Zwift is pretty hot right now, as all things 2020 combined to force the cycling world indoors and onto their turbo trainers (if they were lucky enough to get one in time). For professional riders, 2020 brought in the first ever virtual Tour de France, World Championships and a whole host of other rides. You can't imagine a young Alejandro Valverde, when he became a pro 42 years ago, ever imagined he'd be racing the tour in his living room.
However the real story of Zwift in 2020 was the numbers of new and amateur riders taking up Zwifting this year. With a reported peak of nearly 20,000 Zwifters at one time in May, the number of virtual riders has certainly increased alongside the general upwards trend in Cycling numbers.
The vast majority of those 20,000 would have been Zwifting 'solo' (i.e. not taking part in an organised Zwift event) but we are noticing more and more people are using their Zwift time to enter a race or a group ride. Like most new riders when they get into cycling, the novelty of solo miles soon wears off as you crave interaction with other riders, and dare I say it, a bit of competition.
We know that the majority of cyclists don't use Zwift. Huge costs and a somewhat elitist view have put virtual training out of reach for many in the past, but numbers are increasing as indoor training becomes more and more 'normal' throughout the world. Once the express playground of sweaty, competitive men (it's mostly men, sadly), some of whom are prepared to lie about their weight to win, Zwift events are becoming more popular and accessible for all.
Let us walk you through a quick guide to Zwift racing, so you can decide if you want to have a go. The term 'Zwift racing' is used to cover all organised Zwift events, however some won't be races at all. Some are friendly, social group rides.
What is Zwift?
First thing's first, Zwift is the online training platform to make your home bike sessions more bearable. It's essentially a computer game that connects to your turbo trainer, creating an avatar that pedals on your computer/phone screen. Like a Formula 1 computer game, except you are moving your avatar by pedalling, not by pressing a few little buttons. Read all about our guide to Zwift here.
What is Zwift racing?
Zwift racing is a term used to cover most organised Zwift events. Some are definitely races, some are group rides that turn into races. And some are races that feel more like group rides, just to make things more confusing. Organised events (group rides and races) are joined in the companion app or zwift.com. They have a set start time, course or time length and often a Watts per kilo (w/kg) guide. More on that below.
Who can join an event?
Any Zwifter can join any event, you don't have to be a pro or experienced ride. In fact, Zwift and their event partners have done much during the pandemic to offer events and races that appeal to a broader range of riders. Whether that's a women's only British Cycling/Breeze group ride or having multiple w/kg categories for most races, it's definitely helped to widen the pool of Zwift racers.
How do I sign up?
The sign up process is pretty easy. Either via the 'companion app' (see link above) or at zwift.com, the events are all listed out by date and time. You just have to click on an event that suits you and hit the + button to sign up. That's it! Just make sure you're on Zwift before the start time to warm up and you're all set.
What does it all mean??
There is some technical jargon that you'll need to learn to understand so you can pick the right race/event for you. Getting the level right is very important, and may take you a few goes to nail it, but our Zwift racing level explainer will hopefully help:
- W/KG - usually the most important race detail and the go to metric to split up the groups. Watts per kilo is your FTP number (functional threshold power) divided by your weight. To get an accurate FTP you'll need to do a 20 minute FTP test and then weigh yourself. You can then enter the right category based on your results and race with similar level riders to you.
- Categories - unless stated, most races will be split into two or more categories, usually along the lines of below:
- A/A+ (4-5 w/kg) - This is the cat for the really serious racers. It will be crazy fast, so only enter here if you want a really hard race
- B (3.2 - 3.9w/kg) - Still a fast and hard race, but not as fast as above. The cat for good Zwifters who enjoy the competition
- C (2.5 - 3.1 w/kg) - A bit more like it! Probably the most popular category, good for new Zwifters and gaining experience
- D (1 - 2.4 w/kg) - Entry level for most Zwift races. A great place to start out, especially if you've never raced or don't have an accurate FTP reading.
- E (1 - 5 w/kg) This is the 'open' cat, meaning anyone can enter. It's often used for group rides instead of races and means that multiple groups will form and you can ride at your own pace. Also a great option for when starting out with Zwift events
- Route and length/time details will all be shown in the event details, so you know what you're getting yourself into!
- If a race or event is women's only then it will say so
Race vs Group Ride:
It can often be difficult to tell the difference, as some Zwift group rides can turn into races. But the majority of them are well controlled and a great workout, without having the competitive edge of a race.
Look out for a group ride (it'll usually say "this is NOT a race") with a w/kg guide (normally around 2-2.5w/kg). This is the pace the ride leader will usually stay at, the aim being to match the leader for the duration. Some group rides will have an allotted time at the set w/kg (say 45 mins), then a free for all final 15 mins where it actively becomes a bit of a race. These are fun as a bridge between group rides and races. It's up to you if you want to take part in the race bit.
It's all up to you:
The best thing about Zwift races and group rides is everything is up to you. It's not like real life where you turn up a physical event and don't feel good, so worry about holding people up. On Zwift, if you're not feeling good you can just exit the event and do something else. The only pressure is the load you're putting on yourself, and once you drop that you can try out events as much as you like.
Most of the races or group rides on Zwift are actually recurring (daily, weekly or monthly) so once you find an event that suits you you can do it as often as you like. Once you're comfortable with the format of Zwift racing, you can then try out other events and push your boundaries. It really is the fastest way to improve.
What happens after I've actually signed up?
Once you've joined the event on the Companion App, you need to then get on Zwift nice and early to warm up (around 15 - 20 minutes is best). You have to actually hit the 'ride' button and go into the game to access the event, don't just sit on the menu screen waiting for something to happen. Once you're in the game, you'll get a pop up saying 'join event' which will take you to the start line. Here you can warm up, chat to the other riders and wait for the start.
Joining a Zwift race group:
As with all new endeavours, having some company when you get started can be a real help. Almost all clubs and cycling groups are using Zwift for group events during the pandemic, so your local group will have a Zwift option now.
Dirty Wknd has a growing Zwift bunch that take place in events all week long- some of them serious, fast races, and others just fun group rides. Check out the details here and get in touch if you want to find out more about joining.
Good luck and have fun!
Never forget that it's supposed to be fun. If you have any questions at all about Zwift racing or joining an event then get in touch by email and we'll talk you through the process.
Join the community to meet other cyclists near you, to Zwift with our group of wonderful members, and to access 10 - 50% off with our awesome partner brands. Full details and sign up here.