The first race of Zwift Racing League was here, and I was stoked! Stoked because I knew the competition would be fierce. Stoked because this was the biggest race series ever to happen on Zwift, and I was going to be part of it. And stoked because my dad was visiting from South Carolina, and would be sitting in to watch me race for the first time.
But I was also scared. Scared because this race included 4 timed KOM sections, including the Volcano KOM which has seen me dropped from the front group in every single race attempt I’ve made.
ZwiftPower Rankings: the Beauty and the Madness
The crazy thing was, I was the top-ranked B racer in our event (EMEA E, Pool 6). ZwiftPower rankings are funny, because they really only apply to the types of races which suit you best.
You see, each rider’s ZwiftPower ranking score is based on your best five results in the last 90 days. So it’s really only a picture of how well you do in events that are ideal for your phenotype. I don’t do well in races with significant climbs, so my ranking is based off of five good results in flattish races.
So while comparing ZwiftPower rankings is a helpful way for me to assess the competition in flatter events, I knew going into this race that it would take everything I had just to stay with the front of the race. I also knew the long uphill finish meant I wasn’t going to finish on the podium. But I resolved to give all I had for my best result – because even though I’m a 41-year-old man, I still want to make my dad proud!
In an attempt to gain every advantage for the big race, I did several things before the race began:
- Chewed some caffeine gum – three pieces instead of the usual two. Because more caffeine is always better, right?
- Applied PR lotion to my legs about 45 minutes before the race began. More bicarb=less burning.
- Donned the Nopinz Subzero kit I’ve been testing out for the last couple of weeks. Because I love the feeling of popping a fresh, frozen gel pack in just before the final effort of the race heats up.
- Jumped into the Coco Cadence group to start spinning my legs, then as soon as the “Join Event” prompt popped up, I clicked it so I could save a spot near the front of the pen.
- Took my time warming up, putting in a solid 45-minute warmup with a few sprints to get my heart rate up into threshold zone.
Soon enough it was time to rejoin the start pens, so I clicked in and took a deep breath. Let’s race!
The Start + Early Climbs
The clock hit zero and we piled out of the desert start pen. There were 131 riders in our race, and while the initial effort hurt a bit, riders were clearly saving their legs for the big climbs down the road. 330W average for the first 3 minutes kept me in the front group of riders, and that front group was large. Unlike most Zwift races, where 1/3 of the field is quickly dropped, it looked like only a handful of riders were dropped through the Fuego Flat section.
Titans Grove KOM
Soon enough we were at the first climb of the day: Titans Grove KOM. Typically I can finish this climb in just over 4 minutes at race pace, and it’s really the final 3 minutes where the big effort comes in, as the first 1 minute is quite flat. I was pushing hard, but not on the limit – 348W for the final 3 minutes of the climb kept me nicely placed in the front pack as we crested the KOM. My teammate Snowy Pruett came over the line first – bonus points!
Clearly, we were still saving our legs for steeper and longer climbs! Still, the hard push up the first climb made the first big selection of the race – we had a front group of ~45 riders, and those who were dropped would never rejoin.
Knowing my history racing up the Volcano KOM, my goal was to take every bit of recovery I could get when not climbing… and to remain in touch with the front group over each climb. I breathed deep and did my best to keep my watts down as we descended toward downtown Watopia.
We arrived at the foot of the good ol’ Hilly KOM 7-1/2 minutes after cresting the Titans Grove climb, and I’m not going to lie: I went into this climb with some fear and trepidation. I’ve been dropped on this climb many times in races past, but the one I remember best was when my teammates waited for me at the top, pulling me back to the front group to defend my Morning Grind Fondo ranking!
This climb is just long and steep enough that it puts me on the limit every race. I had a feather powerup in my pocket, and decided to save it until the second portion of the climb, instead of using it on the steeper initial portion – because I always lose my places near the top. This strategy seemed to work – I definitely struggled more on this climb than the Titans Grove KOM, but I was still in touch with the front as we went over the top! And the front group was whittled down still further, to a pack of ~35.
The Volcano KOM
This was the big one, and everyone knew it.
The first 1/3 of the climb was fairly tame, and as the road leveled out to take us through the volcano, I was happy to still be sitting in the wheels, conserving watts while others pushed the pace with their noses in the wind. Then the climb began again, and the real pain set in. One of my teammates (Justin Wild) went to the front and pushed the pace, stringing out the pack. On one hand, I wanted to yell, “Don’t push the pace!” On the other hand… riders were falling off the group, and I was staying on. I just kept pushing.
The final 1/3 was the toughest, both in terms of perceived effort and actual average wattage. I had saved an aero powerup for the final kick across the line, and while it wouldn’t help a lot at slower climbing speeds, it was better than nothing.
I hammered hard up the final steep kicker, and even though I was on the limit, I kept hammering to get up to speed once the road leveled out. We were strung out coming up the final kick to the line, but I figured between my 82kgs and the riders near me, we could catch the small number of riders up ahead. I latched onto the wheels ahead and a group quickly formed, swallowing the lonely riders up the road.
As we descended from atop the volcano, there were no riders left to chase. Our front group had shrunk yet again, to ~25 riders. This was the pack I would be competing against across the finish line.
The Finish – Titans Grove KOM Reverse
The pace was (relatively) easy from the top of the volcano to the entrance of Titans Grove, with everyone taking a few minutes to recover before the final kick to the line.
We turned a right into Titans Grove, and one rider attacked off the front. The pack sped up a bit, and this is where I made the biggest mistake of my race: I didn’t join the chase soon enough. Instead of ramping up my power to stay near the front of the chasing pack, I tried to conserve, which quickly resulted in my getting spit out the back of the front group over the roller coaster rollers.
This meant I had to dig… hard… burning a match just before the finish of the race. I was able to get back into the group, but it took everything I had. My dad saw it, too, “Way to get back in there!”
Now I had just a precious ~60 seconds to recover on the downhill rollers before the final ~90-second KOM kick to the finish line. I tried to breath deep and keep the watts as low as possible, but I could tell my legs were cooked.
I recruited my dad to activate my aero powerup for the finish, because I’d be out of the saddle going all-in for those final seconds. I knew the climb leveled out in its final seconds, and many riders go too hard too early. So my goal was to save a bit of a kick for the final ~15 seconds with my aero powerup, hoping to of grab a few places from blown-up riders.
I stayed seated for the first minute or so of the climb, then got out of the saddle. I was in 19th place, but there were riders just ahead if I could go harder. My body wasn’t cooperating, refusing to even hit 500 watts! But I kept pushing, then said “Go” to my dad when I thought I was the right distance from the line. Keep hammering. Monica had popped into the Pain Lab and was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” I was absolutely on the limit, out of the saddle hammering with poor form because my body was done. But I passed one rider… then another… then another.
I crossed the line in 15th place, with teammates Justin Wild and Snowy Pruett up ahead in 4th and 5th, respectively. Ouch.
The Volcano KOM, combined with my misstep in Titans Grove and that killer uphill finish made this my toughest race in recent memory. Maybe my toughest race ever? (It’s funny how the mind works – you forget how hard the race was, don’t you? Perhaps that’s the only reason we do this over and over again!)
While 15th place isn’t amazing, I was happy with the result – because this is the first time I’ve not been dropped up the Volcano KOM! Could I have finished higher? Perhaps by a few places, if I hadn’t messed up on the run into the finish. And that’s my lesson from this race: a lapse of attention can result in the burning of crucial matches.
If you races ZRL race #1, how did it go? Share your thoughts below.