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Zero to Zwift Hero: A one-month crash course in virtual cycling

By Spencer Powlison

Mountain, road, gravel, track — in my 25(ish) years of cycling, I’ve tried it all. There is one cycling discipline that remained unknown to me: virtual cycling. That’s right, I’m talking about the Zwift craze.

You see, I grew up in the cold, snowy, and wet state of Vermont. From November to April, I spent hours on an indoor trainer and rollers, ticking away the miles. I was scarred by those years of sweaty, boring indoor cycling. So, I was pretty reluctant to jump into the world of Zwift, though I knew it would be more entertaining than the old radio player that kept me company while I spun on my rusty set of Kreitler rollers, 20-odd years ago.

I didn’t want to write off Zwift without giving it a shot, though. As you might know, TPC sponsors the Saris + The Pro’s Closet (STPC) Zwift team, so I have ample resources at my disposal to learn the world of virtual cycling. Saris was kind enough to send me an H3 trainer and a TD1 trainer desk. So what the heck, I thought. Let’s give this a shot.

For this challenge, which I’ve facetiously named “Zero to Zwift Hero,” I’m going to take a month to try and learn how to ride Zwift. I’m going to race every week in the USA Cycling Virtual Race Series (sponsored by STPC). I’ll track my progress and share my insight with you. Will I become a Zwift Hero or will I get dropped like a rock? Check back to this blog post as I will be updating it weekly with my latest highs and lows from this month of Zwift exploration.

Week 1: A Zwift rider is born
Week 2: Now the hard work begins

Zero to Zwift Hero
I might look "pro" with my STPC jersey, but I can assure you that I am not ... at least in the world of Zwift.

A Zwift rider is born: Week 1 (Nov. 9-15)

Christmas came early — I got a few big boxes full of new toys, and the snow started to fall. The timing couldn’t have been much better for my Zwift challenge to begin.

It wasn’t necessarily difficult to set up my new Saris H3 direct-mount smart trainer, but took a little time to get all the details right. After the basic unboxing, I mounted a cassette to the trainer and installed the appropriate end caps to fit my bike’s dropouts. The trainer desk bolts together easily enough. Having just moved into my new house, I’ve had lots of practice assembling furniture lately.

Beyond physically assembling my Zwift gear, I needed to set up the guts of this high-tech equipment. I recovered my password from the dormant Zwift account I opened five years ago. I signed up for Zwift Power, which organizes virtual racing and rankings. I downloaded the Saris app, which lets me calibrate the trainer. Surely it was wrong … there’s no way my power is this low! But yes, it was right. I also downloaded the Zwift app for my computer and smartphone. Everything pairs nicely with either Bluetooth or Ant+.

Saris H3 trainer
The Saris H3 direct-drive smart trainer is one of the best setups on the market.

Then, I dove in head-first — riding, racing, group rides, I packed it in this first week! Partly, that was due to some terribly windy and cold weather that made riding outside a nonstarter. Also, I was just curious to try something new, and boy was it new. It has been a really long time since I felt like a beginner in the realm of bikes, and I learned a few things the hard way:

Take it step by step

I wanted to dive right into Zwift racing, but STPC rider Matt Gardiner slowed my roll and recommended I first learn the dynamics of riding in a pack and “drafting.” The easy way to get started is to join a ride with a Zwift pacer bot. These bots are set to ride a consistent pace based on watts per kilo (w/kg). I hopped on with one of these robot riders and quickly started to feel how I should modulate my power to stay positioned in the group.

Third time's the charm

Having raced bikes for decades, I couldn’t hold back my competitive urge. On day two of Zwifting, I thought “why not try this KISS race.” At least it would help me shake out the bugs before Wednesday’s USAC event. So I lined up, was ready to go, and then everyone else in the race vanished. I was alone. Turns out I had downloaded the wrong Zwift app! There are two — Zwift and Zwift Companion. The former is a mobile option for riding in the game. The latter is a way to augment your computer’s app with chat, maps, and more. I had the normal Zwift app running, and it kicked me off the race and took over. So, be careful which app you run. The blue Companion app is what I have up alongside my computer when I’m Zwifting.

My second racing fail came a day later in the USAC event. If you follow the TPC Instagram, you might have watched as I lined up and then suffered a virtual “flat tire” right before the start. Imagine being at the start of a ride or race with a flat tire and then having no idea how to remove your wheel, what a tube was, or even how to attach a pump and air it up. That was me when I had a power drop-out. The trainer was fine. I could tell I was putting out wattage. But Zwift said 0 watts. I believe I did two things wrong: My Ant+ stick was too close to a fan, which can cause electrical interference, and it was too far from my trainer — they say three feet or less is best. I disconnected my trainer, then reconnected it, which solved the issue, but I had a long, hard, and lonely ride to finish that race. From now on, I’ll stick to Bluetooth, which has been good so far.

Finally, on Friday I got it right. I hopped in the Team IRL Without Borders race, rolled out with the group, no problem. And then I promptly got dropped on the climb. It turned out to be an exceptionally mountainous route. Nowhere to hide for a Zwift newbie like myself. It was brutally hard, but fun. I even successfully deployed an Aero Helmet power-up in the finish to win the sprint for 64th.

A Zwift-piphany

So, the racing didn’t go super smoothly this week. Even when I sorted my technical mistakes, I was getting dropped like a rock. But I did have one major epiphany the day after my disastrous USAC race — call it a Zwift-piphany.

I realized that group rides are one of the best things you can do on Zwift.

My first was SlowTwitch’s Hilly Vanilli ride. As you’d expect, there’s some climbing, up Zwift’s volcano, but it wasn’t as miserable as what I’d face the next day in that IRL event. Every group ride has a leader, who is pretty strict about keeping the pace within a giving w/kg range. You know what you’re getting into, because every group ride has that pace listed up-front. Wouldn’t that be nice to know when you roll up for an unfamiliar group ride on the open road?

Zwift group rides helped me continue to develop my pack skills, which can be downright entertaining. They're also very social with people chatting from start to finish.

Zwift group ride
Four-hundred-plus people in a virtual group ride on Zwift? Just another Saturday, I suppose!

I couldn’t resist signing up for another on Saturday as the howling Colorado wind kept me inside, and to my shock, I got through a 63-mile 3R Endurance ride and actually enjoyed it! I cannot remember the last time I logged an indoor ride over two hours, but this one flew by as I worked on maintaining position and using the draft.

Looking forward to week 2, more snow is in the forecast, and I’m hoping I can find a race that suits my strengths a little better than the brutal seven-mile climb that crushed me in the IRL race. Stay tuned, and let me know if you have any questions or suggestions in the comments!

Week 1 stats:

Level 8 (out of 50)
Ranking: 159,053rd
15-second power: 8.33 w/kg
1-minute power: 5.29 w/kg
5-minute power: 4.08 w/kg

Now the hard work begins - Week 2 (Nov. 16-22)

In a lot of ways, Zwift isn’t quite like “in real life” (IRL) riding. Unless you have an elaborate setup, there’s no steering or balance required. You’re constantly drenched in sweat unless you have an industrial fan (I don’t). And accidentally unplugging your trainer can totally ruin a planned group ride. (Yep, that happened to me this week).

But when I get dropped in a race, well, that feels pretty familiar to me, and it’s just as demoralizing.

After overcoming my first-week learning curve on Zwift, I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. My setup was dialed. I was starting to understand how to “draft” other riders in the bunch. My second attempt at the USA Cycling Virtual Race series went pretty well. I hung with the small but strong B group until the final climb. After that result, I got a little cocky and decided to take on the IRL Without Borders weekly race again. That’s when I got humbled.

With 80+ riders on the start, it was a stacked field. I thought I had a chance with the relatively flat London course. I was wrong. Even though I produced my best power output numbers so far, I watched the group ride away from me as we sped past the “Thames.”

Clearly, I still have a lot to learn. So, I called up U.S. national Zwift champion Holden Comeau, who rides for our Saris + The Pro’s Closet team. Comeau suggested a couple of drills to use in group rides that could help me work on my pack riding skills. I can only put out so much power, but if I practice Zwift and find ways to ride efficiently, at least I can make the most of what I’ve got.

USA Cycling Virtual Race Series
The second round of USA Cycling's Virtual race series went far better than the first one. 

Zwift drill #1: The washing machine

Experienced road riders know the washing machine effect. In a group of cyclists, people swell to the front of the group while others are swallowed up and drift back. The pace ebbs and flows, making it challenging to hold position. Ideally, you stay near the front of the group, but out of the wind. The same idea applies to Zwift.

Comeau suggested finding a position toward the front of the group, perhaps 5-10 riders back from the front. The objective is to modulate your power output to remain in that position, no matter who moves up and who drifts back.

This drill requires a lot of focus and some pretty precise pedaling. I found myself overdoing it at first and ending up on the front of the group, rather than a few wheels back. It’s also easy to lose focus for a moment and drift back 10 riders before you know it. I certainly found this made trainer time fly by!

Start by playing this game for short periods of time, like five minutes. That way fatigue doesn’t creep in and lead to sloppy riding. Give yourself little breaks to avoid mental (and physical) fatigue.

Zwift drill #2: The shadow

This second drill is more difficult, so try to master the washing machine first. Comeau suggested choosing a rider in the group and then shadowing them as they move throughout the peloton.

One practical consideration: Most Zwift group rides have all of the riders wearing the same kit, so sometimes it’s tricky to find someone with a distinctive helmet or bike to spot in the bunch. I have been finding that the “Tron” bikes really stand out.

As you follow your rider through the bunch, you’ll find they surge and fade rather unpredictably. Watch their avatar carefully and respond quickly with either more or less power.If they are drifting back faster than expected, it can help to coast briefly to cut speed. Your accelerations have to be carefully modulated as well.

Zwift drill #3: Leapfrog

Here’s a bonus drill that I came up with on my own while riding with a pace partner group on Sunday. The object of the drill is to move up in the group with precision.

Set yourself up toward the front of a group, perhaps 10 riders back. Look at the riders in front and pick one that will be your target. Then, using a precise acceleration, move past the riders in between so you end up on your target rider’s wheel.

I find this is easier to do in a slower group, so maybe start with a group ride that’s a category below where you usually ride or race. The Pace Partner groups also work well because they’re steady rides that are less prone to unexpected surges. Remember, this is a positioning drill, not a sprint workout. It’s easier to practice power control when you aren’t on the rivet!

Week 2 stats:
Level 9 (out of 50)
Ranking: 44,924th
15-second power: 8.87 w/kg
1-minute power: 5.49 w/kg
5-minute power: 4.35 w/kg

1 comment

  • Fantastic article Spencer!

    Nick Martin on

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