Like every other sport, local bike racing has been halted by COVID-19. Since sporting competitions were banned in late March, cycling clubs in Australia have been forced to hit ‘pause’ on their race programs.
Thanks to virtual cycling apps like Zwift, cyclists still have a competitive outlet. These apps allow us to race anyone from anywhere around the world.
But let’s face it: most of us prefer to ride with our friends in the next suburb, not strangers on the other side of the globe. In lockdown, we’re mostly trying to stay connected with our social circles. We miss the local racing scene: we want to see familiar names and faces, chase the wheels we know in the real world, beat our mates to the top of the KOM.
That’s why some Sydney cycling clubs are transferring their races to the virtual world. Aiming to keep their community connected, clubs are hosting digital equivalents of club races for their members and regular racers.
The trouble is, it’s not obvious how to host a private Zwift race for a small group of local cyclists.
Zwift is by far the most popular of the virtual cycling platforms right now, but it doesn’t allow users to host their own private races. At the moment, only Zwift itself has the power to create new events.
(RGT Cycling, a competitor of Zwift’s, does allow user-created races, but I haven’t seen any Australian clubs embrace that platform yet).
Faced with this restriction, cycling clubs have found two workarounds to provide something akin to private, local Zwift racing to their members. Both methods have their downsides, but until Zwift allows user-created races, it’s the best we can do.
Option 1: Tag along with an official Zwift race
The first solution is to tag along with an official Zwift race. Instead of creating a new event, the club picks a suitable race on the Zwift calendar and tells its members to sign up.
The downside is that riders are mixed with general competitors from all over the world. This is not a “private race” by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not a head-to-head contest between club members; instead, it becomes a test of how long you can hold on to the main peloton.
One way to improve this method is to delay the start of the club race beyond the official race start. By waiting behind while everyone else blasts off the start line, the road should clear out for members to have their own private race behind the main pack.
Results – Zwift Power
To produce a results sheet with members only, participants will need to sign up to Zwift Power, a website that tracks results, power data and grading. In Zwift Power, the club creates a “Team” for its members to join. Each rider’s Team name is shown prominently in the Zwift Power results page, making it easy to distinguish members from non-members. (Alternatively, participants can add their club name to the end of their Zwift username).
By referring to the Zwift Power results, the club can rank its members relative to each other in a separate spreadsheet. It’s a manual process, but with for small local club races, it shouldn’t be overly burdensome.
Clubs using this method
St George Cycling Club has been using this method to replace its weekly races at Oatley Park. The club is also keeping a points score from week to week. Similarly, Port Macquarie CC and clubs in the Hunter region have adopted this method for a regional inter-club series.
Option 2: Racing in Meetups
The second way clubs are hosting private races on Zwift is based on the Meetup function.
Meetups are user-created group rides that allow friends to ride together at the same time, on the same course, from the same starting point within Zwift’s open world. The function wasn’t specifically designed for racing, but as we all know, give a cyclist a finish line and someone to ride with, and the ride will eventually transform itself into a race!
This is how to host a race using a Meetup: a “ride leader” creates the Meetup in the Zwift Companion App and invites participants to join. They can only invite their Zwift Followers, so the ride leader first needs to ask participants to follow their account.
The rider leader should designate a certain point on the course to be the finish line. It could be the end of the route, a KOM banner, or an arbitrary landmark on the route. Whatever it is, they should communicate this clearly to participants before the race begins.
At the appointed time, the participants join the Meetup and start riding together. Meetup participants will be highlighted in green in the on-screen rider list.
When the Meetup starts, the race is on. Whoever reaches the predetermined “finish line” first, wins. Alternatively, the ride incorporate a neutral start, where the race only begins when the ride leader says so.
There are a few disadvantages to this method.
Firstly, results aren’t automated. A club official will need to act as a judge, watching the race live by spectating riders in the Meetup, jumping from rider to rider depending on who’s leading the race. They’ll have to manually write down the finishing order as they see it on their screen. There’s a lot of room for error. If the judge misses a rider or if there’s a tight sprint, there’s no way to split the difference.
This makes it impractical to record results beyond the top three or so placings – just like real club racing, I guess!
Secondly, the race takes place in the open world, so racers can draft off members of the public. That also makes it difficult to keep track of who is and isn’t in the race. This can be mitigated by asking all race participants to equip the same jersey in their Zwift Garage.
(Update 5 May 2020: soon after this article was published, Zwift added a “Meetup-Only View” function, which allows the ride leader to hide everyone who is not participating in the Meetup).
Thirdly, you can only invite a maximum of 100 followers to a Meetup – though this won’t be a problem with most local races.
Clubs using this method
Waratah Masters Cycling Club has recently started using this method for their Sunday morning races, which would normally be held at Eastern Creek, Heffron Park or Landsdowne. They create separate Meetups for each grade. That allows each grade to race on a different route with its own bunch, but there is a financial cost due to the multiple Zwift accounts needed to host simultaneous Meetups.
It’s great to see clubs embracing virtual cycling to bring their community together during this time of coronavirus. Even though the official infrastructure to host a private Zwift race isn’t available yet, we should applaud clubs that have come up with workarounds to make these races possible.