Some of my favorite articles on Zwift Insider are the “How the Race was Won/Lost” series as I find them ever interesting and focused on what is in my opinion the best thing about Zwift… the racing! I have written a couple of ‘How the race’ articles over the last few years and after a recent ZRL race with my Kirchmair team I was compelled to pen another detailing how we as a group of riders managed to put on the best display of teamwork that I have ever had the pleasure of being part of.
Brief Background and the Route
The first few rounds this season have been a success for the Kirchmair Honey Bees team with us taking the overall team win on Roule Ma Poule in the first round by a handsome points margin followed by victory in the following week’s TTT. This week however, there was a stinging (no pun intended) route in store for us that featured one of the most technical sprints on Zwift followed by the opening steep slopes of the Zwift KOM and we would have to suffer, I mean race, 6 laps of the unrelenting Two Bridges Loop circuit.
On to The Race!
So, the banner dropped and our team consisting of three Germans, one Luxembourger, a Pole and this solitary Welshman set off on our quest around the Two Bridges Loop. As we left the pens all the talk in Discord was about how we felt that either a draft van or aero power-up would be needed to take the fastest through times on the first sprint and one of these power-ups was what we would all be hoping for. Unfortunately I picked up a feather, but thankfully others had faired better with draft vans picked up by Nico and Christian and our resident cycling giant Florian getting the aero.
The pace out of the pens was calm and this continued through the Esses and on to the foot of the hill that leads into the sprint. As the road tilted upwards several feather power-ups were activated by the field as riders tried to ease the pain of the surging group. I activated mine as the gradient neared double figures, knowing it would be hard for me to compete in this first sprint.
But I realized I had a problem. My legs were not feeling it today and with what felt like the beginning of a winter cold hanging in my nose and chest I was finding it harder than usual to put out the power needed to hang with the group. As we thundered down the descent I felt my best option was to put out enough of a sprint to not get dropped and hope for a better showing next time around.
Thankfully some of my teammates fared better with Christian taking 2nd and Nico 4th across the line. They also managed to take 8th and 3rd respectively in the fastest through by timing their sprints well. To add to that Florian, who made us aware of his plan to sit on the very back of the group going into the sprint, came thundering past with an all-out attempt to take max fastest through points. He managed to take 2nd following this attempt and we all hoped that these points wouldn’t be beaten in the remaining sprints as the fastest times are usually set on the first lap (biggest group, freshest legs).
Following the sprint, the group was extremely strung out and many riders found themselves with gaps opening in front of them. Unfortunately, one of these riders was our teammate Danny, meaning we were down to five Kirchmair riders at the front. Thankfully, my effort during the sprint was enough to keep me on the right side of any splits as the much smaller front pack reformed.
With only a little over 2km between the finish of the sprint and the beginning of the uncategorized climb I said to my teammates over Discord that I was feeling concerned I might get dropped as riders pushed the pace over the double-figure gradients.
Full credit here must go to the man who became our in-race DS, Florian Halstenbach. He really encouraged me to keep pushing and his positive words during this trying time really helped me hang on and find the reserves to keep going when it might have been easier to give up. Thanks Flo!
Anyway, I managed to survive the climb and was looking forward to supertucking the descent. It seemed that all five of our riders had made it to the top of the climb in the front group but unfortunately Marek, possibly because he is a lighter rider, got distanced on the descent, meaning by the end of lap one we were now down to only four at the front.
All remained fairly quiet as we went through the Esses but as we got onto the hill leading to the sprint a couple of riders from the Eureka RacerD team attempted to go long. This team had a strong showing in the lap one sprint and seemed like real contenders today. The riders did not manage to stay away but we put in a poor showing behind with only two of us scoring points. I managed a better sprint than first lap but could only come 6th. Nico added to this by taking 7th. Not a lot to show from us and we knew that more would be needed if we were to maintain our winning streak this season!
Lap 3 (The Tactics Begin)
As our ever-shrinking group proceeded through the lap banner we all held our breath to see what powerup we had this time. This is when Nico announced to the group that he had a feather and was going to try and go long by attacking next time up the hill leading into the sprint. The other three of us in this lead group had either helmets or a draft van and said that we would let Nico go in the hope he could stay away, taking full points, and we would be able to sprint behind for the remaining positions.
It was great that we were now talking tactics and looking for ways to maximize not only our use of the powerups but how to try and take the most points we could. Furthermore, it seemed that at last my legs were coming back and I hoped that I would be able to feature more in the coming sprints!
As we rolled around the Esses and onto the base of the hill Nico announced that it was time for his attack and he went all in, putting a significant distance into the pack. As we dropped down the descent the sprints and powerups began to fly in the group and whilst I hoped Nico had done enough, I feared the surging of the group could see him caught.
My fears were misplaced, however, as Nico put in a super effort to keep himself clear of the charging pack, taking 1st by a significant margin. Added to this we managed to get the other three of us in the points with me taking 3rd, Flo 5th, and Christian sneaking into the final 10th position!
The rest of the lap passed by uneventfully with the now familiar “hard but not totally insane” effort needed to hold the group up the climb before enjoying the supertuck on the descent towards the lap banner.
Not only did we make a solid points haul this lap, but we now were filled with confidence that we could make a plan work. We wanted more!
We went under the lap banner and announced what powerups we had collected this time. Nico said he once again had a feather and wanted to try going long again and I told the guys that I had held onto my aero helmet from the sprint banner to use this time around. This is when DS Flo sprung into action and suggested that this time I try to go with Nico on the rise, sitting in his draft as he activated his feather and pushed over the top, then using my aero to go over the top whilst he and Christian sit in the group and sprint behind. I liked this idea and wanted to see how it panned out.
As the pack headed towards the sprint for the fourth time a few riders pushed the pace through the Esses, but we all chose to just sit in the group thinking that it would come back together. This is exactly what happened and as the road tilted upwards on the pre-sprint hill Florian called out time to attack and Nico activated his feather and spiked his wattage. I followed by raising my power to around 700 watts, enough to hopefully follow Nico’s attack but not so much that I shot passed him and spoiled our plan. As we headed downhill and around the left-hand corner onto the sprint segment I must admit I was on my limit just following Nico but I activated my aero as we went on to the bridge, got out of the saddle and started my sprint.
With around 120m to the line I came through Nico’s draft and took 1st across the line. Moreover, Nico didn’t only produce a great lead out but his effort was such that there was daylight between us and the following pack meaning we took 1st and 2nd place.
As the pack sprinted behind we were overjoyed to learn that Christian and Flo had managed to also take 4th and 5th, meaning we had put four of our riders in the top 5 on this lap for a big haul of points! Luckily, I had picked up a draft van powerup at the banner so used this to aid my recovery in the group as the pack reformed to take on the climb, finish the lap and do it all again!
As we rolled through the lap banner buoyed by our successes in the previous two laps, our Discord chat lit up with discussions of how we could attack the sprint segment this time around. That was when Flo announced that he would like to play the role of lead-out man and go hard up the pre-sprint hill in the hope that the other three of us could follow him, get a gap on the field, and take the top spots in this sprint segment.
As the road headed upwards on this now all too familiar hill Flo put down the power and surged through the pack. As he hit the front with a 1000w+ pull we all brought our power up to try and catch his draft and in team time trial format we headed over the crest and down the hill. This time, however, it seemed that some other teams were wise to our plan and a few other riders managed to insert themselves into what was briefly our neat paceline.
We headed down the descent and readied ourselves for the right time to sprint through the draft. With Christian and myself both holding aero helmets we planned to try and sit in as long as possible could before unleashing our sprint as we crossed the bridge. As the road turned leftwards some of those who had infiltrated our little group lit up their sprints and I hit my aero and let out what was now becoming an increasingly labored sprint. Thankfully, it was enough and by timing it right I was able to pop through the draft of the group just in time to take 1st place again on this sprint and we had another 1/2 with Christian taking 2nd.
Nico, despite his huge efforts in the previous two laps, managed another good showing (6th) and Florian who had set the whole move up held on the tail of the group to come across the line in 7th, meaning the four of us were in the top 10 again!
All that was left now was surviving the climb again before heading around for one final lap…
Lap 6 and the Finale!
We crossed the start/finish banner once more and began discussing our tactics not only for the final sprint segment but also for the final finishing sprint itself. We all felt that the pace up the climb on this last lap would be much harder than any of the previous laps as riders would try and get away there and stay away until the finish.
Both Flo and I were now beginning to struggle and said that we didn’t feel like we could both sprint and survive the climb a matter of 2km afterward, so decided we would both commit 100% to getting maximum sprint points and would then just do what we could at the finish. As we headed towards the sprint hill another rider tried to go long. We all sat in the group and hoped he would not have the legs to stay away this late into the race. I did the minimum I could up the climb to hold good position and as we headed down the descent and swung left I activated my aero and began to empty the tank with a final sprint effort.
As we went over the bridge and onto the segment proper I along with teammate Florian broke through the pack and the final 150m were a side-by-side slogfest to the line. Through gritted teeth I managed to hang on to take a third 1st place in a row. Flo had faded a little in the last 40m and came across in 3rd. Christian had managed yet another solid showing by taking 6th so it was only Nico this time who was surprisingly absent. Maybe he was planning something…
The pack reformed after the sprint segment and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to hold on. All I could do was bury myself and try to recover as best I could in the short time we had until the climb and finish. Mercifully, nobody in the pack wanted to push the pace after the sprint and we made our way to the bottom of the climb.
As the road reared its ugly head Florian announced he was out and there was no way he could hang on. I thought I’d try my best but could see the main group slipping ever so agonizingly away from me as we rounded the right-handed bend at the steepest part of the climb.
However, up the road, something was unfolding. Nico, who had kept his powder dry on the sprint, launched an attack on the climb and had put some distance into the field. Florian leapt into the role of DS extraordinaire and he quickly switched into fan view mode and watched the race unfolding around and behind Nico. Florian was giving Nico constant info about what was happening behind him and encouraging him to bury himself to the finish line.
Against all the odds Nico managed to stay away, taking the win much to his delight! (As he said to us over Discord, his neighbors probably know about that win.) Well done Nico!
As for me, I found myself at the top of the climb in 20th place with a little group of 3 who had been distanced from the field by 4 seconds. I continued to push hard on the descent and with 800m to go to the finish and the gap between myself and the main group still at 3s I activated my draft powerup and just decided to bury myself in the vain hope of making up the ground and getting a better finishing position.
Much to my surprise, the gap closed and I managed to pass many riders, taking 6th place at the line. With Christian taking 7th we had put three of our riders in the top ten for good finish line points to add to our sprint haul. Florian rolled in a minute or so after us. With the points of Danny and Marek who held their own to finish in the chase group, we put almost 100 points into the second-placed team!
This race really highlighted to me how ZRL racing is so different to many of your standard Zwift races. The need to work together made us make racing choices and tactical decisions you would not make during solo racing, such as leading teammates out. We chose to play a bold hand that could have backfired but thankfully for us, it worked out. By taking the race to the opposition and not sitting back we were able to succeed.
This was quite possibly the most enjoyable Zwift race and best display of team tactics that I have ever been part of, and I feel honored to have shared it with my teammates. It has made me think about how I approach racing in the future, and I would now feel more confident in executing an aggressive attacking approach.
Finally, it also showed how you can use the terrain on Zwift as your launch pad. Considering the course in front of you and how best to use its features can pay dividends!
What About You?
Do any of you have any examples of using team tactics for success in Zwift racing? If so I am sure the community would be keen to hear it! Thanks for reading and Ride On!