Zwift racing: categories, formats and tactics explained

Channel your inner Hinault without leaving your house

Zwift esports 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 and most exciting 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 lovely 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. Eight pro teams competed in this year’s Tour de Zwift, for example, and the first-ever UCI Cycling Esports World Championships will take place on 9 December 2020.

Maybe you’ve got what it takes too? There’s only one way to find out…

If you’re new to Zwift and wondering what it’s all about, don’t forget to check out our complete Zwift guide.

What you need to get started

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 seven-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 budget trainer to the ultimate indoor smart bike, but for the best experience you ideally want to use a smart trainer.

If you only have a classic-style 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 seven-day trial. After your trial period ends, Zwift costs £12.99 / $14.99 per month.

Zwift esports racing
Even the pros race on Zwift these days.
Zwift

How to find a race on 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.

Zwift comapnion app events page
The easiest way to find races is via the Zwift Companion app.
Simon Bromley/Immediate Media

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 high-viz jacket volunteering at local road races and time trials.

Some of these communities have grown into large and sophisticated organisations though, like the WTRL (World Tactical Racing Leagues). Having made a name for itself with a weekly time trial race series, WTRL has recently entered into an official partnership with Zwift to coordinate the Zwift Racing League.

The Zwift Racing League offers races for all abilities, from beginners to professional athletes, and races are organised on both a regional and global basis. In a nutshell, there’s something for everyone.

Season one of the Zwift Racing League saw more than 1,000 teams from all over the world sign up to take part, and registrations for season two are now open, with the racing due to begin in January 2021.

Zwift Racing League
Zwift has partnered with WTRL to organise the Zwift Racing League.
Zwift

Zwift categories: how to pick which category to enter

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:

  • A: 4.0 w/kg or higher
  • B: 3.2-3.9 w/kg
  • C: 2.5-3.1 w/kg
  • D: 2.4 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.

Zwift categories
Once you’ve selected a race, you need to choose which category you want to enter. You can also set a reminder or add it to your calendar.
Simon Bromley/Immediate Media

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

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

Zwift racing training plan
If you’ve got a solid base of fitness and are looking to step your Zwift racing up a level, this could be the ideal training plan for you.
Zwift

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

 1. Do your homework

Knowing the course is a key component to 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.

Zwift Yorkshire course
The pace inevitably heats up on the climbs, so make sure you’re ready for it.
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, so it’s going to leave you at a very significant disadvantage.

Zwift Futureworks Mountain Bike
Gravel and mountain bikes are much faster on Zwift’s dirt roads, but make sure you assess the overall demands of the course.
Zwift

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 automatically be transported 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.

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.

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.

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.

Zwift sprint finish
Timing your attacks and PowerUp use effectively is key to Zwift racing.
Zwift

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, as many race organisers use this data to analyse how hard riders are working and thereby detect cheaters.

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 cycle 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 Boost Mode
Knowing when to use the power assistance from your Boost Cell is the key to winning Boost Mode races.
Zwift

8. FutureWorks Events

Keep an eye out for events under Zwift’s FutureWorks umbrella, as these include new and exciting racing formats. Currently, there are two race formats on trial: Steering Races and Boost Mode.

Elite’s Sterzo Smart steering plate can provide an advantage in the Steering Races, if used correctly. Though you’ll have to consciously pay attention to keep yourself in the optimal drafting position, it also allows you to cut corners and take the fastest racing line possible.

When attacking, you might even consider moving to the opposite side of the (virtual) road, thus making it harder for competitors to immediately get into your draft.

In the Boost Mode format, you race with a virtual battery pack strapped to your virtual bike and can choose when to use the battery’s power, for a certain amount of time.

Before the race, you can choose between three different Boost Cells. Each cell adds weight to your bike, though, with the one that gives the largest boost adding the most weight (and vice versa) – it isn’t just ‘free speed’.

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The idea here is that it adds a greater tactical element to racing, so strategy and timing become just as important as your physical attributes.