Is Virtual Racing Worth It?

Keeping the rope tight during a year without racing is very hard for athletes to do. We sacrifice all for the glory of a finisher medal and sweet tech-tee. Time with the family, outings with friends, late nights etc all take a backseat when you are embarking on 5+ hour brick workouts every weekend. But the motivation of performing well in a big race is the reward for the hard work.

These days many local and some of the bigger outfits are trying to keep the momentum going through the introduction of virtual racing. WTC has run a number of VR races with a few even offering 70.3 WC slots. But the question remains, are they worth it?

Let’s consider some of the pros:

  • A virtual race can help as a significant training boost
  • Engages some of the competitive spirit many athletes have
  • Creates a way to focus and put in the work
  • Keeps races and charities going until next year

And some of the negatives:

  • Hard to actually race someone when you can’t see them
  • Courses are not apples to apples
  • There is still the cloud of uncertainty around results

Having participated in an early VR challenge, I went in thinking the competition was mostly against myself. With my setup I am able to quickly go from the Wahoo trainer to the treadmill and complete a duathlon very easily. I self timed, measured my treadmill, and tracked my overall time including transition. This total time was what I took as the performance result. This is not how the VR challenges or any number of virtual races are held though. The guidance is simply a time frame (often days) for completion of the legs. This allows racers to break the legs up and complete them after recovery. Transition is not part of the racing and not included in the time. There is also no mention of altitude adjustments or compensation for hilly vs. flat courses, and let’s not talk about wind. So when I looked at my time, it was very different from others. This was expected.

Besides just uploading duathlon segments, there are other options are available for running and cycling. Some of these are live, and, having completed a number of Zwift cycling races, they are very competitive and actually give you a start, finish, and live view of other racers. This is very engaging and there are pro leagues and streamed racing available. This space will grow in the future.

Sadly, on Zwift and other platforms the ability for lower tier B,C, and D racers to “fudge the numbers” remains high and may dramatically affect the outcome of a race. Even using Zwift’s own w/kg recommendations for choosing your most competitive tier, keeping up with others who should be of similar ability is very difficult. It is like lining up in the 1:30 half marathon time corral and everyone running a 1:15. Why is that a problem? After the initial 400+ watt push from the starting line if you don’t make that front pack, your race is almost over just a few minutes in. The main reason for this is that there is a common pattern to most Zwift races, and if you don’t ride in a pack, it is very hard to keep up. So when people are pushing unrealistic numbers, it takes the joy out of the race and turns it into a FTP exercise.

Does this reflect IRL (in-real-life)? Having ridden with many others during races and on training rides, the online seems to be full of sandbaggers. People who are purposely distorting their capabilities to achieve a better finish result. But there are a few other things to consider in the equation as well.

In online racing outcomes can be affected in a number of ways. A popular method is weight doping. People who adjust their weight down to appear as though they are pushing a higher w/kg thus going much faster online. Another issue is inaccurate gear or simply different equipment for tracking performance. Someone racing on a smart trainer vs. a fluid trainer will not have the same precision of measurement. Even trainer to trainer can vary by as much as 20-30 watts on the same effort. Lastly, Internet connections can interrupt your ability to make moves with a group or worse yet, if your connection drops, your avatar stops moving. This has happened to me in the finishing sprint on a race, and is the worst!

Are they worth it? For free, if they scratch the competitive itch, then for sure. If the race supports a charity (many do) and you are behind that charity, then absolutely. If you just need SOMETHING to work towards go for it. However, if you are looking for the feeling of running someone down in the finishing stretch, blowing by dozens of people on the bike, or the adrenaline boost of fans cheering you on maybe not so much. If you are expecting your local route to be as hard or easy as someone else’s, be careful. Seeing your results against others may leave you feeling discouraged and questioning your fitness. Just be sure of what you are looking for before you enter, take it with a grain of salt that you can only judge yourself and not others, and don’t take the overall results too seriously for now. Virtual racing is still new, it will get better, but until then it is hard to treat the results as realistic and reflective of what might happen at an actual race.

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