Hi Zwift Insider readers! Long time listener, first time caller.

Yesterday I decided to compete in a short Crit City race. Why should you care about this? Because this race was when I realized exactly what I and Zwift itself is really made of.

You see, I’m a total cycling noob. And it turns out, my experience is nothing like those of Eric, or any of the other ZI contributors. I’m slow and overweight, and even in the lowly D race I enrolled in, I got smoked. This got me thinking: I can’t be the only old, heavy, slow person on Zwift. Maybe my perspective would be useful to other users, and just maybe the developers making the software and hardware too.

So today I’m sharing my first race story, from the blunt end of Zwift.

The Backstory

Recently I decided to find a new form of exercise to be passionate about, and chose cycling. I’m 37, so a bit old for starting a new sport, but I needed to do something new to keep me fit and healthy. I’m young enough, however, that I don’t just want to amble around looking at the view. I want to ride fast and hopefully race too! I don’t even have a road bike, just a straight handlebar hybrid bike in a Tacx Bushido trainer. Start small and upgrade when I can.

I’m 194cm (6’ 4″), which doesn’t make me the most aero of riders. Aero doesn’t matter indoors though, except Zwift asks the question and my mother taught me to be honest, so height is a disadvantage. At least I don’t need to tuck inside.

The bigger issue is the other measurement Zwift requests. I’m currently 102kg (225lbs). I call it fat, but there is some muscle too. I’ve always worked in gyms and while I’ve neglected cardio, I used to lift weights and there is a decent amount of muscle mass. (That said, a few years ago I was a lot heavier, something an improved diet has helped with. You can’t out-train bad eating, after all.)

I’m well aware that speed on Zwift is calculated based on your watts per kilogram, and my ‘per kilogram’ is a big issue. Unfortunately, my ‘watts per’ isn’t much better with my FTP sitting at around 200. Simple maths informs me that a small number divided by a big number equals a tiny number. My 2 w/kg output is quite shoddy indeed, but I love seeing improvements over time, and I figured there is plenty of improvement on the horizon, so I’m able to stay positive on this for now.

I’m also very motivated. It may be due to my recent ride with fellow Welshman Geraint Thomas on his fundraising efforts for medical services in the UK. To be honest though, I didn’t even see G on the ride, I started too far back and despite blasting out of the gates, I couldn’t catch him. I did get a photo of myself riding past Alex Dowsett though. Ok, ok… it was actually him who flew past me up the Surrey Hills on a ride to gather PPE equipment for Israeli medical teams. Dan Martin was also on this ride as the sweeper, I had planned to keep falling off the back so I could have a personal ride with him, but turns out he’s a terrible sweeper and led the ride almost all the way around with Alex in the chasing peloton.

I began my Zwift journey with this site and read everything I could find to start me on my way, from equipment recommendations and setup guides, to choosing the best bike and powerup tips. I’ve been following Monica’s quest for conquering every route, and recently joined in the 25 laps ride. I’m getting to the point where the routes left are increasingly long, and I’m not very quick so they take considerable time out of my day. The Alpe took me 3 hours, and hurt quite a lot, the volcano ride was 40 minutes longer. This is quite a large part of my day at the moment; add in a shower and recovery nap, and it’s a full day’s work.

I made a decision that before I resumed any longer routes, I wanted to be quicker, and that meant lighter and fitter. So yesterday I decided to try something different and do a race. A race would be a good workout, a good test of fitness, and I’d probably lose some weight. Perfect… or so I thought.

The Plan

Races come in categories, A thru D. And the D category is typically for riders with an average w/kg of 1.0-2.49. This is where I am right now, a solid 2.0. I know I’ve held 200W for long periods before, and a 200W FTP theoretically means it should be possible to keep that up for an hour. But I wanted to be towards the sharp end of this blunt end race. I didn’t want to get dropped after 5 minutes and complete a solo ride. So I opted for a short Crit City race, 8 laps and about 15km. Worst case scenario, at 30kph, this would take me 30 minutes. Crit City is largely flat, too, with less than 150m of climbing for the whole race. I know I can easily hold over 30kph on the flat, and if I can stay in the bunch and get a good draft too…

I’d recently watched Kevin Bouchard Hall teaching Ted King how to race. My main takeaways were:

  1. Attack the start – races start quick but it will settle into a rhythm.
  2. Pack position – too far ahead and you’ll have no draft, too far back and you’ll be dropped with a surge.
  3. Don’t get dropped – without the draft it’s impossible.
  4. Ramp up for the hills – everyone attacks on the hills. Crit City doesn’t have many, but if you don’t attack them you’ll get dropped.
  5. Don’t get dropped – I put it in twice, as it seemed important.
  6. Time your boosts – and hope for a good aero for the sprint finish.

Sounds simple enough, it’s basically pedal hard until the line, but not too hard to give others your draft. It’s like the old Alain Prost quote, “Win the race at the slowest speed possible.” I don’t want to be towing others around for free.

The Preparation

I warmed up with a quick lap of Richmond’s Fan Flats. I chucked in a little sprint here and there. Could I have warmed up for longer? Probably. Would it have helped? Probably not. If anything a longer warm-up would have been reclassified as a workout for me and fatigued me for the race. My warm-up was 10 minutes long at an average of 124w and 119 hr.

Unlike Eric, I don’t have any caffeine gum, and don’t have any magic leg gel either. Just man and machine for this one. I joined the race 5 minutes early and kept my legs warm with some low-resistance spinning. I remembered Kevin telling Ted to light up the watts before the start, so I ramped up slowly at 30 seconds out, increased the ramp at 10 seconds, and when the race started was pushing a respectable 485w. (I think Kevin and Ted kept around this power for the whole of their race, which I find inconceivable based on where I am.

The Race

It’s worth pointing out here that I’m hyper-competitive once the event starts. I’ve played basketball, although not very well and not for several years, but I coach at a decent level and I hate losing. It infuriates me. If there’s one thing I wasn’t worried about it was getting off the bike thinking I didn’t try hard. It was far more likely I would burn out after one lap and I’d get off the bike for an early shower and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.

My initial 485w is nearly 5 w/kg. That’s double the average for this race. I was happy I could output this amount, and my little (quite large compared to the other riders) avatar pushed forwards through the pack. This was as positive as the race got for me. Kevin said to push at the start, it would settle into a rhythm, and that rhythm should now be under 2.5 w/kg.

It didn’t settle. There was a rhythm, and it was very high.

I tried to keep up with the leaders, “Don’t get dropped!” I had listed twice. Apparently in the draft I could save 1 w/kg. I’m sure that scales once you’re as slow as me, but if I could have half of that I would be happy. Don’t get dropped.

I’m dropped. I keep my watts as high as I can for as long as I can, but there is no let up. I’ve been dropped from the lead group. With no draft to help I’m quickly caught by the next group. Great, I’ll draft these good cyclis….. nope, they’ve flown past me too. Turns out when your speed is so different to theirs, by the time you catch the draft effect it’s gone and you don’t get any benefit at all. After being 30th after the first corner, I slipped to 60th by the time we hit the little rises, 100th by the end of the first lap, 150th pretty soon after this.

There were 270 in the race. My target went from sticking in the lead pack to not coming last in just a few minutes. Apart from point 1, the quick start, the game plan had gone out of the window.

  1. There was no pack to have position in.
  2. I had been dropped.
  3. I was trying to ramp up for the hills, but these guys felt like 4 brutal gut punches compared to what I had prepared myself for.
  4. I had been dropped by the second pack too.
  5. I was not timing any powerup boosts well.

I was mostly getting the trucks to boost my drafting abilities. This would be great if I was in a pack, but even using this and a little burst of power when a rider came past me I still couldn’t catch a wheel.

Truth is, my legs were dead. That start was a huge overextension for me, and I realised from comments that they were sandbagging and I would never have been able to stay with them. They were simply too strong for the D race. With no chance to recover, my power dropped to around 150w with small spikes as I hit the gradients. I was still slipping too, back to 200th place now, only 70 behind me… ominous! There was one cyclist zipping past occasionally on what I would guess was a rocket bike. He was either cheating or glitching.

By the last lap I found a little extra in my legs to increase back to over 200w, which renewed a little lost pride. Then with a few corners left I realised I was catching someone; very slowly, but catching none the less. Cadence up, gear changed, this was now my whole purpose. This was now my Champs Elysees sprint finish, my Alpe stage victory bid, my Olympic time trial race. I was 226th, but I could smell 225th. Three corners to go, I was quicker, he was slower. Two corners to go and I passed him easily, not quite the photo finish glory moment but 225th place was mine. Victory!!!

Oh wait, I’m being caught by someone else, catching me quickly too, I could see the gap in meters disappear. Out of the saddle, I wind up with power to a race-high 532 watts. Start fast, finish fast, I guess it was just the middle 90% that was a disaster. He caught me on the line for his own photo finish glory, and sent me backward to 226th. Furious!

Race Results

I finished the race with an average of 174w/kg. I know I can do better, just need to ride my race and not get distracted by the riders out of my league. A lesson learned. Average cadence was 90 which is always my target. Average HR was 156 with a max of 175. At 37 my max HR should be 183, and I certainly felt it was my legs that failed me on this one, not my CV system. Combined with my 226th finish, my stats left me wanting a do-over with my new knowledge. But it’s my first race and not a bad place to start. Hungry for more is a good sign.

But wait, this isn’t over. The official results pop up on the Companion app and seem to filter out some bad apples, and I’m up to 215th. I check the list to see who won and this is where I start to realise that all is not as it seems. If we discount Mr Glitch, the race winner of the sub 2.5w/kg D race, averaged 5.34w/kg. This seems a tad unfair. Worse still, you have to drop to 104th position before you find anyone who kept within the prescribed wattage. I accept that some people may tip over the limit a little bit, but over double is quite annoying. The winner of the A race finished with a 5.4w/kg, albeit with a slightly faster time, but still not far ahead of the D race winner. Clearly trying to stick with this group early on negatively impacted my own race.

Time to head to ZwiftPower! That’s right, I’ve all the gear and no idea. But as Eric says, if it’s not on ZwiftPower it doesn’t count, and here’s hoping for 215 disqualifications and a champagne moment on the top of the podium as I’m presented with my blue D race jersey. Now I’m suddenly 44th place. New race winner was a Canadian rider who crossed the line in 40th in the game.

At first, I thought about how happy they must be to see that. But then I thought about how they were robbed of the feeling of crossing the line in first place. I understand Zwift is introducing new rules to prevent this behaviour, and it can’t come soon enough.

The new race winner held an average of 2.75w/kg. While this is over the race limits, it’s not much, and it seems achievable to me. I want to win a D race after all, so here is my plan:

  • Retest my FTP: I’ve not tested for a while and it would be good to know exactly where I am now.
  • Get fitter: I always knew this would be on the horizon, I need to start using workouts instead of free rides to push my FTP up. I did an FTP builder last November/December, but then I got married, Christmas happened, and I toured Italy on our honeymoon, so it’s probably all lost progress now.
  • Lose weight: I dropped 35kg a few years ago. I’m never going to be a 60kg climbing specialist, but if I can drop to 90kg that would make a big difference. Diet review needed.
Losing 10% weight + Increase FTP 10% =    Increase w/kg 22%
100kg -> 90kg200w -> 220w2.0w/kg -> 2.44w/kg

This 2.44w/kg seems achievable and puts me right at the upper end of the D category. This is my first target, and if Eric will have me, I plan to document this journey in the hopes it helps any other Zwifters in my position.

I also really hope that Zwift sort the sandbagging features out for the D races. Without the disqualified riders, there were only 48 riders left in my race. I can’t help but think D race participation would increase if it was more fun and fair. I certainly wasn’t thrilled about the idea of doing another right away.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been around sports development long enough to know that the bottom of the sports pyramid is far bigger than the top. There are more amateur cyclists in the world than pro cyclists, and more slow ones than quick ones. And since we all pay the same per person, it makes sense to ensure that Zwift appeals to the slow one just as much as the quick ones. I think they already do this better than other platforms, with a gamified and social experience.

This is not to say that faster and pro riders are not welcome – all sports pyramids are funded by the masses on the blunt end, while the sharp end provides the expertise and inspiration to ensure the blunt end is supported and developed. I’m very grateful for the expert knowledge from the likes of Eric, GPLama, DC Rainmaker, and the aforementioned video by Kevin. And I was equally inspired by Monica’s route quest, and chances to ride with pros like Geraint, Alex, and Dan.

I’m looking forward to what’s coming next. I hope you’ll join me on the journey… from the blunt end!

Your Thoughts

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