Zwift recently added a feature that allows users to turn off the heads-up display (HUD), removing all data for power, time, distance, speed, cadence, maps, and relative position to others. The clean aesthetic is a completely different experience than riding with all the instantaneous, on-screen metrics.
But what about when racing? How does one know how much racing remains? Or level of exertion, or the gap to other riders, or how hard they are going?
Race organizers have the ability to set events as no-HUD. (When just riding, you can toggle the data display on and off by pressing ‘H’.)
VeloNews spoke with two Zwift pros with hours of game experience: Holden Comeau of Saris+The Pros Closet, and Stefanie Sydlik of Canyon eSports. Comeau represented the United States at the inaugural UCI-approved “Zwift Worlds” and earlier in 2020 had the top ranking worldwide in the game. Sydlik, who races professionally in domestic road races, joined the Canyon squad for 2021 as a climbing and time trial specialist.
Just a glitch?
Sydlik said that she thought her computer was malfunctioning the first time racing in a no-HUD race.
“In truth, I thought that no-HUD was a glitch in my Zwift so I logged out to restart it!”
With more no-HUD racing experience behind her, Sydlik was clear about her no-HUD experience being less robust, citing that it’s even less realistic than racing on the road. One has access to data on the road using their GPS unit. And, one can also respond or launch attacks based on others’ body language, or if they shift gears.
“I don’t like the no-HUD racing… to me, it’s not more realistic because the Avatars have no ‘tells,’” Sydlik said. “In real life, you have a GPS unit that tells you distance and time. Also, you can hear your competitors shift, and [read] their body language that they are about to go [and] how hard they are going.”
Comeau, who sat in as director sportif for Rally Cycling when they participated in the 2020 virtual Tour de France, offered a slightly more nuanced opinion but was as cynical as Sydlik about the dearth of data and the game experience.
“I’d say no-HUD does not work. People are really into it because it’s new, I think, but I see it as a big step backward for racing,” Comeau said. “You have no idea what lap you’re on, how much more to go, who you’re even racing against.”
Concurring with Sydlik’s observations, Comeau notes that Zwift no-HUD racing is less realistic than racing in real life, and without data one is truly riding alone.
“You have much more data than that in real life. It just feels lonely and isolating. It absolutely removes what has always been [user] engagement in racing,” he added.
Workarounds are not banned from no-HUD racing
But, with experience comes the ability to bootstrap workarounds. Using a computer display connected to one’s trainer, or using the Zwift companion app provides some data, even if it is not on the main Zwift display. This can be used to know who is around you, and how hard you and your competitors are racing at a given moment, as well as how much more course remains.
“You can still get the data display that used to be on the screen through your phone on the companion app,” Comeau told VeloNews. “So now the racing experience has people looking at a blank computer screen and also trying to play around with our phones to watch for moves happening and to get info.”
But even with secondary and backup data displays — which are not optimized for this use — one must still know how to use the data presented.
“I basically go by feel for pacing. I use my Polar Vantage V2, which is connected to my secondary power source to get real-time data. I use the companion app primarily to watch the rider list which shows competitors and their real-time w/kg,” said Comeau. “But the companion app is not optimized for that use. You can only see a few people at a time, and often companion also picks up other category riders who you’re not even racing against. So it’s only useful on rare occasions.”
Comeau is a student of the sport. He’s spent hundreds of hours in Zwift and knows the route, and also much of his competition. But he still views no-HUD racing as a sub-optimal user experience.
“You have to know how far the race is in advance. And then the companion app will also show you how far you’ve gone already. But not how far you have left. So you’ve just got to keep track of that,” he said. “It’s nearly impossible to know gradient in real-time. I know the courses well enough that this isn’t a problem for me. But it’s still data I had previously used to make decisions. Now that data is basically gone.”
“My opinion is that getting the right data, and interpreting it quickly to make strategic performance decisions is probably the most important esports-specific skill an athlete can have. Removing that seems like a very poor decision to me. It is a significant component of what makes esports unique and differentiates indoor from outdoor.
Adapting strategies for no-HUD racing
In the new, sanitized environment, Comeau said he had to adjust his tactics as a sprinting specialist.
“You can’t just watch your competitor and respond to their moves. There’s too much latency between when someone makes a move and when you actually see it. This is particularly true for sprinting. By the time I see an avatar sprinting on the screen, that person has already been sprinting for one or two seconds,” he said.
“I’m adjusting my sprint timing to go from further out and try to catch other people sleeping. A big attack from one minute out is the most successful move now.”
“But are one-minute-long bombs really better than bunch sprints? How many times do you really want to watch a suicide move? The rider is either going to make it or not,” said the former number-one world-ranked rider. “That move sucks if you’re a racer cause it hurts so much. And it sucks if you’re a viewer cause it’s just these solo wins that the pack mostly will just let happen,” Comeau said.
“Hopefully someone corrects this before this goes for too much longer. It’s so ridiculous.”