Ever since Zwift’s announcement of FutureWorks Sterzo-powered steering on all roads I’ve been wanting to test it out in a race. Steering is fun in a free rides, but the real value I see is how it can make racing more interactive and engaging.
The challenge is, steering has been disabled by default on all races because Zwift doesn’t want the few riders with steering abilities to hop into races and win every time due to a competitive advantage. (It’s a legit concern – watch ZwiftPower’s James Hodges steer away from the pack in a recent WTRL Gravel Series event.) To Zwift’s credit, they’ve quickly spun up some ZHQ Steering Races where steering is allowed – and I jumped into the very first one last Saturday.
Saturdays are my long ride days, so I planned to get some miles in before and after the race. But first, I did my usual race prep: rubbing PR lotion into my legs, and chewing 2 pieces of caffeine gum.
Good news for PR Lotion fans, or those who want to give it a try: I’ve got a discount code! Use “ZwiftInsider” for 20% off your purchase.
My legs felt decent as I spun around France with my buddy Mike, working on my steering chops on the Petite KOM descent. I noticed that cutting the corner on each of the zigzags allowed me to gain about 5 meters on Mike, every turn. Significant! Then I headed over to the windy river road, the curviest road on Zwift, and worked on cutting corners there too. I was following a dude who kept trying to get ahead, but couldn’t as I would cut the corners and stay with him at a much lower wattage. Even grabbed the Ballon Sprint jersey. Fun stuff!
There was a good amount of chatter in the start pens, and it was interesting to note that at least a handful of the riders did not have steering capabilities. I was happy to see that, because I wanted to learn what those riders thought about racing against Sterzos. But that would have to wait until after the race…
The clock hit zero, we flew out of the start pens, and immediately I received an unsettling surprise – we were racing with the A’s! Curses. I had mis-read ZwiftPower’s explanation of the category setup for the race, and didn’t realize us B’s would be joining the A’s. But it was the first steering race ever on Zwift – I wasn’t about to give up! So I gritted my teeth and mentally prepared myself for a harder effort that initially planned.
383 watts for 90 seconds got me to the top of the brick climb in touch with the front group. But could I hang with them for 11.5 more laps? There was only one way to find out.
The Steering Experience
First Things First
There are a few things one must understand about FutureWorks Steering:
- If you don’t steer at all, you will basically stay in the same left to right lane position during the ride. Think of the road like a slot car track, with (I think) 12 slots in it. As you steer, you are moving between those slots.
- You can ride through riders front to back. When that happens, Zwift automatically steers your rider around the other rider.
- You cannot ride through other riders side to side. So if you want to cut a corner sharp, but there’s a group of riders on your inside, you won’t be able to move all the way over.
Since the Downtown Dolphin route moves in a clockwise direction, almost all of the turns are right-handers… meaning the shortest line is on the right-hand side of the lane. There are three key left-hand turns, though, so being in position for those turns is also important, if you’re trying to optimize your line.
I quickly found that it was difficult to get into position for those left-hand turns since the main mass of riders was always occupying the left half of the lane, and (like racing outside) I couldn’t just steer through them. My guess (and I haven’t verified with ZHQ yet) is that non-steering riders are set to stay on the left side, while steering riders stay on the right. That was certainly how the group behaved in this race at least – the only riders I saw on the right half of the lane were clearly steering-enabled.
So I would move left as far as I could go, but unless there was a gap in the riders, I wasn’t able to cut the turn as sharp as I’d like. That wasn’t a huge deal to me, though: with only three left turns and seven right turns, I was happy to have an open right lane.
As the race progressed, I found myself battling for right-hand turn position with other steering riders. We definitely all wanted that tight, fast line! It was fun to try to time my moves so I could slot in just behind another Sterzo user, benefiting from the double draft while gaining several meters on the unsteering masses.
Dodging the Draft
When I was in the right half of the lane with the peloton in the left half, my rider would pop out of the draft occasionally (as evidenced by my avatar going from a seated up position to a more aero, in the drops posture.) I would scoot over toward the peloton in order to get back in the draft, and my rider would sit back up.
This is definitely a place where Tron riders are at a disadvantage, since your avatar doesn’t change position based on draft status on the Tron bike.
Muted by the Double Draft
This race had double draft enabled, which I think made it a little less exciting. Steering-enabled riders may have attempted some breakaways in normal draft mode, but experienced Zwift racers know it’s nearly impossible to stay away from the pack in double draft, since it raises pack speeds so high.
I see the next ZHQ Steering Race doesn’t use double draft, so that’s good news.
This was my first race since the burrito powerup was changed to affect all riders within a 2.5m radius. Wow! What a difference. Especially in a double draft race, you really notice when you lose the draft effect, even for just 10 seconds.
There were a lot of burritos flying around as riders have begun to realize what an offensive weapon the revamped burrito really is. (If you want some tips on how to best use the new burrito, see my recent post.)
I was stoked to still be in the front group of ~18 riders as we began the final lap. Then all hell broke loose!
Someone attacked on the front of our group, and a couple of riders followed. Then someone activated a burrito powerup, further lowering any hopes of the front of our group pushing up through the gap and bringing the attack back.
That’s what I realized after watching the recording of the race (below). But in the actual event, I didn’t even see the move. I was at the back of our pack, the move happened on the front, and all I knew was that suddenly several riders were off the front, and I was on the limit and unable to reel them back in from their position 3-4 seconds ahead.
So instead I prayed to the Zwift gods that no B’s had made the break, and tried to sit on the wheels and time my aero powerup and final sprint. I waited for the first rider to jump, and it turned out to be fellow B rider Scott Yarosh. He jumped hard, and when I went to put down the power, it just wasn’t there! Scott stayed away, taking first for the B’s while I came in second. Nice sprint, Scott.
Watch my recording of the race:
A few takeaways here:
- Steering is fun in races: it definitely added an enjoyable element of interaction and immersion. Figuring out how to get the best line possible is an entirely new challenge, but a welcome one.
- The burrito is a big deal: mark my words – this little powerup is going to play a much larger role in races moving forward.
- Even though I dread it, I need to keep racing against A’s: it pushes me harder, and that’s how I get better. Also (bonus): beating some A’s helps me boost my ZwiftPower ranking!
The Non-Steering Perspective
I asked Bob Gorman, a B rider who raced this event without a Sterzo for steering, to share his thoughts. Here are some excerpts from what he said:
This was my first race with Sterzo steering allowed and since I do NOT have the device I was very curious as to how it would unfold. My initial thoughts were that not having the steering feature would put me at a disadvantage but that did not pan out. I am not strong enough to ride in the front group of B riders for very long and it seemed that most of the front riders were using the Sterzo more so than the midpack B riders where I find myself.
You don’t know, or at least I couldn’t figure out, who actually was using Sterzo and who wasn’t except for the few that could cut the apex of the corner and pull out for a break. I can see it being an advantage if you were podium hunting, had a team, or if everyone had it but for me it was a lot easier and not a handicap to ride with the group. I could ride through people, didn’t get boxed out, and could better take advantage of the draft.
Where I would have used the steering would be to get outside on the final sprint and cut the last corner.
If summary, it looks fun but I am happy to know that at least for now I can still have the same amount of fun without having it. I wouldn’t feel handicapped in any way by not having steering enabled. In the future I think there needs to be races that allow Sterzo only, now that would be interesting. And maybe find a way to let us steer with our Companion app!
Is Steering Advantageous?
After the race, I decided to try a little experiment. I set up a quick custom workout at 250 watts steady, and did two laps of the Downtown Dolphin route: the first without steering, the second using steering to take the best lines.
- Lap 1 (no steering): 3 minutes, 11 seconds
- Lap 2 (steering): 3 minutes, 4 seconds
So steering saved me 7 seconds on just one lap of the route. That’s significant! Bearing in mind that you probably won’t be able to hit every corner perfectly when riding with others, and that lap times are shorter in races, I would say steering still gives you a 2-4 second per lap advantage. That’s much more than any bike frame or wheelset gives you.
Have you tried steering in a race yet? What are your thoughts on it? Share below!