I gotta admit, this change made me happy. For three reasons:
- There was no way I was going to come close to winning a race up the Epic KOM (with bonus climb). A race on Muir and the Mountain would be nothing more than a challenging workout from my standpoint.
- The Seaside Sprint route has a special place in my heart, because I created it. That’s right – it began as a Rebel Route back in August of 2019, then Zwift made it an official (albeit event-only) route in its February 2020 update.
- It’s a fun route that suites my strengths. Fairly flat, a few spots for cheeky attacks if I’m feeling good, and a short descent into the flat finishing sprint.
I was placed in C3 this week, which seemed a little odd given my C2 placement in last week’s hillier race. But again, I’m not paying much attention to the numbers these days. So far every autocat race I’ve done has been competitive and fun, so I just go with whatever WTRL assigns. (Not that I have a choice anyway.)
C3 meant we had a 5-lap race of around 34.5km.
Last week I went with a pure climber, but this week that would be silly since the race had no significant climbs, and it would be won and lost on the fast sprint sections.
I thought about going with the Tron bike, since it would perform well up the little kickers as well as on the flats. But everyone rides the Tron bike. I thought about going with the S-Works Venge + disc wheels… but I can’t stand running disc wheels in a road race, even if it’s virtual.
In the end, I settled on the S-Works Venge + Zipp 858’s. A proper road racing setup, albeit a bit slower than the two options above.
Then I hopped into the pens as soon as I was allowed, saving my place at the front before popping back out to join the C. Cadence group and spin my legs for a while, putting in a few hard digs to get my heart rate up and break the ice.
After around 30 minutes of warmup I headed to the pens. Let’s race!
We blasted out of the pens with 95 riders. I had already done a bit of homework and knew that my predicted finish was around 10th-15th place. That meant I should be able to stick with the front group, but it would be a long shot to get on the podium.
I had decided that I wouldn’t be chasing points for this race, but rather just working to win overall. (Probably not the best choice in hindsight.) Even though I wasn’t chasing the sprint points, I knew the pack would stretch out at every sprint, so I’d need to push on the sprints to stay in touch with the front.
Sure enough, we stretched over the pre-sprint kicker, and that elastic broke as we descended and hit the sprint. By the time we hit the cobbles of the Italian Villas a front group of ~30 riders had formed. This was the key first selection of the race, and if you missed it, you were done.
Lap 1: the Banter Begins
Once the selection was made, things settled down a bit. And that’s when the banter began. Johnny Rocket complained about the “fn burritos” (they were flying everywhere). He also complained that he was “too fat for this crap”. Ha! Johnny’s a fun personality who has been racing on Zwift for a long time.
Then Smed started chatting with me, asking “Where u at, Eric?” Smed, I knew, was one of the top-ranked riders in this race. “Living the dream!” I wrote back. I followed up with “Working for Charlie” (Issendorf, Zwift’s Director of Events, who was in the race as well).
As we made our way up the kicker into the Volcano, messages kept flying. This was a fun bunch.
A Marked Man
It’s interesting being in a race where people know who you are. Lots of racers recognize my name from these Zwift Insider posts, plus I’ve got the Zwift verified check next to my name and [ZwftInsdr] in there too. Racers will greet me in the pens, say it’s a privilege to race with me, etc. Super cool, and I enjoy all that.
But what I’ve found is that some Zwifters seem to think I’m a really strong racer, despite the fact that I have literally written the book on how to lose a Zwift race. So I end up being a marked man, where riders watch what I do and sit on my wheel if I ride off the front. Don’t tell anyone, but the truth is, even if I had the legs to attempt a breakaway, I don’t think I could do it in most races.
Speaking of breakaways: at some point in today’s race one of the 3R riders messaged that I was riding near the front because I was concerned about being “Danno’d” – a reference to last week’s Classics race, where 3R rider Danno broke away and never came back. While I wasn’t thinking specifically about Danno, it’s true that I do prefer to ride within a few bike lengths of the front, to avoid getting gapped off the back. (As a bonus, if there is a decent attack I want to follow, I’m close enough to be able to do so.)
So yes – I suppose I was afraid of being Danno’d. Once bitten, twice shy.
Another Lap, Another Sprint
Our front pack settled into a pattern as we pounded through the laps. A hard sprint across the bridge, regroup and descend the Dirty Sorpresa, easy across the land bridge, a dig into the Volcano all the way across the line, then more sitting in until the next sprint.
Along the way we had two opportunities each lap for a powerup, so there were plenty of them flying. I tried to use my aero helmets and drafting vans at the spots where I’d be working hardest between now and the next powerup banner – which basically meant I used them near the banners for sprinting or reducing my workload in a strung-out pack.
The burrito is always dicey, though. And I had several of those. If you use it in a strung-out pack you can hurt those around you – but it’ll require you to do extra work as well. Instead, I would sometimes take my burrito close to the front of the pack, when everyone was pushing somewhat hard, and drop it there. Make the strong riders suffer a bit more.
In lap 4, Smed messaged everyone: “Pst… Eric. After next sprint we attack. Ready?”
He followed it up with, “We just need a couple more.”
“Sounds good,” I wrote. “Just don’t tell anyone else!”
“Can I join?” Johnny Rocket said. “I’ll suck wheels for our attack.”
“No Johnny. You’re too fat,” I wrote.
“:(” says Johnny.
“We still have 1 slot,” comes Smed’s reply.
Let me be clear here: I had no idea if Smed was serious or not. What I did know was I didn’t have the legs to stay away from a pack of ~25 riders if I was in a small breakaway where I would need to take pulls. So I had no intention of actually trying to make a breakaway happen.
But whether Smed was serious or not, everyone knew what was going to happen after the next sprint. Even if Smed didn’t attack, even if I didn’t attack, heck, even if Johnny didn’t attack… the pack would surge. Because riders were expecting an attack. And other riders (like myself) were expecting that riders would surge, expecting an attack.
It’s a vicious cycle.
To his credit, Smed did attack. He was riding on the front through the Italian Villas. We reached the bottom of the Sorpresa and he messaged “go eric”.
But I wasn’t going anywhere.
The pack wasn’t even strung out, and my legs were already hurting from the previous minute’s effort. I didn’t foresee anyone getting away here.
“Well, that didn’t work!” Mark Suret wrote.
“Eric… you let us down…” Smed said.
“Story of my racing life,” I replied, with just the tiniest twinge of guilt.
The Final Bit
I got a burrito through the final banner. Booooo! As we hit the glass bridge to The Esses one rider jumped off the front, but our pack was flying along and I figured their solo attack wouldn’t stick.
With 1.2km to go Haber jumped off the front. He’d done the same repeatedly throughout the race, and I thought for a moment, “He may have what it takes to stay away.” I put in a little dig to chase him, then realized our pack was surging hard, and I could just sit in for the catch.
1km to go and it was getting wild near the front. Riders were flying off the front, but I was unable to grab their wheels, which left me just sitting in the wind. I drifted from 7th to 12th as we hit the pre-sprint kicker, and I was still holding onto my burrito, unable to figure out a good place to use it.
We begin the descent and I’m in 15th. I hit the burrito, hoping to slow those ahead of me and anyone coming through. I’m hammering away, but where are my watts? I’ve got nothing left. A pack of riders flies past. I cross the line in 25th, decidedly outgunned. That final minute was tough.
TeamNL’s “Harm Verhoeven” took the win. Well done, sir.
Watch the Race Recording
This was a fun race, even if I blew up at the end. The banter was on point, and the course kept things interesting with plenty of spots to rest, attack, and grab powerups.
Could I have raced it better? I’m not sure. I’ve won races on this course before where I contested every sprint – but those races were against a less competitive B field. It would be really interesting to attempt the same race, but just go for FAL sprint points instead of the overall.
I could have ridden the last minute or two more efficiently, staying out of the wind and saving a few watts instead of thinking I was going to grab someone’s wheel and attack off the front. But without a useful powerup I was never going to get close to the podium, no matter what I did. (I did get a “Breakthrough” performance on XERT, so at least I know I went deep!)
In the end, this event embodied a lot of what I love about Zwift races: being pushed to my limits, enjoying fun banter with other riders, and having a bit of “Insider knowledge” that maybe, just maybe, gives me a slight edge.
Racing with a BMX Beast
Here’s a fun side-note: this was the first week where the women’s race (B category) started at the same time as the A’s, so we effectively raced together, with separate results.
I noticed just one B who was able to stay with the front group of A’s for the duration of the race: “A Verhaaren”. Not a familiar name to me, but it turns out Arielle Verhaaren hails from Williamsburg, Virginia and was selected to compete at the 2012 Olympic games until a crash during a training run hospitalized her and left her out of the team. She’s obviously still got it, finishing 9th overall!