My name is Aaron and I’m the ride leader for the Thursday night US Richmond Rally on zwift.com. Zwift is more than just great software that provides an engaging experience while riding indoors, it is also a tremendous community of riders from all around the world. Here are some tips I’ve compiled over this winter that I’ve found helpful when leading rides in this virtual world.
With drafting and real people at the controls virtual rides are very realistic but differ from the outdoors in a couple of important ways, namely reduced situational awareness and improved ability to communicate with riders around you. You get both the benefit (and requirement) of coaching your group throughout to keep them focused and together.
While I’m sure TeamSpeak and Discord are lovely, you have to presume the lowest common denominator. I don’t want to say everything twice so I only use the Zwift text feature on my phone app. I use my phone’s built-in speech-to-text translator so that I can give clear instructions quickly while riding at speed.
So far I’ve found ways to overcome most of the limitations. If I type urr or wwr my iPhone will capitalize it for me. I use shorthand for power—if I say “three point oh” I will get 3.0 on-screen which is desirable. Siri still hasn’t figured out that I “pedal” my bike rather than “peddle” it, though.
Speak as if you’re speaking to a first-timer
Presume that at least one rider in the group has never done this before. Make announcements before the ride so people know how long they have to get to the start line. Tell them where the start line is. For example, you will frequently have to pedal much further to get to the Richmond start than the drop-off point in Watopia.
Prepare riders for what’s ahead
I give riders a full rundown twice before the ride (more if I’m asked specific questions which I try to always answer) and once shortly after departing while everyone is getting situated.
Richmond is a particularly tricky course due to the hills. I make sure that everyone knows NOT to coast on the descent because the 40mph group will dust you if you let it go.
When climbing VERY small variances in power output lead to 30 second gaps quick. I am clear that the group WILL split and that this is OK. Stopping to regroup does not work but people are adaptable and can find others on the list with their ride abbreviation in it and get together to carry on.
One of the things I love about Scottie Weiss’ Wednesday Watopia Ride is that he is always present. If you’re in the first group you’ll always see him there at the right pace so you can gauge your efforts appropriately. A couple of times per lap he provides positive feedback for those in the group who are following the pace and working well together.
Since we can’t feel the wind in our hair and hear that guys super loud cassette ratchet you need to remind people of things that would be more obvious in the real world: “close those gaps to get your maximum draft effect!”, “the hills are coming up, make sure to watch your watts and take care of your neighbors”, “after this sprint the downhill is coming up, let’s ease up to 2.5 and stay tight”.
I try to be realistic about power. I don’t have a smart trainer but I know a lot of people do. I’m sure once your kicker whacks you on the hill it is going to take you a minute to get sorted and putting out the appropriate number of watts. I have recently just been calling out sustained watts that are beyond the group agreement.
After each ride I like to go into Strava and give everyone Kudos that came out. The Strava algorithm for determining that you rode with someone isn’t always perfect but it’s what we have. Its a little gesture to thank everyone for coming out and encourage them to return.
Make it fun
The ‘moderate’ rides are interesting because while they are slower than the races, they still attract a group that likes, as was said the other night, “a good gauntlet throwdown”. By lap 3 in Richmond you’re over an hour in so there is no harm in opening up the final hills to an all-out battle to the finish. It’s a great way to ensure that you feel like you got a workout as well as give everyone a goal for the following week. Similarly, WWR does a sprint finish on the flat Watopia course.
Ultimately the key to a good group ride is communication and engagement. A group ride brings together the best aspects of a spin class and virtual reality, passing the time quickly and giving you the feeling that you went somewhere together. This is already a lot of fun and will only get better as the software improves.