Virtual racing is one of the fastest-growing segments of the sport of cycling. Due in part to the global pandemic we find ourselves in, it’s booming in popularity. Everyone from amateurs to top pros are taking to their home trainers to duke it out with rivals around the planet.
But what exactly is virtual racing? Why are those riders you see photos of on social media in so much pain, and so sweaty? How does it all work? Can anyone join in? And is it here to stay? Our guide has you covered.
Virtual racing is similar to real-world racing in that it’s cyclists racing against each other to be first across the line in a variety of virtual worlds.
As a rider pedals on their stationary trainer, power output is related via their computer into the racing program – for the Virtual Tour de France, it’s Zwift. Zwift takes a rider’s power output and divides it by the rider’s weight, to produce a ‘watts per kilo’ (WPK) number. The higher a rider’s WPK, the faster their onscreen virtual avatar will go.
If this sounds like the sort of activity you might want to try then you’ll need a few things:
- A bike (duh)
- A smart trainer (not like Steve Jobs smart, but Bluetooth smart)
- Heart rate (HR) monitor
- A laptop, tablet or – in a pinch – a smartphone
- A fan (seriously, get the most powerful fan you can find)
- A towel (sweat contains salt, and salt is not good for your bike)
- A subscription to Zwift, or RGT or another virtual racing program
The setup is crucial to get right, but there are plenty of resources to help you choose the perfect trainer. Here are a few pointers to help you get set up quickly:
– Pick a ‘smart’ trainer, one that will connect with Ant+ and/or Bluetooth. This means it can connect to your device and your HR monitor, so you get all the data you need.
– Unless you’re running an Apple IIe, your computer most likely has Bluetooth capabilities, but make sure you check before splashing the cash on a trainer
– Decide what you’re going to race. Is it Zwift? Rouvy? RGT? Or a combination of all three? Each has its own subscription packages and benefits
– We recommend a fan and towel to wipe sweat and protect your bike because even with windows open, being on the trainer makes the inside of a volcano seem cool and refreshing.
So now you’ve got the hardware, you need the software. Let’s look at the different ways you can virtually race.
Zwift is by far the most popular way to get into virtual racing. The Zwift allure comes from its variety and simplicity. Choose a race from a list of events, pick a category (based on your FTP for fairness), and away you go. Zwift offers races of all distances and types, from time trials to long-distance stage races within their virtual worlds (Watopia for instance). Both Rally Cycling’s women’s and men’s teams have raced on Zwift extensively.
There can be a few tricks and tips for racing successfully on Zwift but essentially, start pedaling before the countdown ends, and make sure you save your energy for the final sprint! For a racing starting point, and at $14.99 a month, Zwift ticks all the boxes.
RGT Cycling prides itself on its ‘real-world’ feel. You can literally race on real-world roads. If you fancy taking on the 2016 Olympic road race route, you could. Or if you want to ride your local club run, you can upload the GPX file to RGT and it will show you the route. The physics are slightly more in tune with reality than Zwift, so you won’t be swinging the bike around a hairpin at 100kph. Drafting is more favorable to the group than Zwift.
At $14.99 a month, RGT has a lot to offer.
The lesser-known Rouvy still offers a great intro to virtual racing. Featuring virtual routes and 3D riders, Rouvy has over 7000km of certified routes for you to race on, including iconic mountain passes like the Stelvio. At $10 a month it’s also the cheapest option, and lets you use it as a family account for up to two more members.
If you’re just getting started in virtual racing, remember to have fun and try and embrace the pain, even if you can’t see the screen through your sweat-filled eyes!
Rally Cycling’s Virtual Tour de France Primer:
Read our Virtual Tour de France preview
How to watch and stream the Virtual Tour live
Find out how we chose the Virtual Tour de France roster