For the first time ever, this week I rode in two massive group rides led by celebrity sporting stars who were also first-time Zwift ride leaders.
On Wednesday, retired professional cyclist Lance Armstrong led his first group ride, called “WEDU Wednesday”. Then on Saturday, retired NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller led a charity event called “Ride with Reggie” designed to raise awareness and funding to create cycling programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Simultaneously, the goal was to set a World Record for Zwift participation!
Leading a group ride is a daunting experience and difficult to execute well. Zwift legend Tim Searle makes it look easy but it has taken him years to refine his style. It took me a year of riding on the platform and undertaking hundreds of group rides before I even decided I wanted to give it a try. I did it for the purpose of a 2-part article for Zwift Insider (read part 1 and part 2).
I thought it would be interesting to compare these two events and see how they measured up against a set of criteria that Tim Searle, the Godfather of group rides, highlighted to me as being core to a good ride experience for all. These are:
- Immediately prior to the event
- Start of the event
- During the event
- The Start
- Pacing and positioning
- Enjoy the community
I want to state from the start, that my intention here is in no way to personally criticize anyone. But rather, I want to compare and contrast the rides based against defined criteria.
The first I knew about the WEDU ride hosted by Lance Armstrong was an early morning text message from a friend asking if I knew about the Lance Armstrong ride on Zwift. The event was going to be hosted the following day! Needless to say, I didn’t know about the ride. I didn’t even know what the event was for, and I did not know what WEDU was. I subsequently went about researching it. I even reached out to Lance for an interview, as I thought it would have made the article I was quickly writing more interesting. But sadly, I did not get a response.
In contrast, I was aware of the “Ride with Reggie” event several weeks beforehand. As a consequence of Zwift Insider’s work with Castelli, they reached out to us about the event, and we were invited to write an article. As you can imagine, it was a privilege to be asked and to play a part in their marketing strategy. It was a very coordinated approach and our article even crossed the desks of those in Castelli HQ, for approval.
Immediately prior to the event:
Both Lance and Reggie were in the start pens early. Lance was also using Discord, which added complexity. The Discord channel was not set to “Push to Talk” which meant there was lots of useless noise. This led to everyone hearing some very interesting things, such as repeated requests to “Get me my ear buds.” This was not a good experience and as time drew on, became a little annoying.
On both rides, due to the volume of people (1500 on Lance’s and over 2500 on Reggie’s), it was difficult for the Ride Leader to issue instructions prior to the start, due to the sheer volume of messages streaming in the small message window.
Start of the event:
Reggie gave very clear instructions at the start of the event when we commenced riding. He explained that he was shooting for a 2.5 w/kg average for the ride. But said we would start at 1.5 w/kg to warm up, building into the advertised pace. I was very impressed with this because this was one of the key points that Tim Searle had noted to me. He explained that it is best to start your group rides slowly and build into them. Reggie was following a play from his book. When we reached the advertised pace, Reggie announced it.
In contrast, Lance didn’t. People blasted from the pen and I was forced to ride at 330 watts to catch the front group. Immediately, the group was stretched and there would be absolutely no way for people at the back of the ride to ever see Lance. I was surprised by the strong start.
(In the event description/categories, the stated pace for Reggie’s ride was a broad 1-5 w/kg, while Lance’s was 2.5-3.1 w/kg.)
During the event:
Lance was using Discord and was happily engaging people on the Discord channel. He was very responsive and good fun, however, it was difficult to hear him due to the ongoing issues with the “Push to Talk” function not being enabled. There were probably only 150-200 people on the channel and there were 1500 on his ride. It felt like perhaps we were getting too much of his attention at the expense of the 1300 riders not using Discord.
Leading a group ride is like learning to drive a car. It feels complex, like spinning several plates, particularly when you’re a new leader. So using Discord gave Lance the extra challenge of speaking to people and responding to questions fielded in the chat function. In some cases, questions were not answered. There is nothing wrong with using Discord, but it may be something to use when you are more experienced. It felt like Lance took on too much.
Lance did communicate how long was left on the ride and encouraged people.
Reggie, on the other hand, did not use Discord and was extremely responsive to all messages. I want to talk about many of the positive points I noted.
- He explained what the purpose of the ride was.
- He acknowledged people who had helped him facilitate the ride, such as Castelli.
- This was a classy touch: he paid homage to the service men and women who were on the ride.
- He encouraged people and was engaging. At one point, a Zwifter donated $10,000 which Reggie acknowledged and immediately matched!
- Reggie was well supported with experienced group leads from the Castelli Team, led by Rich Lovelock, who were micro-messaging the community as we went, providing this secondary level of support.
Lance would have benefited from this additional level of support. We did ask if friend George Hincapie was on the ride to support, but Lance confirmed he wasn’t. It would have been interesting to understand how much support Lance had been given before undertaking this group ride (including, perhaps, training from someone at ZwiftHQ).
During Reggie’s ride, there was one instance that really made me smile. He resorted to using a quiz! He didn’t need to because the ride was fun, engaging, and there was no drop in enthusiasm, but it was excellent to see the “Quiz tactic” being utilised. The questions were related to cycling programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which served not only as a bit of fun but to educate us about the challenges. I thought it was very clever.
The starts of both events differed. Reggie’s was slower and he built into the ride. In contrast, Lance’s was fast and I had to put down some serious wattage to ensure I stayed in the front group with him. Lance fell into the trap I have seen many pro and ex-pro riders make when leading: they go too fast from the start. The difficulty with this is that it is hard to slow things down and the group is split from the start.
Pacing and Positioning
With so many riders in both events, this is difficult to discuss. With Lance’s ride, he stayed at the front of the pack, which meant that not everyone had a chance to ride near him. At one stage it was clear we were going to start lapping people, which meant the ride was too fast. And it felt that at times, notably at the start and early on, I had to push hard to keep in the group. We were clearly moving faster than the advertised pace.
Pacing is extremely difficult, even for experienced group leaders. Why do pro riders go too fast? Perhaps it’s a bit of that competitive spirit. Or perhaps they just don’t know how to ride at the pace of us mortals!
In contrast, Reggie had a far steadier and controlled pace, in part because of his slower start. The impact of this in terms of position is that more people would potentially have ridden past him and with him, so they could easily ride near him if desired.
Positioning was a big problem on the Lance Armstrong ride. Even people on Discord were asking where Lance was because he was so far ahead!
In the end, I averaged 182W to stay near the beacon for Reggie’s ride, and 204W to stay near the beacon for Lance’s.
Enjoying the Community
It was clear that both Lance and Reggie enjoyed their experience and so did the people who participated, which was the main thing. Reggie’s ride had the most positive vibe, since funds were raised, making a positive impact for a bigger cause.
While these were both very big group rides led by first time leaders who were ex-pro athletes, the similarities stopped there.
If I had to pick a favourite of the two very different rides, it would be “Ride with Reggie.” Although Reggie did not have extensive experience using Zwift, clearly he had done his research and followed a well-planned formula. Furthermore, Reggie was aided by the Castelli Team who had even ridden the course with him the day before. (The Castelli Team are all experienced group leaders who have been around for a long time as highlighted here.)
In terms of pacing, Reggie’s ride felt steadier in contrast to Lance’s. I would like to see Lance get more support on his rides and if he is going to continue to use Discord, ensure it is setup correctly. As the WEDU Wednesday ride is going to be a weekly affair, I look forward to seeing its evolution.
The key thing to remember is that nearly all people, when they join Zwift, don’t immediately start leading groups. Most people use Zwift, get familiar with the platform, and understand the format of group rides and how they work, before taking the next step and leading one.
If Zwift are going to let people lead rides without much previous experience on Zwift, perhaps there is an onboarding process they can undertake to equip them with the basic skills. (Perhaps there already is one, and I just don’t know about it!)
Both leaders did admirably well considering their limited Zwift experience. Where Reggie edged it, I think, was with his depth of support. That’s how an ex-pro basketball player bested an ex-pro cyclist as a ride leader! Perhaps this is something Lance could consider. On the large group rides Tim Searle undertakes, he makes sure he has a group of “Lieutenants” to help keep the group stay organised.
In the end, the important thing is that both rides attracted thousands of people to spend an hour exercising. And in Reggie’s case, he was able to raise funds for his charity, so a win-all-round!
Watch the Ride Recordings
Here’s a video from TeamODZ’s Gerrie Delport of Lance’s ride. It includes the Discord audio, at least portions of it, so you can get an idea of how it sounded:
And here’s a nice video from Makreel Langs of Reggie’s ride:
Did you participate in either or both of the rides discussed here? What were your thoughts? Share below!