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.