competition · cycling · fitness · racing

Ways of organizing amateur athletes for fair and fun competition

I’ve been racing lots on Zwift lately. See Six Things I Love about Racing in Zwift.

It’s fun. I like riding and racing with a team.

One of the things that’s interesting are the different ways races are organized to make racing fun and fair. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s no fun if you have zero chance of winning and not fair, maybe, if you’re competing against younger, fitter, more powerful riders. So bike races use categories to divide up riders to make the competition more even.

Think of it like one design sailboat racing where everyone races the same style of boat. Or car racing where there are rules about what the cars raced are like. There’s less determined by gear and skill is more of a factor. It’s like that bike racing only instead of boats, it’s bodies. Now it’s true that in both real life, and in Zwift, we’re also riding different bikes–Zwift has different classes of virtual bikes and some are more aero, lighter, faster. You acquire them by “buying” them with virtual coinage you acquire by riding lots. That’s an element of the “game” part of Zwift. But the big difference isn’t bikes, it’s rider power, measured in watts. Some cyclists are more powerful than others and Zwift divides riders in various ways.

Here’s three different ways of classifying riders in Zwift races that I’ve experienced. I’m sure there are others.

The most obvious one is by sex. Tonight I’m racing in the Monday Madness series. It’s a team based series across categories A-E. Cats A-D are open to all riders and the differences between them are based on your power output. I started out in D but as I got fitter and faster I got bumped to C. Roughly, C means that I race somewhere between 2.5-3.1 watts/kg.

Cyclists care about power, but what really matters, unless you’re riding on very flat terrain, is power to weight ratio, or watts per kg. Here is an explanation.

Here’s me in the yellow TFC jersey between two men racing in the D category.

An aside: Entering a race in a category below the one in which you should be racing for the purposes of an easy win is “sandbagging.” Zwift has introduced the green cone of shame which appears above your head while riding if you exceed the power limits for the category in which you’re racing. See Zwift takes steps to limit sandbagging. They also notify you in advance. In my case I got disqualified, DQ’ed, after my first race that I won while exceeding the power limits for D, and the next time I registered for C. All good–no cone of shame. Phew!

Image from Zwift Insider, https://zwiftinsider.com/anti-sandbagging-test/

But tonight I’m racing in E, which is the women’s category which is open to all women riders. That means that I’ll be racing against women in all categories. Ouch! I won’t win. I might come in somewhere in the middle. But that’s true for me in C too. I was winning D races but as I got faster it was no longer fair to have me in the D cat. Why race in the women’s cat? Well, it’s a team sport and our team gets points for having riders in each of the categories.

In an ideal world, I think that we won’t need special categories for women riders. Certainly lumping all the women together isn’t fair. But lots of women want to race against other women. In the real world, I can see that, especially in amateur racing.

I’ve also raced in Zwift in age groups. But again that was a little strange. There are some very fast 50-somethings out there! My theory is that lots of people ride and race in their 20s and 30s but by the time you get to 50 only the fast people are sticking with it.

Anyway, it’s complicated but I like that there are a variety of ways of dividing up riders to make racing more fun.