Racing inside: A rider’s guide to e-racing

With in-person racing on the back burner, an expert guide to the intricacies of racing indoors on a smart trainer.

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Whoever invented the wheel probably used it to have a race against the second person who made one. Humans thrive on competition, so it should be no surprise that riders using interactive indoor cycling apps quickly found ways to create e-races. With the ever-increasing challenges and costs of putting on real-world races, e-racing offers a cost-effective way to bring together cyclists from all over the world for competitions. When the 2020 cycling season was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, e-racing surged in popularity. Professional cycling teams that needed a way to connect with fans and meet sponsor obligations started online group rides and banded together with other teams to create virtual races. The egalitarian nature of e-racing allows amateurs to enter races with the pros, race at almost any time of day or night, and race against riders from all over the world.

As of spring 2020, Zwift is the primary e-racing app for cyclists. While there are a few other apps that can accommodate e-racing, Zwift’s membership numbers and the numbers of riders and teams racing on Zwift dwarf the other alternatives. As a result, the specifics and tactics discussed below are based on the experience of Zwift e-races, although many of the concepts will apply equally well for e-races on other platforms.

E-races work a lot like any other race in the real world. Once you select a race, based on the course and your category (more on that in a bit), you are put in a virtual start corral. When the race begins, your position in the peloton is tracked in real time as your avatar moves through the field. By using your power wisely, you can stay near the front of the pack, sit in and draft, attack off the front, form breakaways, and split the field, and you can sprint for the win. You can also get dropped, be caught behind a split, or drift too far back in the pack and take yourself out of contention.

There are also some unique aspects of e-racing that will be new to anyone with an outdoor racing background. In Zwift races, riders are randomly awarded “PowerUps,” which among other things can provide an extra aero advantage or reduce your weight for short periods of time. Racers also have to learn new methods for reading a race. In real-world racing, you can see when riders are at their limits by reading their body language and facial expressions, observing how they are pedaling or moving on the bike, and listening to changes in their breathing. With the rare exception of e-races contested in a live environment or with video conferencing, you can’t see the riders you’re up against in an e-race. You’ll be able to see their current watts per kilogram (W/kg), but not their height, weight, or actual watts per kilogram at FTP. And without context it is hard to know whether they can sustain a particular effort or are about to crack.

Though e-racing is relatively new, there are some fundamental tactics and strategies you can use to improve your performance.

Choose the right race for you

If you are riding a smart trainer, the resistance you feel is set according to your height (taller riders have more aerodynamic drag), weight, and the grade of the course. This means that lightweight riders still have a power-to-weight advantage over heavy riders when going uphill, and that heavier riders still have an advantage going downhill and on the flats where they produce greater absolute power. E-races are held on a variety of courses, from flat routes to punchy climbs to mountain passes. Some courses consist of many laps on a short course, like a criterium, and others are longer loops or point-to-point courses like road, gravel, and mountain bike races. They can even include virtual cobblestones and gravel, which have the effect of increasing the resistance compared to the same grade on a smooth surface. There is no standardized distance for e-racing, so you can also choose races that are similar in length to your real-world competitions or test out the intensity required for shorter events (60 minutes or shorter) and the focus and pacing necessary for long ones (2–3 hours and longer).

Choose the right category

There is no standardized method for establishing categories for e-racing, but most competitions use either power-to-weight ratio (PWR) in watts per kilogram (W/kg) at functional threshold power (FTP) or age. Each race can set its own ranges, and most depend on the honor system for ensuring riders are competing in the appropriate categories. While choosing the right age group is simple, figuring out the right PWR category can be a bit tougher. The following is a common breakdown of e-racing categories based on PWR:

A: 4.0 or higher W/kg at FTP
B: 3.2 to 4.0 W/kg at FTP
C: 2.5 to 3.2 W/kg at FTP
D: Under 2.5 W/kg at FTP

If you are new to e-racing, err on the side of racing in a category that’s too low. Because there are no entry fees for e-races, there’s no financial penalty for dropping out of a race when you realize you’re actually at a higher level (often known as sandbagging). Racing an easier category in the beginning can also be a good opportunity to learn how to use virtual drafting and PowerUps when you’re not cross-eyed from the effort required to stay in the pack. Once you have a good understanding of how e-racing works, enter races at your true level.

Know the rules

The character and competitiveness of a race can change significantly based on the features and requirements described by the organizer. Some races allow the use of PowerUps, and others do not. Most races require a smart trainer or power meter rather than virtual power calculated from speed and the known resistance curve of a traditional/dumb trainer. Some races place restrictions on the type of bike used—not the equipment you are actually riding in your home, but the virtual equipment you are using in the app. In an effort to verify the accuracy of results and prevent cheating, some races require data from a heart rate monitor for all riders or preclude riders without heart rate data from winning.

Don’t cheat (inadvertently or on purpose)

E-racing is not immune to cheating. Because the speed of your avatar in a virtual race is dependent on your stated height and weight and the accuracy of your power meter or smart trainer, riders can manipulate their data to go faster in the game. “Weight doping” is simply increasing your PWR by saying you weigh less than you do. And in many cases, riders who record greater than 5.2 W/kg for 20 minutes or 6 W/kg for 5 minutes are flagged and removed from race results until they provide additional data to verify they are capable of that performance. Misrepresenting your height can also affect your results. Being taller increases your drag coefficient in an e-race, so over the distance of courses that feature varied terrain, saying you’re 5′8″ instead of 6 feet tall makes you faster at the same power output.

Some cheating is done on purpose, but a more subtle level of cheating happens inadvertently due to trainers that aren’t correctly calibrated or people who entered the weight they’d like to be into their profiles instead of their actual weight. These are more errors than they are malicious, but nonetheless they can affect e-racing results.

Choose the right equipment

In the real world, most cyclists and triathletes don’t have the luxury of being able to choose between an aerodynamic bike and a lightweight bike or swap out different sets of wheels, based on the nature of a particular racecourse. In the virtual world, particularly on Zwift, the miles you ride can unlock the ability to customize your equipment. It’s not just the graphics on the screen that change. The weight and aerodynamic properties of the equipment are factored into your performance on the racecourse, and in some cases can save you a minute or more in an hour of riding. Websites like Zwift Insider provide updated information on the fastest frames and wheelsets for different courses.

Warm up properly

First, gather everything you’re going to need for the duration you’ll be on the bike. There will be no time to hop off the bike during a Zwift race if you need water, a towel, a remote control, or a phone/keyboard for communicating. While you are warming up for a Zwift race, you can ride any other course. Before the event, you can decide to go to the start corral. Just remember that there is a front and back of the start corral based on when you get there (just like in real life).

Races in Zwift start like criteriums, cyclocross races, and short-track mountain bike races, meaning they start hard rather than with a mellow rollout like a road race. A warm-up like the example below is essential so you are ready for the hard initial effort. This example is 15 minutes as written, and I recommend starting about 20 minutes before the actual start so you have a few minutes to spin easy between the end of the warm-up and the start. This is important because to have any chance of staying in the lead group, you need to be riding at full power when the virtual flag drops. If you start pedaling when the flag drops, you’ll already be far behind.

Example warm-up for an e-race

  • 5 minutes easy pedaling
  • 1:30 at 65% of FTP
  • 1:00 at 75% of FTP
  • 0:30 at 85% of FTP
  • 3 minutes easy pedaling
  • 1:00 at 75% of FTP
  • 0:30 at 100–125% of FTP
  • 1:00 easy pedaling recovery
  • 0:30 at 100–125% of FTP
  • 1:00-plus of easy pedaling until the actual start. Crank up to full power in the 30 seconds prior to the start.

Start hard

The start is one of the hardest aspects of Zwift racing. Bring your power output up as the clock ticks down to the start time so you’re already at a high power when the flag drops. Be ready for a 1- to 5-minute maximum effort as riders try to split the field and create groups right away. Once the initial selections are made, the intensity comes down to a more sustainable level.

One tip for riders on smart trainers is to reduce the trainer difficulty setting before the race starts. Changing this setting—which would be more aptly named “grade accuracy”—up or down changes how much you will feel the transition from flat ground to uphill. It doesn’t change the power needed to complete the climb, so it won’t make you faster or slower, but lowering the trainer difficulty means a less abrupt change to the resistance as you reach a hill. This matters because racers who are not on smart trainers won’t feel any difference in the resistance of their trainer based on the uphill or downhill grade in the virtual course. So, as your trainer abruptly clamps down the resistance, forcing you to adjust cadence and gearing, the riders on classic trainers continue riding smoothly. On the downhills, riders on classic trainers can (but also have to) continue riding at a high power output because the resistance on their trainer doesn’t drop off. For smart trainers, the resistance drops in response to downhills, which can make it hard to generate enough power to keep from getting dropped. The solution is to reduce the trainer difficulty setting to 20–40 percent rather than the default 50 percent setting.

Draft wisely

Drafting in Zwift reduces the power necessary to maintain the same speed by about 25 percent, which is similar to real life. Keep an eye on your avatar. If the speed is above 33 kilometers per hour, your avatar will “sit up” and ride on the hoods to show you are in the draft. When you are “in the drops” you are not in the draft. Note: There are some bike options that don’t have a visual cue for drafting. The distance between riders matters too. Drafting benefits start at 5 meters behind the rider ahead of you and increase as you get closer. The effect of drafting is enhanced in groups larger than four riders, as you would experience in real life.

Drafting in Zwift takes some getting used to. Because there are no brakes and you can only slow down by reducing power output, you can inadvertently overtake a rider you would like to draft. You also won’t feel a change in the resistance if you are using a smart trainer. Outside you can feel a drop in resistance when you’re in the draft, so you know to back off the power. In Zwift, the resistance stays constant; it’s just that the power necessary to maintain your position drops by 25 percent. If you don’t back off, you’ll surge forward out of the draft inadvertently. You also can’t control when the game will move you sideways out of a draft.

Some of these drafting behaviors are sure to change as smart trainers and the game developers add features that enable virtual steering and braking.

Experiment with views

Zwift gives you an option of several “camera angles” ranging from your point of view, a view of your avatar from behind, and panning shots that look like you’re watching yourself race on television. During a race you can use these different views to get a more complete picture for your position in the pack and what other riders are doing. Remember, unlike a real road race, you can’t tell if the rider behind an avatar is about to attack or is struggling to hang on.

Analyze your power files from races

If you are getting more involved with e-racing, it pays to dig into the power files generated from races. The performance demands for e-racing are sometimes different from what you are used to preparing for in real-world races. For instance, take a look at the duration and power output required to have a good start. If you keep getting dropped in the first 5 minutes, you can tailor your training to improve your 5-minute peak power output—something that might not be terribly important for the real-world events you compete in.

Adapted from Ride Inside by Joe Friel with Jim Rutberg, with permission of VeloPress.

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