Through 2020 and to a degree through 2021, the pandemic forced us to change in lots of ways and this doesn’t stop with bike racing. The lack of competition over the last 2 years has driven me to do something I didn’t think I would, I started Zwift racing.
As a road racer, having seen the way Zwift races are ridden and some of the things that can impact the results, I had no desire to enter its world. It’s cycling and racing, but also something completely different, like another discipline of the sport.
On top of that, I didn’t feel I had the need to stare at virtual worlds to help me through a training session on the turbo. I was quite happy staring at numbers on my Garmin as long as I had music to listen to or something to watch. How wrong I was…
In the winter of 2020, the combination of terrible weather and an enforced 2 week isolation period made the appeal to find something to help me through indoor training grow.
Before I knew it, the Zwift app was installed on my mac and I was picking what colour and length of socks I wanted my avatar to wear (If it’s not white and the tallest option you are wrong).
I have to admit, it’s got me. I’m not sure i’d be able to train on the turbo without it now.
That’s not racing though…
Although I’d prefer to ride outside on the road whenever possible. When I’ve had to turn to the turbo or use it for a session after work, I’ve really enjoyed using Zwift. But, with only 6-7 proper races in the last 2 years, just using it for training didn’t satisfy that competitive itch.
Then came an offer from a friend, asking if I’d be interested in racing for a fairly local team, Pro-Vision in the WTRL (World Tactical Racing Leagues) Zwift Racing League. And with that, I was sucked into the Zwift racing vortex.
I had no particular goal for starting Zwift racing. They was no target of winning a certain Zwift race or to beat a certain group of people. I think the offer to race just gave me something to focus on at a time where we have no idea when racing in the real world will return.
Why is this a road to Category A?
I’d joined the team to ride for their category A team in the WTRL league. Zwift has 5 race/event categories (A, B, C, D, E), with A being the highest level. To be able to do this, I first had to ‘qualify’ as an A category rider. To do so, it requires a rider to have ridden at a power output of at least 4 w/kg for 20mins. within a Zwift race, and do it in 3 different races. For me, 4 w/kg is currently around my ‘Tempo’ Z3 power, so not super difficult.
Luckily, this rule was also changed before the league started. So, I didn’t have to squeeze in 3 races around training before I rode for the team. This didn’t stop me from completing 2 races before riding the WTRL Stage 2 Team Time Trial (TTT) though.
The Zwift Racing vortex
What I didn’t expect when I said yes to racing was just how many other steps it would take, and other things I’d have to consider to just be on an even playing field with other riders.
Sign up, after sign up…
If you just want to race or take part in events, it’s fairly simple. Just join an event on Zwift and pick which category you want to be. But, to be able to ‘qualify’ in a category, you need to sign up to Zwift Power.
To then race the WTRL, I needed to join the team on Zwift Power and then sign up to the WTRL league itself. Without doing so, I couldn’t receive the invite from my team, to the WTRL specific events.
The bike setup
Just like in the real world, the bike you ride on Zwift impacts your speed. There’s lots of bike brands and wheels in game. It can be an absolute minefield to find the best setup. Luckily Zwift Insider have done all of the testing for us, so if you’re interested in getting a fast setup, check out their blogs for flat racing/routes or hilly racing/routes.
Although it is one of the best, the Tron bike is not as high and mighty as you may think…
Race 1 – Don’t do a 4 hour Zwift race that finishes up the Alpe for your first one
I didn’t think I’d had that many beers the Friday night before the race. But, I’d clearly had one too many to think this was a good idea. Anyway, my first race was the Ascenders Team Watopia Pretzel Challenge.
The race was 126km, 2388m / 7,835ft of elevation. Effectively one lap of the Uber Pretzel route, finishing up the Alpe Du Zwift.
Basically starting with the Epic KOM 5km in, I quickly realised I was either going to put myself in a massive box to stay with the front group, or accept being dropped by the 49 year old man, weighing 51kg, and ride at my own pace. There seems to be 1-2 of these guys in every race without fail.
I slotted into the 2nd group after the Epic KOM. I made sure I tapped out at least 4 w/kg for 20mins to make sure I hit the minimum Cat A requirement. After 4 hours and 12 minutes, I finished 12th. It took me at least 3 days to stop feeling the effects of that long on the turbo. I wouldn’t recommend trying to race that length on the turbo trainer often.
One benefit is I do now have a rear end of steel though.
Race 2 – Learnt from my mistake
After the first race, I picked a much more suitable race for me and much more reasonable distance.
The race was 21km with only 109m / 357 ft, 4 laps of the Volcano circuit.
The race was a lot more reasonable and one I was able to do as part of training. I just hit the minimum 4 w/kg for 20mins and ended up 5th. If you’re just getting into it, these sort of races are probably a good place to start, instead of a 4 hour hilly one.
Race 3 – WRTL Stage 2 (Team Time Trial)
Apparently there was an issue with the category calculations from Zwift Power, so it ended up that I didn’t need to do 3 races. So, it was straight into the WRTL stage 2, a team time trial (TTT).
A 25km TTT, 1 lap of the R.G.V France route. Nice and flat.
Luckily some of the other guys on the team had done a TTT before so knew the tactics to use. Basically, ride it exactly the same as one on the road – hard turn on the front, pull off, go to the back, and desperately hang on until you hopefully recover enough to do it again in a couple of minutes.
A TTT in January is not something I’d recommend and not something I was particularly conditioned for either. It was going to be a shock to the system.
I ended up surprising myself and was able to pull the 5.5 w/kg turns up until the last few kilometres. We had a really strong team too and after the chaos of working out results, we actually ended up winning our Division.
That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds, there are about 100 Divisions at the same level. Our time did put us 67th fastest out of 1500+ Category A teams though, so a fairly solid result.
Verdict on Zwift Racing
I can’t lie, I’ve been sucked into the world of Zwift racing. It will never replace ‘real world’ racing, but as something a bit different, it’s been great.
No matter your level of fitness, I’d recommend giving it a go. There’s race categories for every level, so anyone can get involved, whether it’s for a challenge or to get competitive. It’s a bit of fun and can be used for a good workout or training plan if scheduled in the correct way.
Anything that brings something new and mixes up training is good for this time of year, especially in a world with COVID, where finding a bit of fun or motivation really can be hard.
Did you know?
In the winter months, many of us are using a smart trainer or turbo a lot more. If you’re also doing Zwift racing, it’s likely you’re sprinting a fair amount too. If your bike was to fall off the trainer while you were putting the hammer down in a race, or your bike simply fell over while you were setting up, any damage to the bike would be covered by your Bikmo insurance policy.
Unfortunately the indoor trainer itself wouldn’t be covered on a Bikmo policy as it’s not considered a bike accessory. However, you will often find it is covered under your contents home insurance.
Read our blog on some turbo sessions recommended by STAPS here