During my first ever bike race, I distinctly remember thinking, “This is horrible; it’s taking something fun and making it hard, painful work. Why would anybody do this on purpose?!?” Then I became a professional cyclist.
Fast forward 12 years to my first Zwift race as part of the inaugural KISS Super League, which brought together professional women’s teams from around the world to compete in online racing. It was shockingly hard. The race organizer provided helpful pre-race directions to those of us unfamiliar with virtual racing, things like, “The start and all hills will be max efforts, so be prepared!” When he said ‘max effort’, I envisioned something hard but manageable, like an interval that feels a little overtaxing but quickly settles into being tolerable. But I was wrong, terribly wrong, hideously wrong. What he meant by ‘max effort’ was: “You will go so hard that falling off the trainer is a real possibility and you may throw up.”
The crazy part is that after the race was done and it became clear I was not actually going to die, a part of me wondered, When can I do it again?? Because suffering that badly is pure bliss in a twisted way. This is why Tough Mudders exist. I should probably start planning my career as a professional Zwift racer now.
If you’re interested in jumping into the fray yourself, allow me to share some advice, because Zwift riding and racing is unlike regular cycling in a few notable ways. Here are some pointers to getting started on the virtual roads:
Ride On. Crash Less.
Great news! Crashing is a lot more unlikely, although I was going so hard in the race there was a real possibility of falling off. You’ll never be safer on a bike than when you’re exploring virtual roads. Pop in your headphones or savor the sound of your legs screaming without having to worry about cars or other riders. Unlike riding in a bunch, in Zwift you literally pedal through other riders. Don’t try that outside.
No Skills. No Problem.
The ability to handle your bike becomes irrelevant in Zwift which is awesome if you are bad at corners or afraid of other riders, but less excellent if you rely on your handling and efficiency to spend fewer watts on the real road than everybody else.
Flick the Elbow.
You may still find yourself furiously flicking your elbow or trying to shake somebody off your wheel, even though you're alone in your house. Zwift helpfully provides an elbow-flicking button, but it’s extremely unsatisfying and has none of the furious vigor I usually prefer. There are also no “throw your arm up in the air angrily because nobody will pull through” or “flip off the car that buzzes you” buttons.
The most important part of riding with a group on Zwift is drafting. It works just like it does on the road: find a draft and your ride is instantly easier. Zwift shows if you need to get closer to a rider to receive their draft, but I struggled to walk the fine line between slotting into somebody’s draft and shooting past them to take the front. The trick seems to be applying nuanced pressure to the pedals, something challenging to my usual ham-fisted approach of smash-smash-smash.
Pedal to the Metal.
There is no coasting. Well, actually, there IS, but not if you want to stay with the group. Never stop pedaling.
PowerUp Your Race.
PowerUps are offered at random intervals and are basically cheats you can use to make your ride easier. You can learn more about them here, but in short, they can do things like temporarily reduce your weight, increase your aerodynamics, or improve your drafting efficiency. You’ll see when you have one available, and then can hit your space bar to use it.
Experienced Zwifters use PowerUps effectively to game their performance on rides and races. I blew through the two PowerUps I received in a desperate attempt to regroup at a slightly less blistering effort for 30 seconds.
Notably, the winners of my race sprinted to the finish while using their PowerUps. Have you ever thought to yourself as you wound up for a powerful finishing sprint, “I should hit the space bar now”? No? Me neither. But now is a good time to try.
If somebody likes you enough to stand there while you Zwift, you can also politely scream at them to hit the keyboard.
If you’re doing a group ride or race, plan for the hills to hurt and never expect anything less. I knew yesterday was going to be hard, but in the back of my mind, I was quietly rolling my eyes and thinking that it wouldn’t actually be that bad. Yet it was. Do not make that mistake. Warm up sufficiently beforehand and don’t be caught off guard.
Train Where You Race.
With that said, use Zwift to get in a great workout. If your regular group ride is rained out but you still crave an effort that makes your eyes bleed, join a group ride on Zwift. I’m not looking forward to my next Zwift race, but I’m eager to get in another soul-crushing effort.
Make all of the usual preparations for an indoor workout and then some. I had extra food, water, and fans set up to compensate for riding harder than usual indoors. Nothing will end a hard effort faster than bonking, dehydration, or overheating. Make sure you plug in your laptop, too; Zwift ate my battery faster than any other program I’ve run.
Earn Your Effort.
Be honest about the height and weight you put in your profile. Zwift may be virtual reality, but that doesn’t mean you should give into the temptation to put out a more appealing watts/kilogram. Earn your efforts the honest way and ride with pride. Well, as proud as you can be as a cute little cyclist avatar pedaling furiously in your living room while sweating and shouting at your laptop.
Practice, Practice, Practice.
I’d logged maybe an hour total on Zwift before my first race and it showed. Pre-ride courses before hard events so you know what to expect. Practice drafting. Get acquainted with the things available on-screen while you’re Zwifting. Like learning to road race or learning a video game, the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be.