My plan is to race each Tour of Watopia stage, so today it was stage 3 at 6:10am. One lap of Whole Lotta Lava, a route which I must confess I’d never ridden! But I knew this would be the toughest ToW race for me, since the Volcano KOM is just long and steep enough to drop an “overmuscled cyclist” like myself.
Because of this, I wasn’t foreseeing a podium. But my legs felt good so I wanted to test them and see what sort of a result I could get.
About the Route
Whole Lotta Lava (see route details) is a short route which divides nicely into thirds, distance-wise. The first third is flat, the next is a climb, and the final is a descent and flat to the finish. It begins with a lead-in from the start pier, then a lap around the Volcano Circuit in the counter-clockwise direction. The second time you pass the turn off to the volcano KOM you take it, riding up to the top then descending down. After the descent it’s a short, mostly-flat run-in to the finish line at the Volcano Circuit start/finish banner.
Many races here are 2-3 laps long, but ToW races are short, so we only raced one lap, meaning our race was only ~17.5km (10.9 miles).
While the KOM is the key part of this route, it’s important to understand that it’s not a steep climb, so speeds stay high enough that drafting still makes a big difference. (Example: I averaged 19.2mph up the KOM in today’s race.)
Bike + Wheel Choice
Lots of folks haved asked me what the best bike frame and wheelset is for this route. The answer is simple if you’re looking at what is fastest over the entire course: use the most aero setup you’ve got, just like a flat race. That’s what I did for today’s race, because I hadn’t looked closely at the segment timings until after the race.
Zwift’s best climbing bike frame (the Specialized Tarmac Pro) beats the most aero frame (Specialized Venge S-Works) by 4 seconds up the Volcano KOM. But that difference is taken back on the descent, and take back even more so on the flats.
Interestingly, the best climbing wheels (Lightweight Meilensteins) are actually 1-2 seconds slower up the KOM compared to the best aero wheels (disc, Zipp 858, ENVE 7.8 or 8.9, etc).
But here’s where it gets interesting. The Specialized Tarmac Pro will get you up the KOM faster than any other frame. What if you coupled it with the most aero wheels? You would have the fastest climber for the route, but would take a slight hit on the flats and descents.
For a rider like myself, this is absolutely the better solution. Why? Because I can sit in the front pack on the flats and descents just fine, while I know I’ll struggle to stay with the front up the KOM. So I can afford to take a slight hit on the flats and descents, if it means some advantage on the climb.
I rolled out of bed at 5:15am, chewed a piece of caffeine gum, put some PR lotion on the legs, and kitted up. Then I hit Tempus Fugit for a 10-mile warmup, getting my heart rate up to 160bpm via a combination of longer seated efforts and a few shorter out of the saddle sprints. My legs were feeling pretty good today, despite 55 miles of Zwift yesterday. Let’s race!
Today’s race started off with a tough but doable 90 seconds at 350 watts to hang with the front group. The lead-in takes you quickly up the ramp toward the volcano, pushing watts higher than you’d get on a flat start. But our group settled into a typical B-race pace by the time we hit the glass tunnel bridge to the volcano.
We chugged our way around the Volcano Circuit quickly, and before we even crossed the start/finish banner our group of 64 was reduced to 35. Ten minutes into the race we made the left-hand turn onto the Volcano KOM. It was go time!
The Volcano KOM isn’t a particularly hard climb, as climbs go. At 3.7km (2.3 miles) long, with an average gradient of 3.2%, B riders will typically finish it in 7-9 minutes at race pace. Mentally, I break this climb up into 4 parts. Here’s how each part went for me in today’s race:
Part 1 – Initial Climb
The first third of the climb is a fairly steady climb, with two small downhill bumps. I hammered hard here to stay with the stretching-out front group, averaging 358 watts for 2-1/2 minutes. I could tell I was pushing over my limit, but I knew that holding the front group’s wheels was the only chance I had at winning the race, so I kept pushing.
Part 2 – Flat Through the Volcano
We turn to ride through the volcano, and the road flattens out for a bit. Our group’s speed surged here, as it always does when the road flattens out. I pushed hard to get back in touch with the group across this section then tried to take a couple good breaths, knowing the next big push was just around the corner. Our group of 35 had been reduced to 26 at this point.
Part 3 – Long Climb
This is the longest continuous climb section on the Volcano KOM, and it can feel like forever. It’s around 1 mile long, but it always feels longer! This is where the more serious attacks happen, and that is exactly what happened in our race – it strung out even more, to the point where I wasn’t sure just where the front was anymore.
I was just trying to survive at this point, pushing harder than I’ve pushed in a race in a long time. I averaged 338 watts for 3-1/2 minutes on this section. Then came the final push.
Part 4: The Kicker
The climb ends with a final steep kicker. If you’ve got anything left, a hard push here can gain vital seconds. A feather powerup would be a big help – but I didn’t have one. My oxygen-deprived brain had me thinking the front of the race was just up the road, so I went all-in to grab onto the wheels of the small group ahead of me.
457 watts average for 90 seconds got me in touch with that group, but when I crossed the KOM banner I realized the front was blown apart, and our group was several seconds behind the group ahead, which was several seconds behind the front group. Dang!
Post-race bonus: I set a new PR of 7:18 on the Volcano Climb. My previous best was 8:14!
My small group of four riders zipped down the KOM. We all needed a little recovery after the climb, it seemed. Once I caught my breath I decided to push the pace a bit to catch a rider up the road, which we did. I ended up with a PR on the Volcano descent as well!
When we reached the end of the descent, with less than a mile to go, there were four groups of riders I cared about. One group was the front of the race: too far away to catch. The next group was just 6 seconds up the road – and I wanted to catch them. Then there was my group of 5 riders. And behind us, another group was quickly gaining ground! Could we stay away?
As we hit the ramp into the Volcano my group caught the group ahead, then the group behind us caught the churning mass of avatars. It was mayhem, and I had pushed so hard to catch the group ahead that I didn’t have much left! I emptied what I had into the pedals, but was passed by several riders, resulting in an 18th-place finish according to Zwift. ZwiftPower would award me 11th.
Baggers of Sand
As it turns out, the front group of 6 was composed of 5 sandbaggers and one legit rider. Kudos to “JAJA” for hanging with the sandbaggers and taking the win – their pace was no joke, with an average w/kg of 4.4.
Until Zwift finds a way to enforce category limits, sandbaggers will do what sandbaggers do, especially in C and D races. Most of the B races I’ve done aren’t significantly affected by sandbagging, but today’s certainly was. Think about it: without that group pushing the pace at A-level w/kg up the climb, could I have hung with the front group and been in the mix for the podium at the finish? Maybe, maybe not.
It’s not worth thinking about too much, since it’s a situation that can’t be changed. But I do think it’s worth talking about, which is why I mention it here!
My only takeaway from this race is “I don’t like climbing races, but they sure push me to my limits.”
Flat races aren’t easy, of course, but I usually don’t feel like I’m truly giving it everything until the final sprint. In today’s race, I truly gave everything I had over the top of the volcano. That’s a good thing, in terms of training to get stronger. I should do more races on the Volcano. Even though I don’t want to.
What About You?
Have you raced stage 3 yet? How did it go? Share below!