By David Mulholland
Ahead of my first real-life race I tried to do as much as possible to prepare but the one thing I didn’t expect was that I would make the same silly mistakes I made when I first started racing on Zwift and that my race would essentially be over in 3 laps.
On Saturday (9th February) my wife and kids kindly came with me to Hillingdon to watch me try some real-life racing. I picked up my freshly printed racing license, packed up my bike and off we went on the journey round the M25 (the big ring-road around London for my international friends). We arrived a bit earlier than I expected with some of the junior races were still going and before the Cat 2/3 race set off. The first thing I learnt about Hillingdon – there isn’t anywhere to warm up – so I must make sure to either get some rollers or throw my trainer in the car next time I go back. Trying to warm up a bit on the roads was ok but something a bit more controlled would help. I could also do a controller workout if I take the turbo trainer next time which would be helpful.
We rolled out onto the track after the end of the 2/3 race and had time for 2-3 warm up laps. The track is straightforward. Nothing too tight in terms of bends but a few kicks in terms of climbs that would string the field out a little. The biggest challenge was that there was a strong headwind blowing across the track in one corner which I already figured would make positioning key in that part of the track. The briefing on track was – well brief – certainly compared to what I was used to in my past motorsport circuit racing career! It soon became known that I was pretty much the only novice in the group of 20 or so riders. At least I was the only one stuck his hand up when asked – I figured at least they would know who to watch out for if I was doing anything stupid…
I was under no illusions – I knew I had a lot to learn and I had no real gauge where my fitness would put me. I had planned to achieve two things in this first race – to learn and not crash. I didn’t really care what my position would be – I just wanted to hang with the peloton and get some experience. At least – that’s what my plan would be.
They set us off. I negotiated the first challenge successfully – clipping in. A couple of the guys at the front decide to set off at a stupid pace. I also realized my Garmin had switched off so I couldn’t just hit play and I had to switch it back on and start my recording part way round the first lap (another note-to-self to keep it active during the briefing).
So I made it round the first lap successfully and then as we started onto the second lap, a group of 3-4 riders at the front started to put some power down and I tried to go with it to keep my place in the bunch. This was going ok but was already where the race was going badly wrong. I’m used to either being able to see my power right in front of my on the screen on Zwift or if I’m outdoors, watching my power on my Garmin because most of my high intensity outdoor sessions I did alone and group riding has been easy pace. Going with this attack and trying to track with it used up way too many matches. When the peloton then promptly came past me – it did so into the headwind and with me out-of-line and not in the draft I didn’t have enough power in reserve to get back onto the back of the peloton. So shockingly I was dropped within 3 laps of my first race. You can see in the chart to the right from XERT how much of my power reserve I had used up during this early phase (the blue line dropping rapidly). Essentially I made the exact same mistakes I made when I first started racing on Zwift – trying to follow and attack I had no right being anywhere near.
I wasn’t for giving up though, I kept pushing and gradually saw the peloton pull away despite me doing 300W or so steady for 20mins (a new PB for me). Eventually (it was only a 2min20sec or so lap) the peloton came back round and lapped me. Finally I would get some time to sit in the group. I tried my best to stay at the back and out of the way as I didn’t want to interfere knowing I was a lap down. No one complained at me so I guess I achieved that ok. Once I was in the back of the peloton I had a chance to recover and didn’t have any major problems sticking with it as it surged at different points on the lap – even having done a new 20min power PB while I was riding solo! Positively (on a pretty straightforward track) I didn’t feel any problems handling at the speed that the group was going, my fitness felt ok when I was riding smarter in the peloton and I was fine in the wind as well.
What do I need to work on for the next race:
- Bring my trainer / get some rollers: It would have been really nice to have rolled out onto the track nicely warmed up already.
- Don’t start on the second row: Don’t line up on the second row, go mid pack and just go mid peloton until I’ve learnt how to measure your effort by feel.
- Practice riding by feel: I need to start hiding my power output on Zwift / Garmin when riding and learn to gauge my riding be feel instead. There is no time to look at the Garmin when racing and concentrating on the many riders around me.
Needless to say it was a disappointing first race but I actually really enjoyed it all the same. The bright spots being – I definitely had the biggest fan club (having my kids there cheering my on while riding solo pretty much kept me going) and the TFC kit really is bright in real life compared to others!
I learnt a lot and I’m trying to figure out when I can next race. Sadly I have quite a bit of work travel coming up so it might be a few weeks before I’m back out on track (looking at 9th March as a target).