Performance in Zwift way worse than real life

I am a B rider, recently upgraded from C. I am getting killed in every race. I just had a ZRL race in which I was dead last out of 83 riders.

The thing that doesn’t make sense to me is that I am getting killed by riders in Zwift that I have either beaten or am competitive with in real-life racing (gravel racing).

Does this mean that my smart trainer is poorly calibrated (Zwift hub that registers roughly 30 Watts lower than my Peloton bike plus).

Or is Zwift racing just very different and it’s feasible that Zwift simply doesn’t fit my style of riding or that it takes getting used to? What I’m finding is that my heart rate gets maxed out to 185 very quickly and I just can’t recover and get dropped early in the race. Then I’m normally fighting for a bottom 20% finish. My W/kg aren’t usually better than the people I finish with and are more in line with people who finish 10-20 spots ahead of me.

There are a lot of factors that could be involved here so I will just touch on a few of the possibilities.

A ZRL race is much shorter and more intense than most gravel races. If you are well trained for long endurance events you may not be well trained for really short races. There are some long races on Zwift and you might try some of those to see if they favor your training. KISS 100, VirtuSlo 4Endurance, and the Zwifty Fifty or After Party series by DZR would be good ones to look at. Or train for the short efforts if you want, but if your focus is the outdoor events then maybe it’s better to just stick to what works out there and accept that ZRL is not what you are trained for.

Indoors, cooling is really important and not getting it right will typically result in high heart rate. Whatever you’re doing to cool yourself, try doing more of that. Chill your bottles, get more fans, get better fans, use air conditioning, whatever it takes.

Do you measure power when riding outdoors? If so use that power meter indoors and see if the experience is more consistent. I doubt the Peloton bike is a good reference point but your outdoor power meter might be, if you have one.

I don’t measure my power outdoors, but it’s on my list of things to buy.
The gravel races I participate in are not too long, usually ~35 miles.

zwift really isnt a lot like outdoor cycling. it resembles something more like track cycling if its anything like cycling at all. it really favours anaerobic work capacity over endurance

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I’m a poor cat C racer and being at the bottom of any cat is no fun.

Only three suggestions I can offer:

Check your garage to ensure you are on most aero frame and wheels your level allows.

Are you starting on the front row of the grid for every race? I don’t know how WRTL races line up but looks like you started at the back.

Are your workouts concentrating on your 1-2 minute power development ?

You mentioned you do gravel racing in real life; have you tried gravel or dirt racing on Zwift or just races on asphalt? There’s something about races in the Zwift jungle which seem to suit me more. A while ago, when I was in your situation (moved up from C to B), I had absolutely no chance in places like Paris, but I was able to keep up in the jungle.

Also, gearing does make a difference - if you’re using a low-geared mountain bike on Zwift while your friends are using high-geared road bikes, you could find it tougher. Playing around with trainer difficulty could help with this. Or your friends could have badly calibrated trainers!

Think about the amount of time it takes to do a 35 mile gravel race compared to the Zwift races you do. If that’s 90 minutes, try a 90 minute Zwift race.

Gravel races also include other elements like bike handling, reading road surfaces, getting tire pressure right, etc. Those factors go out the window on Zwift, so any advantage you have in outdoor events from doing things right is lost. Zwift has its own form of racecraft which takes some time to learn. Learning to modulate your power to stay in the draft is probably #1.

ZRL events have a lot of heavy hitters who like the huge competitive fields. If you’re at the bottom of a category that’s going to be super hard. Community operated races on Zwift with smaller fields are usually less competitive, and that’s the kind of event that will sometimes offer longer races as well. Longer races also don’t start quite as hard. Split category events like VirtuSlo Split-Cats or TFC Mad Monday would also not have you racing against the top Bs.

Id say there are a couple of fundamental differences.

Temps / Room Condition - Everyone has their own setup - eg someone could have a perfect temperature for a room whilst you have a very hot one. Someone with a cool room, fans on etc will get better performance than equal.

Fear factor - in real life, people may not push as hard, draft as close etc because - quite simply - they fear getting hurt.
On Zwift, there is no fear.

Max Verstappen crashes a whole lot more on racing sims than in real life…

Honestly, if you are a newly upgraded C then I wouldn’t expect you to finish anything but at the back of the pack in a ZRL race.

That is the truth coming from a high end B who regular does not make the selection.

In regular scratch races you may do better but all the good riders show up for ZRL.

Just keep working and progressing.
I was in A for a bit and felt the exact way. I understand.

It took me pretty much a whole season to start scoring points in the Bs and I’m still nowhere near the top guys.

There’s a load of factors in why Zwift racing is hard, possibly unfair dynamics like height and weight penalties but I’m finally getting better and on/off top end efforts which is helping. I race CX too so I’m finding the Zwift work helping in that too but it’s short, hard racing so you’ve pretty much got to be able to work at the top of threshold for 40 mins and go into the red throughout. You’ve also got to know when to sit in and reduce the effort which took me a while to get the hang of.

There’s no doubt it’s a hard effort but coming up from the C’s means you’ll likely struggle in most races for a while until your fitness increases, as you’d expect in any type of racing.