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Under normal circumstances, most cycling fans are familiar with the way the pros plan out their tactics for a bike race. Through a combination of recon rides on the course, pre-race meetings in the parking lot, and orders shouted by the sports director as things heat up on race day, the world’s top teams have a tried and true routine for mapping out and executing their game plans.
But what happens when the circumstances are anything but normal and the racing is not outside, but virtual?
Over the past few weeks, the leaderboards of the Zwift Classics have generally (if not always) seen experienced Zwift racers rising to the top. As Vitus Pro Cycling sports director Cherie Pridham told CyclingTips this week: “It’s a skill, definitely. It’s mastering the art of indoor training.”
For teams like Vitus, the Continental road squad that won last week’s Richmond Challenge and one that regularly shines in Zwift races, achieving that mastery is all about adapting to the platform and to the unusual circumstances of racing in times of social distancing. That said, in so many ways, drawing up the game plan for a Zwift race is not terribly unlike drawing up a game plan for a road race.
The process starts much like it does for an outdoor race: Course recon.
“As the weeks have gone one, we’ve committed two or three times a week to ride together [virtually] as a team,” Pridham said. “The guys will meet up and go over the course, so they know it and are familiar with the course that’s coming up.”
In some ways, in fact, virtual race routes are easier to get to know than real ones. For one thing, the limited number of Zwift courses means that experienced Zwifters quickly become familiar with the ups and downs of a given route, where the going gets tough, and where the pace tends to pick up or slacken.
For another, external factors like weather, sunlight, and traffic don’t limit how many times you can ride a Zwift route. Just ask Cecilia Hansen. As the Swedish Zwift star said after she won the Watopia Cup on the Jungle Course on Tuesday, “I rode the course like 20 times this week, so I had a close look at the finish.”
Hansen’s Team Heino is another powerhouse Zwift squad that has virtual planning down to a science. Heino dominated the Yorkshire Grand Prix, a battle between teams, earlier this month. Hansen then finished in the top 10 at last week’s Trofeo Bologna, and Heino took both first and second (with former road pro Vickie Whitelaw taking runner-up honors) in Tuesday’s Watopia Cup, the final women’s race of the series.
Hansen and the Australia-based Whitelaw have never met in real life. Along with other teammates they’ve never seen in person, they win – and they win a lot – anyway. WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, and the Discord app help make that possible, allowing Heino riders to chat, as Hansen says, “pretty much every day.”
A free voice-over-IP platform that can run via a computer or mobile app or through a web browser, Discord rapidly gained popularity among Internet communities, particularly gamers, after first being launched in 2015. Now, virtual bike racers on Heino, Vitus, and countless other teams are relying on it in much the same way the pro League of Legends players have been for years.
Through some combination of communication platforms and using knowledge from limitless course recons, teams like Heino and Vitus are able to draw up pre-race plans from wherever they may be in the world.
“We prepare like we would a real bike race,” Whitelaw said. “We plan our tactics, we might do a meetup. It just makes sense. We’re treating this professionally.”
Just like in a real race, those planning sessions will see riders talking about chokepoints in the route, when to hit the accelerator, and who will slot into what role at a certain point in a race. It helps that most of the successful Zwifters have a fair bit of experience riding on the platform outside of just the big races—understanding how to take advantage of a random but critical power-up can be key.
Once the game plan is drawn up, teams execute their strategies in the virtual world, relying on varying degrees of real-time communication, depending on the squad. For Heino, that means listening to occasional input from the sports director on Discord. Pridham, meanwhile, says her Vitus riders prefer to go mostly on instinct once the figurative flag drops.
It’s worth noting that, unlike in a real road race, which can often involve riding for several hours at a tempo where conversation between riders and the team car is feasible, Zwift races tend to be more concentrated bursts of effort, with the Zwift Classics generally lasting an hour or less. It can be harder to a hold a conversation in a full-speed Zwift race than during at least the first three hours of a flat stage in a WorldTour race.
“Sometimes we have the WhatsApp going but once they’re full gas there’s no way they’re able to type or communicate anything,” Pridham said.
Vitus proved last week at the Richmond Challenge that a pre-race plan could be executed to perfection even without much in-race communication, as the likes of Chris McGlinchey, Michael Mottram, and Joey Walker all managed to play key roles in racking up points over the course of the race en route to the team victory.
Once the racing is done, both Vitus and Heino go into debrief mode.
“Usually that’s on what we call Zwift team meetups, where I can join in and the mechanic can join in and we can have a bit of banter about everything,” Pridham said. “We usually do that the next day.”
Despite the physically distanced nature of the communication that riders on Vitus, Heino, or so many other bike racing teams are relying on at the moment, the connections that a digital conversation or a virtual spin can foster are no less important.
“I’ve made friends with my teammates and other great people,” Whitelaw said. “If I got on a plane and went to their country, they’d be the first people I’d look up. I’ve ridden in the pro international scene and I have connections there, but this is my world here. These are my connections.”
Indeed, Pridham says that Zwifting while chatting on Discord has brought her riders closer together in ways that even real-life racing outside might not. All in all, it’s not a bad byproduct of an otherwise difficult sport-wide hiatus from outdoor events.
“The banter that we have, the catchup over the previous night’s racing, I can ride at whatever my hundred watts are and nobody actually gets dropped. And I have to say, it has brought the team a lot closer together,” she said. “Probably as a DS, I probably have more contact with the group that I’ve got this year than I ever have for three or four years.”