It’s Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend. I’m in the last few kilometers of the final stage of a 3-day pro stage race. My teammates are cheering me on as my dead, tired legs attempt to crest the epic final climb. I see the finish banner hovering over the road up ahead, dig deep, and have that sweet, sweet relief of making it across the line.
Believe it or not, this is Zwift racing.
As Zwift racing rose in popularity over the past few years, I remained skeptical. My indoor trainer use mostly consisted of winter riding, bad-weather days, and warming up for races, and I had not felt motivated to try out a new and different application: using my trainer to play a virtual reality game about bike racing. To be clear, that is technically Zwift in a nutshell - a video game you play using your bike. There are levels to be achieved, gear you can earn or purchase to improve your performance, and special tricks and shortcuts to make your avatar perform better in a race setting. As someone who is admittedly a bit “old school” about my racing and training, this wasn’t exciting or enticing to me, so I watched my friends, family, and competitors dabble in this new world of virtual racing while I stayed resolutely on Team Outdoors.
Then, COVID-19 hit. This really turned our world upside down as bike racers. How did we continue our connection to our team, our sponsors, our community? How did we keep our legs and minds sharp? Would we ever get to race again?! Project Echelon jumped in with a potential solution. They worked with current and existing virtual racing bodies to try out a new style of virtual racing, an invitation-only stage race catering to professional and elite amateur teams. The new format combined some of the aspects of traditional racing, such as team size, time cuts, prizes, and announcers, with some of the new tools available from Zwift.
Orion Racing received an invitation to participate in the Virtual Tour of the Gila, and even though I wasn’t super stoked on virtual racing, I decided to try it out and signed up to be on our Virtual Gila squad. We had a team of 6 that would be tackling Stage 1 - Team Time Trial (TTT), Stage 2 - Hilly Circuit, and Stage 3 - Mountain top Finish.
The first thing I noticed? I had to sign up for a lot of accounts and download a lot of new apps to participate in Zwift racing. Initially this bummed me out because it seemed pretty cumbersome, but after I got the hang of it I learned that each played an important role. A good Zwift racer toolkit includes:
Zwift (for obvious reasons)
Zwift Power (links to Zwift account for race organizers to compile and organize race results)
Zwift Companion (app for creating meetups, accepting race invitations, and following other riders)
Discord (preferred app for communicating with your teammates while racing)
I also borrowed a smart trainer from a teammate, and optimized my “pain cave” area by procuring additional fans, and setting up a TV to mirror Zwift as it ran on my smaller laptop screen. There were also a few tables/chairs that I had to assemble around my bike to hold extra food, water, and sticky notes with things like course profiles, QOM and Sprint points, etc. Sounds like a lot of work to ride your bike in your basement, right? Compared to real-life stage racing, the amount of preparation was comparable, but at least I didn’t have the additional burden of travel arrangements to deal with to get to the race venue!
Our team set up 2 practice sessions to get our TTT strategy down, and we also had a constant group chat going about race tactics, articles from Zwift Insider about the courses, tips and tricks for which equipment to procure from our “garage” in Zwift, how to do a “supertuck” to save energy, how to know if your avatar was optimally drafting, and communications about the race from the organizers. Again, pretty similar to preparing for a real-life race.
The racing itself was HARD. I am the first to admit that as a rider, I might not be cut out for success at Zwift racing. I’m a small person, I live at altitude, and I don’t put out a ton of watts. Zwift can provide an advantage to those with a higher power-to-weight ratio, commonly measured as watts per kilogram (w/kg). Your weight, in kilograms, from your Zwift profile and your w/kg average for the race are made public following each race. This can feel uncomfortable for some athletes, as there is a lot of focus on verifying the accuracy of your power and your weight. Each rider was required to submit a “weigh-in” photo to the race organizers so they could verify it was within 3% of the rider’s Zwift profile, and podium finishers, as well as 2 randomly selected riders, were required to do a “video verification weigh-in” following each stage. All of this helps minimize cheating, which we all hope does not occur but somehow still seems to be an issue for cycling. Virtual racing is no different in this regard, but thankfully this Virtual Tour of the Gila did not see any penalties or changes to the results due to the verification weigh-ins - great job to all the racers for keeping it honest and clean!
I have gotten a lot of questions about how my experience doing a 3-day pro race in Zwift compares to a pro race in real life as far as the amount of physical effort is concerned. My main takeaways are this:
1 - Zwift race starts are a LOT harder than real-life starts. Merciless. When the virtual banner drops and the countdown hits zero, you better be already revved up to 4 or 5 w/kg and prepared to stay there for the next 5-10 min, or longer.
2 - Working together is just as important in Zwift as it is in real life. It gets SO MUCH EASIER when you ride with 1 other virtual rider, and incrementally easier still for each additional rider in your group. Riding solo and getting dropped will mean that you put in a LOT more work over the entire race. Zwift provides you a handy running feed on the side of your screen that shows nearby riders, so unlike in real life racing you can see exactly how far ahead or behind the next closest riders you happen to be. This helps you make decisions about whether to speed up or slow down to help form a group, but you can’t easily communicate with others in your group once you meet up, so you have to cross your fingers and hope they are willing and able to work with you (unless they happen to be your teammates and you’re on Discord together).
3 - The physical efforts, preparation, and recovery are almost EXACTLY like a real race. Expect to be totally cracked by the end of each stage, and prioritize nutrition and hydration between stages so that you can perform again the next day. Having plenty of race food and hydration on hand for during the race is also critical.
4 - I got to connect with teammates, fans, and other racers, just like in real life. Partly because Project Echelon had a platform for teams to contribute content, but also it was taking a week out of my life to focus on this common goal that felt relatable to my experiences with regular racing. I also enjoyed the start line banter from other teams and seeing riders from around the world participate.
Will Zwift racing completely supplant regular racing in our lives? Not likely. Does it provide a unique opportunity to continue participating in the sport we love while the rest of life feels like it’s paused? Absolutely. I don’t know if we will get to race outdoors this year, and in the meantime, I do recommend, even to the skeptics out there like myself, that you check out virtual racing opportunities. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep it rubber side down :)
Written by Orion Racing rider Diedre Ribbens.