Fitness and power are great tools in Zwift, but just like in real life, tactics can play a huge role in how your race goes. Here are eight tips I’ve learned from racing in and watching hundreds of Zwift races, from weekday crits and the Movistar Challenge to the UCI Zwift World Championships, where I assistant directed Team USA.
Join the pen as soon as it opens
The start of a Zwift race is one of the most talked-about and painful parts of virtual cycling. But before the actual start, your race strategy begins. The pens open up 30 minutes before the start of each race, and you can join them at any time. In larger events such as the Tour de Zwift or Haute Route Watopia, there may be over 500 riders on the start line! That means that if you start at the back, even with good legs, it could take you miles to eventually reach the front of the race.
Start position is first-come, first-served, so click join immediately upon the pens opening at 30 minutes to go. Once you are in, you can exit out of Zwift. Your start position will be saved, but now you are free to go ride around, get in a good warm-up, and then re-join the pen in your original grid position. Just be sure to come back with a few minutes before the start.
Be warmed up for a hard start
It often takes just about a full sprint to stay with the group at the start of a Zwift race. Similar to cyclocross and short-track racing, the start of every race is crucial. Once the field hits the first pinch point — such as a climb — the race will be blown to bits. Do not wait until the start clock hits zero before starting to power up! You need be pedaling — hard — the second the race starts.
Timing the start can be tricky, but with a little bit of practice, you can launch off the start line with minimal energy expended. I like to start winding it up with about 10 seconds to go. Once I see 0:03 on the countdown, I put in a hard and sharp acceleration to spike my power right as the timer hits 0:00. This helps break the sticky draft (more on that in a minute) and rockets me to the front of the group in just a few seconds.
If you time it right, you’ll only have to sprint hard for a few seconds; and after that, you can slowly bring your power back down and settle into the group. About 20-30 seconds into the race, the field will begin settling into its normal race pace. For a weekday A category race, this will probably be around 4-5w/kg. The B and C races will be slower. Practice timing your starts in every race you do.
Know the course!
Course reconnaissance is often overlooked and undervalued, especially in virtual racing. Real-life pros have the luxury of riding the actual roads in preparation for a race like Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France; but on Zwift, it is so much easier. Anyone in the world can ride on Zwift, and learn the courses and climbs from the comfort of their own home. More details such as the length and gradients of climbs and sprint segments can be found on Zwift Insider and Strava.
Knowing the course will help you measure your effort and pace yourself throughout the race, on the climbs, and especially at the finish. Steep climbs are the hardest part of any Zwift race. This is a critical point in the race – a section of road that is likely to split the field or be the launchpad for a decisive breakaway.
Come into these critical points at the back of the group, and you’ll need a herculean effort to ride through the splintering group and make the front split. And if you do make it, you’ll have burned more than a few matches doing so. Reconnoitering the course ahead of time will give you the upper hand by knowing when these critical points are coming. Hit the bottom of the Watopia Forward KOM in fifth wheel as opposed to 75th, and it could mean the difference between winning the race and getting dropped.
See through the dust
The dirt sections of Watopia are especially tricky because they are hard and — which can obscure the view of the race. The peloton also kicks up a huge cloud of dust when they hit a dirt section, limiting visibility and making it almost impossible to see the riders ahead of you. Also, the dirt has a higher rolling resistance on Zwift, meaning that you will have to work significantly harder on a dirt section to go the same speed that you would on Watopia’s paved roads.
For dirt sectors, start at the front of the group and expect to up your power output by at last 0.5-1w/kg. And instead of watching the riders on the screen, keep an eye on the mini-map in the top right-hand corner of your screen. The dust cloud doesn’t affect the mini-map, so you’ll be able to see the pack stringing out on the map before it’s too late and it splits right in front of you. Another alternate-view strategy is to hit the 9 key on your keyboard which will give you an overhead view unblocked by the dust.
Beware the sticky draft
Zwift’s algorithm allows riders to draft, which means the riders in the group do less work than the riders at the front to maintain the same speed, just like outside. Unlike riding outside, however, you can get blocked with a “sticky draft” when you want to pass a rider. What happens is that the rider trying to overtake can get stuck on another rider’s rear wheel, and the passing rider is only able to break the sticky draft by putting in a significant effort — greater than 1w/kg more — to get around them.
Drafting of course has a lot of benefits. It is incredibly helpful in fast bunch rides or Zwift races. You can sit in a peloton at 3.8w/kg, while the group is traveling over 50kph and the riders hitting the front are pushing 5-6w/kg. Use the draft to your advantage, and you’ll be saving hundreds of watts over the course of a Zwift race.
The sticky draft is most noticeable at slow speeds and on climbs. You could be pushing 5.5w/kg while the rider in front of you is only doing 5.1w/kg, and you might not be able to get around them because of the sticky draft. Knowing about the sticky draft is the first step in defeating it in these situations. As soon as you realize it’s at play, just put in a short spike of power, and you’ll be able to pass the rider in front of you without too much hassle.
Save as much energy as possible
At the end of every Zwift race, my goal is to have the lowest average w/kg of every rider in my group. This shows that I saved as much energy as possible, and made it to the finish with the freshest legs. What’s the point of averaging 5w/kg if you get beat in the sprint by a guy who averaged 4.2w/kg? It still amazes me how many races I finish with an average of 4-4.5w/kg, and see I’ve beaten riders who averaged 5-5.5w/kg.
The same principle applies to drafting – you should pedal at the lowest wattage that you can while drafting off another rider. If you can stay in the draft at 200w, there’s no point in doing 250w; it’s just a waste of energy. Zwift will show you if you are in the draft with a helpful icon, as well as your avatar’s body position. In the middle of the screen, Zwift will show a “CLOSE THE GAP” message if you are starting to fall out of the draft, including the distance that you need to close to get back into the draft. An even simpler trick is to pay attention to your rider’s body position. On one of Zwift’s road bikes, your avatar will sit up if they are in the draft at more than 33kph (20mph). During large events with more than 100 riders, you may get pushed to the side of the group, and if your avatar is in the drops, this is an indicator that you are no longer in the draft.
Drafting and energy conservation is arguably the most difficult aspect of Zwift to master – I’m still not sure I have done so – but with a little bit of practice, it’s amazing how much energy you can save, and make it to the finish line with a monster sprint kick.
Use the super tuck
Banned by the UCI, but not by Zwift, the supertuck is arguably the most valuable recovery tactic in the game. There is normally no coasting in Zwift. But the super tuck changes that, allowing you to get that little bit of respite that can put the oxygen back in your lungs and flush the lactate out of your legs.
In order to activate the Zwift super tuck, you must be traveling at least 36mph (58kph), the decline must be steeper than -3 percent, and you have to coast. The super tuck saves energy by reducing your drag and thereby increasing your downhill speed and lets you stay in groups of riders pedaling at 2.5-4w/kg.
Finish fast from a few wheels back
Zwift sprints can be chaos. Unlike real-life racing where leadout trains jostle for position and only so many people can occupy space at a certain time, in Zwift riders can simply move through each other by putting out a higher power.
Adding to the confusion is the sticky draft, which may block you behind a rider who’s moving just slightly slower than you with 300m to go. As all sprinters know, if you get boxed in with 300m to go, there’s nothing you can do. No amount of wattage could overcome poor positioning.
Timing is crucial when it comes to sprinting on Zwift, and I still haven’t come close to mastering this, either. I’ve watched and participated in hundreds of Zwift races, from weeknight crits to the UCI Zwift World Championships, and I still haven’t figured out where the ideal launch position is with 300m to go.
There is no stock finishing strategy for all races. Sometimes the winner comes from 30 wheels back at 300m to go. Other times it’s the fifth-placed rider who wins.
What doesn’t work is starting from the front. You never want to be in the first three riders with 300m to go, assuming it’s a large field sprint of more than 20 riders. Starting your sprint with about 300m to go from about five wheel back seems to be the way to go.
The steeper the gradient of the final few hundred meters, the more ground you can make up using pure power alone. Conversely, fast and flat field sprints are all about timing. I’ve seen field sprints finish at 75kph, and the top-10 riders separated by less than two-tenths of a second in the end.
All this boils down to a few pieces of advice, and my last Zwift pro tip: When approaching the final sprint, consider: 1) how tired you are and how many seconds you can hold your maximum sprint power, 2) how hard the race has been, 3) the gradient of the final 500m and how fast the bunch will be going, and 4) your competition.
Sometimes you’ll roll up to a race with Freddy Ovett, and soon you’ll realize that it’s better to just race for second place.