With many cyclists on lockdown around the world thanks to COVID-19, Zwift racing is bigger than its ever been. But as many people are discovering first-hand, even the most powerful rider can be dropped in the first 5-10 minutes of a virtual race. I certainly have been.
After two weeks of Zwift racing nearly every day, I’ve come to get a better understanding of the nuances of virtual racing and how using them to your advantage will most certainly make you better.
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Here are 15 mistakes I made when first starting out. Figuring them out made me a better Zwift racer:
1. Thinking it’s the same as an outdoor race.
Throw many of your real-world ideas out the window and change your mindset. Zwift racing gives you almost no opportunity to freewheel and catch those micro-rests. You can’t duck under the wind to get some free speed. You can’t coast through the corners. A 15 km race is about 20 minutes of having the power down on the pedals. It requires a completely different mindset, and physiological demands.
That said, many real-world scenarios and tactics do work. Drafting works. Drafting on Zwift gives you a power saving of about 30% compared to sticking your nose into the wind, which is significant. You can also work together with other riders in a breakaway or chase group. Rolling turns works, but it’s not quite the same. Everyone needs to push forward to keep the speed going, but it doesn’t require quite the same knowledge of real-world conditions.
A sidenote on drafting: The drafting effect in Zwift is based on CdA value and gives you a 30% saving whether you’re in a large bunch, or behind only one person. This also means that just like in the real world, drafting has a far smaller effect on a climb than it does when going fast on the flat.
2. Overestimating your abilities and entering the wrong category.
I know it hurts to hear, but if you’ve spent years sitting in A-grade crits not really playing much of a part in the race, you might not be able to hang onto an A group on Zwift. As per #1, there’s no hiding and you’re always pushing the pedals. Yeah … it hurts my ego too.
3. Not paying attention to the right numbers.
Your current wattage doesn’t mean anything when up against others. What matters on Zwift is your watts per kilo and how it compares to the others in your group. Watch the other riders around you to see what W/kg they’re pushing and make sure you’re about the same if you want to hold position. If there’s a group ahead of you and you want to get an indication of whether you’ll catch them, watch their W/kg.
Watch the time splits in the race too. Watch the gradient of the course to know if it’s going to get easier or more difficult. Watch your heart rate to get a feel for whether you’re about to blow, when to rest, and whether you’ve recovered.
4. Trying to move up while the pace is on.
Just like in real life, when the bunch is lined out and going 60 kph, don’t try to move up. It’s not the right time and you’ll waste an enormous amount of energy. Wait until the bunch coils back up to start moving towards the front.
5. Not warming up.
Zwift races can often be like mountain bike or CX races that start off ridiculously hard. If you start too easy or can’t get your power up, you’ll be at the back in no time and it’ll be hard to move up if the group is big. I’ll warm up for a good 20 minutes with a few short and sharp efforts to get the heart rate up. Don’t worry – just like in traditional racing, the pace will slow down. You’re not the only one hurting.
Another tip to starting a Zwift race is making sure you’re going full gas at about five seconds before the start (we’re talking 6-7 W/kg). You don’t want to be going from a standing start like in a real-world race. There’s no way you’ll make it near the front.
6. Getting to the start grid late.
This is relatively new in Zwift and simulates the real-world scenario of lining up to a race. The earlier you get there, the higher position you’ll have in the start grid. This makes an enormous difference.
7. Going too hard at the start.
Have I mentioned how hard these Zwift races can be? Burn too many matches early and you’ll get dropped. There’s nowhere to rest. In real-world racing it’s sometimes nice to open up the legs and launch an early attack to kick the hornet’s nest. In Zwift racing, there’s a good chance you’ll get dropped soon after if you do this. Stay calm, recover when you can, conserve your energy, and save it for the final 5 km, because you’ll need it.
8. Not eating.
If you’re like me, you might wake up and stumble over to the indoor setup half asleep with no breakfast and eventually warm into it. The fact is, these races are hard and you’ll need carbohydrates to fuel you. Eat a bit of cereal, a banana, or something else light, and you’ll do much better.
9. Not paying attention to the race situation.
How long is the race? Is there a prime coming up? Is there a short sharp climb nearing? Is there a break up the road? Floating back can sometimes give you a much-needed rest, but it can also catch you out if there’s a sharp rise in pace.
Just like in real-life racing, knowing the course also gives you a significant advantage.
10. Not using Zwift’s ‘PowerUps’ to your advantage.
PowerUps give you a very short “boost”. At first these may seem silly to any seasoned bike racer, but they’re part of the new game you’re playing and they’re a lot of fun once you embrace them. Don’t forget to take notice of when other people are using PowerUps. They add another element to the race, a whole lot of randomness, and make it more strategic than being a watts-per-kilo competition.
Each time you pass through an arch (start/finish, KOM, Sprint) you are randomly given a PowerUp (see PowerUp distribution here). If you don’t use them, you lose them (i.e. you don’t receive a new one).
Here’s a quick guide to Zwift’s PowerUps and when to use them (with thanks to ZwiftInsider):
Featherweight (feather icon): Reduces your weight by 9.5 kg for 15 seconds. Use on climbs, or to help when you need a quick acceleration.
Draft Boost (truck icon): Gives you a 50% increase on the draft effect for 30 seconds. Use at high speeds when you are already in the slipstream of another rider (this PowerUp only helps when you are drafting.)
Aero Boost (aero helmet icon): Makes you more aerodynamic (reduces your CdA by 25%) for 15 seconds. Use at higher speeds (flats and descents), especially when no draft is available (although it is still useful when drafting). This is probably the best one to get for a crit race – especially when saved for the final sprint.
Burrito (blue burrito in rear pocket): Makes you undraftable for 10 seconds. This one is great when you want to back off a lazy sprinter from the breakaway. Similarly, pay close attention when someone is doing this to you! Also use when attacking off the front so you’re harder to follow.
Cloaking (ghost icon): Makes you invisible to other riders for 10 seconds. This is good when you want to get away from a group without being noticed.
11. Not paying attention to in-game equipment choices.
This can be significant. Zwift has stated that helmets do make a difference – especially the aero ones. For climbing, you want a lightweight bike – Trek Emonda with Zipp 202s for example. For gravel surfaces, a gravel bike such as the Canyon Grail will make an enormous difference.
12. Not taking the game’s reaction time into account.
It takes a solid two or three seconds from when you start pedalling harder to when your avatar reacts in relation to other riders. It’s not instantaneous like it is in real life. For those of you who have ever raced on the track, it’s more like this. This has caught me out many times before. But just like in real life, dropping back a bit and hitting your competitors from a running start is a great way to gap them and catch them out. Again, same as track racing.
13. Starting your sprint too late.
In the real world, sprinters will often start their sprint at about 200 metres to go, but in Zwift you gotta start winding it up at about 500 m or else you’ll miss out. It’s not like a real-world race where you’ll be getting an easy sit. You’ll be sprinting from big wattages.
14. Underestimating your competitors.
In real life you can often look at someone to see how fit and competent they are. You can look at their body language to see if they’re tired or strong. You can look at their skills. This is of course impossible in Zwift racing and you have no idea who is behind the avatar.
There are a few things you can look at in relation to an avatar’s body language though:
– If a rider’s watts-per-kilo goes over their FTP, their avatar will stand up.
– If pushing below 11 watts on a -3% or greater descent at > 58 kph, the rider will go into an aero-tuck position.
– When in a draft, the avatar will position itself on the hoods. If not, it will be in the drops.
15. Not paying attention to who is working together.
Just like in real life, teamwork makes a massive difference if you know what you’re doing. You can most definitely use teammates to help you bridge the gaps, work in the break, back off a freeloader from the group, etc. This is easy to spot in real life, but not so easy on Zwift (wearing the same jersey is a good hint, but it’s very likely two people wearing the same kit on Zwift don’t even know each other).
As a newcomer to Zwift racing I’m far from being a master. I’m learning all the time and I still make my share of these mistakes. You can train for Zwift racing to get better at it (The Sufferfest has e-sports training plans) — just don’t get caught up in only doing races and missing those important recovery days.
Please add anything I’ve missed to the comments below!