Zwift’s online training and racing platform has taken the cycling world by storm, enabling riders to roam virtual worlds to improve their fitness, socialise on group rides and even compete without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes.
Racing is a key part of the Zwift experience. Amateur cyclists can test their mettle against fellow competitors in Zwift’s virtual worlds, without the confusion and expense of entering real-world races.
Meanwhile, pro riders can compete in elite-level virtual events, such as the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. There was even a virtual Tour de France in July 2020 – the first of its kind.
This new approach to racing is enabling more people than ever to dip a toe into the world of competitive cycling.
“Zwift racing is incredibly accessible and offers friendly competition for all abilities and experience levels,” says Abi Flynn, Zwift’s European PR manager.
“The biggest racing league is the Zwift Racing League (ZRL),” adds Flynn. “It’s a team-based competition with leagues catering for all abilities and all time zones. Races are a mix of ‘traditional’ first-across-the-line bunch races, with bonus points for intermediate climbs and sprints, and team time trials.”
Joining a Zwift race is simple, with both individual and series-based events available, for riders of all levels.
Riders must first select a category based on their functional threshold power (FTP) and power-to-weight ratio – this ensures you are competing against riders of a similar ability – and then find an event, either in-game or using the Companion app (we’ve got a full explainer on Zwift racing, with more on categories, race formats and tactics).
“The best way to search for races on Zwift is via the Zwift Companion app, where you can filter all events by category and type,” says Flynn.
This ease of use and accessibility has opened racing up to a wider field. It has democratised competitive cycling, giving those who might have otherwise been reluctant or unable to race a chance to build their confidence and gain the skills required to compete virtually.
“The accessibility of Zwift racing is why so many people give it a try,” says Flynn. “There are events taking place around the clock and you can dabble from the comfort of your home – no need to travel or buy racing licenses.
“It gives everyone a fantastic workout and pushes Zwifters to ride harder than they otherwise might. This is why many cyclists use Zwift racing as a component of their cycling training.”
One such rider is Andrew Grant, a photographer and keen amateur cyclist who has used the platform to bolster his training and boost his confidence.
“When I’m training, I like to throw the odd Zwift race in just to break things up and make my indoor sessions a bit more exciting,” Grant tells BikeRadar. “High-intensity sessions can be a drag on their own, so the competitive element is a great motivator for me.
“It’s a good way to get a feel for racing before you try it in the real world.
“Racing in Zwift helped to build up my fitness for racing in real life, but it also helped me to understand the strategies and tactics racing required from the safety of my own home – things like drafting and learning where to position yourself in the bunch.
“In short, it gave me the confidence to go out and race.”
Pro cycling: the new normal?
The vast majority of racers on Zwift are people like Andrew – amateur riders who benefit in some way from being part of the online racing community.
However, Zwift does host an ever-increasing selection of pro-level races, including the much-talked-about UCI Cycling Esports World Championship.
“There are pro cyclists who race regularly to tune up their top-end efforts,” says Flynn. “However, cycling esports is a discipline in its own right, and there are many specialists emerging from the community.
“There are even professionally supported esports teams like NeXT Esport p/b Enshored and Canyon Esports. Movistar Team was actually the first WorldTour team to set up a dedicated esports racing team for both men and women, with the Movistar ETeam.”
Irish national road race champion Imogen Cotter, who had been riding for Belgian elite outfit Keukens Redant Cycling Team for several years, was one of the riders selected for the Movistar ETeam when it launched.
“I feel like the opportunity with the Movistar team opened up so many doors for me,” Cotter tells BikeRadar. “The help I was able to get from the team and the sponsors over the last year has taken so much stress off my shoulders, and really enabled me to focus on cycling.
“Knowing that I could reach out to the team if I had any issues or any questions about training was a massive help. I’ve also gotten stronger from the racing opportunities they have given me on Zwift, as it’s enabled me to learn more about how to suffer as an athlete.”
The 2020 lockdowns set the scene for Cotter’s introduction to Zwift racing. Indoor cycling became an important tool when restrictions prevented outdoor rides, and racing on the platform soon became an invaluable part of her training.
“I was in Ireland and we were restricted to a 5km radius, so racing on Zwift was my way of getting in some racing intensity while I waited for my season to start back up,” Cotter says.
“I did a few races, but it was only in February of 2021 that I took it seriously. That was when I saw that Movistar was setting up an e-team.”
Since then, Cotter has won the Irish national title, only four years after taking up cycling, and will step up to the pro road ranks in 2022 after signing for Belgium-based UCI Continental team Plantur-Pura.
Pedalling through the pandemic
Cotter isn’t the only cyclist to have become more involved in Zwift over lockdown. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw more riders than ever before turning to smart trainers and indoor cycling apps for their daily dose of exercise.
Cyclists all over the world collectively removed their back wheels, and by May 2020, smart trainers had all but sold out.
Athletes from other disciplines also began to partake in Zwift racing as a means of keeping fit in lockdown. Jamie Tyerman is an amateur triathlete who used Zwift races to train during the pandemic as he prepared for an Ironman Triathlon he wasn’t even sure would go ahead.
“Zwift racing has helped me a lot in terms of building my FTP and overall performance on the bike,” says Tyerman. “I use it as part of a structured training plan. Now, I’ll regularly jump on a ZRL race instead of my weekly high-intensity turbo ride just to spice things up.”
Riders like Jamie have caused huge spikes in Zwift’s numbers during the pandemic. In 2020, the platform saw a 300 per cent increase in daily activity and now has somewhere in the region of three million user accounts registered across 190 countries.
One of those accounts belongs to Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, the reigning esports world champion, who, prior to 2020, did everything she could to avoid riding indoors.
The South African is a decorated road racer, currently riding for Team SD Worx and residing in Girona, Spain. When lockdown restrictions hit the country, she turned to Zwift and hasn’t looked back since.
“I never considered e-racing before the pandemic,” Moolman-Pasio tells BikeRadar. “I really didn’t enjoy training indoors as I’ve always lived in ideal locations for cycling. I also struggled to match my power numbers on an indoor trainer, which I found very demotivating.
“In Spain, it was a really hard lockdown, so the only way to continue riding was to embrace indoor training.
“In the real world, my local hill is Rocacorba, which is where I usually do my hill reps. During lockdown, I realised I could do the same thing on Alpe du Zwift.”
A month into lockdown and Zwifting had become the highlight of Moolman-Pasio’s day. The social aspect helped her to push through the initial stiffness and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that come with effectively starting a new discipline, and it wasn’t long before she was holding the same power numbers on the trainer as outdoors.
“That was a huge motivation for me,” says Moolman-Pasio. “It wasn’t long after that I joined one of the Zwift Premier League races as a guest rider on the Rowe & King team.
“I was very intimidated at first. It felt like a total unknown to me. I’d seen the sort of power-to-weight ratios these women were capable of in the game and I was pretty apprehensive. In the end, I wound up completely surprising myself and winning. That’s when the bug really bit.”
Winning the Esports World Championships
Moolman-Pasio took a few weeks off when the real-world season ended and realised she would have just enough time to prepare for the Esports World Championships. For the next six weeks, she chained herself to Zwift, retraining her body for optimal performance on the indoor trainer.
“It was a big goal for me,” she says. “I’d become a huge advocate of the virtual world and the potential it has, especially for women’s cycling and increasing female participation.
“I was doing most of my interval sessions on Zwift. My focus was mostly on VO2 max efforts on the World Championships course [which used a 50km route in Zwift’s Watopia world]. By the time it came to racing, I knew the course like the back of my hand so I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to win.
“I also did research into my competitors and their fastest times by using the Companion app. All of this work came together, and by the time I was on the start line, I really believed I could win. That gave me a lot of motivation and extra strength – which I needed, because Sarah Gigante did really make me work for it right to the line!”
Moving Zwiftly forwards
What does all of this mean for the future of racing? Virtual cycling platforms are providing a new arena for cyclists to compete against one another and, with more pros like Moolman-Pasio and Cotter dabbling in the discipline, it could continue to offer a new avenue for professional cycling.
“It’s incredible to be able to experience a win from the comfort of my own home with my friends and loved ones around me,” says Moolman-Pasio.
“Sure, you can’t see your competitors, but those people that support you on a daily basis are right there next to you, encouraging you and helping you to dig deeper, and that’s quite a special experience.”
Moolman-Pasio also believes the advent of e-racing has helped bring a new dawn for women’s cycling – a new dawn that, on the road in 2022, includes the long-awaited Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, with eight stages through northern France from 24-31 July.
It’s no secret that female riders have been undervalued in professional cycling, but Moolman-Pasio believes Zwift as a platform is empowering women in the sport to go further.
“Zwift has always prioritised equality,” she says. “From the word go, any racing I did on Zwift was equal in terms of male and female participation.
“That went all the way through to the virtual Tour de France, which gave 100 per cent equality to men and women. For me, it marks a massive turning point for women’s cycling.”