On Sunday, riders across the world got to kit up and race for their respective national champion’s jerseys. The catch? The races were done at home, connected online via the Zwift virtual training app.
That’s right, Zwift held its second-annual national championships on Sunday. Zwift Nationals launched last year, and over the weekend, championships were held for 14 different Northern Hemisphere countries.
Nearly 950 riders across the U.S. and over 625 in Canada logged in and took the start line to vie for the Stars-and-Stripes and Maple Leaf jerseys, albeit the virtual versions of those prizes.
Zwift Nationals reflects the continued growth of racing on the popular virtual training platform. This year, the company launched the KISS Super League that includes live events with riders from professional teams gathering to race against one another. Inside. On the trainer.
The KISS Super League is augmented by the KISS Community league that allows Zwift users to join teams and race in a series spanning a number of weeks.
With eSports growing in popularity and sponsorship interest, Zwift has embraced the trend by creating a product for virtual racing fans to watch. The U.S. Zwift Nationals were live streamed via YouTube, Facebook Live and Twitch, and the company also live streams a number of the KISS races. The broadcasts include a short pre-race show and live commentary from Nathan Guerra and Greg Leo.
Did I watch that live stream of U.S. Nationals? Yes, yes I did, while doing my own Zwift ride on Sunday. Of course, any FOMO I felt about missing the race was quickly alleviated when I saw the power numbers the race leaders were putting out.
Now that it is the work week, here’s a Monday Morning Quarterback look at how it went.
2019 U.S. Zwift Nationals
Just like real life where a race like the Tour de France has sprinter’s stages and climber’s stages, Zwift offers a number of different courses for racing. There are flat “crits,” rolling hammerfests and races with 20′ climbs up the Epic KOM and 45′ climbs (if you’re uh, fast) up Alpe du Zwift.
Last year’s Zwift Nationals took place on a course with three five-minute-ish climbs up the Volcano and the races finished with groups at the line. Going into this year’s race on the Watopia Figure 8 course that features a longer, shallow climb and a steep, punchy climb, another bunch sprint finish was expected.
Just as the Zwift races courses differ, the race lengths ran the gamut as well. There are races as short as a few miles and as long as 100km. The races used for the KISS leagues generally seem to run about 45-60 minutes, and this year’s Nationals was 59km long, covering over two laps of the Watopia Figure 8 course. Women and Men raced the same course and the same distance.
With Zwifters racing at home in their respective trainer caves, questions about cheating always come up with Zwift racing. Riders can magically lose 10 pounds or trainers might be miscalibrated to add some extra watts. There were some rules in place for the race, but they can obviously only go so far.
Anyone with an account can sign up for Zwift Nationals, but if you watch the stream of the race, you will note the broadcasters know a number of the riders in the respective lead groups. With many of the racers doing the same races and even joining teams, there is some sense of community among top-level Zwift racers. Plus, to make the lead selection, you still have to put out a shitton of watts, and that, well that’s a bit tougher to fake.
Kevin Bouchard-Hall, who finished second in the Masters 35-39 race at Louisville Nationals, is an avid Zwift racer who offered this perspective on cheating in the game.
“Cheating is unfortunately part of it,” he said. “I am sure there were people in the race cheating the old school way with drugs too! But you will see that anywhere. I would say, focus on the experience—was it fun? Was it a great workout? If you tie your identity to your results, real or fake, life is going to be tough.”
Normal Zwift races are held for categories from A through D, with categories determined based on riders’ FTP in watts/kg.
Zwift Nationals, however, featured one category for men and one for women, with women starting five minutes after the men. Any race announcer will tell you how hard it is to cover races with multiple categories on the course at once, but Guerra and Leo did a pretty good job switching between the two pelotons at their respective climbs and finishes.
A total of 109 women started the Women’s Zwift Nationals. As expected, the race came down to a group sprint, with eight women making the final selection.
Ask any seasoned Zwift racer, and they will tell you that just like real life, it takes some time to learn the ins and outs of how to race. Those nuances include power-ups, that give you brief bursts of lightness, aeroness or a bigger draft from other riders.
The best of the power-ups is the aero one, and Women’s winner Angela Pitzer used it to perfection. She engaged the aero helmet at exactly the right moment and sprinted ahead of the other women to take the win and the virtual Stars-and-Stripes.
For what it is worth, in talking with riders who race at the top level regularly, it is nearly impossible to win a Zwift race without an aero power up at the end. The Women’s race proved that.
Eight-hundred thirty-one men took the start for the Men’s Zwift Nationals. The Men’s race played out kind of like a gravel race, with attrition knocking riders off the lead group one-by-one.
As riders neared the last kilometer, 25 riders had survived to make the final selection. Perhaps aided by a group of indoorspecialist.com teammates who helped him stay fresh during the race, Holden Comeau dropped an aero boost and a massive sprint to take the final push to the line.
Full results from both races are available on zwiftpower.com if you want to see how folks you know fared. You know you probably do…
Zwift Nationals Live Stream
If you are curious about how Zwift Nationals went, the archived live stream is below.