It’s that time of year again, the return to the wacky and wild world of Zwift racing. The fast track to fitness for some, and a fun way to scratch your competitive itch in the winter.
But Zwift can also be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating.
Some say that Zwift racing is the hardest form of bike racing, but is that really true?
Here are five tips that I’ve learned from over two years of Zwift racing. I’ve done everything from Wednesday Night Worlds to the Zwift Racing League, and the UCI eSport World Championships for Team USA.
Whether you are a complete newbie or an experienced Zwifter, you can use these five tips to improve your Zwift race craft.
1. Know the course
One of the first excuses that riders give after a poor performance is that they didn’t know the course. Maybe they didn’t realize that it was 8km instead of 18km, or that the five-minute climb was dirt instead of pavement. Whatever the excuse, it probably ruined their race.
When you sign up for a Zwift race, you should look at the course in as much detail as possible. Where are the climbs, how long are they, and are there any surface changes? Is a gravel bike going to be faster than a road bike? Are there any sprint primes along the way?
You can find most, if not all, of these details in each race’s description on the Zwift Companion app. This is where you sign up for races, follow other Zwifters, and send ‘Ride-Ons’ to others.
For more details on a route’s KOM/QOMs, surfaces, sprint points, and more, you can find everything you need to know and more in the master list of Zwift Course Maps and Details on Zwift Insider.
2. Don’t neglect your warm-up
It’s no secret that Zwift races start fast … very fast! Most Zwift races see the pack jump from 0 mph to 25 mph in just a few seconds. And after those first few seconds, the pace hardly relents. In most races, you can expect to be riding around your threshold (FTP) for the first few minutes.
That’s why you always want to warm up before a Zwift race, whether it’s a 5km sprint race or a 20km time trial. Every cyclist has their own warm-up protocol, and some prefer more high intensity than others. At the bare minimum, ride easy for 15-20 minutes before a Zwift race.
For more detailed warm-up protocols, check out Training: Warming up for better results, by Coach Hannah Otto (Finchamp).
3. Stay focused
There’s nothing worse than making the front split on a hard climb, only to get dropped on the descent. I’ve seen it happen to the best Zwifters in the world, and it’s usually because they lost focus.
As experienced Zwifters know, there is something colloquially known as the “blob effect” on Zwift.
The blob effect is when a pack of riders moves significantly faster than a solo rider and much faster than you’d expect in real life. This is because of Zwift’s current drafting algorithm, which results in increased pack speed due to the constant churning effect of riders coming through to the front.
In other words, it is almost impossible to chase back onto the peloton if you get dropped alone. It’s much easier to lose focus in Zwift than in real-life racing because outside, you can fully focus on the riders in front of you. But at home, you could be bombarded by distractions in the middle of a Zwift race.
If you’re listening to music and want to skip a song, you could get dropped in the moment it takes you to find the skip button. Or if your dog runs into the room and now you’re focused on them instead of the Zwift screen. Or maybe you just zoned out, which is surprisingly easy to do on the indoor trainer.
Practice staying focused when you’re in the middle of a Zwift race, and maintain your position in the pack without drifting too far toward the back.
4. Save as much energy as possible
Simply put: ride efficiently. You never want to finish a Zwift race with the highest average power in the peloton. All that means is that you used more energy than everyone else in the group, yet you all finished together. Unless you win from a solo breakaway, there’s no reason you should be using more energy than everyone else.
Once you’re confident in your ability to ride efficiently, you can start practicing specific energy saving.
Instead of staying at the front of the peloton, sit one-third of the way back (about 30th wheel in a pack of 100 riders). This is the sweet spot of pack riding – not so close to the front that you’re wasting energy, and not so far back that you are in danger of losing the wheel.
Practice maintaining your position throughout the race, especially on climbs where the peloton is likely to split. You can react to splits much easier from 30th wheel than you can from 90th wheel. Zwift actually has a built-in alert for when you start falling out of the draft. If you drift too far off the wheel in front of you, “CLOSE THE GAP” will pop up in the middle of your screen, along with a bike icon and the distance to the wheel in front of you. Just a friendly reminder to put some pressure on the pedals and get back into the draft.
Saving energy is as much an art as it is a skill. After more than 500 Zwift races, I still can’t explain my pack movement in real-time. It’s a natural instinct at this point, to ease off the pedals when I drift forward or add a little pressure if I start to drift back. Pack riding takes lots of practice, so don’t worry if you don’t nail it on your first try.
5. The art of Zwift sprinting
Sprinting on Zwift is a lot like sprinting in real life, but without the jostling for position. On Zwift, you can basically ride through other avatars, rather than around them. This creates a super-fast Zwift sprint vortex that sucks riders to the front at nearly 70kph (44 mph).
But the biggest similarity between Zwift sprints and IRL sprints is that you never want to start from the front. With 200-250 meters to go (the best time to launch your sprint on a flat road), you want to be around 5th-10th wheel in a Zwift race. This will give you time to draft the riders in front of you, build up your speed as you open up your sprint, and hit the front with less than 100 meters to go.
In larger sprints with more than 30 riders, you can afford to start your sprint from further back in the pack. That’s because you can ride through 25 riders in a second in a Zwift race, rather than swerving around them like you would in a real-life race.
Lastly, remember that every sprint is different, both in real-life and on Zwift. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to nail the timing. Keep practicing and trying new things, and soon you’ll be able to find your sprinting groove.
Zwift Racing tips from a pro
To sum it all up, keep these tips in mind before your next Zwift race. Take one piece of advice at a time rather than trying to do it all at once.
1. Do your research and know the course before the banner drops
2. Warm up for at least 15-20 minutes
3. Practice maintaining your focus throughout the race
4. Race efficiently, save energy in the draft, and find the sweet spot in the peloton
5. Fine-tune your sprint with perfect positioning and timing