start of a Zwift race. 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 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 off, if you start to slide back through the pack.
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.
Just like in ‘real world’ racing, riders in Zwift can take some advantage of drafting. That is, 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 your competitors are doing, and you’ll be in a great position to respond to any attacks, or breaks that may start to form.
There are five performance-enhancing power-ups that can be used to your advantage when you’re racing on Zwift. Each has its own special ‘power’ that can really give you the upper hand, at pivotal moments in a race.
Featherweight reduces your 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Zwift races are different lengths and all take place on different courses. Just as in the real world, it is a good idea to familiarise yourself with the route before your event. This can help you properly pace yourself, help you respond strategically to what is going on in the race, and, most importantly save your legs for a big sprint finish.
Using the onscreen map can also help with your strategic planning as, if you know the course, it can help you be aware of what is coming up 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 only take 5 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. 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 soul destroying to start a race, put 100% effort in for x amount of time and then come away with nothing.)
Have a strategy in your mind, and (while it is important to be adaptable) try to stick with it. 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. But remember, it’s important not to go too hard too soon. Save yourself for the all important big finish.
I normally race all year, by fell racing in Spring/Summer and racing cyclocross in the Autumn/Winter. It’s a bit full-on (but I wouldn’t have it any other way), so I thought the lockdown break might actually do me some good. However, after a few weeks, I was missing the fun and intensity of racing so I tried Zwift.
Here’s my tips:
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 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.
Well 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.
I second Meg’s advice as I have wasted far too many power – ups 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.
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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