Zwift Racing, Jessica McWhirt Style, Be Ready to Hammer the Start

By Jessica McWhirt

I lined up with 17 other Cat B women from my room for the USAC Zwift Race on the 6 Train Reverse route. My giant blue box fan turned to level 2 as I continued to pedal while the clock counted down. Racers chatted about Cat A’s racing the B category. I saw my teammate was already in the pen when I arrived. She messaged me, “Looks like we’re the only ones from REVO racing today.”

The first thing you should know about Zwift racing is that it’s not like racing in real life but also, it is. I learned the hard way in my first ever Zwift race that the starts are fast. Superfast. Like, double-your-FTP-out-of-the-pen fast. Then you have to hold those watts for a minute or two depending on the field. I assumed you rolled out like you normally did in real life races. Then I chased the main pack the rest of the race never catching on.

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Which is another big difference from Zwift and IRL racing. If you get dropped on Zwift, you only have a few seconds to get back on otherwise, the time between you and the group exponentially increases somehow.

Wednesday’s USAC Zwift race was the 6 Train in Reverse course in New York. When I previewed it, I accidentally rode the normal direction. So when I was thinking, “Wow, there’s a lot of downhills. This will make the race interesting,” those were actually uphills. The last 500 meters or so of the end of the lap was actually an 8% uphill that turned into a false flat for maybe ⅓ of a mile. That was fun finding out during the race.

If you have a smart trainer (I use CycleOps Hammer. I think they’ve discontinued it for some reason.), your resistance will automatically increase on the hills and decrease on the downhills. It’s a fascinating way to train. It also makes riding a stationary bike so much more interactive.

Each lap was 4 miles through the park with undulating hills. I kept up with the main group for 2 or 3 laps out of the six. I kept asking myself, “Am I getting weaker or are these women getting stronger?” Chris thought I was getting weaker.

I’d look at their watts/kilo and wonder how the hell can’t I keep up with this. I’d see 3.7, 3.8, 4.0 and no one was letting up. I pressed on. Knowing I had 24 miles of this was intimidating. My legs already felt it and we weren’t even halfway through. 

When I lost them under the lap banner it was only by a couple of seconds. They simply had more power than me when we charged up that 8% grade.

As I said earlier, when you get dropped on Zwift, you get dropped hard and fast. Two seconds grew to five. My teammate messaged me, “You got this! Come on.” She was still in the main group. I surged from two other women, maybe doing 150% of my FTP (at least that’s how it felt)  to try to catch the group.

I shrunk the 8-second gap to 5 seconds and lost the strength. No matter how hard I went, I just didn’t have it in my legs.

I let the two women I dropped catch back up. Even in Zwift, it’s easier to ride with a group than solo. 

The three of us didn’t really coordinate anything. We just stuck together – unspoken truths. With one and a half laps to go, one of the women fell off from our group. She either had a power drop or just couldn’t keep up.

Admittedly, I was a little excited about that. One less person to have to outsprint at the finish. I noticed the woman I was still riding with tried dropping me a couple of times. I surged to stay with her.

We made it around the bend with ½ mile left or so. The grade gradually increased. I saw her avatar come up out of the saddle and we sprinted to the line. Somehow I outsprinted her. According to Zwift Power, I ended up in 8th Place out of 14.

Not horrible but I want to do better than that. Maybe my legs were still fatigued from the weekend. Maybe I am getting weaker. Maybe my warm-up sucked. Or maybe it just wasn’t my day. I rarely get a top 3 in Zwift and it seems like the strongest B’s are coming out to race at the USAC races.

Surprisingly, once the file uploaded to TrainingPeaks, I saw I PR’d my 20-minute power, so maybe I’m not doing too bad. I think I let my head get to me. When your legs are burning and your lungs are on fire, you have to train yourself to work through that pain. Most of the time, I’d rather back off. And I do. I don’t give up but I certainly don’t fight through that as hard as others do.

If I don’t come out on top after these ten weeks of Zwift racing, I know I can at least continue working on my weaknesses. I can work on keeping up with the group on hills (which next week I’ll be able to do that) and sprint finishes. I’m too competitive to not get bothered by my mid-pack finishes but at least with Zwift, I’m less cruel to myself. I tell myself, “This is just a game.” Now, if only I could bring that mindset out to IRL racing.

Catch the live commentary with Nathan Guerra and Dave Towle:

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