Being new to Zwift, I have undertaken long rides in the quest to tick off the different route badges but had not participated in one of the exclusive “one day only” Zwift Fondo events. So when I saw them promoted on Zwift Insider, I signed up!
I debated which of three distances to partake in before finally settling on the shortest, the “Bambino” – I say shortest, it’s still over 50km so a substantial ride by anyone’s standard. But not quite the 90km epic of the Gran Fondo.
Sunday morning, “Race Day” – I had ensured I had a good solid breakfast and had my bottles of water lined up on the small camping table next to my bike, used to hold all required items for a session of Zwifting such as the Bluetooth speaker, sweets (a mid-ride necessity when energy is low), and a battery charger for my iPhone, which is used with the companion app.
I was sure to arrive early to the start line to bag a position at the front. I had read that with mass participation events, if you are not near the front of the race from the start, it is virtually impossible to get into the front group. So I sat, patiently warming up on the trainer for 20 minutes. Editor’s note: there are other ways to save your spot at the front of the start pens…
The Fun(do) Begins
As the blue clock ticked to 0, there was the mass explosion! I was out of the blocks pushing 350 watts as the pack started to swarm and form. The number of people was easily the most I had experienced, with the counter showing 1200+.
I couldn’t quite see the last digits and despite having my iPad connected to a large 32” TV, I’ve noticed that my eyesight seems to be failing me as I struggle to make out the small text. (Perhaps it’s not my eyesight but in the “heat of the battle” it is difficult to focus on all of the data that Zwift displays.) My eyes dart from the power stats to my heart rate then across to my RPM. I’m always conscious of trying to put the right amount of power in without exerting myself too much, to avoid the inevitable “blow-up” that occurs when we think we can hold watts that are above our capability.
The first few minutes of the race were frantic, but it appeared I made the top group, which was huge. Easily 100 riders and the pace wasn’t slowing. We weaved our way around Watopia for ~10 minutes, before this big pack suddenly split apart. What I hadn’t realised is that the entire Fondo started together and rode en masse for the first several kilometres, before suddenly and without warning we turned left and the rest of the bunch went right. Each distance had their own route around Watopia. This top group instantly divided into 3, with our group being probably only 20 riders. This was good, as now I could see who I was riding with. At one point I was 1st out of 1200 and was desperately trying to capture this image with my IPhone for posterity… but fumbled and failed.
20 minutes into the ride, the pace was still high and we approached the Hilly KOM. I knew this to be a short but tough, punchy climb, so I got to the front of the group and tried to keep my nose ahead. We passed the banner in 1:56, which is probably one of the fastest climbs I’ve had. Despite this, I was near the back of the group and as we descended, the pace upped and I started separating from the group and sprinted to get back on. But I couldn’t get back in touch.
Sprinting downhill, the bunch was pulling away and there was nothing I could do. My legs spinning like windmills in a hurricane, I was having no impact. I could feel the race slipping away after only 20 minutes. One lapse of concentration, one bit of bad positioning and I was shelled from the front group.
The descent took us down some rolling hills and I could see the bunch turn right in the distance as they ascended. More riders were shelled. Fortunately, as I raced to catch on, two of these fellow riders latched onto my wheel and we had a mini bunch. (I say mini bunch, it was just 3 of us!)
In desperation, the 3 of us grouped up and trying to save the race. I typed, “Let’s do a Team Time Trial” – naively thinking that if we could form up and do 1-minute turns on the front at a high wattage, we would make some gains into the group ahead. Who was I kidding, our attempt at the Team Time Trial lasted only 1 turn each and the gap to the front group grew from 10 seconds to 40 seconds.
By this time we were approaching the junction where you go right into the Jungle. Our little trio was looking around for help and coming up quickly behind us was a rider called “Berchtold” – his numbers were impressive, 5 watts per kilo and by the looks of it, he had bagged the previous KOM jersey. He was flying, so we desperately tried engaging him on chat, willing him to form part of our group. He certainly was flying, he flew right by us at 5.2 watts. So, the trio pushed on until the Jungle.
Suddenly our trio was down to a duo. At this stage, I knew the game was up, the front group was several minutes ahead and there was a rear group 1 minute back, with one rider bridging the gap – we were in “no man’s land” and so we sat up. It gave me a rare opportunity in race to engage in a bit of chat with my follow rider. A Dutch rider, Michael.
The rider bridging caught us as we sat up and like the previous rider, blew right on by. I asked Michael if he wanted to chase his “fellow countryman,” only for him to point out that the rider was French. Again, from the distance of my bike to the TV, I can only make out blues, whites, and red and could not see the difference in the flag as I only see the colours. I apologised to Michael for my oversight and our attention was quickly on the fast-approaching group from behind.
The Group Grows
Now, the danger when waiting for a group to come is that if you are not careful, the group can swamp you and you are left trailing in their slipstream. Careful to avoid this, we upped our speed and as the first rider came, full sprint mode was engaged to ensure I caught the draft.
As we exited the Jungle, the pace upped and I was at the back of the group – panic and a sense of déjà vu entailed but armed with the feather powerup I lightened my load for a few seconds and within a few pedal turns, was at the front of the group.
We sat in the group and meandered our way through the Italian Villas and out towards the Volcano, the scene of the final showdown on the Volcano climb.
The Volcano climb is actually quite a tricky one. It’s short but the sections where it levels off and descends give riders chance to bridge across any gains that you have made by attacking too soon, so the tactic was to pick your moment to attack. My tactic was to get to the front of the group to raise the pace, to ensure that any of the weaker climbers were distanced. This worked as I could see individual time gaps start to appear on the riders near me. I waited to attack until just after the wooden bridge, moving to the front and grinding. I got a message from my fellow ride Michael in capitals “GO GO GO!” so I took it that I was doing well. So I kept pushing!
No one was with me, I could see the finish line but could see one rider bridging my gap. The finish was approaching, and I was 11th. Right about now, the feather powerup that I had used earlier would have been handy to have, but having already used it already, I was down to sheer effort. Just as the hill crested and the finish line appeared, I was passed.
I trundled over the line in 12th position*. 1 hr 23 mins 27 seconds.
For my first foray into a Fondo, it was a positive experience, but I was left wondering what might have been had I made the front group. But the beauty of Zwift is there is always and another race… and so there was, the Zwift Hill Climb, the following day! More on that later…
*Note my position was upgraded on ZwiftPower to 11th.
Did you participate in November’s Zwift Fondo? If so, how did it go? Share below!