If you’re tuned into the Zwift racing scene, you already know the team at HQ is working to bring effective sandbagging controls into the game. The ZHQ Beta Races in Crit City are the testbed for these new controls, and several days ago I observed a beta race to see how the controls work.
But I hadn’t actually participated in a ZHQ Beta Race, until today. Not only was I itching for a quick, tough race – I also wanted to see how the current sandbagging controls affected the out-of-category riding which has become more prominent thanks to the recent, massive influx of new Zwifters. Time to see the green cones of shame firsthand. Let’s race!
The race was at 8 am, which really isn’t an ideal time for me. Too late for my typical fasted morning ride, and right when I’m usually getting into my workday. But it had to be done. For science! So I chewed my caffeine gum – 2 pieces this time, and well before the race, because I’ve recently read that caffeine should be taken about 1 hour before the big effort. And of course I rubbed some PR lotion into my legs, to take the edge off the burn and help me push to my max.
I headed to Tempus Fugit for my typical warmup, and just as I was starting to get the legs warm my lovely wife Monica texted me: “Are you riding right now?” Apparently we’d had some miscommunication, and she was planning on riding Zwift in a few minutes. (While we have both of our own bikes set up, we only have one big-screen TV in the Zwift room). Since she had called first dibs, I moved my Zwift session over to my office computer, which meant a quick monitor move and game startup to get a session started there. A bit more warmup, then it was time to head to the start pens.
There were 102 riders in the B pack, and as we hit the first of our 12 Downtown Dolphin laps it became clear that this was going to be a tough race. Was it tough because my legs were more tired than anticipated, or were riders pushing the pace at the front? I wasn’t entirely sure, but I knew I was suffering! Instead of sitting in a few wheels from the front, I was struggling to hold onto the back of the pack, shamelessly tailgunning.
Luckily, tailgunning on Zwift doesn’t cause the sort of effort “accordion” effect that it does outdoors. It didn’t take long for me to see a pattern form in my pack positioning: I would work my way closer to the front up the brick prime climb, then drift back as we made our way down the twisty descent. Then I would move forward again as we hit the lap banner and made our way up the false flat toward the eSports stage.
Green Cone Observation
I expected some green cones to show up after the first minute of racing, since the cone can be triggered by both 1-minute and 5-minute power. But we didn’t see any cones until the second lap, almost 4 minutes in, when one virtual-powered “L.Santamaria” got flagged.
By the third lap, 7 minutes into the race, several more green cones had appeared. Despite my high level of personal suffering, I couldn’t help but try to watch these coned riders, to see how Zwift’s “throttling” would affect their position in the race.
Most of the coned riders slowly drifted out of our front pack and into oblivion. But a couple stayed with our front group, and I made a mental note to check into their power numbers once the race ended. Because I wanted to find out: what sort of power did a B need to hold to stay with the front pack, even after their power was throttled by Zwift’s green cone of shame? More on this later!
5 laps in and our group of 102 starters had been whittled down to just 22. This was a tough race! As Monica spun her way around the Watopian desert in zone 2, my heart rate was squarely in zone 4, where it would stay for 92.9% of the race according to Strava.
My max heart rate is ~189, and most Zwift races find me averaging somewhere between 167-172BPM. Today’s average? 177. Was it the extra caffeine, taken a little early? Perhaps. Was it the fast race pace? Certainly a factor!
Gaps opened up ahead of me occasionally, but I was always able to close them down before getting dropped. It was hard work, though, and as we passed the 20-minute mark my mind shifted from envisioning an incredible final sprint to wondering if I’d even be in the mix for end!
But this is just garbage thinking, right? For me at least, these thoughts occur in almost every Zwift race. I find myself on the limit, struggling to grab a wheel, and somehow think I’m the only one suffering. But of course that wasn’t the case. 80% of the field had already been dropped, and certainly most of the riders in this front pack were suffering just like I was.
Everyone is hurting. This is something I have to remind myself as I race on Zwift. Doing so gives me hope – hope that I’ll be able to hang on until the end. Hope that maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a little bit more left than the next guy at the end. Hope for the elusive race win.
With only 4 laps to go the front pack still held two green cones: “T.Gumpo” and “L.Santamaria”. Knowing they wouldn’t show up in final results on ZwiftPower, I just hoped they didn’t jump off the front and pull a legit racer to victory.
The final laps flew by, and soon enough the crazy last lap was upon us. I knew the drill by this point: everyone would jump hard on the prime bricks, then it was a question of surfing the wheels and staying near the front down the twisties before hitting the sprint with whatever I had left. I had a truck powerup, so I waited until I was ~30 seconds from the finish before triggering it, using the increased draft to work my way through the riders as we all gutted out the final meters.
I was in the drops, out of the saddle, head down, putting everything I had into my 50/11. Monica was my eyes, watching the screen and yelling “Keep pushing, go go go, you’re almost there!”
When I crossed the line, I looked up at the results: 4th place. And two of those ahead were obvious sandbaggers. Does that mean I got 2nd place? I headed to ZwiftPower to confirm: 2nd place it was. First loser! But I was happy with the result, given how difficult the race had been.
Looking at my Strava power curve for this race, I set some new PRs for power in the 27-31 minute range. So my legs were in good shape – it was just a super tough race.
This race is a good example of an event where my body wanted to quit, and my mind supported the idea. But I kept pushing, and finished in second place. Just .048 seconds from a win!
So the takeaway from this race is: do away with garbage thinking. Perhaps it’s time for me to dig into sports psychology a bit – a little mental training may do me good.
Sandbagging Details from ZwiftHQ
I reached out to Jordan Rapp, the game designer at Zwift HQ who is working to bring sandbagging controls to fruition. I asked him for more info on what happens when a racer receives the green cone of shame in these beta races. Is their speed artificially slowed, perhaps by increased Crr? Is their power actually reduced, like Zwift’s warning message indicates?
Jordan said, “Zwift is currently throttling power. We never touch the speed inferred from power (output). Only the power (input). There are some changes to how MUCH we throttle power coming in the next release.”
The level of power throttling was something I wanted more info on. Was it high enough, if two of the coned riders could stay with our front group until almost the end of the race? (Those two coned riders, by the way, averaged 6.4 w/kg // 480w and 6.0 w/kg // 447w for the race. Ha!) I asked Jordan if he was going to be increasing the power throttling, and he said:
“Yes, a LOT more. We’re bumping up the baseline throttling (and also making it easier to tune). And we’re adding in a multiplier that looks at how egregiously you broke the limits. An A racer in a D race will get hit a lot harder than a C racer in a D race.”
Sounds smart to me! I’m excited for Zwift’s next release, which I hear is just around the corner (next week or two). I know I speak for many other racers in saying I’m looking forward to seeing the green cones make their way into other races. If Zwift’s new sandbagging controls can eliminate most of the negative effects of racers riding below their proper category (and I think they can), it will be a huge upgrade to the Zwift race experience.
Have you ridden in a ZHQ Beta Race recently? How was it? Have you been coned yourself? Share your experience below!