For me - It's different in a lot of ways. Firstly every Zwift race is a TT. There's no coasting or catching your breath when you've chased back on.... or 'sitting in'. As soon as you drop power in a group you're thrown back a long way in the group. Drafting wise there's no 'feel' to it, so you're never quite sure when you're in the best position... and with automatic steering your position isn't within your control. That also means there's no skill or craft in bike positioning... and given there's no virtual wind, there's no gutter action or positioning yourself to let your team catch the draft while putting others in the gutter. No steering means no surprise attacks across the other side of the road, or swapping turns easy. There's a bucketload of real life race tactics and smarts that aren't there. Yet.
What's similar is the 'just hold the wheel' mindset you have to apply. An example of this was a race I did a few weeks ago... I was off the back of a group of eight with three others who were struggling too.. I gave it one last "fck it, get across or die" effort... I made contact with the group and suffered on, the other two were out the back by 60 seconds+ a few kms up the road. So that aspect is similar to racing outside. The draft works.... but it is lacking a few dimensions.
I still don't think these platforms were ever designed for the complexity we're expecting. A lot of features and functions seem to be retro-fitted, which work ok a lot of the time.
Well described... I wouldn't go as far as saying it is like a TT, because it does have the surge/recover dynamics of a road race, but you can't coast in the pack the way you can sometimes if you're well positioned on the road, you can ease off a bit, but if I dropped to 150w, like I often would in an easier section of a crit, I'd be out the back... Definitely agree with the positioning piece, skilled bike racers are masters of this on the road, but it's completely random in Zwift (if you're not skilled at this, this is a huge bonus riding on zwift, as someone who is fairly adept at moving within a pack, it's a bit of a hinderance). All you can really do is control your fore/aft position by modulating your power expenditures. I'd love to see virtual winds, leading to echeloning, gutter riding, etc. some of these technical challenges are my favorite parts of bike races...
And for sure agree with the hold the wheel aspects, the decision making around burning your matches, and figuring out which gaps to bridge, and when to sit back, this is what gives you the chess match feel of a road race. Also some of the pack dynamics, After all of the talk about nobody escaping on the flats, I raced a flat crit last night, and a few teams were lighting things up tactically and sending riders up the road... We split a breakaway of 17 riders off the peloton on a short 2% incline, and about halfway through, two riders attacked our group on the flats and rode away, they had stretched to almost 15seconds, but then we started to reel them in, but much like a real race, we could see them 10s up the road, and a few guys would go do some good work and claw back a few seconds, but then someone else would pull through and ease off the pace ever so slightly, and the gap would go back out... I got frustrated for sure with the lack of impetus by some, that I ended up taking a monster 2km pull to euthanize the escape with about 5km to go. In hindsight that was probably a bit too soon, in the sense, that we had to endure a few km of relentless attack attempts, before people accepted that it would be a bunch romp to the line (again, also very much like in a real race). I'd also say that the dynamics of a bunch sprint are a bit off, in the sense that because of the random positioning, you can't lead out the way one would do on the road, it feels a lot more like a sprint out of a small breakaway group on the road. That being said, there is very much the dynamic of timing your effort to the line, last night I watched several major reshuffles of our group across the last 5-700m from the line, as people launched their sprints.
I'd say the ebb and flow and dynamics of the race are very similar to on the road, and how the races unfold. The skill element is basically non-existent, in the sense of moving within the draft or the pack, the real skill is managing the amount of riding you do on the front. And you can't recover as truly as you do on the road (although in that sense, Zwift races are great training for the road, in the sense that you have to ride harder to achieve a result).
In terms of courses, I rode a crit last night on the Greater London Flat course, and while primarily flat, still made for a very dynamic and tactical race. I also liked that race because I finally made a main breakaway and took an overall podium...