The Virtual Racing Mistakes Pros Have Made—So You Don’t Have To

Virtual races are full of very real possibilities for mistakes. Learn from the best.

Photo: Courtesy of the Tim & Rinny Show

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There’s plenty to learn from the travails of professional triathletes in the great outdoors, but when it comes to the controlled environs of their own pain caves, surely there’s only so much that can go awry, right? Wrong. From miscalculations over the choice of bike, course, or spouse (!) to the audible expulsion of bodily fluids, we drop in on six leading pros for some all too candid revelations about when virtual racing turns into a real nightmare.

Adam Bowden: Wrong bike, wrong time

The British middle distance ace told us his FTP has been shooting through the roof since he started competing in the Zwift Z Pro Tri Series last month. The bike-run-bike format starts with a hill climb time-trial on the trainer, a hop onto the treadmill for a brisk leg-stretcher, before finishing back on the static bike for a six-lap criterium of the aptly named Crit City. 

It’s a brutal finale. Points are awarded to the top three on an intermediate sprint during each lap before one final blast for the finish—with the racer with the most points taking the win. While you might not be able to compete in every sprint, the golden rule is ‘don’t get dropped.’ Against the combined horsepower of a motivated peloton, there’s no way back once you’re off the back. 

Having performed admirably to finish second in the five-mile TT, a technical hiccup meant Bowden didn’t start the run. Undeterred, he was back for the final stage determined to make an impact. The crit started, Bowden’s direct drive trainer in his South Wales conservatory whirred into action … and the competition left him for dust!

“I was hammering it, yet I couldn’t keep up,” he said. “I was like: ‘Why are they going away so quickly?’” He then realized that his lonely avatar was still on the TT bike from the earlier round, meaning he couldn’t draft. “I could have sworn I switched it over before the race,” he said. At the time he probably just swore. A lot.

Lesson: Make sure you’re riding the right virtual bike for the race!

**MEMBER EXCLUSIVE: How to Crush Virtual Racing

Reece Charles-Barclay: Too soon

One of the other golden rules of triathlon is to know the course. But given you don’t have to steer (yet!) in e-racing, you could almost be forgiven for letting your attention wander to which PowerUp—a la burrito, feather, or anvil—you plan to throw down next. Or more rudimentarily, maybe you just need to concentrate on playing whack-a-mole every time a challenger pops up.    

However, a lack of reconnaissance can still come at a cost, as the male half of the Charles-Barclay racing dynasty found out the hard way in the Zwift Z Pro Tri Series on our already notorious Crit City course. 

Like all good marriages, there are no secrets, particularly when it comes to racing, so Reece has been lovingly ratted out by his other half, Lucy, here.  The three-time Kona runner-up had just stepped off the treadmill from her own footrace to see Reece slamming the power down at the front of the bike pack for each intermediate sprint—yet picking up precisely ZERO bonus points, because he was sprinting for the WRONG arch.

“Luckily, I was going second, so I figured it out by my turn,” she said. She seemed to figure it out well too, dominating in the crit and taking three of the four rounds in the series to finish runner-up overall.

Lesson: Your sprint will be better timed if you know where the finish line is.

**MEMBER EXCLUSIVE: Racing Inside: A Rider’s Guide to E-Racing

Lucy Charles-Barclay: Sick maneuver

Let’s stick with Lucy for our next anecdote, but transition from the bike to the treadmill—with the disclaimer that this is a yarn for stronger stomachs. ie. NOT her’s. While the Zwift avatar tends to make running along at 10+ mph look a little too effortless, it wasn’t quite the same on the dreadmill inside the Charles-Barclay pain cave, at CBHQ just outside of London. 

In the first round of the series, Lucy Charles-Barclay locked into her pace, reached the end of the first mile—and then promptly threw up. We didn’t need to see photographic evidence, but, like it or lump it, she insisted. Thanks, Lucy.

More thankfully, the hardwood floor lovingly lacquered by years of Charles-Barclay sweat was more than a match for the contents of her dinner and, while she termed it an “epic fail,” it didn’t stop her cleaning up on the racecourse.

Lesson: If you’re going to go for a big effort have a bucket ready. Failing that a towel and/or mop!

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Rinny & Tim: Pulling the plug

You’d think that triathlon couples would have an innate understanding of how e-racing works and be ideally prepared to support one other: topping up nutrition, mopping the brow, making sure the footage looks good for the YouTube channel etc. 

But this is e-racing, where logic also flies out of the window—along with Mirinda Carfrae’s hopes of winning the Ironman VR Pro Challenge event she contested last spring. The three-time Kona winner was taking part in Ironman’s fledgling virtual series on the Rouvy platform when hubbie Tim O’Donnell, clearly still envious of her Big Island success, managed to trip over the power cord and unplug her attempt at a win.

Like any forgiving spouse, Mirinda succinctly summed up the predicament: “When he walked around the back, he kicked out the plug. What an idiot!” Tim tried to make amends by holding up a piece of paper on the livestream that read: ‘MY BAD.’ Daughter Isabelle continued to play happily in the corner. In a tale that stretched around the globe, it really was The Tim & Rinny Show Unplugged.

Lesson: Keep cords out of the way—or your spouse out of the house.

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Jonas Schomburg: Rotter-dang!

Normally you can work through the fallout of an e-racing faux pas in the sweaty comfort of your own home without an audience. So you have to feel for Jonas Schomburg, who faced a public shaming after snatching a clunking great defeat from the jaws of victory in last year’s Super League Triathlon Arena Games in Rotterdam.

The big German’s tactics of running barefoot on the treadmill had worked. He was at 19 points, two clear of compatriot Justus Nieschlag, with the rest of the field seemingly nowhere. After a 200m swim, 4km ride, 1km run, 4km ride, 1km run, 200m swim, 1km run and 200m swim…. all that was left for our runaway leader was one final 4km ride for the biggest win of his career. 

Cruising to the inaugural crown, Schomburg exited the water for the final bike ride in third place with a seemingly unassailable overall lead. But rather than pushing the pace to stay with the front two, he allowed the entire field to come back together to climax in a bunch sprint. The avatar horde flew under the arch together and in the ensuing shakedown a disbelieving Schomburg was placed ninth out of 10. After the final calculations, he’d unthinkably slipped not just from top spot, but off the final podium altogether. “The pain is real. It’s e-sports, but that hurt,” commented SLT founder and co-commentator Chris McCormack at the time. For a wounded Schomburg it hurt in more ways than one.

Lesson: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

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Lionel Sanders: P is for perfection

Our final anecdote might be an unlikely scenario for an age-grouper to find themselves in, but with the amount of tech we use perhaps it shouldn’t be ruled out altogether.

When it comes to virtual racing, the Canadian Lionel Sanders has long been a top gun, even beating renowned pro cyclist and recent Strade Bianche winner Mathieu van der Poel in the ‘Ronde on Zwift’ e-race last April. But the 33-year-old became more naked gun in his first race with the Canyon eSports team—specifically the time when Leslie Nielsen’s Naked Gun character took relief in the men’s room during a press conference, and forgot to switch off his lapel mic.

I joined their Discord channel and during the warm-up got off the bike to go pee,” said Sanders. “I thought the microphone was in the phone, but it turned out it is in the headphones—which were still on my head—and the team heard me take a full leak. I heard someone say: ‘Sounds like someone has taken us to the loo with them!” That’s when I found out where the mic is!”

Thankfully, his performances on the bike have been far more than a flush in the pan. How does that make him feel? Relieved, probably.

Lesson: Make sure you know here the camera is pointed and what the mic is tuning into. (Also a good lesson outside of racing.)

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