In competitive cycling’s long journey to greater inclusivity, diversity, and access, nothing has moved the needle like e-racing, which brings athletes from all over the world together for safe and fun rides and races at any time. E-racing through app-controlled and connected smart trainers is the great equalizer across experience levels and ambitions. Want to compete against the world’s best cyclists on a level playing field? Check. Want to connect with other riders and have some casual fun? Check. And it’s easy. E-racing eliminates many barriers to entry, like travel and complicated registration and entrance fees, opening competitive cycling to novices and athletes everywhere. Here’s how e-racing works and how to get started.
What is E-Racing?
E-races are real-time competitions among athletes riding networked indoor cycling equipment. Data is transferred between apps and smart trainers, smart bikes, or standard bikes equipped with power meters. Races can range from a few minutes to several hours, although most are an hour or shorter. Competitors’ screens can display a range of course and performance data, such as current power output, power-to-weight ratio, heart rate, percent grade, and position relative to other racers. Riders can also see some of their competitors’ performance data. Because of the use of data instead of in-person observations of a competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, e-racing has established itself as a distinct cycling discipline, complete with unique skills, strategies, and challenges.
Zwift is the leading e-racing platform and the only platform to host the UCI Esports World Championships. Use the tips and tactics below to master Zwift racing and start having more fun—whether you’re looking for social group rides or all-out competition.
Who Is E-Racing For?
Everybody! E-racing appeals to everyone from casual riders to World Tour pros—and you don’t need to be a “racer” to participate. It’s for cyclists and triathletes who ride all varieties of bicycles, so it’s the most effective melting pot and meeting place for cycling’s various enthusiasts. You’ll meet and ride with people you might otherwise never cross paths with! It’s a fun, low-risk, low-commitment, and low-cost way (races have no entry fees) to join the global cycling community.
How Does It Work?
An e-race works a lot like any other cycling competition. Once you select a race, you are put in a virtual start corral. When the race begins, your position in the peloton is tracked in real time as your avatar moves through the field. By using your power wisely, you can stay near the front of the pack, sit in and draft, attack off the front, form breakaways, split the field, and sprint for the win. You can also get dropped, be caught behind a split, or drift too far back in the pack and take yourself out of contention.
There are also unique aspects of e-racing. In Zwift races, riders are randomly awarded PowerUps, temporary advantages like an enhanced draft or reduced bodyweight. Racers must also learn new methods for reading a race. In real-world racing, you can read competitors’ body language and facial expressions and listen to their breathing. Unless you’re e-racing in a live environment or with videoconferencing, you can’t see the riders you’re up against. (E-racers who compete as a team often use tools like Discord to communicate in real time.)
During an e-race you can see competitors’ current watts per kilogram (W/kg), but not their height, weight, or actual watts per kilogram at FTP (functional threshold power). Without that information, it’s hard to know whether they can sustain a particular effort or are about to crack. (In some cases, that profile information is available via Zwiftpower.com, a community-driven website that tracks Zwift event results and riders.)
Types of E-Racing on Zwift
E-racing has evolved both to make it easy for beginners to get started and to make it more complex and engaging for team-oriented and elite competitors. As of fall 2022, Zwift offers a range of competition options:
This is the easiest way to get started, since individual events are open to all Zwift members. No pre-registration is necessary, meaning you can jump into any ride or race you see on the Zwift Event Calendar. But that’s not the only way to participate in group events. You can create or join a Zwift Club and then ride in club-organized events. And if you just want to ride with some friends, you can create a Meetup in the Zwift Companion app.
New this year, the ZRacing Monthly Series consists of weekly events, each lasting an hour or less, built around a monthly theme. For instance, the Get Rolling theme for September 2022 featured rolling courses, and October’s Race Like a Champion theme focused on the World Championship courses featured in the app. To accommodate all time zones, there are about 15 events scheduled every day. Riders can earn participation badges as well as compete for performance results.
Once racers get a taste of e-racing on their own, many want to progress to team racing. The Zwift Racing League (ZRL) is a team racing series. Riders must join a team, register for both ZwiftPower and WTRL.racing accounts, and have a ZwiftPower category (Category A, B, C, or D). For racing at this level, riders must also have a power sensor (i.e. smart trainer, power meter, or smart bike). Heart-rate monitors are required for Category A competitors and highly recommended for Categories B to D.
For the 2022–2023 ZRL season, teams will compete in three rounds with six races per round. Races consist of a mix of points races and Team Time Trials.
Zwift attracts top outdoor racers and provides a pathway for aspiring athletes to reach the pinnacle of both indoor and outdoor elite cycling. In 2022, Australian cyclist Jay Vine earned a professional cycling contract through the Zwift Academy program. Also in 2022, he won the UCI Esports World Championship in February and won two stages of the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) racing for the Alpecin-Fenix Pro Cycling Team.
For athletes looking to follow in Jay Vine’s footsteps, Zwift has collaborated with the UCI to create Worlds Pathway Events. Open to all athletes, these races are essentially qualifiers for the Continental Qualifier events, through which athletes can earn entry to the UCI Esports World Championships.
The Zwift Grand Prix is another component of elite racing on the platform. For 2022–2023, this invitational series will gather 12 of the top men’s teams and 12 of the top women’s teams to compete in six rounds of racing, culminating in a finals race in March 2023.
How to Get Started in Zwift Racing
Choose the Right Race for You
E-races are held on a variety of courses, from flat routes to punchy climbs to mountain passes. Some courses consist of many laps on a short course, like a criterium, and others are longer loops or point-to-point routes. They can even include simulated cobblestones and gravel, which raise the resistance compared to the same grade on a smooth surface.
Choose the Right Category
Racing is more fun when competitors are reasonably similar in ability. Racers in outdoor events are familiar with categories (e.g. Cat 5 through Cat 1 in road or MTB racing). There is a similar hierarchy in e-sports, starting with E (everyone) and progressing from D up to A for the top level.
Race organizers typically establish categories by power-to-weight ratio (PWR) in watts per kilogram (W/kg) at functional threshold power (FTP). Each race can set its own ranges, but the following are the most common:
A: 4.0 or more W/kg FTP
B: 3.2 W/kg to 4.0 W/kg FTP
C: 2.5 W/kg to 3.2 W/kg FTP
D: Under 2.5 W/kg FTP
Races can also use Zwift’s Category Enforcement to ensure riders are competing in the appropriate categories. The Category Enforcement system tracks an athlete’s last 60 days of performance data (VO2 max, maximum aerobic power, and critical power) to determine the appropriate category.
If you are new to e-racing, Category E is a good place to start, but it can be a bit of a free-for-all, with athletes from a wide range of fitness levels. For a more controlled experience, consider jumping into Category D events. This easier category is a good opportunity to learn how to use virtual drafting and PowerUps. Once you understand how e-racing works, enter races at the most appropriate level. Keep in mind, Category Enforcement sets the minimum category you can race in but will allow you to challenge yourself in higher categories.
Know the Rules
The character and competitiveness of a race can change significantly with the features and requirements prescribed by the organizer. Some races allow PowerUps and others do not. Most races require a smart trainer or power meter. Some races place restrictions on the type of bike you may use—not the actual equipment you are riding in your home, but the virtual equipment you use in the app. To verify the accuracy of results and prevent cheating, some races require data from a heart-rate monitor or data verification through a ZwiftPower account.
Check Your Setup
Before a race, double check that your devices are paired and plugged in or fully charged. Calibrate your smart trainer or power meter, and make sure your profile information is correct in the app. Errors in calibration or your height and weight will cause mismeasurement of your performance. In terms of hardware, the Zwift Hub smart trainer can be used for all races on Zwift except for a small number of high-level events (e.g. the Zwift Grand Prix).
Choose the Right Equipment
In Zwift, the weight and aerodynamic properties of your equipment are factored into your performance, so it pays to choose aerodynamic bikes and wheels for flat events and lightweight equipment for climbing events. Websites like Zwift Insider provide updated information on the fastest frames and wheelsets for different courses.
Gather Your Gear
There will be no time to hop off the bike during a Zwift race if you need water, food, a towel, a remote control, or a phone or keyboard for communicating. Make sure you have a device with the Zwift Companion App within reach. The app is essential for changing your viewing angle and using PowerUps.
Warm Up Properly
While you are warming up for a Zwift race, you can ride any other course. Just remember there is a front and back of the start corral based on when you get there (just like in real life).
Races in Zwift start hard rather than with a mellow rollout. A warm-up like the example below is essential so you are ready for the hard initial effort. To stay with the lead group you need to be riding at full power just before the virtual flag drops.
Example Warm-Up for an E-Race
- 5 minutes easy pedaling
- 1:30 at 65% of FTP
- 1:00 at 75% of FTP
- 0:30 at 85% of FTP
- 3 minutes easy pedaling
- 1:00 at 75% of FTP
- 0:30 at 100%–125% of FTP
- 1:00 easy pedaling recovery
- 0:30 at 100%–125% of FTP
- 1:00-plus easy pedaling until the actual start. Crank up to full power in the 10 seconds prior to the start.
The start is one of the toughest aspects of Zwift racing. Be ready for one to five minutes of maximum effort as riders try to split the field and create groups right away. After that, the intensity typically comes down to a more sustainable level.
Drafting in Zwift reduces the power necessary to maintain a speed by about 25 percent, which is similar to real life. Keep an eye on your avatar. If the speed is above 33 kilometers per hour, your avatar will “sit up” and ride on the hoods to show you are in the draft. When you are “in the drops” you are not in the draft. However, you won’t feel a change in the resistance, as you would outside. Rather, the resistance stays constant; it’s just that the power necessary to maintain your position drops by 25 percent. Group size matters too. The effect of drafting is enhanced in groups larger than four riders, as in real life.
PowerUps are temporary performance benefits that are only possible in esports. They are awarded when you pass specific points on a course, unless you already have one you haven’t used yet. Which PowerUp you get at any location is random, which helps introduce some level of chance into e-racing, and you can have only one at a time.
|PowerUp||Icon||Effect||Lasts||Best time to use it|
|Light Weight||Feather||Reduces weight by 9.5 kg||15 seconds||On climbs|
|Draft Boost||Van||Increases draft effect by 50%||30 seconds||When drafting at high speeds|
|Aero Boost||Aero Helmet||Reduces CdA by 25%||15 seconds||When riding fast with no available draft|
|Undraftable||Burrito||Makes you undraftable||10 seconds||When you want to attack|
|Cloaking||Ghost||Makes you invisible||10 seconds||When you want to attack|
Reduces rolling resistance to road tire on smooth surface
|30 seconds||On cobbles, dirt, gravel, bricks|
|Heavy Weight||Anvil||Increases weight by 50 kg||30 seconds||On downhills, especially with supertuck|
|Large Bonus||+ 250||Unlocks experience-based features||n/a||Automatic|
You don’t have the same sensory cues you would have during in-person racing, so you must use the information available to track your opponents and the course. Watching the W/kg data on the right side of your screen can tip you off to sudden accelerations. Use the map and “camera angle” views to get a picture for your position in the pack and what other riders are doing. And keep an eye on their avatars. If a rider’s wattage is double their FTP, their avatar will stand up. If they are in the draft, their avatar will sit up with hands on the brake hoods. And if they are putting out fewer than ten watts on at least a negative-3 percent grade at 35 mph or faster, their avatar will go into a supertuck position.
Analyze Your Power Files from Races
As you get more involved with e-racing, it pays to dig into the power files generated from your races. The performance demands for e-racing are unique. For instance, look at the duration and power output required to have a good start. If you keep getting dropped in the first five minutes, consider tailoring your training to improve your five-minute peak power output.
Now Go Have Some Fun
The main thing is to get started. With e-racing, you’ll discover a whole new world of riding.
Zwift is the fitness company born from gaming. We’re dedicated fitness enthusiasts, experienced video game developers, and disruptive thinkers. Play is in our DNA and we know fun fuels results. Zwift utilizes massively multiplayer online gaming technology to create rich, 3D worlds ripe for exploration. Join thousands of cyclists and runners in immersive playgrounds like London, New York, and Paris as well as our very own Watopia. Our app connects wirelessly to exercise equipment: bike trainers, treadmills, and more, so your real-world effort powers your avatar in the game. From friendly races to social rides and structured training programs, Zwift unites a diverse community in pursuit of a more fun, immersive, and social fitness experience.