VTTA racing on Zwift

This week a new departure in my virtual racing career. A Zwift group called Sporting Course Time Trial Series run time trials over hilly courses on Zwift. You accumulate points over the series at the end of which a final leader board is constructed. So far the groups have been organised on the basis of FTP but on Thursday they ran their first event using the UK’s Veterans Time Trial Association rules. Veterans are riders 40 years of age or over. For all the standard UK time trial distances (10, 25, 50, 100 miles and so on) each age has a standard time. For instance, for a 10 mile TT a 40 year old has a standard time of 25.59 and for a 71 year old like me it is 29.14 – still marginally over 20 mph! The VTTA web site standards page also has a facility to calculate custom standard times for other distances. The race I took part in was 17.4 kilometres so my standard time was 31.38. I was the oldest rider by 5  years and, apart from a couple of 62 year olds, everyone else was under 60. As you will see from the results below the winner was the only female in the field and I was last.

I was one of only two who didn’t better their standard time. The overall result is calculated on the basis of times achieved relative to the age standard. Compared with Scott who finished one place a head of me, I was 2.27 slower but on age standard I was only 14 seconds slower. I very nearly wasn’t last!

The intention is to run these VTTA style events on a regular basis so I hope to make some progress. I did the same course as a trial and recce on the Wednesday and went round in 34.42 so the race was just on a minute faster. In the process Zwift upgraded my FTP to 164 watts so I obviously made a bit of an effort.

Racing with Zwift

There area number of different types of organised rides you can do on Zwift with a 24 hour calendar of events. So far I’ve done social rides and a few races. Recently they have introduced group training workouts to supplement the menu of different workouts for individual riders. I haven’t tried a group workout yet but will do so in the next few days hopefully.

They are like the individual workouts in that you work through a series of intervals based upon a percentage of your FTP but you are riding in a group that always stays together (assuming you keep pedalling) despite in practice producing different watts that would in the ordinary way mean individuals would be travelling at widely different speeds. Unlike a social ride or a race you can’t get left behind and you can’t escape off the front. The illustration above shows that despite the riders in the group list producing varied watts per kilo but still riding in a compact group.

I have done a few races. My first one was a handicap event where you signed up to race in one of 4 grades, A, B. C or D. I was in the D grade for riders whose watts per kilo are 2.5 or less. My FTP is about 150, maybe a little higher, and my weight is 87 kilos so my watts/kg are 1.7 so as you might imagine I took quite a pasting! THe groups started at 3 minute intervals with the D group setting off first. I got dropped very early, after about 5 minutes and rode alone until first the B group and then the A group came flying by far too fast for me to latch on and get a draft. After about 30 minutes the C group caught me going significantly slower than the B and A group and, if I had not been so knackered,  I think I might have been able to stay with them for a while. In the event I was just about cooked by then, 40 minutes into a 60 minute race, and I blew up and stopped. My big mistake was not realising I had to go absolutely flat out for the first few minutes so as not to get dropped by my D group. I let them go because I knew there was no way I could keep up the speed at the beginning of the race for a full hour but I now know neither could they. After I dropped of I found that after a while the gap between me and them more-or-less stabilised. They still drew away form me but quite gradually and not so fast that, had I still been with them and drafting, I could have lasted much longer with them. Who knows how long but the C group would have caught us or me much further into the race and I may have had a chance of at least finishing and getting a position. I’ll try this race again in due course I think.

Otherwise I’ve done 5 races with The Big Ring handicap events. These are rather different in that everyone starts together but are handicapped by adding or subtracting from their weight depending on their FTP. The idea, I think, is to make everyone have the same watts per kilo so that in practice the same watts produced at anytime in a race, up hill or down dale, will produce the same speed over the ground. This means in theory that the only difference between riders and therefor the race results will depend on how they manage their effort, for instance judicious use of drafting, choosing when to use energy closing gaps and when to conserve it and hope to get a tow across, when to climb at a steady rate and when to make a greater effort to bridge a gap or drop someone drafting you, and so on. And of course, the ability and stomach for suffering!

So far my results have been mixed to put it mildly! My first race I didn’t finish. I got dropped in the ‘neutralise’ ride to the start where the leader’s call of ‘go, go’ go’ started the real race. An ignominious start. My actual weight at the time was 88 and I was riding with a handicap of 78 I think. The problem was mainly not warming up properly and not being mentally prepared to go with the pace even for the roll out. As a result of this the TBR handicapper took pity on me and I found I had a handicap of 61 kg for the next race. Not surprisingly I found I was able to stay with the bunch near the front and finished 3rd. I was with the leaders at the top of Box Hill after a hard chase but had little left for the few miles left to the finish. So, a podium. In fact the next race, with the same handicap, I won! This was in the final sprint which I took by 2 seconds.

This, I’m afraid, was a false dawn for my renewed racing career at the age of 71 and after a 31 year break from road racing. A mistake had been made on my handicap and rather than 61 kg it should have been 88, the same as my real world weight. The next two races were a trip back to reality for me. My third race I finished last just over 4 minutes behind the second to last rider and about 12 minutes behind the winner, someone who I had beaten by two and half minutes the week before! I rode the whole race by myself apart from the first 5 minutes. My fourth race, last Tuesday, once again I finished last, this time over 5 minutes behind the penultimate rider and nearly 15 minutes behind the winner. This sounds worse than last week’s race but in fact there were some signs of improvement. I managed to stay with a small group for about 15 minutes before getting dropped but managed to stay with and get a draft from one other rider. I managed to do a few brief turns on the front but even drafting I was at or above my threshold for most of the time so wasn’t much help. I hung on until the bottom of Box Hill but got dropped by two and a half minutes by the top and struggled to the finish line alone losing a further couple of minutes.

So, from hero to zero in 1 week. It is a little dispiriting but I didn’t start using Zwift with a view to winning races, just to lose weight, get fitter and live longer! Unless my handicap is changed I think I am likely to finish last on a regular basis but it will still be a measure of growing strength and fitness if I can be closer to the riders n front of me and, perhaps, one day, not be last! My next race is tomorrow. Watch this space!

Update 8/11/17. My handicap was reduced from 88 to 76 kilos so I did better in yesterday’s race. I finished last as usual but only 9 minutes behind the winner and 2 and a half minutes behind the second to last rider. I also stayed with the main group for a little longer and lost less time on Box Hill. Progress!

 

Tacx Neo – 5 weeks later

In the 5 weeks I’ve had the Neo I’ve ridden it 27 times. long enough for a detailed reflection on the experience. It’s an expensive bit of kit and, if you pay the full price, can cost you £1300. I did rather better than that but it was still a considerable investment. I bought it for various reasons but on the technical side it is the quietest on the market, it has all the necessary connectivity for use with laptops, smart phones, TVs and, importantly, Zwift (of which more later – it is the deal maker as far as I am concerned) and even has a ‘road feel’ feature so that you feel the cobbles, paving, boardwalks and gravel as you ride over them. This can be disabled if you wish. It is also very accurate in its measurements of cadence, watts, speed and miles as well as how it reacts to gradients – It will measure power at far higher levels than I will ever achieve and accurately simulates gradients up to 25%. How all this adds up to an enthralling experience when riding on Zwift, either alone or in a social or race group, I’ll leave ’til another post.

When I got it home and unpacked it, I found the setting up was very easy with the exception of fitting the sprockets to the freewheel body. It is designed to take either Shimano or Campagnola sprockets, 10 or 11 speed but this complicates the way the sprockets line up with the appropriate spines. I took me nearly 4 hours to get the sprockets on and my Giant Defy Advanced up and running on the trainer. The first problem was getting the sprockets on in the first place. I couldn’t see how they should slide on so I just tried everything until, one at a time, I succeeded in getting them to slip over the splines. But then the sprockets were loose. On reading the instruction again I deduced (it wasn’t very clear) that as I had only 10 sprockets I needed an additional spacer behind the innermost sprocket to make up for the missing twelfth. So it all had to come off and be put back on again. Hence the four hours.

Once the bike was on the trainer things went better. It was very easy to install Zwift on my laptop and the mobile app on my tablet. I didn’t take advantage of the 1 week’s free trial and started to pay the subscription straight away. Right from the start I was hooked by Zwift. I set up the laptop immediately in front of the bike so I can read the screen easily and reach the keyboard for changing the camera view and sending text messages to anyone I’m riding with. I have an open window beside me and a water bottle on the window sill alongside a Bluetooth speaker on which I’m playing a Spotify playlist. I have a heavy duty rubberised mat under the bike to make the trainer even more quiet and collect all the sweat I leak and I hang a towel over the handlebars for frequent mopping downs. I can easily spend an hour riding on this set up whereas on my old turbo rollers I was bored out of my skull withing 15 minutes. And riding with others up hill and down dale,through London and the Surrey hills, or on The Richmond, Virginia, 2015 world championship course, or on the fictional roads and the volcano of Watopia, or undertaking any of the structure training programmes and workouts, brings out a lot more effort than if you’re just pedalling along to a bit of music on a standard set of rollers or a non-networked static bike.

Having said all that, I have had other problems. The most irritating is that the gear changes do not move the chain smoothly through the gears and the 4th sprocket from bottom is unusable as the chain just slips over it. I’ve spoken to the dealer I bought the Neo from and it seem I am by no means the first to have this problem. It sounds like I have put the slipping sprocket on the wrong way round and may have not got the others lined up properly. Having got a couple of tips I will reassemble the block in the next few days and see if I can fix it. In the meantime I will carry on as it is and as I have been for the last 5 weeks.

The other problem was after I upgraded the firmware on the trainer using the Tacx utility app on my Android tablet, Zwift stopped registering my cadence. My on screen avatar just freewheeled everywhere even though my real-life legs were whirling around! I repeated the upgrade process again and immediately all was well. In fact the road feel feature started working too, for the first time.

I’ve ridden with a number of training and social groups on Zwift and loved it all. My FTP (functional threshold power) is currently 167 watts and, given my weight is 89 kilogrammes, my power/weight ration is approximately 1.9 w/kg. This is important as it places me in one of the 4 categories for the purposes of entering appropriate races, training and social rides. The fourth group is D for riders with a w/kg of 1.5 to 2.5. So as you can see, I’m near the bottom of the bottom just about! I have survived a couple of events where the pace was held at between 1.5 and 2.0 w/kg and have just about got to the end of the hour.

So this is where I’m at so far. Another post will report when I get my gear changes sorted out – the shop has offered to do this for me if I can’t manage it – and report on how I’m getting on with Zwift, what the features I love are, and what I’ve learnt about the Zwift platform and virtual riding.

Zwift and smart trainers

For a few months now I’ve been trying to persuade myself to buy a new smart trainer and start riding on Zwift, the internet cycling social platform. So last Tuesday 25th July I bought a Tacx Neo direct drive smart trainer and set it up on the spare bedroom.

It took a while to fit the sprockets from the Giant Defy to the cassette body on the trainer but once I realised it needed an additional spacer (I had 10 sprockets and the body takes 11) all went quite well except I get chain jumping on the 4th largest sprocket, the first separate sprocket after the block of 3 biggest). A smart trainer measures speed (mph), cadence (rpm) and power in watts. When linked to software it will display and record all this data.

I have joined Zwift which gives you a range of virtual locations to ride, at the moment various circuits if different length and terrains on a fictitious island called Watopia, various courses in and around London including the Surrey hills like Box Hill, and the Richmond USA world championship course from 2015. In addition there are a number of training workouts to choose from for everyone from beginners to top athletes.

I have joined three Facebook groups focused on group rides and races on Zwift. The Big Ring, based in Australia, runs a series of weekly races on Mondays and Thursdays. The Monday races are handicap events which in principle puts everyone on a level footing. Most races are for different categories of riders depending on their watts per kilogram measurement. This is calculated by dividing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) by your weight in kilograms. FTP represents your ability to sustain the highest possible power output over 45 to 60 minutes. Generally speaking the figure used is 95% average power you can achieve going flat out for 20 minutes. Mines about 160 watts at the moment so my watts per kilogram (current weight 94 kg) is 1.7 w/k, not very good. For Zwift races this puts me firmly in the D category for riders under 2.5 w/k. The Big Ring handicap races even everyone up by assigning them a weight to enter into their Zwift profile before the race. Strong light riders have an increased weight and heavy weak riders like me are given a lighter weight to enter. At the moment my race weight is 78 kilograms! The highest is 220 and the lowest 58. My first race will be next monday.

In the meantime I did a steady paced 1 hour ride with another Facebook group, Ride On For Health, or RO4H. This was very steady and it got me used to riding in company, drafting and closing gaps. The illustration below is of me (my avatar is not a good likeness!) leading the group. It’s a good supportive group mainly focused on fitness and health and, where appropriate rehabilitation.  Zwift seems to simulate drafting and the gradients very well and you get a real feel for group riding and the tactics of racing. On this ride I got a bit carried away and around the 40 minute mark another rider, not in our group, came past and I jumped on his wheel gaping my group by about 15 seconds at one point. I dropped back fairly quickly and we all finished together as intended.