Riding in Zwift’s big events is always fun for me, whether I’m treating the effort like a race or a social ride. Tour de Zwift 2020 is currently underway, and for the first time ever a big Zwift tour includes specific race events – so I had to have a go!

In past tours, Zwift always made it clear that the events were not races. But of course, many riders treated them as such, and without standard race categories to divide the groups up, finishing near the pointy end of these “group rides” was impossible unless you were a strong A-class rider.

Now we have official race events in this year’s TdZ, with proper categories. I was curious what the races would be like, since I knew two things:

  • We’d have a lot more riders than a typical B race, since TdZ is such a popular event
  • We’d have more sandbaggers (intentional or not) joining in, since lots of folks who don’t normally race would be hopping on to give it a try

With that in mind, I signed up. 6:10am. 2 laps of London’s Classique. Let’s race!

Why Are TdZ Races so Short?

I’ve seen lots of comments from Zwifters asking why the official Tour de Zwift race events are so short. I wondered the same, so I asked Tom Hargreaves, Senior Growth Manager of Cycling at Zwift. (If you’ve never met him: Tom is an all-around nice guy, and a very strong cyclist.) Here’s what he said:

This is the first time that we’ve incorporated race events into a major Zwift tour. The objective is to make the races as accessible and enjoyable as possible for all Zwifters, to really drive participation. They’re shorter than the Group Ride events because it’s likely that they’ll be raced at a much higher intensity. e.g. 25mins at threshold for a race vs 45mins at Z2/3 for a group ride. The first is about racing for the win in your given category, the latter is about a personal challenge and ticking off all stages.

We’re conscious that some people who currently race on Zwift want longer and harder races (I’m one of those people) but realistically a 45min+ race isn’t something that the average Zwifter would even consider taking part in. For those that want the harder, longer races the community race organisers do a great job of putting these on. And it’s something that we’ll probably start branching into in the future but for now we’re focused on building the number of people who take part in racing, which to date can sometimes be perceived as un-enjoyable due to how tough or serious the events are. “Fun to play” is core to our Esports strategy.

Hard to argue with that. And it’s a good reminder to me that just because I want Zwift to work in a certain way doesn’t mean everyone does. While experienced Zwift racers may want longer events, there are many, many more inexperienced racers who Zwift wants to pull into racing–and the best way to do that is with shorter, less intimidating races.

Now let’s get to the race.

The Warmup

I rolled out of bed at 5:30am, kitted up, and went through my normal warmup routine. PR lotion on the legs. Caffeine gum and to wake me up and rev the heart rate… wait. Where’s my gum? Someone moved my gum. And I wasn’t about to go tromping around the house at 5:30 searching for it!

Oh well. I’ll survive. I climbed onto the trusty Roubaix and rode a quick warmup around London before heading to the start pens early.

Pro tip: in events with a big turnout, your position in the start pens is determined by who arrives first. So if you want to start near the front, get there 5-10 minutes early!

The Start

The start was a bit harder than most B races, but this didn’t surprise me: with 95 riders in our group and more sandbaggers than a typical race we would undoubtedly have a lot more strong riders churning at the front, bringing our group speed up.

I averaged 353 watts for the first 90 seconds, then things settled down as we entered the tunnel and hit the rollers along the Thames. I tried to stay close enough to the front that I wouldn’t get gapped and dropped when the group inevitably split. There’s nothing worse than looking up and seeing you have 20 meters of open road to close when you’re already on the rivet!

My strategy worked well, although it wasn’t easy. This group was moving fast, and before the short lead-in was finished the front pack had already been reduced from 95 starters to 37.

The Middle

I had picked up an aero powerup at the very beginning of the race, and decided to keep it for the end. I could have used it for a bit of relief early on, but with only two more chances of powerups before the final sprint, and my bad luck recently with the Zwift gods giving me XP bonuses instead of useful powerups, I decided that “a powerup in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

The pace was so fast that no one had a chance to attack and create gaps. Even without double draft enabled I could see we were averaging nearly 30mph, which is fast for a B race.

Atop Whitehall Hill, heading to Trafalgar Square in third wheel

We hit Whitehall Hill on the first lap, the only “bump” on the Classique route, and I got out of the saddle to hammer a bit and stay near the front. I was surprised at how easy the group took this first climb, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain. I wasn’t sure if it was the early morning, my lack of caffeine, tired legs, the high pace, or something else–but I just wasn’t feeling great on this race. So as we entered Trafalgar Square I took a deep breath and surfed the wheels, mostly hanging near the back of the pack.

First Person View

When an event puts everyone in the same kit, I often hit 3 on my keyboard to switch the camera to first-person view. Does anyone else do this? There are a few downsides to using this camera angle:

  • You can’t see riders to the side or behind you
  • You don’t see the blue thumb when someone gives you a Ride On
  • You can’t see up the road quite as easily, since you have a lower point of view

So why do I use it? Because it’s kind of hard to pick myself out of a group of people who all look like me, and I like the realism of the first-person view.

The Finish

We hit the Birdcage Walk rise halfway through our last lap. “S. Cann” obviously had experience racing this route, based on his quick comment:

As soon as the rise hit, the group’s wattage ramped up–and it wouldn’t drop until we crossed the finish line. Looking at Strava, I averaged 353 watts for 90 seconds yet again, between Birdcage Walk and the top of Whitehall Hill. And that’s all I had–the group was strung out, gaps were forming, and the front pack charged away. I eased up, because I didn’t have enough left to chase them down, and nobody was coming around me to pull me back to that group.

For the next minute I averaged 314 watts–still going hard, but a far cry from 350+. I was in a group of 11 riders, with the front pack blowing apart several seconds up the road as the riders with something left in their legs began ramping it up for the final sprint.

The Classique Sprint

The Classique route’s finishing sprint is fun and fast, but it can be deceiving as well. It’s tempting to go hard from too far out, because the road is straight and you can see the finish arch from way back. For me, though, I try to just maintain position until around the 300-meter marker, at which point I trigger my aero powerup, shift, get out of the saddle, and “give it the beans” as my friends across the pond like to say.

So that’s what I did.

There was no way I was catching the front of the race, but I hoped to stay ahead of the others in my chase group and perhaps catch a shelled rider or two from the front group. And that’s what I did–despite not having much left (my 10s power in the sprint was only 621 watts) I was able to pass a few riders and finish 19th.

Flashbacks

This race reminded me of what I regularly experienced in my first season as a B (winter of 2017-2018). Back then, it seemed like the same thing happened in every race I tried: I would hang with the front pack for about half the race, then get dropped and caught by the chase group. I would sit in with the case group, then go hard to beat everyone in my chase group to the line. First place, second group. Every. Flipping. Time.

But I’m a stronger rider today than I was back then. I can put in the short 15-30 second digs required to stay on a wheel when the pack strings out. And I’m smarter, with a better knowledge of each route and an understanding of what I’ll need to do to stay with the front of the race.

How Fast Was That?

This race felt crazy fast, so I checked the numbers afterward:

  • 1st place time, A category: 21:44
  • 1st place time, B category: 21:46

So my B race was essentially an A race! My finishing time of 21:56 didn’t feel so bad when I saw it was only 12 seconds slower than the winning time for the A’s.

(Did you catch that? Just one of many subconscious strategies for convincing myself that my result is more impressive than it really is!)

Why was our race so fast? Take a look at the wattage of some of the top finishers, keeping in mind that the stated category limit was 3.9w/kg:

I could complain here about how sandbaggers messed up my race, but I feel like I’ve been doing that too much lately. I could even make the case that, without the sandbaggers pushing the pace at the front, I’m pretty sure I would have hung with the group and been in the mix for the final sprint. But I don’t want to write about all that, so let’s move on. 😉

Takeaways

I only had one takeaway from this event, and that is to expect TdZ races to be super-fast. Because not only are they short races, but they also attract less experienced racers who will be exceeding category limits, raising the speed of the pack and making everyone work harder.

In the end, it was a great workout and a fun experience to race with a pack twice the size I normally see. And on ZwiftPower I came in 11th!

See my race on Strava >
See my race on ZwiftPower >

How About You?

Have you tried a TdZ race yet? How did it go? Share below!