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.

[Warriors] And with the second pick…

As the Warriors on Wednesday, if I could trade down slightly, I’d go for Obi Toppin, last year’s college player of the year, and another asset (veteran cog).

From The Athletic:

The best pick-and-roll big in the draft. An absolute monster athlete in terms of explosiveness. Great speed for his size, and it’s really tough for defenders to stay attached to him in exchanges. Can beat taggers to the spot on the back side. A powerful leaper who is an elite dunker and finisher at the rim, having made 76.7 percent of all shots at the rim in non-post-ups, according to Synergy. Also, Toppin is terrific out in transition, creating numerous opportunities every game with his speed and finishing. He’s not just a pick-and-dive guy, though. He’s very fluid and can really shoot it off the catch, particularly out of pick-and-pops. Made his catch-and-shoot attempts at a 58.1 effective field goal percentage, and he has touch and a clean release on the ball that should translate into continued improvement. The questions come on defense, where Toppin is particularly bad in space right now and might be a bit stuck between the 4 and the 5 positions at the NBA level.

Here’s what I see:

  • Amare Stoudemire. Stephen Curry = Steve Nash. Detonate.
  • Offensively, he not only has the skills, but he dominated the college level. Pick and roll, passing, finishing, shooting – I have not heard any negative aspects of his offensive game. Does not need to handle the ball to impact the game – key for the Warriors.
  • Ready to contribute in the NBA to a good team – the Warriors need explosive, skilled athletic ability.

Concerns:

  • Yes, he’s a lot older. He should be college sophomore age but he’s closer to grad student age.
  • Not a good defender. May not have ideal size, length, agility. What I pay attention to is effort, however. Stephen Curry is probably a league average defender. But he puts effort in to maximize his abilities. I have not seen anything to suggest Toppin is an unwilling defender.

Why Toppin and not…anyone else? Yes, there are plenty of raw, high talent, younger candidates out there – let’s talk about Wiseman, Edwards, Ball. Not just raw in terms of potential, but actual achievement at their former levels. I don’t believe any of them can contribute to a playoff team next year because they can be all be abused defensively. As much reports tout Wiseman’s defensive potential, he’s not considered a NBA-ready defender right now. Yes, Toppin is 2-3 years older than the current tier 1 prospects in this draft, but do we really think the others will be better than he is now by year 3? My guess, only one of the three reaches that mark and I have no idea which one.

Looking back historically, Toppin reminds me of Derrick Williams, 2011’s #2 pick. Another explosive, perhaps undersized, big who also shot well from 3 (56%) in college. I still don’t know why Williams did not pan out. Will Toppin’s shot from the college 3 work in the NBA? Will his release time (see SprawlBall) allow him to get that shot off consistently?

As for the Warriors actual interest in Toppin? From NBC Sports:

“The interview call went very well. They have a great organization over there at Golden State. I believe they like me a lot,” Toppin told reporters Wednesday over Zoom.

But Toppin hasn’t spoken with the Warriors since his interview and hasn’t worked out for Golden State. That has to be a bit concerning.

I think this is the perfect smokescreen for pulling off a trade.

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.

Rob Neyer’s Powerball vs the Real Story of the 2017 Astros

I just finished (and greatly enjoyed) Rob Neyer’s Powerball, a book about the application of data analytics in the modern game, highlighting a 2017 game between the eventual World Series Champions Houston Astros and Oakland A’s.

What stood out to me is how Neyer highlighted how the Astros had greatly improved offensively compared to the previous year, giving reasonable justification for those outcomes. But it made me think back to an article I had read just a month prior from The Athletic, “Does electronic sign stealing work? The Astros’ numbers are eye-popping“, by Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris.

Let me give a snippet of the article, which only is available for subscribers.

Their strikeout rate plummeted — at a level unparalleled in the last 100 years.

Their strikeout rate at home took an even more dramatic plunge — and that, too, was unlike anything we’ve seen in the last century.

They developed an uncanny ability to lay off breaking balls below the strike zone — an ability they hadn’t displayed before, and didn’t display on the road. But at the same time, they began crushing every kind of pitch inside the zone — at a rate that didn’t bear much resemblance to the way they’d handled those very same pitches in the past.

These were your 2017 Houston Astros. Remember back, oh, a few months ago, when we just referred to them as the World Series champs? Those were the days. Now we look at them and ask: Were they really that good? How much did they owe to pilfering signs and thumping on trash cans?

Neyer wrote about and lauded those Astros, those cheating, sign stealing ones that are perhaps part of the game’s greatest cheating scandal since the 1919 Black Sox. Yet, there isn’t much online bringing up the connection other than this podcast featuring Neyer himself from December. Neyer only wonders if he could have or should have suspected the cheating.