Cyclocross fans may remember Kevin Bouchard-Hall from such accomplishments as winning a silver medal in the Masters 35-39 race at Louisville Cyclocross Nationals and being the brother of former USA Cycling CEO Derek Bouchard-Hall.
In Sunday’s virtual Nationals in Watopia, Bouchard-Hall made the final selection of the many big hitters in the race and sprinted to a 10th-place finish against a group of riders that can push some big-time watts while on the trainer.
As we will learn, Bouchard-Hall has embraced Zwift racing for a number of years now—he even often hosts a Twitch stream of his races—and so it was not too surprising to see his name in the mix at Zwift Nationals.
After watching Zwift Nationals, I reached out to Bouchard-Hall to ask him about training with the virtual training app and what it was like in the lead group of the big Zwift throwdown on Sunday.
It turns out that for the New England native and Velocio racer, there is a lot more to his story than one might think.
A Tool for Moms and Dads
Although Zwift racing has evolved to the point where pro teams are racing in the KISS Super League, Zwift is still a “game,” which folks are quick to remind those new to the Zwift racing experience.
For Bouchard-Hall, that Zwift was ostensibly a game was essential in his development as an athlete—and healthy individual.
“I started [using Zwift] in January 2015,” he said. “My son was born in 2014, and I went from being a banjo and video game sloth to exercising again. Zwift was released as a Beta at that time and I jumped on the chance to tie gaming and riding together. I think it was Ted King that made me aware of it.”
Bouchard-Hall’s experience of finding utility in Zwift while raising a young child is one that is common among Zwift users.
Riding bikes is a time-consuming activity, especially for those who want to race well. A “short” outdoor ride is somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour and a half and “long” rides can end up taking all day.
For athletes with jobs, families and other obligations, finding time to ride can be really challenging. Enter virtual training apps like Zwift. You can hop on the trainer in the basement, do a race and be done in a little over an hour.
“[Zwift] has changed my life,” Bouchard-Hall said. “I can’t ride outside much because of work kids and my wife working nights. But with Zwift, I don’t mind training inside. My brain treats an inside ride like an outside ride now. So in that regard, I love it.”
Bouchard-Hall’s story is one that is common among Zwifters. The KISS race series that now boasts a pro Super League started as “a group of busy fathers wanting to participate in racing on Zwift at a time that suited their schedule around young families.” There is also a large team called “DIRT,” which stands for “Dads Inside Riding Trainers.”
At Louisville Nationals, Bouchard-Hall saw the virtual and real worlds come together when he finished second to Greg Wittwer, who, in his post-race interview, talked about how he trains exclusively inside during the cyclocross season to balance his job and being a dad.
Zwift Racing as Training?
The Zwift app that saw Zwift Nationals take place last weekend has come a long way. The app launched with a Beta version in 2014 that included a 3-mile loop called “Jarvis” or “Zwift Island.” In 2015, the Watopia virtual world that hosted Zwift Nationals was created and the Zwift we know today was more or less born.
“Zwift started as a tiny island loop with nothing organized,” Bouchard-Hall said. “Zwift has grown a ton. Huge world, multiple worlds now.”
Probably because bikes—and well, dudes—the Beta users on the original Zwift Island soon decided they needed to race each other. Racing in those early days was a bit different than it is now.
“At some point, the community started organizing races,” Bouchard-Hall said. “You would ride to the start line and someone would say go. You would just do the single course and made the results yourself. Now they have their own instance and results are generated by the program.”
He continued, “It has changed a ton. Feels weird to talk about old school style Zwift races but even without infrastructure, people found a way to race. Now it’s easy to get into.”
Ask anyone who has used Zwift for the first few times, and they will tell you it is very tempting to hammer every KOM and sprint and try to drop other riders around them. As great of a tool as Zwift is, it can be easy to go too hard too often using the application.
The same is true of Zwift racing. There are races of every shape and size literally all day, every day—it’s trainer o’clock somewhere, after all—so you can race three, four, five times a week if you want.
Fortunately for Bouchard-Hall, he has a coach to help reign in some of those desires to smash it. He works with Cycle-Smart, which is also beneficial for him because the company has embraced using Zwift as a training tool.
When the workouts call for intensity, Bouchard-Hall signs for a race and does his work. “I stick to the plan, but I often do the workouts in a race,” he said. “Instead of just hammering out 40/20s, sprints, threshold work and stuff like that, I do it in a race and make people chase me or chase people myself. I actually enjoy it.”
And if you see Bouchard-Hall lined up for a race and want to give one of the virtual sport’s best the best you have, you might want to be ready for the New Englander to really lay it on.
“If I can, I try and find the right course for the workout so I can make as many people miserable as possible,” he said. “It’s also a joy to watch the pack react to my training. Some figure it out, others not so much, and it is lovely to watch unfold.”
Playing tricks on other riders while doing intervals during a race suggests that maybe Zwift racing still has a ways to go until it is like real racing. After all, you would think you would be able to tell if another rider is using the IRL race as an expensive way of doing an interval set.
First, there are some similarities: “They both involve a bike and pedaling hard,” Bouchard-Hall said.
After that though, Zwift racing is racing, but it has its own rules you need to learn. “It is a game, 100 percent. That’s what gets people who are really good ‘real’ bike racers who do a Zwift race and get crushed. They don’t know the ‘rules.’ To be brief, you need to understand how the draft works and how the races surge.”
The way the Zwift race broadcasts are currently set up, viewers get an inside look at power, cadence and heart rate numbers for riders as the announcers follow the front of the race. If you watched Sunday’s Zwift Nationals, you were likely a bit flummoxed by just how many watts riders like Bouchard-Hall were putting out.
In that regard, even if you learn “the game” of Zwift, you still need the be able to smash. Bouchard-Hall was able to find at least one IRL comparison for the power and skill set needed to be successful in the virtual competitions.
“Zwift racing is all about riding a steady tempo and surging, playing the game,” he said. “It is probably most like crit racing without the bike handling where that is substituted for feeling the pack flow. It’s a real workout. It’s real racing. It just isn’t real outside racing.”
If you are new to Zwift racing or curious about how it works, Bouchard-Hall wrote a “somewhat serious” guide to racing on the app.
The “big names” in Zwift racing—and some ringers—all kitted up their virtual avatars and took the start line in Watopia last Sunday morning for Zwift Nationals.
The race was expected to be a punchy one, with the roughly 60km race doing two loops of the Watopia Figure 8 course. Staying in the draft and following surges was likely to be the key to hanging with the lead selection.
With the virtual Stars-and-Stripes on the line, Bouchard-Hall did not know what to expect from the stacked field.
“I was pretty pessimistic about the race,” he said. “I figured I would get dropped by some insane numbers. But it wasn’t too bad. I played the game and stayed with the front group.”
With breakaways tough to come by thanks to Zwift’s drafting algorithm and the talent of the riders in the field, the name of the game was sticking with the lead pack up each of the climbs. Fall back, and you might not be able to regain the virtual wheels of the others in the selection.
As the kilometers ticked by, Bouchard-Hall stayed in the lead group and even got some Hero Cam time. It was clear the race for the virtual Stars-and-Stripes was going to come down to a sprint.
Sprinting in real life is hard enough, but in Zwift, it is even tougher. First off, Zwift is still a game, and as such, you absolutely have to have an aero power-up to win the sprint. The little helmet icon reduces your drag for 30 seconds, which makes it perfect for the final meters to the line.
Second, you really have no idea what the others around you are doing. “That is the hard part of Zwift,” Bouchard-Hall said. “Reading the sprint when you can’t feel the speed of the race.”
Despite the challenges, Bouchard-Hall dropped his aero boost and powered his way down the finishing stretch along Watopia’s Ocean Drive. Holden Comeau took the win, but Bouchard-Hall finished a very respectable 10th.
“I wanted to make a late attack but the speed was too high,” he said. “In the end it came down to a sprint and that is not something I was ever going to be good at. Zwift is very accurate in that regard. I can’t sprint outside and I can’t sprint inside.”
Despite his sprint issues, Bouchard-Hall still enjoyed the experience. “It was fun to have on the calendar, and I am anxious to get outside for the gravel, road and mountain bike season. I didn’t taper, or really even rest for the event; I wrecked myself on a long Zwift Fondo Friday night.”
What’s Next for Zwift
Although Zwift has been met with skepticism from some corners, the platform is continuing to grow in popularity and the company recently received a healthy amount of funding to continue its growth.
The game’s appeal is undeniable, whether it be for those who live in cold places looking to make indoor training less worse, riders who want to ride without the risk of traffic or parents like Bouchard-Hall who need a tool to fit training in where they can.
The racing is obviously only part of the app’s appeal, but it is a visible one that appeals to an influential segment of cyclists. Bouchard-Hall sees continued growth in all aspects of Zwiftdom.
“I think the Super League series they do with pros is a great thing,” he said. “It is going to grow, it is going to be interesting to more people. Bike racing is fun to do, fun to watch. The product of bike racing is a good product.”
However, as awesome as racing inside might be, for Bouchard-Hall—and likely most racers—the platform is still just a tool to get those IRL results.
“All I can do is make sure I am happy with my work and hope it turns into some results outside,” Bouchard-Hall said. “Zwift has let me get strong enough that I can be somewhat competitive outside and that is worth it to me.”