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How to Handle the Start of a Zwift Race

Zwift races start like rockets, with riders blasting out of the starting chute and holding high power for a minute or more. Here's how to prepare.

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While virtual racing apps such as Zwift, BKool, and RGT are very close to the real thing, there are important differences. I recently asked Emile Abraham, a top U.S. crit racer and Pan Am Games medalist, his thoughts on Zwift. He said he doesn’t use it because he couldn’t get through the first five minutes of a race!

In Zwift racing, it’s almost guaranteed that the field will shatter into small groups in the opening minutes. Those splits generally determine the race. Here are a few tips for making the right group.

Build ’Cross-Start Legs

The start of a virtual race is like cyclocross or criterium racing. Those riders must produce repeated hard efforts of a minute or two in the first 10 minutes of the race to get the best position.

Almost any above-threshold efforts that hurt and don’t allow much rest will be ideal. Tabatas are a great option, and I’d also recommend longer ones to build mental toughness. I’d recommend sets of six one-minute efforts with 30-second recoveries or 40-second efforts with 20-second recoveries.

If you don’t like interval work, then do race start “sets.” On Zwift there’s always another race starting in a few minutes. Do a workout jumping from race to race and just do the first 10 minutes of each.

Be Like a Crit Rider — Arrive Early

Experienced crit racers will arrive 15 to 20 minutes early just to get a front-row position. And that’s for a race with 60 to 100 riders. Start 2,000th wheel in Zwift and you will never see the front. In Zwift, you can join a race 30 minutes before it starts. Click Join as soon as the prompt pops up on your screen.

Bonus tip: If you don’t want to sit in the starting pen for 30 minutes, you can quit the game after joining the event, restart, and ride elsewhere in Zwift until the start gets near. Then when you rejoin the event — at least five minutes before the start — your start-line place will have been saved.

View of crowded Zwift start
Go to the starting pen as soon as you are able at 30 minutes out. If you like, you can then quit the game, restart, and free ride until the start gets closer — without losing your place.

Warmup on the Virtual Trainer

Two minutes isn’t enough warm-up time. Figure out your optimal warm-up routine, but as a basic guide, get one or two 3-5-minute race pace efforts at least 15 minutes before the start. Then, do two or three all-out sprints followed by 10 minutes easy.

Start Before the Start

When the clock begins to count down the final seconds to the start, wind up your power. This way, when the flag drops, you’ll blast out of the chute with the others. If you wait until you the clock hits zero to start pedaling, you’ll be left behind.

Jump Hard but Keep Enough in the Tank

Cross racers must start fast and then ride at threshold for close to an hour. Similarly, there’s no point sprinting for a minute to make the front group in a virtual race if you then blow up. When doing your interval work, practice doing a five-minute threshold effort at the end of your last interval to build this skill.