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How to race on Zwift - top tips and setup advice

Racing on Zwift
(Image credit: Zwift)

With the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic putting the world in unprecedented times, numerous countries are on lockdown and people are being advised - or obliged - to remain indoors to stop the spread of coronavirus. In many countries, cyclists are still technically permitted to ride outdoors, but cyclists are turning to the turbo trainer and platforms like Zwift to get their exercise and competitive fixes. Many professional cyclists have taken to Zwift for the first time, with even George Bennett trying to win a race. It seems there's no better time to try your hand at Zwift racing.

Yesterday we gave you tips on how to train to win a Zwift race, but if you're one of the many riders who have trained for a season on the road, but you're now stuck in self-isolation and want to put your form to good use, here's everything you need to know. 

Of course, before any of the below can become possible, you'll need to get onto Zwift. If you're unsure how to go about that, our guide to the cheapest Zwift setup explains everything you need, along with the cheapest way to go about it. 

If you're looking for something a bit more premium, our guide to the best turbo trainers will provide you with the best trainers for the job, and if you're looking for a dedicated standalone solution, try our guide to the best smart bikes

Seven Zwift racing tips

1. Sprint off the line

Approximately 10 seconds at 700 watts will do it, so not a finishing sprint, but enough to put you at the front as the group rolls out. Start this sprint before the countdown finishes so that you're at you're sprinting as soon as the race begins.

Zwift races always start hard. They start with riders fighting for position trying to avoid being stuck behind splits in the bunch, so expect to push five to six watts per kilo for the first few minutes. The further nearer the front you are, the more room you have to slide backwards through the pack. It also means there's less chance of being caught behind a split and have surge into the red to bridge across a gap. 

2. Use the draft

Like in real-world racing, Zwift has built drafting into the game play, meaning you can sit behind other riders and save energy. Sitting near - but not on - the front, will help you to keep an eye on your competitors, avoid being caught behind a split, and also prevent you from working harder than everyone else. When you're in someone's draft, your avatar will sit up. 

3. Learn the course

If you don't know where the finish line is, you've already lost the race. In addition, competitors regularly attack into the bottom of climbs in order to maintain position, so if you don't know the hill is coming, you'll find yourself moving backwards before you've even noticed that you're climbing. (A Wahoo Kickr Climb is good for this) You'll then have to make up that gap with a surge of power. Thirdly, if you don't know the length of the climb, how do you know what power you should try to sustain? Like in real-world racing, knowledge is power. 

4. Understand your PowerUps, and use them wisely

Some races include PowerUps. You'll know when you get one, but if you have no idea what the symbols mean, they can be all but useless. It would be silly to use a 'Burrito' (can't be drafted) PowerUp while sitting at the back of the bunch, yet it's great to use the 'Ghost' (invisibility) before you attack. Fun tip: use the Ghost PowerUp to pretend you're going to attack, let your competitors chase in earnest, and use them as a lead-out. Our guide to Zwift explains what each PowerUp means. 

5. Watch competitors' power-to-weight ratios

In real-world racing, you can often see when a competitor is attacking, yet in Zwift, it's harder to notice through an avatar's body language (unless they're stood up sprinting, of course). Fortunately, Zwift gives you the exact power-to-weight of competitors. If you're unsure when to launch your devastating race-winning sprint, keep an eye on your competitors' watts-per-kilo numbers. Once one of them turns red, it's go time.

6. Use the map

Just like how you'd use the map in Call of Duty to see where your enemies are, and in FIFA to check your winger is running before you hit that cross-field diagonal pass, the map is a super useful tool in Zwift, too. 

If you're sat near the front of the bunch, you'll likely only have around 10 riders in your field of view, so it's not always certain how many riders are left behind you in the bunch. Attrition is real on Zwift, so while you could start in a bunch of 100 riders, it could soon be down to 15 after a couple of climbs. Using the map, you can gauge roughly how big your group is, and whether or not there's any sliding room on the next hill. If you've followed our instructions and learned the course, the map will also give you a good indication of what's coming up and where you ought to position yourself in the bunch.

7. Look beyond the rider in front of you

You might be familiar with 'close the gap'; a helpful instruction that pops up on screen when you've lost the wheel. Yet, frustratingly, if you're sat in someone's draft and they lose the wheel, not only will you miss out on the on-screen-prompt, the mere fact that a rider is in front of you can mean you don't notice the gap opening up in the first place. Once that gap gets too big, the effort to close it can cost you dearly, so keeping an eye on the whole group will enable you to shut it down before it becomes an in-the-red effort. 

If you have any further tips for Zwift racers, feel free to share them in the comments below. 

First race setup advice

We're going to assume you've already set up Zwift and downloaded the app, you may have ridden around in Watopia a few times already, but here's how you join a Zwift race and get your competitive fix. 

1. Download the Zwift Companion App

If you haven't already, you'll need to download the Zwift Companion App and log in (using your Zwift account credentials). This will open up myriad options, such as following friends, setting goals, and joining events. 

2. Find and choose an event

By tapping the 'events' menu item, you'll be given a list of rides and races, organised by their respective start times. The title of the event will usually dictate its type (race, TT, group ride, etc). Competitive events are usually denoted by a choice of category, consisting of A, B, C and D. 

3. Choose your category

The power you can push will dictate your category. In races, all A, B, C and D riders will hit the start line together, but your post-race results will be separated by category. Once you've decided, hit the orange plus sign to add you to that event. 

4. Start riding

When you then open up the Zwift app and begin free-riding, a small 'join event' button will pop up in the bottom-left corner with a 30-minute count down. If you ignore this, a more intrusive full-screen menu will appear at five minutes to go. It usually takes a few seconds to 'change worlds' and join the race, but a poor internet connection can slow this down. We'd recommend giving it around ten minutes, just in case you experience any bugs or glitches. Once you're in the new world, you'll sit on the start line on your virtual turbo trainer, where the countdown will continue. 

5. Optional: Use a heart-rate monitor

If you want to be listed in official Zwift racing results, you'll need to take a few additional steps. The first of these is getting a heart rate monitor. This can be in the form of one of our best smartwatches, but a Bluetooth enabled heart-rate monitor such as the Wahoo Tickr is a good choice. 

To verify your power data output and prove that you haven't just hooked your turbo trainer up to a road e-bike or a motorbike, organisers of some Zwift races stipulate that you provide heart-rate data. You can still ride in the race without one, but you'll just be excluded from the final results on Zwift Power. 

6. Optional: Create a ZwiftPower account

If you're looking to race often, join ZwiftPower in order to have your ranking calculated, data stored and your category tracked over time. This is also where you can join a team, and drill down into your race power data. To sign up for a Zwift Power account visit www.zwiftpower.com. Then you'll need to head to your MyZwift account and visit Profile>Connections, or follow this link, and consent to sharing your activity results and data with ZwiftPower. This is also where you can sync to Strava and other training apps.