Having just finished competing in my first Zwift League last Saturday, I thought it would be good to review not only this league, but also the experience of "league racing" on Zwift.
How did I get into this league?
So, it was purely by coincidence that I ended up joining the league. I was planning my training week out in terms of races and saw a race that piqued my interest. It was a "points race" on France's "Petit Boucle" circuit. In theory a course that suits me fairly well as it has a couple of 5 minute climbs and generous respite in between. The points element added a little extra spice, as these "Primes" would be the actual deciding factor for the results; although they were heavily weighted to the points across the finish line.
The points across the finish line were allocated as 60 to the winner and then descended down fairly linearly from there. The points for the "banners" (be they KoMs or sprint banners) were awarded to top 10 riders as 12, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points respectively.
As it turns out, I actually misread the comments on the event, and didn't realise that there were points for intermediate sprints as well as the King of the Mountains (KoMs), so missed an opportunity there perhaps (although sprinting is not a speciality of mine!). I'll talk more specifically about how this race went below, but I enjoyed the format of "go hard, then recover, then go hard again". That coupled with the fact that a friend (Keith Robertson) was also taking part in the series aided my decision to try the next race in the series the following week.
The race on the Petit Boucle course was actually race 3 in this 8 race series, however, I learned that the points from race 1 were scrubbed due to some technical difficulties. So even though I only started on race 3, I was only effectively one race behind the other league competitors.
What was the league schedule?
The races were scheduled for 8 successive weeks at 0930 BST. This is a pretty decent time for me, although as someone who typically gets up around 0630 every day, it does raise the question of "to breakfast or not, and if you do, what?". Most weeks I did choose to eat my usual oats breakfast as soon as I got up (as I generally digest pretty quickly - thanks Vegan diet!), this left 3 hours before the race.
It's fair to say that the routes each week were varied, however, as the schedule below shows, there was a lot of races with longer climbs than the Petit Boucle course, which often meant that there were less intermediate KoM and sprint points, and more emphasis on finishing position.
In this section I will briefly discuss the race results and how those races "played out". I learned a lot more about both my physical and mental strengths and weaknesses as a rider during this series which I'll highlight, however, I want to save the training lessons and how I intend to remedy those for a dedicated post in the "Training Updates" category.
Each of the races described below include a link to the live stream of the race on YouTube. To see Zwift and outdoor riding videos on my YouTube channel then feel free to subscribe here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpgUshW6tRq1eAjMAryHD4Q
Race 3 - Petit Boucle
As described earlier, this course offered multiple KoM and sprint Prime opportunities. I was mainly interested in my ability to contest the Petit KoM, not only because the 5 minute effort favoured my style more than the sprints and aqueduct KoM, but also, this climb being so close to the end of the race would no doubt decide the finishing positions too. Full race video available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkZHXR5085Q&ab_channel=PhilRich As it turned out, I felt fairly good early on, and did manage to grab 3rd place over the aqueduct KoM, so got a few bonuses there, as well as a few sprint points once I'd realised that sprints did count too! I did enough over the reverse Petit KoM climb (6th) to stay with the front pack and get some points too, so things were looking good. The Petit KoM climb near the finish was tough, but I did manage to get over that in 7th, so a few more points and found myself in a group of four trailing the lead group of 3 by about 10s. I put in a reasonable sprint effort (courtesy of the descent recovery towards the finish line) and crossed the line in 6th place, which coincidentally turned out to be my final position after the Prime points were all tallied.
A pretty decent start, and a fun race experience which I think played to my recovery strengths fairly well.
Race 4 - Three Sisters Reverse
The Three Sisters course is something of a favourite actually (somewhat sadistically some might say). I'd recently raced fairly well on the regular direction of Three Sisters, but hadn't actually done the reverse in a race before, so was interested to see how it differed (spoiler: it may be harder!). Note: I couldn't find dedicated route images for the reverse directions of these courses, so you'll have to use your imagination a bit on this one (or just read right to left!)
Although there were prime points available at the top of each of the climbs, I was mainly concerned about trying to hold the front group as long as possible to garner as many points from the heavily weighted finish line as possible.
Full race video available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkZHXR5085Q&ab_channel=PhilRich
The signups for the event, showed a high-quality field, including 50 category A riders amongst which around 20 were A+. Included within those ranks was our Lotto Soudal Pro, friend and winner from last week, and no fewer than three riders representing the Sarris Pro Closet team.
Looking at some of the stats, it seemed like my 20-minute power PB would place me around 10th in the list of signed up riders. However, we would likely not be ranking so well on the anaerobic efforts!
My initial plan was to try and stay with the front group up the volcano and get a “free ride” to the Epic KoM climb. This would be no easy task, but I felt like it would be possible. With around 300 metres to go on the volcano, and having averaged around 5.4 W/kg to this point we reached the steep incline to the summit. At this point, I found myself at the front of the pack, but was quickly swamped by riders, putting out 10+W/kg sprints to get over the line and so crossed the line in around 15th place. It took a strong effort around the perimeter of the volcano summit to actually ensure that I descended with the front group. But I accomplished that goal.
A brief respite on the descent, and the flats, as we made our way towards the Epic KoM reverse climb. However, this was not without incident… On the gravel roads that lead us through the Italian village the group unexpectedly (to me) put on a bit of a burst. And I found myself with two other riders quickly off the back by a few seconds. This required a three-minute effort at high VO2max power, to be able to catch back on to the fast-moving blob. I definitely burned a match, before we actually got to the next main climb.
As always, with the Epic KoM (both forward and reverse), it starts with a VO2max effort kicker. This is one of the areas that I need to work on the most. Not so much my ability to hold an extended VO2max effort for say five minutes, but my ability to go above VO2max upper threshold into the anaerobic range for a couple of minutes before settling in to threshold. As a Time-Trial phenotype, I am pretty comfortable at prolonged efforts at high threshold, so naturally, that's where my body and mind, want to sit. However, this is not really the way these races are won. So, I need to work, both physically and mentally on those shorter high VO2max /anaerobic efforts (Something I intend to discuss with the coach, moving forward).
The result of this was that I found myself around five seconds off the back of the front pack after the gradient had receded at the top of the kicker. I quickly settled in to my threshold effort up the climb, and the radio tower “bonus!” climb. I managed to climb (pun intended) about five places during this effort, catching riders that had clearly overextended to stay with that front group and were now paying the price.
When reviewing the 20-minute power efforts for those riders ahead of me at the end of the race, it was clear that many of them had put out a lot less on that climb by being in the bunch. And so, if I had been confident enough to invest a little more in the kicker at the beginning, I probably would have been able to stay in that group.
One thing I have improved recently is knowing how to descend the longer climbs on Zwift. I've generally found that I'm able to catch up time on riders ahead of me now, by putting in the little sprint efforts up some of the rises. This was actually more difficult on the reverse version of the Epic KoM as these risers are around 30 seconds in length (compared to 10 seconds or so in the other direction).
Having descended from the Epic KoM, I found myself somewhat in no man's land with a group of three around 15 seconds ahead of me, and a group of four around 30 seconds behind me. I knew that it would be a very tough ask to gain any significant time on the group of three in front of me on the largely flat parkours remaining, but really wanted to hold my currently 16th place position. Ahead of the four chasing behind me. So, I settled in to my familiar Time Trial mode (for the second time today) for what was going to be a 15 to 20-minute effort.
I was quite happy with the power numbers I was able to sustain for this effort, given that we had just completed a 23-minute effort at 320W, all the way up to the radio tower. However, it was fairly clear that on the flat parts of the remainder of the course. I was ceding time to the group behind.
By the time we got to the top of the Reverse KoM climb, I had a (small) two second advantage over those chasing me. I actually managed to extend this to three seconds on the descent, and really pushed for the last kilometre to try and see if I could eke out the position I’d held for so long now.
Unfortunately, having completed such a long, time trial effort (twice),when it came down to the last 300 metres. I didn't really have any kind of kick in me, and the group behind had clearly been sharing the workload, so were able to kick past me excruciatingly in the last 100, or so metres.
This resulted in 20th place across the line (out of 220 competitors across all categories), this resulted in 19th place (out of 50 As) on Zwift power, courtesy of the winner being disqualified.
Overall, I was happy with my effort for the race. But it was fairly clear that if I could just convince myself to invest and put out some really high power, two-minute efforts during races like these, I would be able to stay with the pack on the longer threshold parts of the climb, and probably even be able to work less hard than I did today and finish further up the field.
Race 5 - Achterbahn
The Achterbahn route in Innsbruck is pretty simple in its breakdown. You have 2 x 15-20 minute climbs which will define the race and if you've made the front selection, the finishing positions may well be decided by the infamous "leg snapper" (a punchy 40s or so climb of around 8% where riders have to put out around 8-10W/kg to stay with the best) back in town with a few kilometres to go.
The sign ups for the race in category A once again looked high quality, and so I expected a tough race ahead. However, typically 20 minute climbs are typically a strong suit, so I took some confidence from that.
The rollout from the start was relatively steady through town as everyone saved their legs for the reverse Innsbruck climb. Once the gradients ramped up though, the pace became very strong from the start. I found myself riding at around 5.8W/kg at the beginning of the climb trying to hold on. Much like the week before, when the pace is this high at the start of a long climb, my mind typically makes the assumption that "this is going to be the pace all the way up". At this point, I back off to a more sustainable pace (knowing what I can hold for this length of interval).
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, this is a natural, but actually somewhat erroneous strategy. It's unlikely that many of the riders who are riding at this pace can hold it either (ok, some really strong riders will), so what is motivating them to continue? I think the reason is that these longer climbs are rarely ridden in a "linear" fashion. The reverse Innsbruck climb is a great example of this. Although it is 5.8km at an average gradient of 8%, it is rarely actually 8%!
The above image shows the breakdown of the reverse Innsbruck climb and we can clearly see that the gradients for the first 2km are amongst the most severe on the climb. As such, I think a lot of riders choose to "invest" here, and ride this section as a strong 6 minute (or so) effort, knowing that a plateau is coming shortly afterwards, and indeed a kilometre or so of much shallower gradients after that.
So perhaps a little bit more course recon, and being mentally strong enough to "hold on" for this first section would go a long way.
I found myself in a smaller second group on the road at the top of this climb and we started the descent. Unfortunately at this point I suffered a small power outage in my pain cave, which not only severed my connection to Zwift, but also the live stream. Although the power was back on after a minute, it was far too long to get everything booted back up and back into the race in any meaningful fashion! So rather abruptly, race 5 became a DNF for me!
Race 6 - Ven-Top
So we arrive at race 6, and the "Giant of Provence" awaited! A long, steady climb to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Typically the longer the effort, the more competitive my results as I'm reasonable good at pacing my effort and maintaining threshold efforts more than I am at VO2max repeats.
As we've come accustomed to in this series, the field was looking strong, and so a calculated approach would need to be taken.
The fastest riders attacked the lower slops hard (around 5.8W/kg for me to stay with them), and after hanging on for as long as seemed sensible, I eventually settled into a more manageable rhythm with a group of around 6 on the road. I was targeting riding most of the climb just above sweet spot (so around 300W), with the aim of saving something for a strong finish.
I was happily sitting in this group a few kilometres up the climb when I became a little distracted and actually fell about 5s off this group. Rather than panic too much though, I refocused and kept the power around sweet spot again for a couple more kilometres and then with about 1km left until "Chalet Reynard" (the end of the "La Reine" route, and where the gradients lessen somewhat) I decided this would be a good chance to make a push, and get back to the group in front to be able to benefit from the draft when the speeds would be higher.
I was very pleased with this push, and it didn't take very long to get back on with this group, and I was ready for the last 6km of the climb. I sat on for most of this as it appeared that one of the group was fairly happy to push the pace on the front, and although it was clear we were likely to catch one lone rider, it didn't seem like there was anyone else within range for us by the time we would reach the summit, so saving matches for a bit of a burst at the end seemed like a plan.
As we approached the last kilometre, it was clear that our now (after shelling a couple of riders) group of 4 would be fighting it out for 12th place. Fortunately, someone in the live chat had looked at the riders profiles on ZwiftPower and determined that one of them certainly had a good sprint, but the other two looked beatable in that regard. I was also very aware that one of the 4 had been on the front for most of the ascent, and decided this may have stunted his power a bit too come the end.
I decided to see if I could "surprise" them at the end by opening up a "building effort" to the sprint and see if I could get a head start on the sprinter. This worked fairly well to distance the two "non sprinter" types, but the rider I was concerned about still had enough of a kick to overtake me inside the last 100m.
Overall, I was pretty happy with the effort here. A steady climb at 298W average for the 1:07:53, with a reasonable 30s dig at the end to secure the best place I could.
It was time to recover well before what promised to be an epic race 7 next week!
Race 7 - London PRL Full
Week 7 was a rather different prospect compared to what had come before in the racing league. With most races being between 1-1.5 hours in duration, the London PRL Full course was likely to be closer to 4.5 hours! At 175km and including a whopping 11 ascents up the 6-7 minute climb that is Box Hill, this had to be deemed the "Queens Stage" of the league.
I was fairly confident in my ability to do well overall in this race, as 5 hours on the indoor trainer is something I've done quite a lot of in the past (albeit mostly for zone 2 endurance rides). I felt that at least I would have the sensations of being on the trainer for that long down, as well as having some experience in pacing and fuelling such an effort (something which I felt was going to be key coming in to the final hour or so of the race).
Unlike the past few races, where Prime points had effectively been only at the finish line, this race was going to be handing out a lot of them! With points available for the top 10 over the Box Hill climb and the finish line on each of the 11 laps of the race (as well as the usual points for overall finishing position). In reality, most of these points were likely to get hoovered up by the front group, so it was going to be important to stick in that pack for as long as possible, without blowing up for what was going to be a long day in the saddle.
Full race video available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsCfv7btw9Y&ab_channel=PhilRich
The first ascent up Box Hill was surprisingly steady, only requiring mid to low VO2max for the duration. I was feeling pretty good, and thought to myself with 1km to go to the banner, I might try a little acceleration and see if I would be allowed to get away on lap 1. To my surprise, I was (perhaps due to some of the competitors not knowing about the Prime points in this race if they hadn't been competing in the league overall). I was delighted to get a gap and take the maximum points over the top.
The pack was a little more attentive for the couple of ascents, but I was still able to place in the top 6 through the KoM arch to bag some more Prime points for the end. I was also able to place myself well over the start and finish line each lap to consolidate those points (and was largely uncontested in doing so).
Things got a bit tougher one the 4th ascent of Box Hill as the strongest riders turned the screw somewhat. This resulted in an ascent time some 25s faster than the previous 3 climbs, and around two thirds of the way up, I became detached. Fortunately, I was able to regroup a little and chase on to a group of 5 riders who also lost he wheel of the front pack and recovered on the descent with this "groupetto" competing for 18th place.
This alliance appeared to be relatively short lived though as a couple of the riders found a second wind on the next ascent of Box Hill and really turned on the power again. I decided that with my current state of recovery (and knowing that my strengths would be best realised later in the race) I would continue at a more steady climbing rate for now. I formed an alliance with a rider named Maarten Naberink. We initially started chatting on the companion app about working together, and then eventually he came by the YouTube stream and we enjoyed some conversation together.
We kept this alliance for the next 1.5 hours or so, riding mostly upper z2 on the flats and upper z3 on the climbs. Although we weren't gaining much on the field with this strategy, we weren't losing any places either, and I felt myself getting stronger and more recovered as time went on.
As an aside during this lull in the race, I'll talk about how I fuelled this event a bit. I got up around 3 hours before the race, and immediately ate a hearty bowl of oats with vegan pea based protein powder in it. The oats were complemented with my usual mix of chia and flax seeds to also provide some slow burning fats (important for the zone 2 parts of the ride). This kept me well fuelled for he first two hours of the ride after which point I began taking in some liquid carbs in he form of SIS Beta Fuel (300kcals each with around 90g of carbs) each mixed with 500ml of water. I got through two of these during the race, along with around 4 x 500ml bottles of juice with a hydration tablet in (to keep the salt balance in control with all this fluid). I also took on about 1.5 Clif bars (250kcals each - cut up into chunks of 8 pieces so I wasn't overloading the stomach). This strategy seemed to keep my well fuelled and I only started to feel "hungry" in the last 15 minutes or so of the ride.
As the laps ticked by we entered the penultimate lap, having been riding for almost 4 hours. I said to Maarten that I was feeling good and that we could try to ramp he pace on the next Box Hill ascent to see if we could catch some of the riders who were now struggling with the duration. I don't think Maarten was feeling quite as strong, but he did a great job of staying on my wheel on the 10th ascent as we caught and passed another rider on the ascent.
Having climbed around sweet spot, we reeled on D.Rojas (to the tune of around 30s) on this ascent and after a few riders dropping out over the course of the race, we were now in 10th place, and actually able to bag another solitary Prime point across the KoM and finish line once more.
With just over a lap to go I noticed that the rider in front was actually a friend of mine and very strong rider K.Robertson. As a viewer of the stream Keith had been popping in over he course of the race to update on his progress, and I knew that he was struggling somewhat with the distance. Having been put to the sword by Keith in the past few races in this series (fair play to him on that!), I decided this was the time for my endurance to shine. I set about closing the 1.5 minute gap before the end of the race.
Having upped the pace a bit on the flat parts of lap 11, the gap to Keith (and 9th place) had been closed to just 10s. My alliance with Maarten came to an end at this point as he let me know that he wasn't able to maintain this pace I'd been setting to try and catch Keith in front. We had worked very well together, so this was a shame, but this is racing after all, and Maarten was kind enough to give me his blessing to push on! I knew that I should be able to catch on the climb, but I knew Keith would try to hang on (being the fierce competitor that he is), so to ensure this overtake stuck, I had to set in for a really strong climb. After over 4 hours of riding, I was really pleased that my final ascent of Box Hill was completed at 4.5W/kg, and I passed Keith without allowing any mercy (sorry mate!)
To be certain of the place, I elected to time trial my way over the remaining 12km to the finish line and take 9th place across the line fairly comfortably.
Once all of the Prime points had been calculated, my final position was a little higher, and I was pretty happy to have recorded 7th place, behind (and in front of) some very strong riders.
As the league ranking is essentially just the aggregation of the Prime points, a solid result in this race gave me a nice boost up the league rankings going into the final race next week. I was really happy to have finished so strongly in this race, as it shows how much my endurance training and fuelling strategy paid off. I had to get some value out of those 5 hour trainer rides at some point right?!
Race 8 - Mountain 8
Suddenly, the final race of the series is open us. The Watopia Mountain 8 course was today's route, although only 1 lap, compared to the two laps originally scheduled. This would be therefore be quite a short race (sub hour), and no doubt would have the associated quick pace!
Full race video available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5bEEB1K7iA&ab_channel=PhilRich
I made the decision before the race that whatever happened, I wanted to stay with the front group up the little kicker at the start of the epic KoM (having been dropped there a number of times previously). This took a pretty sharp effort above 400W for a couple of minutes, but I'm glad to report that a clung on.
However, once we started the main part of the reverse epic KoM climb, the pace was infernal once more. I hung on to the back of the front group for a couple of minutes until I backed off and settled in to my rhythm for the rest of the climb. I maintained a solid pace up the climb and the radio tower beyond and dropped a couple of riders who were hanging on my wheel most of the way up. I then kept the pace up around the radio tower rim and pushed hard into the super tuck to get as much speed as I could on the descent. This push allowed me to quickly reel in another rider in front of me (about a 15s gap closed to J.Jans), where we were riding for 15th place as we set about the rest of the epic KoM descent.
As the image above shows, we were in something of a "no mans land", with a group of two riders 35s ahead and (more concerning) a group of 4 riders (the number required to benefit from the extra speed boost) 40s behind us. Having been in such a situation before, I know it was going to be incredibly hard to hold this seemingly decent gap over the remaining 5km of the descent and 10km of flat to the finish. As suspected, they caught us at the bottom of the descent with around 9km to the finish line.
At this point, the group really seemed to slow down (to a mostly zone 2 pace). This was a little disappointing, as I think there was a really good chance to catch the lone rider (Mica Schmitt) who was only 25s ahead of us. Kudos to him though, he kept his pace around 4.5W/kg, which was apparently enough to discourage the rest of the group from pressing on, so we were going to be sprinting for 15th place.
I did put in a bit of a dig through the "Esses" with around 1.5km to go to see if a solo finish was going to be possible, but after a good 10 minutes at zone 2 , everyone was pretty recovered, and were not going to let that happen.
I'm far from the worlds best sprinter as I think is clear from other posts on this forum, but after the nice recovery, I really wanted to give this one a good shot! Typically after a strong race, I'll struggle to hit much over 600W in a sprint (due to the fatigue in the legs), but I felt pretty fresh here, so bided my time (perhaps a second to late in hindsight) and unleashed what I could.
As can be seen from the image above, I hit some pretty reasonably numbers, but once again, probably just kicked a little too late (I was catching at the line). A fairly respectable 12W/kg for 15s was pleasing though, and was a nice way to end a fairly gruelling series of races.
17th place was the result in the final race (we were sprinting for 14th place). This added 42 more points to the league pot and I was excited to see what the final results were having completed 5 out of the 7 available races.
After all was said and done I managed to achieve 6th overall in the DBR SufferDay League II. Congratulations to the winner and indeed second place who managed to complete all 7 races, and obtain great results throughout. Particular kudos goes to Keith Robertson who finished a very respectable 4th having competed in every race, but suffered a tech malfunction during race 6 and therefore gained no points (he may well have taken the final podium place otherwise).
I came into this series to see what a points race would be like compared to a standard "scratch" race. The Petit Boucle course lent itself really well to this in my opinion as you had plenty of KoM and sprint points, but quite a lot of time to recover between them. This made for some really punchy, exciting racing. The Three Sisters course, although having less banners en route, still had enough of them to make a bit of a tactical decision on the road, however, with climbs early on dropping a lot of riders, the points are typically hoovered up by the front pack alone and it essentially becomes a bit of a scratch race for those outside of the top 10. I think this is true of the Achterbahn course too. Ven-Top was essentially a scratch race, although this wasn't necessarily a bad thing to break up the racing for one week. My personal favourite was the London PRL Full course. Although it did suffer from the aforementioned issue once the pack really split up on lap 4, I can imagine the racers in that front pack had some good battles try to summit Box Hill first each lap. As for Watopia 8, it was a little bit short to really be a points race, but it was an enjoyable scratch race for sure.
I think the points race format has a lot of opportunity to gain some legs on Zwift, and it is really nice to see it playing a part in the Zwift Racing League (which I'm also taking part in). Having a full integration of Primes into the Zwift software would be a really nice future feature to not only make it more clear who is winning "on the road", but may also encourage others to try this exciting brand of racing.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the organiser of this race Danish Bike Riders (DBR), I reached out a couple of times on both Facebook and ZwiftPower with a couple of queries pre-race and they were very quick to respond, which is great!
So in conclusion, I'll definitely be planning in some more racing leagues in the future (I'm representing Team Vegan in the Zwift Racing League currently), and will absolutely try more points races when they're available, as I think they are fun, and also give me a chance to work on one of my weaknesses in sprinting.
I've taken a lot of lessons away from this series of races, and know a lot more about my own physical and mental weaknesses when it comes to Zwift racing. I'll be publishing a post in the "Training Updates" category soon to keep you in the loop about some sessions which I've planned in with the coach to work on some of these deficiencies.
Until next time... Ride On!