Podium on Zwift! How I race.

I got a third place (see M Nguyen) finish on Zwift! To be fair, however….it was Tour De Zwift Stage 6, a group ride, but I suspect that the top group ride…riders are racing each other so I’ll take it. 178 total participants officially recognized, see all the details on Zwift Power.

I am not going to claim the competition was comparable to a normal B class race – the C designated in this was for the route not the class. I happened to pick C because I needed the Zwift achievement for the route. That said, I think I did well relative to the power levels I competed against on this flat route – I beat people with significantly higher W/KG and average watts.

My approach to racing is pretty simple. From what I’ve read about Zwift, race strategy is not so complex.

  1. I look to start off strong (300+ watts, 20%+ above FTP) for a couple of minutes, basically as long as I can to be part of the strongest group at the front. I try not to go beyond 350 watts as that will wear me out quickly. My aim is be in the lead group and survive.
  2. Because of my relatively small size, I never pull (lead the group). I just want to get in the lead group and rest in the draft. This allows me to stay in the group with less power. After my start, I basically need to settle down as quickly as possible without losing the group or I will fade.
  3. Each race has places where groups break off. Sometimes it’s obvious where this can happen, like a climb. Even though I’m more oriented towards climbing, I usually find myself getting dropped on these. I’m prepared to go 10% above FTP for longer 1 minute+ climbs, but I see people really pushing hard beyond that. I haven’t raced enough to get the right feel for how I want to approach these. In flat courses, I feel it’s more about focus. I will find myself in a larger group that starts breaking apart but I don’t quite realize it’s happening. Suddenly there’s a widening gap and I have to make a big (see #4v) decision. I feel that I have to stay towards the first half of a group to avoid this happening to me, and even higher in a bigger group. The larger the group, the slower you can tell it’s fragmenting. That’s what I focused on this time – both sustaining high power for longer to make sure I was in the front group at the start and then always making a push if I started falling to the rear of the group. Steps 1 to 3 recapped: surge at the start and hang on in the strongest group (as long as you can).
  4. When a group begins to break up and I am behind, I have to make a decision immediately. Either bridge the gap, no matter what it takes, or ease off. Whether I do the former depends on how much energy I’ve exerted to that point and how much I’ve been surprised by the gap (how far it is). Here, I bridged gaps a couple of times to take the chance I’d be able to hold on for the long term. Thankfully, I did. The worst is to try to bridge the gap and then realize 10+ seconds in that the group in front is still pulling away. I find it virtually impossible to catch up to a decent sized group after it begins to pull away.
  5. If I don’t bridge the gap, I lay off the effort immediately. I then look to find the next group of 5+ riders coming behind me. Just as it’s very difficult to catch up to a group by yourself, it’s just as difficult to stay away from a group behind you. I have never seen a solo breakaway survive. I don’t want to go slow, but I can lay off quite a bit so I can join the next group. However, I have to be careful to ramp up the power as that group comes up so I don’t get passed up completely, I want to get sucked into that group’s draft. Groups, given enough time, will easily pass the rest of the smaller groups and individuals until it’s only behind a faster group. Basically, even if you’re stronger than the group, it’s not worth the extra effort to stay ahead of the group because the group will catch you eventually and you cannot make it to the next group by yourself. Save your energy.
  6. From here, it’s about repeating steps 3-6 and getting a feel to which group you ultimately belong. Stick to a group and try to survive. Fall off, then try the same with the next group coming up. The series of decisions about bridging the gap to a group or laying off to join a slower group seems to be most critical in the overall Zwift standings. Lose focus and use too much energy bridging a gap, you may not be able to stick to slower groups coming up behind you.
  7. When you can stay in a group without spending your max, you’re better able to stay with surges and also prepare for the final sprint. This time, I was in good shape and as I saw other people getting dropped, my focus was to stay in the lead group as it slowly went down to less than 10 people. The longer I survived, the better I felt it was worth it to make sure I didn’t let a surge drop me.
  8. As I got close to the finish and was confident I could stay in the lead group to the end, I had a simple wish: to get a group draft boost (the truck) powerup to close the race. I feel that Zwift power-ups are generally only useful in situations where the group as a whole will break up and you need to survive. Or for the final sprint. Since I am a weaker wattage rider, the draft boost would help me use the other riders to move up with less power. I planned to launch at .4 km (slightly over 30 seconds) remaining in the race, hoping the powerup would let me solidify a position. I don’t think I was planning or even hoping I could win, but I did want a top 3. You can see the final seconds below from Zwift – speed, power, heart rate, cadence. My heart rate at 170 is about 95% of my estimated max heart rate but I can only really hold on between 170-175 depending on the day.

Cycling At 40

For a couple of years, I have been slowly inching towards the performance benchmark of 4.0 watts / kg. In cycling, w/kg is the standard way of measuring performance, pound for pound. You may produce more watts because you’re bigger, but what happens when we climb that mountain?

W/kg is not the perfect performance comparison tool but it’s the best cycling has.

This year, I started really strong – I just felt like I was making clear gains on a weekly basis. I came back to the US around New Year’s after a month in Asia. My FTP (a measure of power output) was at 225 watts (I was very sad), but I got up to 250 watts (this is a big jump in a short amount of time) within the spring. I was at 3.8 w/kg with another month or two of work I hoped to reach 4.0 with another gain of 10 or so watts.

Of course, since we’re talking about 2020, COVID blew up. A few months later I moved out of California to the altitude of Colorado, where breathing isn’t quite the same. From reading anecdotes, people often drop around 10% in power going to 5K feet. And that’s what I saw, back to 225w.

Now, at the end of the year I’m around 245w but I just had to send my Saris H3 trainer for repair, and I’ll be without it for a few weeks. I don’t have time to bike outdoors.

I originally hoped to hit 4.0 w/kg to coincide with my 40th birthday, but now I want to hit it during my 40th year (counting western-style). As a cherry on top, I’d love to win any race on Zwift in my current category B during the next year. Racing on Zwift….so hard.

What does it take to finish Old La Honda in 20 minutes?

The simple answer: An FTP above 4.0 watts/kg. Old La Honda in Woodside is one of the Bay Area’s benchmark climbs: long enough to make you hurt but short enough where it’s not truly an endurance climb. Nonetheless, it sees like the climb that everyone competes on to have a reference point against everyone else.

To finish this 3 mile / 8% average gradient climb in 20 minutes puts you firmly in the top 10% of all entrants. As of June 2020, almost 27,000 people have completed it and tracked it on Strava.

My best time: 21:06, ranked in the top 10.3% of all cyclists, riding a Canyon Ultimate CF SLX with Ultegra DI2, Disc Brakes. Canyon’s lightest Ultimate frame. I brought along one full water bottle, a rear light, and a bike computer – my minimum, no-accidents-please setup. Low tire pressure at 60/65 front/rear PSI using GP5000 tubeless tires on Roval CL 32 wheels. My guess is the bike + accessories was around 19 pounds.

I probably weighed 142 lbs (I’m 5’6), having eaten no breakfast. Average power during the climb 261 watts, about 4.04 W/KG. My estimated FTP going in was around 3.87 W/KG at 250W.

To be able to shave off that final minute for a 20 minute time, I think that I would need another 10 or so watts, which would take me to 4W/KG.

What Happens When You Headbutt a Bee at 25 MPH?

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(Above) That’s what happens – I was road cycling at a good pace yesterday and I felt something hit my forehead. I knew it was too soft to be a rock, and then suddenly, stinging pain – I had actually slammed into a bee, and as its last act, had injected me with its venom right in the middle of my forehead. You can see the pink spot of injection right between my eyebrows.

When I got home, everything actually looked ok, but when I woke up this morning, there was clear swelling and it’s been getting worse since then. I feel like I have a mask over my eyes because my vision is slightly blocked off and the edges of my eyes near my nose now go very deep because of all the puffiness. My wife could not stop laughing when she saw me this afternoon.

I saw a doctor this morning and this may last a week or so.

RIP Mr. Bee, I am sorry we crossed paths.

 

Game Planning with Best Bike Split for the Tierra Bella Bicycle Tour

I’m a regular listener of the TrainerRoad Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast. In it, the hosts discuss using Best Bike Split quite a bit in preparation for their events, particularly races. Best Bike Split can take your riding profile, including your power and aero profile, event goals, and course map to create segment-based power recommendations.

I was really interested in trying out the service for Tierra Bella (more on that experience here), and the free version will let you do power-based goals. Paid versions let you to optimize for time and speed-based goals and really drive down into the customization.

In my plan, I set an Intensity Factor (IF) of .75 (actual result was .72) as my goal.

Based on this, BBS predicted:

  • Ride time of 7:14 (actual: 8:13)
  • Net Power of 175 (170)
  • Variability Index of 1.05 (1.14)
  • Training Stress Score of 405 (430).

I didn’t know how well I’d adhere to the plan, so my approach was to spend most of the time in aero down in the drops to get some (I had set up the BBS plan to simulate me primarily riding on the hoods) free speed. The plan called for me to be around 160-170 watts most of the time, which I felt I could maintain in the drops. I would have been unable to maintain 200 watts in the drops for longer periods, however, due to being much more compressed on the bike (legs get closer to the stomach, making breathing more difficult).

Even though I wouldn’t be putting in max power (and thus not maximizing air resistance benefits) on the ride, spending a lot of time in aero position would have cumulative effects.

Why was I so slow compared to Best Bike Split?

There are definitely a numbers of factors. I was able to maintain BBS’ power goals on flats and moderate climbs pretty easily, but I was not as good on sustained climbs and descents. BBS would ask for around 100 watts on descents, not much, but as I’m a shaky descender who didn’t know the roads and who also wanted to avoid the hoards of cyclists climbing the other way (I was on small lane roads with below-average road conditions), I focused on safety rather than speed. I am guessing BBS may have an option to tweak this. On sustained climbs, I found that getting up to 90% FTP after miles 50+ was getting tougher and tougher, especially as the weather moved from 43 degrees F (at 7AM) to a peak of 95 (during the Hicks climb) without airflow. I had to be careful about not overexerting myself – I didn’t want to bonk (run out of energy) with 40 miles to go.

Because I didn’t overextend myself on the climbs and didn’t work on the descents, I was pretty confident I had some energy left to use after reaching the last rest stop with about 12 miles left in the 124 mile (200KM) ride. I did these last segments with 15% higher power than BBS’ goals, making up for some of the lost intensity from the previous 100 miles.

If I look back at my other metrics, this is what I think happened. Overall, my per minute intensity was less (.72 vs .75 IF) than projected, but I worked for much longer, leading to a higher total stress (9 vs 8 hrs, 430 vs 405 TSS) score. Since I had descents of essentially zero effort but then tried to make up for these at the end of the ride, this led to more variability in the power, leading to perhaps less efficient use of the power in terms of speed. I lost out on a lot of potential gain by not putting power on the descents, but also taking them relatively slowly. For example, the Henry Coe descent is 10 miles.

There’s one stretch in the ride that I think can serve as a good example of what BBS thought would happen, and what actually did. BBS does consider weather conditions such as wind direction based on historical data, with premium membership including more data.

From the Henry Coe descent on to Bailey / Morgan Hill, Best Bike Split gave me a 10 mile flat segment of 156 watts on the hoods. I actually spent the entire time in aero.

BBS Prediction Wind

Best Bike Split Prediction (#102)

BBS Prediction

In the first image, you can see that Best Bike Split was expecting a tailwind (see lower right corner of image), which explains why I’d be doing 20.78 MPH at only 156 watts. Keep in mind that this prediction was for me on the hoods, sitting more straight up with increased air resistance, not in the drops (aero) position.

Strava Output

In reality, looking at my Strava record above, I was consistently over the goal – my guess is I was around 15W above for the 10 miles and still 3MPH below BBS’s expected speed, again despite being in aero. This was a 5 minute loss on this segment alone.

I was able to integrate the BBS plan with my Wahoo Elemnt Bolt; one problem I noticed is that despite having the power levels pop up on screen, I would not get directional information on the display. Thus, cues would be for new power outputs, not road directions. I’m not sure if the original map for Tierra Bella is missing this information, but my guess is that BBS overrides it. As a result, you have to use the Elemnt’s map display – it took me a bunch of wrong turns on the course before I realized this. The disadvantage of having the map display on all the time is that you have access to fewer data fields. There could be ways to get both power and directional cues, but I will have to look into that more next time.

Overall, I liked working with the BBS plan. It gave me power levels to focus on while giving me the confidence that I wasn’t overexerting myself. I knew I could last the 125 miles.

Best Bike Split costs $20 per month or $120 per year to be a premium subscriber. Since I am not a racer and don’t do many events, it’s not worth subscribing, but I’d be open to paying per event (ex. $5-10 per event with more features than free but less than full premium).