By Jessica McWhirt
Somewhere between the false flat and the 7% grade hill, I lost the front group. It was a clear indication of one of my (many) weaknesses in racing. The hills were relentless in Zwift’s UCI Harrogate course, almost like the Superior Morgul Road Race in Colorado but without The Wall, wind, rain, course announcers, volunteers, the labored breathing of other racers, cowbells, and my family shouting at me to pedal faster up a steep hill. None of that exists in Zwift.
What I did have were racing and music. As AC/DC’s “Thunder” played and the second group started pulling away, I knew if I lost them, I’d be riding solo for the next fifteen miles. I’m not sure what’s worse: riding solo on Zwift or on the Superior Morgul roads. In real-life road races, if you lose the group for a few seconds, a thirty-second hard effort could catch you back up to them. In Zwift, when you lose the group, you lose them hard and fast. It feels nearly impossible to catch them again.
The efforts to stay with the group were challenging enough, to do it solo or get caught by the third group didn’t sound like a [virtual] road I wanted to go down. With a smart trainer, the resistance increases or decreases based on Zwift’s terrain. Every hill we virtually raced up and down felt like a real hill outside – relentless, steep, and muscle-destroying. Unlike real-life downhills, you don’t get a break in Zwift. If you stop pedaling on the downhill, the momentum of the group will jettison them far ahead of you.
USA Cycling started a 10-week-long Wednesday race series on Zwift on April 22nd to fulfill that racing urge we have. There are six time slots: 3:50 AM MST, 12:00 PM MST, and 6:50 PM MST for women and 3:45 AM MST, 11:55 AM MST, and 6:45 PM MST for men.
There are four categories per time slot for men and women broken out by watts/kilogram so you need to know that before signing up. To find that out you need to know your FTP and your weight in kilograms. Then take your FTP and divide it by your kilos. Here are the Zwift categories and their respective w/kg:
A: 3.7+ w/kg, B. 3.2 – 3.69 w/kg C: 2.5 – 3.19 w/kg. D: <2.49 w/kg
A: 4+ w/kg. B. 3.2 – 3.99 w/kg. C: 2.5 – 3.19 w/kg. D: <2.49 w/kg
USA Cycling is also keeping track of USAC members’ standings and there are prizes to win every week. Not only that but you can actually tune in to watch the women and men’s A category at 11:55 AM MST hosted by the best bike race announcer, Dave Towle, and Zwift’s infamous announcer, Nathan Guerra. Even after I’ve finished my B category race, I’ll tune in to Zwift’s YouTube Channel to watch how the women’s and men’s A race went just for the fact that Dave and Nathan are so entertaining. They make watching avatars riding around in a virtual world memorable and like this isn’t the dorkiest thing I’ve ever done.
Zwift isn’t just about how many watts you can throw down from start to finish. There is a gaming element to it. When I first learned about Zwift I made fun of my friend who liked it. I thought it was nerdy. It reminded me of the kids who’d spend all day in their parents’ basement staring at the television screen, talking trash to their opponents through oversized headphones, with Doritos and Diet Coke within arm’s reach.
The other day, Zwift sent me a 4-year anniversary email. I’ve maxed out the levels and I’m 19,775 miles in. I’ve burned 1,591 slices of pizza and in total, I’ve spent 43 days and 20 hours on Zwift. I am the adult version of that kid: with a separate room for my trainer, controlling Zwift from my iPhone (for power-ups, chatting with teammates, and giving ride-ons), UCAN starch drink within arm’s reach, and yelling at my computer screen.
For the foreseeable future, Zwift is the new racing. As race directors continue to cancel and postpone races, we’ll take what we can get. And I love to hate every second of it.