Liz Van Houweling
Virtual cycling experiences differ for males and females, but we can all take advantage of the opportunities available and do our part to make the virtual world a better one!
As I cruise around Watopia, one thing becomes increasingly apparent: the number of females riding is significantly less than males. March is Women’s History Month, and Zwift celebrates women all month long. The Women’s Ride and Run series feature the Power of the Pack Rides and Runs on International Women’s Day, Tuesday Podcast Rides, Wednesday Workout of the Week takeovers, and Saturday Community Rides and Runs.
These events are great for potentially offering a less intimidating environment for women to get involved in the Zwift community and showcasing how many female Zwifters there are!
I’ve recently been thinking about my personal experiences on Zwift and how they differ from IRL riding/racing and other female eracers. I raced pretty competitively before beginning virtual racing and routinely did large mixed-gender group rides.
I brought that high level of competitive desire to Zwift and committed right away to improving my weaknesses and learning the craft. It has made my virtual racing experiences much different from many females.
Women’s Virtual vs. In Real Life (IRL) Cycling
Virtual cycling has a vast pool of women because it includes women literally all over the world and offers races during all time zones. It is the reason why I think virtual racing has a considerable advantage for both beginner and experienced women cyclists. Katheryn Curi, a previous US National RR Champion, agrees.
Karla Williams is an event organizer on Zwift, and she believes that it is “all about the right fun format and a day that will be good for everyone.” Karla once had 700 women race in one weekend of the Tour of Bouccica! Currently, she is organizing the Iceni Women’s series, and they have four timeslots with roughly 300 women. Numbers like this are rare for IRL racing and give me a great deal of hope for the future of esports.
In January, I started racing the Premier League with the Saris NoPinz team, and I was immediately impressed with the overall high level of women’s racing. I would have needed to be on a major professional IRL team and make serious travel and time commitments to find so many strong women to race. Zwift has allowed me to do this weekly from the comfort of my own home!
Mixed Gender Racing
Shortly after I started riding on Zwift, I joined the ProVision team out of the UK and began racing mixed B. I participated in my first ZRL season and kept progressing. I was basically the only female (and American!) on the team, but I always felt valued and a part of a team of friends. The team was invested in helping me learn the art of Zwift racing and in becoming a stronger racer.
Before my introduction to eracing, I was best at sustained threshold-type efforts. After over a year of predominantly mixed racing, I now consider the shorter, more powerful bursts my biggest strength. I perhaps could have had more success racing in the women’s only fields, but I appreciate the challenge of trying to compete with the men.
Generally, women have high body fat percentages, fewer fast-twitch muscle fibers, and lower body mass than males. It means that men tend to have a higher VO2 max capacity and therefore are generally faster at sprinting.
Women’s smaller frames tend to be more aerodynamic and lighter, so they can often excel in sustained climbs and ultra-endurance efforts. I got better by routinely placing myself in situations that did not ideally suit me!
Another significant advantage that virtual, mixed racing offers is that it allows me to ride with a large group of powerful men in a safe environment. I would not want to enter a men’s cat 1/2 criterium in real life, but I routinely enter mixed cat A Zwift races. I may still get dropped, but I’m not going to get elbows thrown at me or worry about causing problems in a huge pack.
I’ve even started riding with the current world TTT champions, Saris NoPinz, in many weekly WTRL TTTs. They push me well above my abilities, and they always make me feel welcome. Virtual racing is unique in allowing opportunities such as this to get stronger, work on weaknesses, and have fun!
Zwift is not perfect for everyone, male or female. One thing that Karla would like to see is the addition of an A+ category for women to make the field more even. It’s a good problem to have when the quality of the field is so high that we need to make more category divisions.
Katheryn has been leading women’s rides this month, and she says, “It would be interesting to see Zwift maybe lead some women’s only rides for those interested or new to racing to ask questions or get advice from more experienced racers.”
Donna Watts is a very strong racer for the Socks4Watts team, and she thinks “it would be nice to be able to choose body type on the avatar for more inclusivity.” The men seem to have more diversity in terms of various body shapes, while all women look slightly similar with their slim arms, tiny waists, and ridiculous hairstyles. While more customizable avatars may not change the actual race dynamics, they would impact women’s overall environment and in-game experience.
Others don’t see too many gender-specific problems with Zwift. Molly Van Houweling (yes, she’s my cousin-in-law and previous UCI hour record-holder) says, “I honestly have no gender-specific complaints. I appreciate both women’s racing and mixed-category racing and appreciate that the courses offer something for everyone.”
I understand that mixed-gender racing can be a bit unattractive for many women because of men’s more explosive power. I’ve certainly suffered because of this! However, certain promoters have done an incredible job of offering alternative solutions.
The Flamme Rouge Racing (FRR) series takes a novel approach to mixed racing. Initially, they wanted to “smooth the virtual Zwift mixed racing field rather than simply use what was there.” For this current tour, each segment is gender-specific. They use an algorithm that considers mixed category, gender, weight, and highest normalized power in the last 90 days to place riders in inappropriate categories.
The promoter says, “The vast majority of ladies and men love where it is placing them, and the races are close by the CATs we use. And it’s here to stay. We just need Zwift to step up and take on board that ranges need more” (than the current primarily 20 min w/kg system).
While not gender-specific, another thing Katheryn notes could impact both women’s and mixed racing: “I would LOVE to see Zwift come up with a different drafting algorithm that doesn’t give so much speed to the group. I think with less draft, it would encourage more aggressive racing, especially for the flatter races where it often just comes down to a sprint even if a few people/teams are aggressive.” This change could potentially make mixed racing more enjoyable for some women.
Most women seem to have in common the feeling that the best part about being a female Zwifter is the sense of community. Karla says, “In my almost six years of being a Zwift addict, what has made me come back over and over again is the support, encouragement, and camaraderie within the women’s Zwift Community.”
Donna’s Socks4Watts team races in the weekly women’s TTT on Thursdays, and she says, “All the women are wonderful. It’s a killer workout. I feel the women are very competitive but kinder than what I’ve seen with men. Thursday may be the highlight of my week.”
Molly comments, “I’m really grateful to be on a team of supportive women from all over the world—only a few of whom have I ever met in real life! That camaraderie has been the highlight of Zwift for me.”
It is amazing to see so many women riding bikes together and sharing stories and experiences. The support women give each other on Zwift will only encourage more to give it a try.
Cycling is a sport that men still dominate, and there are undoubtedly physiological differences between men and women. However, I think the most important thing is to create a positive community of all cyclists.
Virtual cycling has an even more significant opportunity than IRL cycling to construct a welcoming and inspiring environment for everyone. There are undoubtedly still aspects of eracing that are intimidating and perhaps even exclusionary to females. That’s why events like the Women’s Ride and Run series are awesome and necessary. However, I’ve tried to embrace everything the virtual world offers, and I’m a stronger, happier racer because of this.
So let’s continue to have open conversations about what is going well and what we’d like to see change. Let’s be kind to our fellow riders and give a few extra “ride ons.” Let’s get more of our friends on bikes and show them what a beautiful sport this is. Whether we are outside feeling the wind in our faces or on a trainer going nowhere, we are still experiencing it all together.
What have been your experiences as a female Zwifter? What have you observed in women’s racing versus mixed racing? What would you like to see Zwift improve? What do you think is the best part? Comment below.