Meet member, Darlene Smith Anderson – Zwift Racer
What is Zwift?
Zwift is an online cycling and running training program that enables users to interact, train and compete in a virtual world. You can ride virtual roads in different “worlds,” ride structured workouts and follow training programs, or take part in social group rides or races. You can customize your avatar that displays on the screen with different kits and bikes that you earn as you increase levels. Each day there are three different worlds that you can ride in – one is always Watopia, the Zwift virtual world. The others rotate between places such as New York City, London, Yorkshire, Innsbruck, Richmond, Paris and France. Some routes are flat, some have crazy long hills. You can earn more points to level up and achieve badges by completing different routes that range from a few miles long up to 108 miles. To ride you need your bike and a trainer, and a laptop/iPad/phone or Apple TV. A smart trainer (or smart bike) makes for a better experience than a “dumb” trainer as the smart trainer will connect to the program and control the trainer so you feel the hills and descents and it simulates outdoor rides. Your trainer will control the resistance so that you don’t have to keep shifting to try to estimate the perceived resistance (but you can still totally ride with a non-smart trainer).
How did I start with Zwift?
Several years ago I belonged to a gym and used to do spin classes 3-4 times a week. It got really hard to make it to classes on time after work, and trying to get there early enough to get a bike when classes were crowded. I started outdoor cycling again more but was looking for a way to be able to ride at home in the winter. I bought a regular “dumb” trainer and put my bike on it, rode for 15 minutes and hated it. I started exploring different programs and started using The Sufferfest. I did the training programs, the Tour of Sufferlandria, and my Knighthood Quest and loved it, upgrading to a smart trainer after about 6 months. In The Sufferfest you ride the workouts and follow the intervals, sprints, climbs and they are tough workouts, but you are riding by yourself, then chatting with the community on Facebook. It’s a great community and I loved it for 2 years (they also have yoga, strength training and a cool mental toughness training program).
I started getting burnt out with it and 2 years ago a free trial of Zwift and loved it. You get to ride with other people and you can choose what you want to do. I liked that if I just wanted a casual ride I could jump on the bike for 20 minutes and ride. For a while I kept both subscriptions and alternated the rides, but then I found I was riding Zwift all the time so I dropped my Sufferfest subscription for now.
At first with Zwift I did just “free rides” where you pick a course and just ride. Then I started doing some of the events and group rides and learned more about the badges, leveling up, earning the glowing Tron bike and got really hooked on it! I ride it year-round, and in 2020 I only rode outside a handful of times due to the pandemic and not wanting to have a crash and tax the already overwhelmed medical system, and exposing myself to anything as well. I have been riding 5-6 times a week on Zwift. I love that I can get up and ride at 5:45am for 45 minutes before work, or do 3 hour rides with a group on weekends. There are tons of fun events they run, group rides for badges and challenges. Sometimes I do the structured workouts as well. Earlier this year I rode the longest route badge, the London PRL Full route with a big group – 108 miles over 8 hours.
How did I get on a team?
Many of the events on Zwift are races, for all kinds of riders and categories. Some of the races are just individual events, and then there are race leagues. I started seeing a lot of posts about racing in the WTRL Zwift Racing League in the Zwift Ladies Facebook group. I thought maybe I should challenge myself and try something new. I joined the WTRL page and asked if any teams needed riders and got responses from a few teams. There is a Zwift Power page that places you in a race category based on your power outputs from group rides or races you have done. There are A, B, C, and D categories, and I was in a D category. There are male, female and mixed teams. I spoke with a few different groups and chose the Drafting Dinos ladies group because they were a bit more casual and friendly, and had groups that rode in East coast times (there are riders and teams all over the world).
What are the races like?
The WTRL league runs a league with races on Tuesday nights for an 8 week block. I didn’t race in the last season because I was too nervous to try, but started racing in the season that started 4/6/21. Our team does a recon ride on the course we will be racing a few days before the race so you can get familiar with it if you haven’t ridden it before, and to get tips about race strategy for that particular route. They also do some rides to learn about riding in a time trial with a team and learning how to draft and ride together. By my first race I felt better about it and wasn’t quite as nervous.
Some of the races are a team time trial (TTT), and some are individual points races. For the team time trial, you race with your team and try to stay together so you can draft and help each other, taking turns pulling in the front, then going to the back to catch the draft which you can feel as you ride. We can talk to each other using a Discord channel and headphones so you can strategize, check to see if the speed is ok for everyone, etc. When you log in you all are in the “pen” waiting for the race to start and each team has a time to start, each team start spaced apart by a minute or two. You cannot be pedaling for about a minute before the race, you must only start pedaling when the banner drops or else you get penalized. The teams have different kits they wear so you can easily see who your teammates are. You need a minimum of 4 riders and a max of 6 on a team. You must have 4 riders cross the finish line for your time to count, and the team time is counted when rider 4 crosses the finish line. There are rules when being passed by another team – your team should slow to let them pass and then continue on at your pace. My team has 4 D teams in the America’s East division and I am on the D2 team. My first race was a TTT and I was afraid of not keeping up with the team or falling off the back but I ended up having a great time and stayed with the team without a problem. It was actually really fun. The races generally last between 45-60 minutes depending on the route. Some are flatter and faster, and some have lots of hills and are very challenging.
The other type of race is a points race. In these, you still need 4-6 on your team, but your time counts as an individual and you are trying to earn points for your team. On the different courses there are sprint sections usually on flat roads, then KOM/QOM (King of the Mountain/Queen of the Mountain) hill climbs that have points attached to them if you are in the top 10 of fastest through the sprint or on the climb. Then you earn points based on your overall finish. For these, you all wait in the pen for the banner to drop but you can be pedaling on your bike so you can burst out of the gate from the start. All teams in your division start at the same time and it’s a free for all that gradually breaks off into a few different groups of riders. It is easier to try to stay within a group if you can so you can draft off other riders and take turns. You may or may not be riding with other members of your team and you will be riding with people from all different teams. For these rides you can choose your strategy based on your strengths and how you want to ride – you might decide you want to give your all on the sprints to try to get those points and not worry about a QOM hill, or you might not waste energy trying to go fast on a sprint and save your energy to do better on a big climb.
In both types of races, I push myself way harder than any other rides I have ever done. I am surprised every week how my power creeps up a little bit, and how much I can push myself. I am so happy I took the chance and put aside the fear and tried racing. I still get a little nervous before the race and end up in a big sweaty mess by the end, but it pushes me to be a better rider. I also recently upgraded from my smart trainer (Tacx Neo) and bought a Wahoo KICKR bike. It’s amazing and is very smooth and realistic and even tilts up and down on inclines and descents. So much fun to ride!
Best of all, I have started doing some outdoor rides on the local rail trail which I have been riding for years. On my very first ride outdoor ride this year, I had my fastest times since 2016, and this week I beat those times. I have to credit this to the racing and all the work I have been putting in over the last year. While I do love the outdoor rides, nothing beats the convenience and hard work I can put in on the trainer in a shorter period of time. I will definitely keep riding Zwift all summer!