I joined Zwift in December 2018, after getting a Wahoo Kickr Snap as an early Christmas gift from my wife (best Christmas gift ever).  At the time I felt I was a decent biker… well, really a decent triathlete with a good bike leg.  I had raced in all kinds of triathlons from sprint distance up to full distance, including some of the Age Group National Championships races run by USA Triathlon. 

All this is to say that I felt fairly good about my bike.  I knew I wasn’t the best biker, but I felt like I could generally hang with most anyone.  I joined a random Category D race in January 2019 and was totally dusted.  I didn’t know how to race, I wasn’t fit enough and finished probably in the bottom 10%. 

In triathlon having ~190 watt FTP (2.4 w/kg) is good enough to keep you at the front end of most local races, but apparently it wasn’t even enough to keep up in the lowest category on Zwift!  To say it was disheartening was an understatement.  About a month later I tore my ACL and although I got back on the bike within a few months, I felt very hesitant to even think about a Zwift race, even after feeling like I was fully recovered from my injury. 

For basically all of 2019, whenever I entered a race it was just to ride whatever course the race was on and never really to try for a placing.  However, reading Eric’s “How the Race was Lost” post about racing with the Cat A’s inspired me to get a Zwift Power account and give racing a shot again.

Route and Bike Choice

I chose a Crit City “Bell Lap” Category D race.  I chose it because I feel like Crit City is the place where people go to race, not just get a good ride in under the guise of a race event.  Up until this point, I had never even ridden in Crit City before (I’m now a level 18 Zwifter) because I had been too shy about racing. 

Additionally, I don’t have a ton of virtual bikes to choose from.  My only real aero bike is my TT bike, so I went with my Chapter 2 Rere bike which has 3 stars each for Aero and Weight (so I guess that’s good?) with my Zip 808s. 

The Beginning

I knew from reading Eric’s posts that I could count on two things in this race: 1) a fast start, and 2) a bunch of sandbaggers.  More on #2 later, but I decided to go all out to make the front group no matter how much it cost me later, hoping the pace would eventually calm down. 

I knew it was important to get a good warmup in and get to the pens early.  Too bad I have no idea what I’m doing in terms of how to really warm up for a bike race!  Instead of heading to Watopia or some other world to warm up, I just headed to the pens “early”.  I got there 11 minutes before the race and was probably the 5th person in the pens so I got a “good” warmup in and got a good starting position.  I mostly just soft-pedaled except for one strong 30-second effort, but I knew immediately I was having a good day. 

Read tips for pre-race warmups >

By the time the gate opened there were about 55 D Category racers heading out on the Bell Lap course.  I knew the start was going to be fast, but OMG, it was so fast!  My Zwift FTP heading into the race was 191 Watts and I weigh 78.2 Kg for an FTP of 2.42 w/Kg, but I had to go massively into the red just to make the front group. 

I had 1-minute power of over 280 watts and although I did make the front group of about 25 riders, my heart rate was already 180+.  I knew I wasn’t going to make it through 8 laps in the front group.  However, I also knew that probably a decent number of the people in this front group weren’t truly Cat D racers. 

I was finally unhinged at the beginning of the 3rd lap.

The Middle

I ended up in no-mans-land for a bit before joining up with 2 other racers and then being caught by a larger chase pack to form a rather large “group 2” on the road.  During the next 3 or 4 laps we caught a few more people that had been spit out the back of the front group. 

My group ended up consisting of places 17-27 in the race when it was all said and done.  It looked like most everyone in the group was on the limit, so I started thinking about a sprint because I knew I didn’t have the energy for a sustained attack.  I don’t even know if I’m a good sprinter and I felt a bit weird thinking about sprinting for 17th place but hey, I was here for a race, wasn’t I?  So starting in the 5th lap I began thinking about the last few corners and when I would use my aero powerup (praise the random number generators). 

The Finish

In the last lap a few people went off the front on “attacks.”  Really, they upped the power just a bit and nobody (I guess really just me since I was on the front of the pack at this point) had the energy to chase.  A few of them ended up coming back to the group in the end, but a few also stayed away. 

As we hit 1 km to go, I dropped to the back of what was left of the pack in about 24th place and began to wind up a sprint.  I ended up hitting almost 600 watts (my highest ever on Zwift) and passed most of what was left of the second pack to finish in 20th place.

See my ride on Strava >
See my ride on Zwift >
See race results on ZwiftPower >

The Aftermath

It may seem silly to say, but I was pumped about the result.  I have never gone so hard or so deep on my bike.  I thought I was going to pass out as soon as I hit the finish line.  I averaged a heart rate of 184 for 25 minutes and had a max heart rate of 195.  I felt like I raced the best plan I could given my legs.  I got in the front group, held on as long as I could, waited for a large chase pack and then took a good placing out of that pack.  I also increased my Zwift FTP from 191 to 201 Watts, proving that sometimes you need a race to get the best performance out of you. 

I also totally underestimated how much I would enjoy actually racing.   Because I knew that there were a bunch of sandbaggers ahead of me, I was able to pretend I was racing for first, even though I was in 20th place.  I was able to think about racecraft and strategy when my heart was about the explode.  Trying to manage when to use powerups, when to attack or cover other attacks, and where to start my final sprint was thrilling.  It made biking as much of a mental exercise as a physical one and added a whole new dimension to indoor riding.

Now returning to the point of sandbaggers… I placed 20th in a category D race with about 55 riders.  I averaged 2.7 watts/Kg for 25 minutes during the race for an estimated FTP of 2.545 w/Kg.  So technically I was marginally over the category D threshold even though I finished in 20th, 2 minutes behind the winner! 

Now, I will say that Zwift Power does a nice job of cleaning up these deficiencies.  There were 13 of us in the race registered on Zwift Power and in the unfiltered results I was 6th place, however in the official results I was 2nd of 8 official racers because 5 were filtered out (I’m guessing for being above categorization limits, but honestly I’m not sure how Zwift Power does that).

But sandbagging is a big issue. There are a lot of people on Zwift who are between 1.75 and 2.25 w/kg FTP, but if they race in Cat D, they might as well just ride for enjoyment, because they are going to end up dropped in the first 5 minutes.  Eric mentions this problem a lot from the Cat B perspective, but I think the problem has even more impact for category D riders because like me a year ago, many first-time racers think they are racing against a field of peers when they are not, so when they finish in the bottom half many will just decide not to race seriously ever again. 

I think the best way to sum up the problem is: in order to feel like I could participate in Cat D races, I had to be able to put out Cat C power. 

Takeaways

Three takeaways from this race:

  1. Get a Zwift Power account.  It can totally change your mentality about racing in Zwift and make you feel like you have a chance, which makes the experience so much more fun.
  2. Go like hell from the gun, you can’t win the race if you don’t make the front group so you might as well give it everything you have. It’s not like you have to save energy for the ride home!
  3. Racing on Zwift is a ton of fun. If you have tried it in the past and had a bad experience or don’t feel like you are strong enough, give it another shot.  You may surprise yourself. 

What About You?

Are you a Cat D racer? How have your Zwift race experiences lined up with mine? Share below!