Virtual and Actual Bike Choices for Stationary Racing

What kind of bike should you ride when you Zwift? Two answers to that question and I'll tackle both: What kind of actual bike you hike your leg over; and what kind of virtual bike you choose to ride “in-game.”

Both have implications if you race using Zwift as your platform. You might partake in a Zwift race. Or you might choose Zwift as the platform for the cycling leg of a virtual race such as what IRONMAN hosts via its Virtual Club portal.

Your Actual Bike Choice

When we poll we consistently see it’s always 95 or 96 percent of you who ride on a trainer. You don’t have to race. You might ride for pleasure or for structured training. Regardless of the reason, it’s stationary! You’re going zero miles an hour. Your wind resistance is… zero. The way to ride a stationary race to win is to ride without concern for aerodynamics, even if the avatar on the screen representing you is moving along a road at 25mph.

If you’re riding in a Zwift race – assuming it’s a typical mass-start, draft-legal race – you’re at a disadvantage if you’re on a tri bike. You’re best off on a road bike (physically aboard a road race bike, sitting on your trainer). On the same weekend as the inaugural IRONMAN VR race, there was a ridiculously entertaining performance by a bunch of Pro Tour caliber cyclists and… Lionel Sanders, who shocked the announcers and a top-notch pro cycling field by winning. I asked Lionel, “I believe you rode a Canyon road bike. Aeroad? Why?”

“I would spend absolutely zero time in the TT position on a Zwift race,” he answered, “so there is no need to use the TT bike. The road bike is way better for climbing and sprinting and big power jumps, and if you rode a TT bike you would be at a serious disadvantage relative to everyone on a road bike.”

This is Zwift racing we’re talking about, which is different than IRONMAN VR racing. The need to accelerate in a hurry, ride out of the saddle without hitting your knees on the backs of the armrests, makes this bike choice easy. “I did the CVR World Cup back in 2018 on a TT bike,” Lionel wrote me. “I finished second and truly believe the road bike could have been the difference. But I didn't have a road bike then.”

Which take us to the longer, less-hyper ride you might choose for an IRONMAN VR segment. These screenshots here are not of Zwift, but of Rouvy, the cycling platform the pros race in for these livestreamed Virtual Racing events. For those of you who’re racing this weekend's VR race the cycling route is 40k long. You can ride this indoor or outdoor. Your “timing chip” is a Garmin 1030, a Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM, or a 40k ride executed in Rouvy, or in Zwift, or some other stationary platform. If you’re going to ride this 40k outside then yes, choose the tri bike. But if it’s inside, then the bike you place on the trainer depends on what position you’re most efficient in, when riding hard on the trainer for an hour.

Your position on your tri bike

What we saw last the weekend on the Facebook Watch livestream of the inaugural IRONMAN VR race was almost every pro riding his or her tri bike on the trainer. Sitting up, most of the time. Hands on the pursuits.

It may well have been a more or less whimsical effort for some of these folks. If you look at Joe Gambles (below) does he look like he’s taking this seriously? And to be fair to Joe, when he wasn’t riding-while-cradling-bambino he probably spent more time in aero than most of the pros last weekend.

But I ask you, is there a finish line? Because if the answer is yes, it’s a race! So I asked the folks on our Reader Forum about this and I got a lot of answers, but none that convinced me.

You might answer that they may as well sit up in a stationary ride, because aerodynamics are not involved. True. But every time you’re sitting up on a tri bike, you’re in an inferior position to what you’d have available to you on a road bike and I don't mean just aerodynamically, but in power production as well. Better if you just had your road bike on that trainer if you're going to sit up.

There is one very valid reason for these riders to sit up rather than to ride aero: Because the monitor they’re looking at is not positioned properly. When I’m riding a tri bike – above I’m on a Cervelo P3X mounted to a Saris H3 which is sitting on a Saris MP1 platform – my screen is almost dead on the ground, angled up perpendicular to my line of sight. If you wonder why that TV is on the ground, try booting up Zwift on a tri bike, riding in the aero position, with that screen waist high. See how you like it.

If you’re watching the “game” from, say, a tablet, there’s more freedom of placement. If you’re watching from a larger screen, you must sit the TV near the ground. In the other image inset above that’s where TV sits when I’m Zwifting in front of my road bike, a foot-and-a-half higher.

Of the 95 percent of you who are riding stationary, just over half of you put your road bikes on the trainer most of the time. Of you tri bike riders almost half are sitting up, just over half are laying down. If you’re laying down you’ll be a lot more comfortable with the TV down on the ground, or with your laptop or tablet fixed in a spot where your eyes are looking down.

What I heard from some of our Reader Forum folk is that it’s possible some of the pros don’t have road bikes. I believe (and hope) that is unlikely in most cases, and for 2-time Kona Champ Patrick Lange’s the right bike was leaning against the wall.

Your In-Game Bike Choice

You don't have to choose the same bike in-game as you ride on the trainer.

In Zwift you get the effect of the draft. In fact, many or most formal events deploy a feature called “doubledraft” and it’s just what it sounds like. If you choose a tri bike out of the Zwift Garage – if this is your bike choice in-game – then you’ll go a little bit faster when you'r riding alone, but you don’t get the advantage of the draft. When someone joins one of our Slowtwitch weekly Zwift rides and has chosen a tri bike for the in-game bike, we know he’s in for a rough ride, and the ride leader suggests choosing a road bike from the Zwift Garage next time, regardless of whether he’s actually riding a road or tri bike on his trainer.

If you’re more efficient on a road bike than on a tri bike while on your trainer, you may want to just keep your road bike right there, even if you choose a tri bike as your in-game bike. I asked, and IRONMAN doesn’t care what bike you’re actually aboard for its races, or that your in-game bike type matches your actual bike. If you do choose to execute your IRONMAN VR cycling leg on the trainer, and in Zwift, here are some things you should know.

First, IRONMAN doesn’t at present care if you are in the company of others in-game when you ride your 40k. Therefore, the very fastest way you would ride your 40k is in a group event – a ride or a race – as long as you don’t get dropped. You might think this is cheating, but it isn’t. What is cheating is placing 120lb in your Zwift profile if you really weigh 160lb. But IRONMAN has no rules against riding your 40k in among a halibut-shaped pack in Zwift. It’s not about your capacity to avoid getting caught, and it’s not that there is no virtual policing for IRONMAN’S virtual races. It’s not a rule violation. There's no violation to catch. At least at this point.

But if you’re going to do this then you must choose a road bike from the Zwift Garage, or you can’t ride in the group and get a draft.

If you feel this violates the spirit of the competition, I may well agree with you. So you choose to ride this virtual ride virtuously, and your 40k is ridden solo, in Zwift. You should choose a tri bike from the Zwift Garage. But you may still choose to ride your road bike on the trainer. Clear?