Does Bike Choice Matter on Zwift?

Does Bike Choice Matter on Zwift?

Recently I joined the crew at No Breakaways for an “Outside the Draft” vodcast where we talked about all things Zwift racing (watch it here). During that chat, host Rick Wenger asked me a question: does bike choice really matter in Zwift? What you see below is the written version of my answer to Rick.

First, the Basics

Zwift uses several factors to determine your speed in its virtual world. Your weight, height, and wattage output are three “personal” factors. But the virtual world also affects your speed – so you’ll go slower up a virtual climb, faster when you’re drafting, slower on certain road surfaces, etc.

The final factor is the virtual bike you select. At the time of this post, Zwift has 80+ bike frames and 30+ wheelsets available. Each frame and wheelset has its own weight and CdA setting in game, and these affect your in-game speed just like they would outside. A lighter setup will climb faster than a heavier rig, and a more aero (low CdA) setup will go faster at higher speeds than one less aero.

Some bike frames and wheelsets are unlocked via in-game events or challenges, but most need to be purchased from the Drop Shop in order to be used.

Learn how to purchase frames and wheels from Zwift’s Drop Shop >

Racing Only

I should say, this article is written in the context of Zwift racing. If you’re on Zwift free riding, doing workouts, exploring new maps, or enjoying social rides, having the fastest bike really isn’t a big deal. Just like riding outside – you may take your comfortable “endurance bike” out for a long easy ride with friends, then ride your aero race bike in the crit.

Three Groups of Riders

Now, to the question at hand: does bike choice really matter in Zwift? This question is best answered by breaking Zwift racers into three cohorts and giving each their own answer:

  1. Zwift Newbies: riders at lower XP levels who aren’t Zwift experts
  2. Experienced Zwifters: riders with access to most or all of the fastest wheels and frames (including the Tron bike)
  3. TT Racers: anyone racing in a time trial format

Zwift Newbies: Upgrade Your Ride

It seems that every time I line up for a Zwift race, someone in the start pen is on the stock Zwift Carbon frame and 32mm wheels. Our speed tests show (at 300W steady, 75kg weight, 183cm height) this stock Zwift setup takes 51:36 to complete our flat test course.

By comparison, a fairly accessible setup (Canyon Aeroad 2021 frame + Zipp 808 wheels) turns in a flat test time of 50:38 (58s faster). A bit of fancy math and physics shows us that this difference is roughly equivalent to a 15W average power savings across an hour-long race. That’s a significant, noticeable difference – one that will get you dropped when the going gets tough.

What about climbing? The stock Zwift setup completed our Alpe du Zwift test in 49:48.

By comparison, the easily attainable Specialized Tarmac Pro or Cannondale EVO frames could be paired with the low-level unlocked ENVE 3.4 or DT Swiss ARC 62 wheels to turn in a time of 48:49 (59s faster). This works out to approximately 7W saved – less significant than the flat test, but probably noticeable if you’re on the rivet. (And you will be, racing up the Alpe!)

Conclusion: newer Zwifters should upgrade from the stock frame and wheels to a decent entry-level race setup. It will save you significant wattage, especially in flat/rolling races.

Experienced Zwifters: It’s Mostly Mental

A pack of fast bikes at the front of a recent B race

Zwifters who have been around for years earn the luxury of a garage full of fast bikes. Having all these nice rigs at our disposal, though, can make bike selection even more confusing, because differences between setups are so minor.

For example: the 8 frames on our fastest frames list are separated by just 3 seconds in our ~50-minute flat test. And the 6 wheels on our fastest wheelsets list are separated by just 10 seconds.

Do the math, and the difference between the slowest and fastest setups pulled from our fastest frames and wheels lists works out to just 3-4W. That won’t be noticeable by most, especially if you’re spending a good portion of your race sitting in the draft and not pushing to your very limit. When the time comes to push, 3-4W isn’t going to make or break your success.

For climbing rigs, the difference is even less remarkable. The 8 wheelsets on our fastest climbers list are separated by just 8 seconds, while the 7 frames on our fastest climbers list are separated by just 4 seconds. That 12-second difference works out to only 1-2 watts saved.

But here’s the caveat: for many racers (including myself), knowing you’re on a fast bike (even virtually) gives an important mental advantage. Even if your bike isn’t noticeably faster than the next option, if you think you’re on the fastest rig available, you don’t have that irksome “My bike is slowing me down” thought in the back of your mind.

Conclusion: experienced Zwifters with access to most or all of the fastest setups can rest assured that any of the fastest rigs will work just fine. If the mental game is important, then it’s probably worth doing a bit of research and picking the fastest frame for your course.

TT Racers: Leave Nothing On the Table

The time trial is called “the race of truth” for good reason: you don’t get to hide in the draft.

In a typical road race, many riders spend much of the time trying to conserve their energy so they can attack (or survive!) at key pinch points. The goal of a standard road race is to be the first over the line, and often that means winners sit in the draft and wait for the right time to attack near the end of the race.

In a TT, however, your goal is speed. And only you control your speed – there is no drafting. In this scenario, you should do everything you can to maximize your speed. That means pacing smartly, but it also means picking the fastest setup.

The Canyon Speedmax CF SLX Disc is the most aero TT frame currently in game

The 6 TT frames on our fastest TT frames list are separated by 13 seconds, while the 6 wheelsets on our fastest wheelsets list are separated by 10 seconds. That’s a 23-second difference between the slowest “fast” rig and the very fastest rig in a ~50-minute flat TT race. That’s a big difference!

TT races are often decided by just a few seconds. If a different wheelset or frame can slice anything off your time, why wouldn’t you use it?

The same principle holds true in a team time trial setting. When every team member is taking turns pulling on the front, each of their bike choices matters. Think of it like this: if every rider except one in a 4-man TTT squad had the fastest bike available, and that one rider choose a rig that was 10s slower over the course of the race, that rider would cost the squad 2.5 seconds in overall time if everyone took an equal number of pulls.

Conclusion: get the fastest rig available for time trials. Anything else and you’re handing places to the competition.

Wrapping It Up

While my answer to the “Does bike choice matter?” question isn’t a simple one, hopefully it is clear enough to help Zwifters of all stripes.

In the end, bike upgrading on Zwift is similar to what we see in outdoor riding: newbies will see noticeable improvements by upgrading to even a basic race rig, expert racers won’t see much improvement at all between different high-end setups, and TT riders are smart to obsess over getting the very fastest setup.

Questions or Comments?

Share below!

About The Author

Eric Schlange

Eric runs Zwift Insider in his spare time when he isn't on the bike or managing various business interests. He lives in Northern California with his beautiful wife, two kids and dog. Follow on Strava

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Paul Rayner
Paul Rayner (@paulrayner)
2 months ago

Thanks for this Eric.

When Zwifters say there should be a “halfway” pace partner between C and D, or B and C, sometimes I see others suggesting they should ride an MTB with the pace partner, making it a bit harder.

How good do you think this advice is – does an MTB make “half a category” of difference?

Jim
Jim
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

I had a crack at this today but, as a warning to lighter riders (which I assume contributes to the problem), I had to put out 3.5w/kg for an hour just to hang with C. Cadence on the MTB. Maybe I’ll try a gravel bike next time! 🙂

R. Chung
R. Chung
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

I read this: https://zwiftinsider.com/crr/

You do these (standardized) tests at 300 watts and a 75kg rider? You know, if you did a second test at, say, 200 watts, you could calculate both the “effective” Crr and CdA (there are two unknowns so you need two equations).

Test Lower Watts, Please
Test Lower Watts, Please
1 month ago
Reply to  R. Chung

Not only this, but it would be nice to know whether the gap between, say, the S-Works Venge and the new Pinarello F is still two seconds at 200 watts or whether it changes. Ditto for other frames, of course.

Derek
Derek (@dpr4473)
2 months ago

Zwift needs some new bikes! There are so many other real world options out there. And the fastest frames, like the S-Works Venge, the Tron, the Cervelo and the Felt as getting a bit long in the tooth. Us guys that have been trapped at level 50 for ages now, especially, desperately need some new toys to play with.

Carl J
Carl J
2 months ago
Reply to  Derek

New bikes? There’s like 100 frames on there already. What new bike could they add that would make any difference, other than for personal preference?
Do you really care which bike you’re riding, even if it’s the fastest?

Temps 09
Temps 09 (@quatre24)
2 months ago

In the bologna TT would the new canyon TT frame with the 7.8 wheels be better for heavier riders than DT Swiss wheels or some other wheel set or lighter TT frame?

Dan Connelly
2 months ago
Reply to  Temps 09

The Canyon TT frame with the DT Suisse wheels is likely the best choice for Bologna. To get Bologna performance, take the average of seconds saved on the flat test, and seconds saved on the climbing test, then divide the average by roughly 3,

Carl Scholtz
Carl Scholtz
2 months ago

How about an article about the best looking rig, cause that’s the sole reason some of us ride bikes, fitness and speed are an unintended consequence :-). Soon after I joined Zwift I saw a pic of a L50 rider on a P5X frame with Zipp 858/Super9 wheels. It’s been the sole purpose of my Zwift existence post L25, when interesting unlocks dried up. I’m about 4 weeks away from that goal, having sleepless nights already :-).

Carl J
Carl J
2 months ago
Reply to  Carl Scholtz

Best looking is subjective.

Whiskey Tango Fixie
Whiskey Tango Fixie
2 months ago

Do you know if bike weights in Zwift are scaled at all in proportion to rider size? In other words, does Zwift have different frame sizes for different sized riders?

Carl J
Carl J
2 months ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

But, Zwift does take rider’s height/weight into consideration.
Would be a pain to have every size and CdA for every bike though

Marsha Wartell
Marsha Wartell
2 months ago

I definitely have issues with a few of the bikes I’ve tried. I am truly 46kg and 5’0″ The deep wheelsets are to heavy for me. Feel like I’m on bad chipseal. I also got moved to C group (I’m at the bottom) and it’s frustrating when riders that weigh more have larger w/kg and I have to kill myself to stay in the group when they’re doing same watts as myself. I ride the S-works Venge with Enve 3.4 to keep my bike light for my small old frame. I have other frames and wheelsets in my garage but… Read more »

Dan Connelly
2 months ago
Reply to  Marsha Wartell

From Eric’s tests with body weight, when he reduces weight by a certain %, he gets a similar % reduction in climbing time. This would only be technically true if lighter riders had proportionately lighter bikes. Maybe Eric can comment on this. If true, you needn’t worry about being “too small for deep wheels” — in any case, large or small, the aerodynamic advantages will outweigh the mass penalty on everything except the hilliest courses.

ShakeNBakeUK
Member
ShakeNBakeUK (@bakeuk_2)
2 months ago
Reply to  Marsha Wartell

riders that weigh more should have lower w/kg than you, unless they’re just fitter/stronger than you, in which case they should be in front. lighter riders have to do slightly more w/kg in order to keep up on flats. the up-side is that once you reach the cat limits (w/kg), you don’t get promoted, until you also exceed the raw wattage FTP requirements. so YOU can ride at a higher w/kg than is allowed without getting disqualified, which should enable you to destroy all the chonkers. p.s. sworks venge x enve 3.4 is an odd setup. non-climbing frame with climbing… Read more »

Carl J
Carl J
2 months ago
Reply to  Marsha Wartell

“ it’s frustrating when riders that weigh more have larger w/kg and I have to kill myself to stay in the group when they’re doing same watts as myself” If the heavier riders are doing the same watts as you, then they won’t have a larger wkg! If you’re 46kg and they’re 92kg, then they’d be doing 1/2 the wkg as you, if you both were doing the same watts. So no way that this is possible. On a flat course, you would have to do the same watts as a heavier rider to keep up (ignoring less aero for a… Read more »

Joshua Nicholson
Joshua Nicholson
2 months ago

Sure sounds great… in theory, I am in the camp that Zwift is fun and I am not riding to win UCI world champs so my Zwift Classic Wheels on the Zwift Steel frame looks nice. Add the fact that if I am pushing 200w on this or a TT frame, it is still 200w. At level 33, sure I can go find some better stuff and occasionally I switch back to the Tron or TT bike, but going faster while not moving is not my motivation!

sarah b
2 months ago

Yeah, I switch between the Zwift Steel and the Canyon Aeroad (which I actually earned rather than bought via Zwift Academy) — I really wish someone would sponsor a classic-style frame that’s halfway decent so I could ride it all the time.

(Like, why is the Steel worse than the Safety, which is clearly a joke frame? Just, like, a 50-percentile throwback from Colnago or Trek or Bridgestone (companies that already have Zwift frames and made gorgeous steel back in the day) would be so nice.)

Jason M
Jason M (@jasonm75)
2 months ago

As usual, great article for the newer riders, thanks Eric.

Another good example for any doubters would be to experiment with an event on the mixed surface routes. For example, I went with an Aspero (gravel) on the Two Villages Loop in an event last night and the difference was patently clear. In the off-road parts, I had to be careful not to ride off the front of the bunch (mostly on Trons), but had to double-down to stay with them when back on the asphalt – it felt like you had a -20w anchor.

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