Zwift racing explained: everything you need to know about setup, categories, formats and tactics

Channel your inner racer without leaving your house

Zwift racing

Whether you’re training for an event or just want to tear the legs off your riding buddies in the virtual world, as well as the real world, racing on Zwift is a great way to compete, train and have fun on your bike.

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Zwift racing is one of the newest forms of bike racing out there, and if you’ve not yet taken the plunge, you could be missing out – not only on some great training but also on a lot of fun.

If you’ve invested in a smart trainer, racing on Zwift is one of the best ways to get the most out of your new toy because it enables you to compete against other like-minded cyclists from all over the world, whenever suits you, and from the comfort of your own home.

And while a Corinthian spirit might be admirable, it’s not all just fun and games – virtual racing can be a serious business, for pros and amateurs alike.

The first UCI Cycling Esports World Championships took place on Zwift in 2020, while a number of racing leagues now exist for committed virtual racers, alongside community-organised events.

So how can you get involved? And what do you need to get started? We’re here to help. And if you’re completely new to Zwift and wondering what it’s all about, don’t forget to check out our in-depth Zwift guide.

What you need to get started

A direct-drive smart trainer will give you the most realistic, immersive and accurate experience.
Zwift

Before you can start racing, you’ll need to sign up for a Zwift account, if you don’t already have one.

You can get a free 14-day trial if you register for a Zwift account online, but after your trial period ends it costs £12.99 / $14.99 per month to continue using it.

There are a few things specific to racing, beyond the standard turbo trainer accessories, that you’ll want to ensure you have in place before you jump into a race.

You can race online using any Zwift setup, from a budget turbo trainer to the ultimate indoor smart bike, but for the best experience, you ideally want to use a smart trainer, such as the Zwift Hub.

Get your indoor setup fine-tuned for the demands of virtual racing.
Zwift

If you only have a classic-style ‘dumb’ trainer, you can use an on-bike power meter to race, but you’ll miss out on simulated gradients, which are a key aspect of creating an immersive experience.

Just like in the real world, the most important thing before you step on the (virtual) start line is to make sure you’re prepared for the entire duration of the race (races tend to last between 20 and 40 minutes).

If you have to stop mid-race to fill your water bottle, turn up your fan or grab a towel, you’re going to be dropped immediately.

So, make sure you’ve got two full bottles (consider filling one with water and the other with a sports drink), your towel is within reach, your fan is set up correctly and all of your devices are plugged into their chargers.

How to sign-up to Zwift

Visit the Zwift website to sign up for a free 14-day trial. After your trial period ends, Zwift costs £12.99 / $14.99 per month.

 

How to find a race on Zwift

You can use the Zwift Companion app to find a race.
Zwift

Races in Zwift are classified as events, so the easiest way to find them is on the Events page in-game or to use the Zwift Companion app.

You can then filter events according to what kind of race and category (more on this later) you’re looking to enter. Once you’ve found a race you like the look of, simply tap the plus icon next to your category to enter the race.

Before signing up, make sure you read the description carefully because each race can have slightly different rules, and you risk getting disqualified from the results if you break any of them.

You should also consider signing up for a ZwiftPower account so you can be included in the official race results. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to link it to your Zwift account via the connections page of your profile on my.zwift.com.

Virtual racing is now big business.
Zwift

What races are there?

Community events

The majority of races on Zwift are put on by community event organisers – just like the real-world heroes who stand by the side of the road in a hi-vis jacket volunteering at local road races and time trials.

With dozens of races every day, you’re sure to find one that works for you.

ZRacing Monthly Series

Zwift launched the ZRacing Monthly Series in August 2022 as a way for individual riders to compete in a series-based event year-round.

It’s designed to cater for all levels of rider, whether you’re racing competitively or looking to build up your fitness, and features one stage a week through the month. Races take place hourly every day, so you can find a time convenient to you, in order to complete the week’s stage.

Races last between 30 and 40 minutes, and results are available on zwiftpower.com. Riders can also compete for an overall position in each month’s global general classification on ZwiftPower.

The Zwift Racing League is a team event with three rounds and a finale through the 2023/23 season.
Zwift

Zwift Racing League

Some community events have grown into large and sophisticated organisations, such as the WTRL (World Tactical Racing Leagues).

Having made a name for itself with a weekly time trial race series, WTRL entered into an official partnership with Zwift to coordinate the team-based Zwift Racing League.

The Zwift Racing League includes a Premier Division for elite teams, as well as five continental-based leagues with more than 120 divisions and 1,800 teams, racing across 22 time zones.

The 22/23 series includes four rounds of six weeks, with a race every Tuesday.

  • Round 1: 13 September to 18 October 2022
  • Round 2: 7 November to 13 December 2022
  • Round 3: 10 January to 14 February 2023
  • Season finale: March 2023

You can’t race in the Zwift Racing League alone, but it’s a great way to buddy up for a virtual team event. Scoring is devised to reward teams who are able to divide roles and responsibilities between the various segments (climbs and sprints) across each course, as well as the final position across the finish line.

What better way to stay motivated than a regular race with your pals?

Zwift Grand Prix Series

The Zwift Grand Prix is the highest level of team racing on the indoor cycling app.

It’s reserved for Zwift’s leading community teams but, if that’s not you, you can also watch the races on Zwift’s YouTube channel every Friday night.

The full season covers six rounds, followed by a finals event in March 2023.

Zwift categories: how to pick which one to enter

Zwift races are split into four categories (plus an additional open category ‘E’).
Zwift

Similar to how bike races in the real world are organised, Zwift races are split into categories to make each race more of a fair fight.

In Zwift, it’s fitness that determines your race category, not points accumulated through your results in previous races.

Each category in Zwift is determined by your watts per kilogram (W/kg) at Functional Threshold Power (FTP), so the higher the category, the stronger riders in that race will be.

The four categories are:

CategoryW/kg
A4.0 W/kg and above
B3.2-3.9 W/kg
C2.5-3.1 W/kg
D2.4 W/kg and below

You can work out your W/kg by dividing your FTP (if you don’t know what yours is yet, you can take one of Zwift’s FTP tests to find out) by your weight in kilos.

For example, if your FTP is 250 watts and you weigh 65 kilos, your FTP would be 3.85 W/kg, putting you in category B.

If you want to move up a category, it could be worth signing up for a Zwift training plan, because these are a great way to make a big leap in fitness.

There’s even one designed specifically to prepare you for the rigours of Zwift racing, called… Zwift Racing.

Designed by professional coach Shayne Gaffney, it comprises around four hours of riding per week, over four to six weeks, and has been tailored to put you in peak racing form by the end of the training plan.

Your fitness determines the most appropriate category to race in.
Zwift

What is category enforcement?

Zwift introduced ‘category enforcement’ in 2022, to ensure riders are placed in the most appropriate category for a race.

“Category enforcement examines a Zwifter’s historical performances based on power curve data and then identifies the best minimum category they can join for a race,” according to Zwift.

“Category enforcement prevents a Zwifter from joining a category that’s too easy for them based on their power data.”

Zwift uses a rider’s VO2 max, MAP (maxium aerobic power) and Critical Power data over the previous 60 days to determine the minimum category.

Armed with this data, Zwift will then restrict riders to a ‘minimum’ category when entering a race. The lowest category visible is likely the best fit based on your power data, but you can still select a more difficult category if you want to test yourself.

Zwift’s Companion app now shows icons next to races that have restrictions set by the organisers on:

  • Category enforcement
  • Mandatory heart rate monitor
  • Equipment restrictions (smart trainers only)

Category enforcement – Open races

CategoryVO2 max and wattsMAP value and wattsCritical power and watts
Category AGreater than or equal to 60 and 250WGreater than or equal to 5.4W/kg (65 VO2) and 250WGreater than or equal to 4.2W/kg and 250W
Category BGreater than or equal to 50 and 200WGreater than or equal to 4.2W/kg (55 VO2) and 200WGreater than or equal to 3.36W/kg and 200W
Category CGreater than or equal to 45 and 150WGreater than or equal to 3.3W/kg (45 VO2) and 150WGreater than or equal to 2.625W/kg and 150W
Category DLess than 45 and 150WLess than 3.3W/kg (45 VO2) and 150WLess than 2.625W/kg and 150W
Category EN/AN/AN/A

Category enforcement – Women-only races

CategoryMAP valueCritical powerCritical power and watts
Category AGreater than or equal to 5W/kgGreater than or equal to 3.88W/kgGreater than or equal to 4.2W/kg and 250W
Category BGreater than or equal to 4.2W/kgGreater than or equal to 3.36 W/kgGreater than or equal to 3.36W/kg and 200W
Category CGreater than or equal to 3.5W/kgGreater than or equal to 2.625W/kgGreater than or equal to 2.625W/kg and 150W
Category DLess than 3.5W/kgLess than 2.625W/kgLess 2.625W/kg and 150W
Category EN/AN/AN/A

Zwift racing tips: eight tips to become a virtual racing supremo

1. Do your homework

Knowing the course is a key component of success in Zwift racing.

There are short crit races that favour sprinting, speed on the flats and repeated efforts well above FTP, but there are also hilly races that take in lumpier routes, such as the Volcano Climb, or on occasions, the Epic KOM.

Knowing when the attacks are likely to come, or where to attack if you’re feeling strong, can be the difference between getting dropped, staying in the bunch or blowing the race to bits with your race-winning move.

Just like in the real world, moving up to the front of the bunch before the start of a climb is a great trick to give yourself a greater chance of staying with the group.

If you’re sitting at the back, you’ll have no choice but to hold the wheel in front when the pace rises, but if you start at the front you can drift back through the pack and get a draft on every wheel in the group.

Zwift races will typically surge at the bottom of the climb as everyone fights for position, so be prepared to make an early effort.

Sitting too far back in the bunch also puts you at risk of missing an important move. When the going gets tough, riders will start to leave gaps, meaning you’ll have to make surges to try and bridge to the group in front.

Using a mountain bike will handicap you in a road race.
Zwift

2. Horse for the course

Don’t forget to optimise your bike setup for the course – the bike you choose will have a bearing on your performance, depending on the demands of the terrain.

If you’re racing a flat course, forget about weight and focus on aerodynamics, but if there’s a huge climb on the course you might be better served with a lightweight setup.

It’s also worth paying close attention to the type of surface you’ll be riding on. Gravel and mountain bikes are much faster on the dirt roads of the Jungle Circuit in Watopia, for example.

You’ll need to make the calculation (as the great Sean Kelly would say) as to whether or not you’ll be better off on a road bike overall, though, if those roads only form part of the total course for the event.

And before anyone thinks it might be worth riding a TT bike on the flat courses, don’t forget that you can’t draft other riders when using one of Zwift’s time-trial setups (outside of ZRL or WTRL team time trial race events), so it’s going to leave you at a significant disadvantage.

3. Full gas from the gun

If you’ve never done a Zwift race before, it’s hard to grasp exactly how hard the first few minutes of the race can be.

Get the game loaded up with plenty of time to spare and get in a good warm-up.

Your avatar will be transported automatically to the start of the race course a few minutes before the start time, but if you want a place at the front of the pack (which you really do) then get set up and join the event as early as possible (start pens open 30 minutes before the race).

Once you’re in the race pen, keep on spinning your legs and start pushing some big watts just before the start gun, so you don’t miss the jump.

If it’s a big race and you miss the initial sprint off the line, you’ll end up at the back of the pack and it will be very, very hard to move up to the front. The most likely outcome is that someone in front of you will lose the wheel and your entire group will get shelled. Game over.

Instead, dig deep into your suitcase of courage and hold that wheel in front. Like cyclocross or criterium racing, the effort will probably be way above your FTP for the first few moments, but it will eventually settle down to a more sustainable level.

And remember, if you’re hurting, everyone else will be, too.

Surf the wheel to save energy.
Zwift

4. Surf the wheels

Remember to pay close attention to your draft status as well. When you’re in the draft, your avatar will sit up and put their hands on the hoods, but when you’re not they’ll move into the drops. Zwift will also helpfully flash up a ‘close the gap’ graphic on screen when you’re between two and five metres from the wheel in front.

Cycling in a group saves you around 25 per cent of the effort of riding solo, so let everyone else burn themselves out before you attack. As former world champion and Classics legend Hennie Kuiper said, “Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.”

You’ll also want to keep an eye on the ‘Zwifters nearby’ list, on the right-hand side of the screen. It shows the W/kg each rider is putting out, and if the numbers turn red that likely indicates someone is attacking. You’ll need to react quickly if you don’t plan on letting them go up the road.

5. Get aero

Did you know that you can do a ‘supertuck’ on descents?

If you stop pedalling while going fast enough on a steep descent, your avatar will sit on the top tube to coast downhill in a more aero position, helping you stay in the pack while getting a little rest.

6. PowerUps

When you’re ready to attack, make good use of PowerUps.

We’ve covered PowerUps in more detail in our Zwift guide, but using them in the right place and at the right time can be a game-changer.

Saving a Helmet Aero Boost (which reduces your avatar’s aerodynamic drag by 25 per cent for 15 seconds) for the sprint to the finish, for example, could be the difference between a good result and finishing in the middle of the pack.

The Feather Lightweight PowerUp, on the other hand, reduces your avatar’s weight by a whopping 9kg for 15 seconds, so is best used to attack on a steep climb.

To activate a PowerUp, you just need to hit the spacebar on your computer, or the on-screen PowerUp icon in the Zwift Companion app.

7. Extra tech

If you have access to a heart rate monitor, it’s worth using it, because many race organisers use this data to analyse how hard riders are working and thereby detect cheats.

Similarly, if you have an on-bike power meter in addition to your smart trainer, recording data from that on a separate device, such as a bike computer, is another useful way to ‘prove’ your numbers are correct, if the need ever arises.

Of course, no-one ever wants to be accused of cheating, but if you’ve got the extra data to prove everything’s in order, you can simply take it as a compliment.

Zwift now offers time trial race formats.
Zwift

8. Try new race formats

Zwift has an ever-increasing number of race formats to try, including chase races, time trials, team time trials and ‘sprint’ races.

Handicap races

Lower categories are set off first and chased down by the higher categories, who start at delayed intervals.

This significantly changes the dynamics of the race, with the bunch mentality shifting from co-operating – whether chasing or staying away – in the early stages, to looking for individual glory.

Time trials

The classic time trial format, but on Zwift.

Riders set off at intervals and are racing against the clock. TT bikes will usually be the order of the day and pacing your effort is key to success.

‘Sprint’ races

‘Sprint’ races are short events between 2-10km long on flat courses. Here, a totally different effort is required to a longer race.

WTRL team time trials

A mainstay of Thursdays on Zwift.

The team time trial is as much an exercise in communication and coordination as it is a workout for your legs and lungs.

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As is the case on real roads, TTTs are a craft in and of themselves, and thousands of people come back every Thursday to duke it out for a coveted spot in the ‘Platinum League’ for the following week.