Training

Study: Zwift really is much harder than it looks

One key observation was that the riders who are most successful on the road were not necessarily as effective in virtual races.

Virtual racing is as hard as — or harder than — real life road racing, according to a comparison between WorldTour data and data recorded from pros competing in virtual races.

An extensive study by WorldTour data analyst Philipp Diegner included over 200 rider performances in online races such as the virtual Tour of Flanders, the Digital Swiss 5, and the Giro d’Italia virtual. The conclusions highlighted just how hard riders have to go to be successful in virtual racing.

The study also includes data from four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, 2016 Olympic road race champion Greg Van Avermaet, and world time trial champion Rohan Dennis.

Rohan Denis
Rohan Dennis has found success in virtual racing, in which he treats races as time trials. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Diegner says this intensity is a “shock to the system” for pros.

Team Sunweb rider Chris Hamilton raced in all five of the Digital Swiss 5, and he managed in excess of 6w/kg for more than one hour of racing, while Israel Start-up Nation rider James Piccoli’s averaged over 5w/kg for one hour and 42 minutes of racing in stage three of the Zwift Tour for All.

After Digital Swiss 5 Chris Hamilton tweeted, “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Virtual races may last only one-sixth the duration of pro road races, but Diegner said they have proved to be just as difficult as road races and have caught some professionals off guard.

Diegner commented that, “Chris Hamilton only finished fourth in stage 5 of the Digital Swiss 5, but riding for one hour at 6.05w/kg is world-class. He rode the last 12 minutes at 6.58w/kg, which would win him most WorldTour mountain stages.”

James Piccoli
James Piccoli is adapting his road abilities to virtual racing. Photo: Danny Munson

“James Piccoli’s win on stage three of the Zwift Tour for All was a similarly amazing effort. He rode for one and a half hours at over 5w/kg and then kicked again and rode the last six minutes 25 seconds at 6.46w/kg. That’s unimaginable for amateur riders on Zwift,” observed Diegner.

“The racing is short and particularly intense,” he explained. “It is 45-90 minutes of racing instead of three to six hours. The consequence for the riders is that there is no opportunity to save energy like they have in road races, so they have to make prolonged, all-out efforts that push them to their physical limit.”

“Professionals are not necessarily used to this and it can be a shock to the system. Virtual racing is as hard as road racing; it is just that endurance is a more decisive factor in road racing, whereas virtual racing is one hour of pure, intense suffering,” Diegner wrote.

One key observation was that the riders who are most successful on the road were not necessarily as effective in virtual races.

Time trial world champion Rohan Dennis and specialist against the clock Stefan Küng won two races apiece at the Digital Swiss 5, but this was largely because the races took place on the Rouvy platform, which does not have a drafting feature and suits time-trialists. However, in races on other platforms such as Zwift where drafting is a feature, it was the lesser-known names who came to the fore.

Diegner believes this was because successful road riders did not adjust to the nuances of virtual racing as well as those riders who are more practiced in virtual racing. Diegner is of the opinion that the WorldTour pros will start replicating their road success in virtual races, with time and experience.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio won three stages of the 2020 Zwift Tour for All. A talented and successful racer on the road, she has learned the skills necessary to be successful in Zwift. Her ability to sustain in excess of 6w/kg for extended periods is also an advantage for her. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Diegner offers, “Someone like Peter Sagan might not get virtual racing right to begin with, but when he learns when and how to expend his power, he will start winning with the same regularity as on the road. Knowing when to start the sprint and how to reach max power in online races is a skill that has to be developed.”

While Rouvy and Zwift have been invaluable distractions during the coronavirus lockdown, allowing riders to get fit and stay in touch with teammates, it has yet to be seen if the benefits of racing indoors for three months will pay off, as riders return to the roads.

The information was published in a release by bonusfinder.com with input from professional cycling coach Philipp Diegner.

*All performance data quoted by bonusfinder.com is publicly available and has been extracted from sources such as Strava and Zwift. In the case of w/kg, where a figure is not already available, bonusfinder.com’s analysts divided the riders’ average power by their weights as listed on sources such as team websites and procyclingstats.com.