“If you build it, he will come.” That’s the famous line from Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, but it also applies to Zwift Insider’s first-ever group ride as 3900 people attended. This was the largest group ride I’ve ever participated in. It was nothing short of epic and all credit to Eric Schlange, the genius behind the Zwift Insider website.
When Eric contacted me to say he was putting on the Über Pretzel Badge Hunters event, I responded instantly saying that “I’m in.” I expected a group ride of several hundred people and was overwhelmed by the volume of riders, so much so, that I couldn’t even find my friends on the Companion app to coordinate our ride together! Prior to starting the event, I checked to see how many had registered to ride and it was over 5100. At the start there were ~3900 riders, which made it the largest mass participation event I had ever been involved with. I know through my conversations on the road that it was the same for many others.
I think it’s safe to say this event was a success and Zwift Insider rides needs to run with more frequency. This was certainly the response when I asked the question on the road with people wanting the PRL Full as the next one.
I appreciate many of you will have taken part in the event. Still, I would like to share the story of my experience.
It’s not like I was late to the party, I wasn’t. In fact I was 26 minutes early! However, due to the volume of people I was nowhere near the start line and I had to squint at the television to make out the start banner, I was that far back. In the 4 minutes since the event opened, the volume of riders who joined was already extensive. Having secured my place, I went about finishing preparations for the ride, including filling up the ever-essential bidons.
As the timer counted down, I checked the Companion app to message my friends who were also participating in the event. But they were not there. The little orange counter to indicate fellow friends was reading zero. I was a little concerned, so I connected to Discord, the communication app commonly used when riding, and found them there instead. They were experiencing similar problems with Zwift. They were in the event, but could not see people or connect with them.
As the event started, I set off at a steady tempo, chatting to my friends in the event via Discord. They noted that their avatars were experiencing “Ghosting” where they would disappear or the riders around them would disappear. I was also experiencing this. We put it down to simply the sheer volume of people in the event.
The Epic KOM
The double draft that was enabled meant that I was on the Epic KOM before I knew it and started climbing at my own tempo. I wasn’t pushing myself because I was really only here to participate – I was not racing and I hadn’t come into the event with any expectations except to cycle round, enjoy myself and represent Zwift Insider. To that end, next to my name I had inserted ‘Zwift Insider’ and was decked out in an orange jersey along with a matching orange Tron bike.
If I am completely honest, I wasn’t sure that I would complete the event, having had a tough week cycling which included two Zwift Racing League events totaling 80km of racing and 6 ascents up the Volcano, plus a Monday race where I achieved a new 20-minute PB, a Haute Route interval session on Thursday, and a 3-hour mountain bike ride the day before. So I was pretty tired! However, as I climbed the Epic KOM, I found myself edging towards the front of the field. I had climbed from 300th position and was up around 189 when we hit the brutal climb to the Radio Tower.
It was at this point that I really experienced significant issues with Zwift. As I climbed, I noticed Eric Min (Co-Founder and CEO of Zwift) was ahead of me. I went to send him a message of encouragement, but then I noticed that the Companion app wasn’t working, I couldn’t type, so instead I thought I would take a photo. So I pressed the button, but nothing happened. By this time, I had overtaken Eric, so thought I would change camera views and take a different snapshot, but when I pressed the button to change camera, again nothing happened. So I pressed it a few more times. Nothing.
So I gave up and continued cycling. 20 seconds later, the screen went haywire and the camera view changed multiple times along with taking a multitude of photos (that didn’t actually save). It was clear that there was a huge delay due to the volume of riders. I had never experienced anything like that.
I crested the Radio Tower on my own and as I descended, I was isolated. I could see on my mini map that descending at speed was a large group, so I sped up, ready to integrate into the group. It was no good, the mass of riders flew past me like I was stopped at the side of the road. This was followed closely by a second group, who also came flying past but by now I was in a full sprint downhill trying to keep up and fortunately as the descent shallowed, I was able to latch onto the back of the group and there I sat as we sped off towards the Jungle.
My group powered into the Jungle, and there were the usual complaints about the section of the route and it not being universally liked. Personally speaking, I like the scenery but not the road surface and there was also the usual discussion about changing to a mountain bike.
The conclusion I have come to is if you are in an established group and you are going at speed, it’s not worth the effort because you would stop, change bike, then have to catch the group, then pull ahead of the group so that when you change bike again, you can continue with the group. For me, it’s too complicated. Fortunately for us, one helpful soul had changed to a Mountain bike and was actually pulling our group along.
With the twists and turns of the course, I was able to see that we were gaining on the massive group that zipped through me on the descent from the Epic KOM. The gap was slowly decreasing from 20 seconds and it went down 14 seconds. At this point, we were nearing the end of the Jungle section, the section where only a few weeks previously, my gear cable had snapped in the Gran Fondo. It was the section where the road climbs up through a series of gentle turns, so I decided to chance my luck.
Fearing that my group would not be able to compete with the massive pack ahead on the paved roads to come, I rode to the front of the group and put in a hard effort, hoping to close the gap. I started pushing over 400 watts and was at 6.1 w/kg as the gap narrowed. My heart rate spiked to new levels but through this effort, I managed to latch onto the last two riders of the big group. I was so focused I was unsure if anyone came with me. Given this aggressive style of riding isn’t something I do, I was pleasantly surprised. I pulled through the group so as not to be dropped and sat in as we exited the Jungle. For once, I survived unscathed.
I still hate the Jungle.
I was relieved to be in the large group as it sped towards the Volcano. I sat in, recovering from my previous effort. I was now around 120 position and was just enjoying the ride. I was actually pleasantly surprised that my little tactical move in the Jungle had paid off. The benefit of being in this massive group was noticeable as it took no time before we made it to the Volcano. It was to be my 7th ascend up the Volcano this week.
This time up the climb I rode at my own tempo and was surprised to see that I pulled away from the group on the lower slopes. I was only 12 seconds behind another group ahead but could not get any closer than that. My group caught me as I crested the summit, which meant that I was safely in the group for the descent.
Interestingly, the top time up the Volcano climb during the event was 6 mins and 35 seconds, which would have been one of the slowest times in the races I had done earlier in the week. I crested in 7 minutes 18 seconds.
Our group made light work of reaching Fuego Flats and at this point we picked up the group of riders I had not been able to bridge to on the Volcano. Our 74-person group was simply massive, and I was now focused on staying in the bunch because it was like being in one giant bus. I think the group was from places 70 to 144, but I never got near the front to confirm. The one time I did slip near the back, I felt fear and upped my cadence and slipped safely back into the bunch.
It was around this point that I asked people would they be interested in another event and I was met with an overwhelmingly positive response with the PRL Full and ‘Rebel Routes’ being people’s preference. Apart from one rider who had been involved in an event with Andre Greipel, a professional cyclists for Israel Start-up Nation which had 6000 participants, this was the largest group ride that many of us had been involved with. I asked if Eric Min was in our group, hoping to get a few words, but I was told he was in the group behind. I certainly wasn’t going to give up this freeride to go back for an interview, so I sat on in and enjoyed the draft.
The Alpe du Zwift
Having reached the 2 hour mark, there was discussion that we could do the Über Pretzel in under 4 hours. Last time I did it, it took me a little under 5 hours, so this would be a huge improvement. And just like that, what had started out for me as a simple mass participation ride started morphing into a bit more of a personal challenge. Could I do the route in under 4 hours? I have to confess, I was utterly surprised to find myself in such a position and in particular, near the head of the race. The group I was in was absolutely flying.
I mentioned it was like being in a giant bus, I would like to correct that to being in an express train, as I picked up a new PB on Fuego Flats Reverse and Fuego Flats. I decided I would ride this express train until the end and stick with it as long as I could.
Before I knew it and after a little under 3 hours, we arrived at the base of the final climb: the mighty Alpe du Zwift. A daunting task at the best of times, but with 118km in my legs, it was going to be a painful ending.
The difference the previous 118km had on my power output was 50-60 watts. On a good day, I can climb the Alpe putting out 330-340W. Today I was able to climb in the region of 270-280W. For me, though, at this point it was all about finishing and I was amazed to now find myself in around 60th position. I didn’t get sucked into racing anyone and I just rode at my own pace.
Interestingly, halfway up I found myself in 57th position, then without warning I had a connection drop. Instead of my normal panic, I got off the bike, pulled the power out of the smart trainer and went into the pairing screen on my device and reconnected. I got back on the bike and got straight back to work. No panic, no fuss, straight back into my rhythm. It was the equivalent of a professional cyclist changing a flat tire in a race. Yes, it messes your rhythm but I didn’t want it to lose my concentration.
I did appreciate how fortunate it was that the dropout happened on the mountain where my losses were minimized, because if that happened on the flat in the group it would have been disastrous and I certainly would have lost my seat in the express train!
There were no further dramas and I simply climbed at my own rhythm, swapping places with a German rider name M. Otter as we edged our way little by little towards the finish. As I turned the last corner, I dug deep and pushed hard to the line, crossing in 3 hours 45 minutes, 18 seconds in 55th position.
I was pleased with my ride and my climb up the Alpe which was 48 minutes 16 seconds, although it was some way short of the KOM on the day which was posted at a staggering 35 minutes and 03 seconds. During the ride, I crossed the 10,000km ridden on Zwift threshold, which was a personal achievement and certainly a long way short of Tim Searle, the Australian legend, who clocked up 200,000kms only days before!
I couldn’t have been happier to have finished arguably the most challenging route on Zwift and honestly, what a fun 4 hours. I was only anticipated doing a couple of hours, but got caught up in the event and got swept along in the whole experience. And when I finished, my only question is – Eric, when is the next one?
PRL Full Next
Eric has announced the next Zwift Insider Badge Hunters event will be held on the PRL Full March 13th, 6am Pacific/9am Eastern/2pm GMT. See you there!
Questions or Comments?