Zwift Racing League has been hard for me this year. I combined a highly disruptive move across the country with a month-long break from riding, and moved to altitude to boot! That self-inflicted set of factors meant that it only took a couple of attempts at racing in my former B grade before I had to accept the truth: I was back to being a C rider.
After several C grade ZRL races where I couldn’t handle the hard start and dropped early, I was hopeful that my gradually increasing fitness (a combination of Zwift and soccer) would come to my aid, and I went into the final race of the ZRL season with what I felt was a lofty goal of a top ten (and a dream of a top five).
Week 8 of ZRL was raced in Makuri Islands, on the Countryside Tour loop. For C and D grade, it consisted of just under two laps, culminating at the top of the Temple climb. I knew from the race guide that bike choice was going to be a key to victory, and I hoped my plan of starting on a road bike and switching to a gravel bike before the first dirt climb would pay off. The idea was that a road bike for the first 9 kilometers would help me conserve energy (around 25 watts), allowing me to have more in the tank towards the end.
The First Lap
I’m a very average rider in both weight and watts. I’m not too heavy and I have a pretty balanced power profile. Without a massive sprint or VO2 power, my plan was to save some of my limited watts in the first lap with the hope that I might have a bit more in the tank for the final climb.
Then the sprint came. “Don’t sprint. Don’t sprint. Don’t sprint… GREEN BANNER!!!!! GO GO GO!” I couldn’t help myself. I was near the front and smelled the points. Mistake. I launched with around 350 meters to go, since I didn’t realize the road curved, and ended up awkwardly holding around 600 watts for 30 seconds. I fell back towards the end, burning a valuable match for all of three FAL points.
To add insult to injury, the course immediately turns upward after the sprint, limiting recovery. I had already moved away from my plan. Time to get back into the wheels and conserve energy.
I was able to slow things down enough to get my heart rate under control, and thanks to now running Zwift on a Mac Mini, was able to use keyboard shortcuts for a quick bike switch right before the start of the climb. Again, this was contrary to plan, since the goal was finishing position, not points, but I couldn’t resist going after some points on the climb.
Clearly, I’m a disciplined racer.
I put in a big effort to get back in touch with the guys at the front and passed over the top in 8th place with a group of five other riders. We were able to chase down the leaders and close a 20-second gap on the descent, putting us in a front group of 8.
The pace was way lower on the second lap, which was good, since I was still on the Canyon Grail. Sadly, it also meant that we were caught from behind by another after a few kilometers, and the pace rose accordingly.
The first lap went by in 26:42 with an average power of 241 watts (3.09 w/kg) and an average heart rate of 169. The Temple KOM took 7:17 at 299 watts (3.83 w/kg).
With the higher pace of the larger group, I was feeling it a bit with my gravel bike. I guess it was probably around 20 watts more for the road section during the second lap, and I spent a lot of time dangling at the back of the group.
And this time, I was careful to follow my plan and not sprint. Ironically, this backfired as I had to spend three minutes at just below 300 watts catching back on to the group. I probably should have sprinted…
The next section went quite similarly to the first lap. I sat on the back of the group trying to keep my power as low as possible and my heart rate under control. Far too soon it was time for the final climb.
Our reduced group hit the bottom of the climb with pace, and I worked with the group on the flatter bottom section to keep the speed high. The guy with the KOM in lap one had to stop to change bikes, and I wanted to make sure he had to work to get back. About two minutes into the climb and I found myself in a group of five at the front. My stretch goal of a top-5 was within reach! I never expected that the group would thin with me in it.
Just as I tried to settle in at a power I thought I might be able to hold, two other riders attacked off the front on a steeper section. At that moment I decided to go for it and dug deep to bring them back. To my surprise, I caught them, and settled in at a consistent power once more. This seemed to work, as I soon noticed the other two riders drifting back! I saw I had a two-second gap and I knew I had to go for it (NorCal Cycling would say “Go solo ‘cause YOLO”).
I lifted the power just a bit to keep the gap and gave it everything. Miraculously, the gap held for a minute, then two, and then the final section and across the line. My scream of happiness wafted up through the vents to my wife (“good job, dear”).
With that, a completely surprising first-ever ZRL win, and my best result by far.
Final section numbers: 22:06 at 263 watts (3.37 w/kg) with an average heart rate of 174. Temple KOM in 7:11 at 304 watts (3.89 w/kg) with an average heart rate of 185 (ouch).
Sometimes it takes a hard race to figure out what you have in the tank. For me, this was the best power I had produced since before my move, and I really surprised myself. While I’m still a C in Zwiftpower, I plan on using this momentum to make the leap back to B to see if I can stay there this time.