Updated: Apr 9, 2020
This past weekend I should have been in France racing the first event on my 2020 calendar, instead my calendar looks like a young childs notepad with random crosses for cancellations and arrows for postponements. Roc Laissagais which would have been the first European 2020 round of the UCI World Marathon Series was going to be where I would test myself after a big winter of training including a huge training camp in Gran Canaria. I would have arrived in France with my best training numbers to date. The race would have been a test ahead of 2 of the years 4 big sporting goals, Roc d'Ardenne and BeMC in May.
Instead here we are, in the middle of fighting a much more important battle, covid 19. The UCI has cancelled events till June and British Cycling has cancelled events till July. Life as a coach has been pretty hectic since this all kicked off creating clients short term training goals, adjusting training periodization and introducing many to virtual rides and races. Virtual racing gives us competitive bunch a way of testing ourselves and completing a high intensity unstructured workout. Before March I'd only done a handful of races in this virtual world but now its become the only way to race. I never thought I'd be sucked into this world but its happened, I'm hooked!
My pain cave setup is made up of the latest Wahoo KICKR smart trainer, a KICKR Headwind, a rather sweaty indoor trainer matt and my laptop. It's been the home of many workouts through the winter, indoor training being the relief from the great British weather. Indoor training also provides a great place to perfectly execute your workouts, workout execution and compliance is a huge part of what I discuss with clients. I am lucky to have some fantastic training roads locally including a 20 minute road climb. Not everyone is so lucky though, road junctions, undulating terrain and traffic can make the simplest of workouts tricky and take away some benefits of the workout, when time is precious you want to get 100% from every minute on the bike.
This week I replaced the cancelled race in France with an online race, Zwift's Haute Route 3 day stage race. The great thing with online racing is unless you get super serious you can treat these events as training races. I added in a long warm up and cool down each day to top total ride time to 3 hours per day and around 600 TSS over 3 days. I wasn't the only one on Zwift over the weekend, I saw numbers of 28,000 but the peak number of people on the platform at one time was over 34,000!! The Haute Route stages could be ridden at 5 or 6 times throughout each day but the 10am events I raced had over 4000 or 5000 people per day!
Although I'm definitely not an expert at racing online I have learnt that it's a very different way of racing compared to the long distance mountain bike events I normally do. I have learnt a few lessons. The first is to be warmed up and to be ready to ride flat out for the first minute. In fact as the beeper counts down from 10 seconds you should be accelerating to max power by the time the start begins. The races fly out of the blocks and unless you are doing 500+ watts you aren't staying at the front of the A races!! Be ready to suffer!
Day one saw many top names take on stage 1, I found myself racing with Adam Yates and Luis Leon Sanchez! On day 3 I'm pretty sure I saw Portuguese MTB Marathon pro Jose Diaz. From hobby rider to pro everyone has a reason to use an indoor trainer, especially in this unique situation we currently find the world to be in. After stage 2 I jumped into a group ride to get some extra miles and rode with my friend Adam who lives locally, it was the first time we had ridden together since March when social distancing became a thing.
Stage one I learnt that trying to reconnect your heart rate sensor in the game settings mid race pauses your movements even if you are still thrashing at the pedals at threshold power. Goodbye Adam Yates and lead group! A 180bpm chase wasn't enough to close a 45 second gap opened by that 'mid race mechanical'. At the end of the 47.5km 1 hour 7 minute stage I eventually finished 16th on the Zwift Power results having average a normalized power of 359 watts. Zwift Power is a 'community-driven site to generate final race results '.
On day 2 we tackled Alpe du Zwift on a short 25km stage which kicked a punch with 1161 metres of climbing. As we hit the base of the climb a 13 kilometres the pace was hot. Having ridden Alpe d'Huez I can confirm its similarities, Zwift actually used GPS info to match up gradients and distances on this 21 hairpin climb. Over this monster climb I'd have to average 380 watts at a heart rate of 172 bpm to finish 12th. Ruined is an understatement, on the lower and middle slopes I was hanging on, gritting my teeth, begging for the climb to end but it just goes on a on! Towards the top the gradient does ease up and here I was able to find my rhythm but wow I learnt a new level of indoor trainer suffering on this day!
On day 3 I learnt that you cannot have your cycle computer and laptop controlling your turbo trainer resistance. Of the start line and my warm up routine was still controlling power to 250 watts. The lead group sped off and I was left down in 500th place by the time I'd figured out my technical incompetence! Another lesson learnt is that you need to accelerate into each climb or you will be dropped, as you approach the climb shift down gear or climb out of the saddle to increase speed and force on the pedals. I used this technique, my strong power and good recovery from the previous days stages to begin making up places. 400th, 300th, 200th, 100th... then progress through the ranks slowed drastically. In the game you can save huge amounts of energy drafting in a group so I was expending energy stores having to catch and pass groups so regularly. Eventually I caught up with what I thought was the second group on the road as we climbed the second climb of the day starting at 40km. From there the group stayed together flying down the descent at 70 or 80kph and pacing it along the flat towards the finish! I'm definitely not a sprinter so usually try to go early in the sprint to get a gap but I misjudged it today getting jumped by several people from the group. The first of the group finished 11th, I finished 16th, a solid recovery and a great finish to three huge days of racing.
For someone training for long distance or multi day stage races they might find a similar event that fits their training plan on the final few days before a recovery week. For someone training for a shorter distance events you might wish to add in a Tuesday race with a lower intensity workout Wednesday and Thursday, or find races on a Thursday and carry some fatigue into it after a hard workout Tuesday. If you want to properly test yourself you might wish to race at the end of a recovery week or first week of a training block to see what's possible with fresh legs. You can race ever day of the month, once per week as training or perhaps once per month as a test to track training progress and push your limits.
Finishing 16th, 12th and 16th I was a little way of winning but with the numbers of people lining up and quality of the field I'll take those results. I've got the bug and will be back for more. My next virtual race will be Tuesday nights British Cycling Road Race Series round 3. These are much shorter races which I'm never going to win but they are good unstructured anaerobic training sessions. I'll be doing most of the series and select other events. You won't see me racing every weekend as well but I will pick out some longer races that fit the training programme. You can download our Stay Home Zwift Race Plan for Training Peaks, the races and events are a mixture of events I'll be riding and events I'm scheduling for coaching clients training programmes. Follow Ben Thomas (BTCC) on Zwift and Strava for more virtual and real life racing!
If you need help with how to train during covid 19, some short term training goals, a training plan for virtual racing or any other help contact Ben Thomas Coaching.