Michael Banks

My First Cycling Virtual Race

22nd January 2020
Posted on 23 January, 2020 in

This week I took a venture into a new world... the world of Virtual Sports, and more specifically, Virtual Racing on the Zwift platform.


I am a late-comer to the world of Zwift, only starting to use the platform towards the end of 2019, as recommended by Coach Nick of the Okhane Coaching Team to complete the cycling workouts he was providing me. I had heard a lot about the platform, but it never really appealed to me as it sounded too much like a game, when I wanted a proper workout to continue my training towards the goals that I had set myself.

How wrong I was!...

Signing up to Zwift is easy. You just have to visit the Zwift website and create an account. To get started they give you a free trial, but after that you have to pay £12.99/month to use the platform. That allows you full access to everything available... cycling and running if you have equipment that will allow you to use both sports.

The Zwift platform offers you the opportunity to ride 6 different 'worlds', and over 80 different routes. You can just ride, or you can use one of their many training plans that are built into the platform. There are FTP tests to help set up a baseline for structured workouts, and you can even import your training plans from other sources - in my case Training Peaks. The data is then exported back out to your specified platform on completion of the workout for you to analyse. You can even hook up Strava to automatically export your workout data to!

The other option is to take part in organised events. These range from normal organised social rides through to a Tour! Thats right, Zwift offer users the opportunity to race in a cycling tour over a specified number of days. How cool is that!

Zwift have a listing of their events on their website, but I have found a better site that also lists these events, which allows you to filter down to find the type of event you you like to participate in - ZwiftHacks.

When selecting an event, you also have to be mindful of the different categories that Zwift offers. Much like the real world categories you will find in cycling, Zwift offers categories from A-E, with a being for Elites, and E for people at the other end of the spectrum. You can find out which category you fit into by knowing your FTP:

  • A = 4.0 w/kg and above
  • B = 3.2-3.9 w/kg
  • C = 2.5-3.1 w/kg
  • D = 2.4 w/kg and below
  • E = For everyone to race together (from what I understand)

For my first race I decided to pick something that was more about me... and the clock... I opted of a TT (time trial). According to the chart above, my Category should be C, so that is the one I selected.

Joining in an event is easy - Zwift have a great article on joining in with your first, and is well worth a read as there are several different ways you can do this.

Another feature of Zwift, through a partner website Zwift Power, is that you can join a Zwift Team, and those results count towards a team ranking. As a result I have started the Okhane Tribe Zwift Team. If you are interested in racing in Zwift, then please consider joining our team, all are welcome no matter what your ability.

I logged in and started my warm-up 25 minutes before the event. I just did a free ride in the normal Zwift world, gradually getting my legs pumping ready for the race. When free riding, a countdown to the event I said I wanted do do appeared on the screen, with a simple 'Join' button to make it easy to switch to the event when the time was ready.

5 minutes before the event, I backed off, but still kept my legs spinning. I headed over to the event, and found myself lined up on the start line, spinning away on a virtual Turbo Trainer... how surreal, since that is what I was on in the real world! As the clocked ticked down from 10 seconds to my start time, I increased my speed ready to be released into the race.

3-2-1... go... I was released, already at the wattage I wanted to try and maintain around the course. I knew it was a fairly flat course from what I had read about it. Just over 17km ahead, I knew a good 30 minuted effort would see me home.

On the screen you can see a list of the other people just in front and just behind you. It gives you their Category, time differences and more interestingly, the W/Kg that they are riding at. It was then that I discovered the one drawback of the Zwift platform... a lot of people are not very honest when it comes to selecting their Category. I could see people in Category C who I was riding against, putting out well over 1W/Kg more than I was, and as a result travelling much faster than I was!

This didn't really bother me too much, as this was me against the clock, and as a result I would have a benchmark that I could test myself against in the future. It is also a good incentive to improve and move up my position in the category rankings in the future.

I was happy with the way I rode the race, being slightly quicker on the second half, meaning I managed to maintain my power output all the way through the race, and even managed a bit of a sprint finish. There are a few things I would do differently next time, and this was more to do with my set-up that the way I raced:

  1. With the intensity of racing, I found that I became very hot. Next time I will have a fan to help keep me a little cooler.
  2. I have since learned that you can gain some little 'Power Up's' which you can use during a race. This is helpful if you are looking to get as far up the charts as possible. Here is an article from Zwift about Power Ups and how to use them.
  3. Have more liquid to consume, as I easily finished my bottle of water as I was hot and sweating a lot.

After the race is finished, you can head on over to Zwift Power to look at your stats, and see the results from the race. Going back to my point earlier that a lot of people select the wrong category, I think half in my Category should have been in Category B - the winner would even have placed in the top 3 in that category!

Looking at my stats, Zwift Power actually states that I should be riding in Category D, although I am right at the upper limit of that category. Next time I may stand a chance of winning the race if I follow that suggestion, although for me it is not about placing in these events at the moment, but more an indication of setting benchmarks to see how my training is coming along.

All-in-all I enjoyed my first taste of virtual racing, and I can see that it can become big business as it opens racing up to all abilities, especially those that may think they do not have the ability to race in the real world. In my opinion Virtual Racing is here to stay!

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