Just this week, as I signed up for another Crit City race, I was reminded of a question many Zwift racers have asked: do I race in my ZwiftPower category? Or should I race up a category?
A Bona Fide B
According to ZwiftPower (see my profile) I’m a B category racer, and not even close to knocking on the door of the A’s in terms of power numbers.
ZwiftPower uses your 3 best 20-minute power results from races in the last 90 days to determine your FTP, which determines your ZwiftPower category. B category is defined as anyone with an FTP over 200W which is also at least 3.2 w/kg but below 4.0 w/kg. My three best races in the last 90 days average to 300 watts (3.65w/kg), putting me squarely in the middle of the B power window.
My individual ZwiftPower rank of 182.62 points places me 312th in the B’s overall, and 1,814th in the universe of Zwifters.
Here’s the Problem
So I’m a bona fide B racer. But here’s the problem: if I sign up for B races on flatter routes, I’m not pushed to my limit. Not until the final sprint to the line, at least. Flat B races, for me, are a “sit in the front pack and conserve so you can hopefully win the final sprint” event.
If the pack is larger and/or more competitive (a ZRL race, perhaps), I’ll have to push more to stay in the front group. But I can’t remember the last time I was dropped from the front of the B’s on a flat course.
So when it comes time to sign up for a Zwift race, there’s a question I have to ask myself…
Why Do I Race?
That’s the question. Why do I sign onto Zwift and sweat my way through a hard effort? Is it for the glory of a win? The fitness gains? The adrenaline rush? The fun of working with teammates? The chance to write another post about How the Race Was Lost?
The truth, of course, is that I’m driven by a mix of motivations. You are, too. We don’t race just for the podium or turn ourselves inside-out only for the fitness gains. Honestly, in most races I’m motivated by the thought that “I may be able to win this, and if I don’t, it’s still a good training effort.”
But when I can’t remember the last time I was dropped from the front of a flat B race, it may be time to consider that my flat B races aren’t delivering the sort of training stress I need most.
I may be winning the 45-minute battle, but I’m losing the months-long war.
And thus we arrive at my thesis statement: many D, C, and B category Zwift racers blunt their training and stop growing smarter when they race the routes that suit them, in the category ZwiftPower has given them.
There are many B’s, C’s, and D’s who regularly win in their category, but fail to ever race up a category. The podiums may feel great, but if they only lead to a plateau in fitness, are they worth the time and effort?
Maybe there’s a better way.
Part of the issue here is Zwift’s categorization system, which offers zero reasons to cat up. Cycling federation rules include mandatory category upgrades at certain point levels, but Zwift has no such thing. No forced upgrading, and in fact, no category enforcement when signing up for a race (unless you’re talking about the new ZRacing Chase Races p/b WTRL).
We’ve published several posts detailing better options for categories, including a matchmaking system like other online multiplayer games utilize. But it doesn’t seem wise to let our training suffer while we wait for Zwift to improve their race categorization system.
So I’ll propose five alternative approaches to selecting and riding Zwift races.
#1: Catting Up
“If you want to get faster, ride with people who are faster than you.” That’s what my cycling buddies told me when I first got into competitive road racing. It’s sound advice. Stronger riders push us to the limit, and when we push to the max then adequately recover, fitness gains manifest themselves.
On top of that, stronger riders are often smarter. Riding with them teaches you things. Not only will you learn from more experienced racers, you’ll also be forced to race smarter – to be careful to stay out of the wind, or time your final sprint better, or use your PowerUp just right. You may be able to hang with the front pack in your ZwiftPower category while playing it loose, but you’ll need to race smart to stay in contention in a higher category.
Racing up a category can provide a huge boost to your ZwiftPower ranking as well.
So try racing up a category, on a route that suits you. See how long you can hang with the front pack.
This is an especially smart move in smaller races, where the field of riders is, say, 20 or less. Smaller fields typically mean a lower effort is required to stay with the front group. Just this week, in fact, I jumped into a 14-person A race which turned out to be easier (in terms of perceived effort and actual wattage) than a 60+ rider B race I’ve done on the same route.
#2: Choosing the Hard Road
Pick a course that doesn’t suite you, so you’re pushed to ride smart and work on areas of weakness.
For me, tough race courses are anything with a significant climb. I can usually hang with the B’s for a few minutes uphill, if it’s not too steep. (Box Hill is probably my limit – and I don’t stand a chance there against a strong B field.)
So if I want to be pushed to my max, I’ll choose a lumpy race course. Yorkshire always kicks my butt. The NYC KOM does as well. And if I really want a soul-sucking slog, I’ll jump into a race up Watopia’s Epic KOM or Innsbruck’s KOM.
I go into these races knowing I won’t win, but I’ll be pushed to the edge of my abilities. The wins will come later.
#3: Racing As a Workout
Zwift races can feel a bit predictable, but there are things you can do to change that. Why not turn a race into a structured workout?
Sign up for your normal ZwiftPower category, but go into it with a plan. Crit City races can be a fun place for this, since the laps are so short. What if you attack every other lap, trying to stay off the front as long as possible? Or see if you can last an entire lap at the very front of the pack?
Chance are the added effort will lose you the race. But it’s not about the win today. It’s about the effort.
#4: Embracing the Mass Start
In the past, I’ve avoided “mass start” races on Zwift where all categories race together. I didn’t like the idea of riders outside my category affecting my race.
But I’ve come to enjoy this style of racing, because I’m pushed to the limit when trying to hang with the A’s at the front of the race. And if I do get dropped, there will be B’s behind to work with to the finish.
#5: Focus On Ranking
Instead of selecting races based on your chance to podium, select races based on your chance to get a ZwiftPower rankings boost.
Sometimes you can do this while racing within your category, if you can find a high-quality race using ZwiftPower’s tools. But often, just racing up a category (or racing in a mass start event against higher-category riders) will get you a better points result, even though you finish off the podium.
As an example: I’ve won B races before, but earned no ranking boost, since I was the highest-ranked B in the race. On the other hand, I’ve placed 10th or worse in mixed-cat races and earned a points upgrade for me effort!
Wrapping It Up
Look, I get it: sometimes you just want to go for the win. Racing is always more fun if you’re in contention for a podium spot, after all!
But Zwift B/C/D racers looking to truly improve will need to take alternative approaches, at least occasionally, to ensure that their races are making them stronger. It may mean foregoing your shot at some podiums, but it will lead to gains you wouldn’t have realized otherwise.
And while it may seem like I’m preaching this to all of you, what I’m really doing is preaching it to myself. Wish me luck, as I plan to sign up for more mixed category and A races this year.
Have you been guilty of only racing “easy” races? Do you ever take alternative approaches to Zwift racing in order to see better training results? Share below!