Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Training - Zwift

So a few of you know that I'm on Zwift now. For those not in the know it's basically an online "game" version of riding your bike. You ride your trainer and your character/avatar mirrors your power output in the Zwift world. Zwift figures out how much power you're putting down (based either on an Ant+ power meter or a calculated "zPower" based on a number of "supported trainers") and your character rides at the appropriate speed for whatever current part of the course.

Note: I have not played online games since about 2007? which is about when I stopped playing Counter Strike, so I don't have other online game experience to draw on. Some of what I "discover" with Zwift may be standard features in other games but I don't know. I imagine that many of the folks reading this aren't regular online gamers either so maybe it'll all work out.

Basically you need five things to get onto Zwift, and a smart phone helps.

1. Something to ride, meaning a bike and some kind of trainer. If you don't have an Ant+ power meter you need to have one of their supported "classic" trainers. I don't have an Ant+ power meter but I do have a CycleOps Fluid2, one of their supported "classic" trainers, aka "dumb trainer".

My bike on the trainer (out of sight to the right).
Wood frame in the back is part of my (rarely used) motion rollers.
USCF wood sign will end up in the trailer I think.
Note the aero wheels. They really help on the trainer. Ha.

2. If you do not have an Ant+ power meter then you need an Ant+ speed/cadence sensor. I have one of those, from my 4iiii Sportsiiii days, and it's mounted in tandem with my SRM speed pick up. It gets tricky - it's why my speed pickup was not aligned in my last race - but when it's right it's right. Picture will be after #3.

3. Ant + USB dongle. This item receives your Ant+ data from your bike (either the power meter or the speed/cadence sensor) and tells the Zwift world what you're doing on the bike.

Ant+ dongle on the floor; it's the part that looks like a black cap on the USB extension cable.
Ant+ speed pick up is the rectangle thing on the frame, the cadence is the cylinder thing.
SRM speed pick up is behind the chainstay under the Ant+ speed pick up.

4. The Zwift application on your supported computer. I think most modern computers will be fine - I use a 2011 MacBook Pro, nothing special, and it's fine. You need some minimum video card. I haven't tried Zwift on anything else.

Zwift app on the silver MacBook, at the screen where you can click "Just Ride" to start a ride.
My MP3 player resides on the black Toshiba. It dates back to 2000 or so and struggles to play MP3s.
Note also: white baby monitor, smart phone set on "keyboard shortcut" Zwift page, big fan on floor, TV, stacks of DVDs, wired SRM on bike, temp/humidity, DVD/VCR, speakers (not hooked up), backup bike laying on its side on a box in the background.

5. Optionally if you have a smart phone then you can download the Zwift app to your phone. It's not a standalone app because it won't display the Zwift world, it's a support app. It lets you see some things like a rider list, it's really the only way to text other riders (no verbal/mic/talking stuff yet), and it gives you some shortcuts for things like waving, wiggling your elbow, using a power up, or taking a picture. I mainly use it for pictures and sometimes for texting. I'll also use it to view the rider's full name (only the first initial appears on the computer app).

My smart phone (Android) with one of the three screens up.
Note power differential - I'll return to that later.

So once you're all set up you log in and set some parameters. At first it was just weight, sex, and… was that it? Recently they added height, FTP, and age.

You get to set your avatar (the thing that represents you in the Zwift world). I put gloves on my guy, a helmet, and I darkened the skin a bit (I thought the whole skin tone thing was interesting but I guess it makes sense).

Then you allow the Zwift computer app to find your bike (Ant+ powermeter or speed/cadence pick up if you're using a classic trainer), click "okay", and you're on the island.

Recently Zwift introduced a second island, and I have very few screenshots from it. I do have some screenshots from the first island.

My first screenshot on the first island, just testing things.
I'm in the grayish Zwift jersey on the double yellow line.

For the first lap I went around clicking all the buttons so I was waving, elbow wiggling, saying "Ride On!", stuff like that. Whenever I see someone going through those motions I smile because it seems pretty apparent it's someone new to the island and playing with the controls.

No idea who this is but I'm just in front of him.

If you click on someone else you get a small leader's board as well as the other rider's current ride data. Right now this is the only way to see the leader board, at least the abbreviated version. You do see the one leader board when you pass through the leader board finish line for that board (like the green jersey board when you go under the green banner), i.e. the three inflatable banner/bridge things.

A real life elite teammate in the Polka Dot, me in the green.

So what does Zwift do for you?

The biggest thing I think Zwift does is it gives you a lot of the normal (good) distractions you experience on the road. You see people you know, you go for familiar land marks, and you feel compelled to push a bit if it means hanging with a particular rider.

One missing aspect is the "big group ride" thing. Yes, you can ride with someone for a bit, maybe even two or three someones, but eventually one rider will pull away on a hill (almost always) and without any compelling reason to hang onto that rider the impromptu group starts to split.

I think when there are more people there will be more organized rides and therefore more groups. I can't imagine what it would be like to be buried in a 100 rider group but I hope to find out.

So barring the future big group ride thing I found Zwift did two big things for me.

First it motivated me to do some all out sprints on the trainer. I really dislike sprinting on my trainer because I can't rock my bike. Therefore it's not a natural motion and I quickly find excuses not to sprint. On Zwift, though, there are some clearly defined spots where Zwift times you, and if you're going for a sprint, Zwift only counts "right here".

Therefore when you get to that spot on the lap you have to sprint or you don't get timed and you have to do another lap to get another chance to do a timed sprint. When I'm thinking of sprinting on a regular training ride I inevitably ease and think, "Okay, let me sprint in a minute or five".

And then after an hour or three I decide I'll do the couple sprints some other time.

Second, with Zwift also there's a sense of trying to do as best as possible. I didn't think I rode better "for others" but recently I did a set of intervals for someone else, and I found myself much more motivated to do the intervals since I had to upload the file after the ride so that someone else could check it.

Likewise Zwift puts you and your effort in front of everyone else, so you naturally want to do well. Call it what you will, competition, whatever, it's still effective.

On the first island I even went for a KOM. It took me about 1:23 (83 seconds) and absolutely massacred my legs, but I pushed about 75 seconds more than I would have had I made the effort in my own little "sitting on a trainer" world. With Zwift, with a timer staring me in the face, a concrete albeit virtual goal ahead of me, I pushed until I got to the banner.

I've probably done more hard sprints on the trainer in the last several weeks than I have in the last several years, and I can't remember the last time I'd done any kind of way-over-threshold effort lasting longer than a minute that wasn't in a race.

So Does Zwift Work?

Well yes and no.

First the negatives.

There are no structured workouts (yet). Zwift exists for you to use, not to tell you what to do, so if you want a structured training ride then you will probably ignore Zwift while you do your ride. That's how I did it.

It emphasizes fitness over virtually anything else. Zwift doesn't reward a good bike handler, someone who knows how to corner, any kind of real world group riding skills. It rewards numbers, high watts and, for climbs anyway, low kilograms. In fact in the new world Watopia there are two hard turns in the green jersey sprint and you really have to go 100% through both of them. It's so unnatural that I consciously look away from the screen so I don't try to lean or coast or whatever.

Finally, for now, it's in beta so there are a limited number of riders in the world. It's not like a true Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) where you drop into a road and there are riders buzzing back and forth such that you can't ride alone. The newness also means very little structure, meaning very few group rides, very few races, very few regularly scheduled anythings. I imagine in the future you'll find a 5 PM ride, 6 PM ride, 7 PM ride, etc, so that you can log on and join a 20 or 40 rider strong 6 PM group ride or whatever. But right now? Not so much.

Now for the positives.

First, the world engages you. It's not quite like the real world, where there's much more randomness. Sometimes a training ride is nutty, sometimes it's boring. In Zwift, at least for now, it's pretty stable, so no Godzillas or snipers or anything, just you, the other riders, and the course/world.

However that world gives you landmarks, some level of expectation ("okay after the left turn it'll start to descend a bit"), and it allows you to think ahead of your avatar. If you were just riding the trainer then every second is consumed by the here and now, and every second can feel like it's dragging on forever.

I've found myself so distracted/occupied by Zwift that I almost forgot that I was coming up on the green jersey sprint.

What this does is it makes time absolutely fly by. I'm good on the trainer for 2 hours at a time, without Zwift. Music, a bike DVD on low volume, that's all I need.

Last night I wanted to do at least two sprints. Ended up being three, but with Watopia the laps take me 30 minutes each. 3 sprints meant I rode 90 minutes. It didn't feel like 90 minutes because I was so focused on whatever was happening around me.

It was like being on the road.

Second, Zwift does make you put some skin in the game, meaning you end up with a vested interest. As I mentioned above I did repeated sprints on Zwift, something I never do on the trainer. I mean, why would I? My trainer power is much lower than my outside "rock the bike" power so I never saw the point to doing a trainer sprint. However, with Zwift, I now have a reason, so I sprint.

Zwift also gave me motivation to ride a bit harder than normal. Again, on the trainer before Zwift, I could ride hard but there was no point. Now I'll push a bit to see if I can stay on a wheel, or try to not be too pathetic in the KOM, or whatever.

Third, Zwift allows me to interact with riders from all over. Back in the day (23 years ago, give or take) I did the Tour of Michigan (part 2, part 3). Our host for the two years we did it, Alan, was super nice, super supportive, and… we never saw him again. Alan never came out to the East Coast and we never went back to Michigan.

So I never saw Alan again.

Until I was on Zwift.

Then, bam!, a guy with his first and last name went flying by me.

Not only that, he was up there in the green jersey leader board.

It was Alan, the same Alan from the Tour of Michigan.

And now we comment to one another on our own efforts and stuff.

I think that that is what Zwift really brings to the table. It's the social aspect, like Facebook on bikes, and although I initially thought of Zwift as more of a MMOG kind of thing, it's really a social tool as well. In most MMOGs you don't use your real name, so you don't see a Joe or John or David, you see SuperDuperHaxx0R or THOR or, well, SprinterDellaCasa.


I plan on being on Zwift for the long term. I know the development will continue with the platform and I know the crew there have a passion for the sport and a vision for Zwift.

I know this because at the beginning, before any Zwift investment opportunity showed up, I spoke for an hour or so with one of the founders. He later told someone else I was "bullish" on the concept. A now-former teammate moved to join the team. And a fellow NYC race promoter (and former pro, which is way more than I can ever boast), also joined the crew.

I believe in all of them. I can't wait to see what they unveil in the next year or two.

Last Word 

There's one more data point I have.

In 2015, because of the insane amount of snow we had over the winter, the bitter cold lasting deep into March, I rode outside three times between January 1 and April 12. I rode outside March 15, 22, and April 12.

Every single other ride was on the trainer, maybe 70 hours worth.

I was sick for most of March and up until after Easter weekend. I therefore raced poorly on March 15 and 22, not even finishing the race officially on the 22nd (I stopped halfway up the hill in the sprint).

However, after recovering from my bout with what appeared to be the flu, I showed up April 12th hoping for something a little better.

I won.

I'm not going to credit Zwift with everything. But it certainly helped me, it helped push me to make race-like efforts, and the 30+ second solo effort I put in at the end of the race is something I haven't pulled off since about 1986.

So there's that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Racing - 2015 Circuit Walnut Hill, Aetna Nutmeg Spring Series

I've been a bit negligent with the blog. I don't know how I'll approach writing about the last 5 weeks since it's no longer timely, but I'll deal with it somehow.

Of course, now that the busy period is almost over, I have something to write about, namely the last race of the 2015 Aetna Nutmeg Spring Series.

I didn't realize it at first but I'd been sick from the first ANSS race on. I blew in the first race after feeling horrible for 3/4 of the race, I stopped in the second after a similar horrific last 3/4 of the race, and I didn't even bother getting my number for the third. The Easter Sunday break, April 5th, worked out great for me as I finally worked through the full blown flu/cold/whatever I had. The process involved a couple days in bed, coughing up blood and such, but finally, like magic, things cleared up.

Training for the last 5 weeks - note that the week before the first race I basically stopped training.

Two more factors. I've been taking part in a VO2 max study in which I've promised to do two sets of 5 to 7 minute intervals each week, about an hour of riding (the one hour long midweek rides above are the intervals). Because of this commitment to someone else's thing I've been good about doing the study's efforts, despite feeling horrible and all that. In fact if I wasn't doing the study I realistically wouldn't have trained very much in March at all. As it was I often pushed back the Tue/Thu intervals to Wed/Fri because I was just too tired/fatigued/sick on Tuesday to do anything. These are very long efforts for me, something I normally don't do.

The other factor is Zwift. It's a new online game type thing that lets you ride virtually with others. Using a "dumb trainer", my CycleOps Fluid 2, along with an Ant+ speed/cadence sensor (I already had it for the 4iiii Sportsiiiis) and an Ant+ dongle (which I had to buy), I could ride on Zwift's island. This had the effect of motivating me to do some unusual efforts on the trainer, namely repeated 10 second max effort sprints to try and win the Green Jersey. Like the intervals above, these 10 second all out sprints are very atypical of my trainer workouts.

Zwift screenshot after my best Green Jersey sprint.
An 8 second sprint is about 1100w sustained on my trainer.

Just before the last Aetna race I also did a couple big efforts to try and get a real KOM time on Zwift island. It took me a solid 1:25 to get up the hill, another effort length totally out of the ordinary for me.

I'll do a post on Zwift so I'll leave it at that for now.

Part of my VO2 max study has me doing some core work. It's both relaxing and super good for my back, so that's helped a lot with both stress as well as just being able to function with a normal back.

I'll do a post on what I did, pending an okay from the testers, so I'll leave that as well for now.

So to recap I've been doing some different training on the trainer, mid-length intervals 5-7 minutes long, some 90 second efforts, and all out 10 second efforts. My core strength is up and my back feels much better than it did at the beginning of May.

As the last Aetna race approached I felt better overall health-wise. The big sign was when I went to get into the shower one day. You know how you have a set spot for the shower controls? You know that, okay, this is where you put it for the summer, this is where you put it for the winter, and if you go beyond this it's too hot.

Well I'd been running a fever of sorts for weeks, walking around feeling cold for weeks. My "normal spot" on the shower control was pretty hot because I'd be shivering whenever I got into the shower.

A couple days before the last race I got into the shower, temperature control set as normal based on the last month of showers, and immediately jumped out.

It was so hot I felt like I'd get scalded.

I checked to see if maybe I set it super hot but no, it was my normal for the last month and change. I couldn't believe how hot I had the shower set for the past month, and at the same time I felt like maybe I was finally getting better because that "comfortably warm" setting was now "uncomfortably hot".

Race day dawned pretty warm. No stresses about snow and such (more on that in later posts) so my morning was pretty relaxed.

It helped that the Missus prepared food enough for a good dozen hungry bike racing type people. I didn't have to worry about food throughout the day, eating twice, snacking once or twice. I had my first Coke since last November (or earlier). The staff were well in the groove of things so in terms of marshaling and registration things moved nice and smoothly. On the other hand I had to do the overall presentations and such so I was scrambling after each race.

Still, though, I managed to get my bike all set, a set of wheels in the wheel pit, pin my number, and my kit on.

The pin job.

I was ready to race.

(The only thing that I missed was that the SRM speed pickup got nudged so the SRM didn't auto-start when the race started. This meant I only captured 12 minutes of data when I looked at the SRM for the first time with basically 5 or so laps to go. That sort of illustrates how little I look at my SRM during a race.)

The Missus and Junior showed up but I barely had a chance to say hi to them before we started the race and we started the race a few minutes late so I could take the Women's podium pictures.

The race situation was that our teammate Stan was in the overall lead but he couldn't make this last race due to work. Therefore we had to try to shut out the second place guy, Mike, from the points. It was sort of tough because Mike is a good guy, a friend, and so maybe we weren't quite as cutthroat as we might have been.

Stan and Mike got all their points in breaks so we figured that the ideal situation would be to keep it together for a field sprint and try to keep Mike from scoring points by having other riders take the places in the field sprint. The alternate plan was if Mike showed up with his normal field-crushing legs (during the series he soloed to a win at a different race, 3 minutes ahead of the field) then we wanted at least 5 guys to go with him and have them all beat Mike at the finish. Heavy D would go with Mike and we hoped that another 4 "better sprinters" would join them. We needed to keep Mike at 6th or 7th place. If he got 5th he'd take the Series from Stan.

To be honest we'd all sort of given up on protecting the overall. When Mike is on form he can ride a whole field off his wheel. We felt more optimistic about preserving the team's overall lead in the team standings.

During one point early in the race I saw Mike moving up, carefully and in a calculated way, broadcasting his intent to attack. Heavy seemed in good position so I moved up hard, let Heavy know that Mike looked anxious, then did a big pull to try and stress the field. Such a move would encourage a break to go and if we could get a big enough group away then we'd had a chance at keeping Mike at 6th place.

Doing my "tempt the break to go" pull, holding 30-32 mph.
I happen to be going through the start/finish area.

Obviously if a group of 5 or fewer got away, with Mike in it, we'd have to bring them back.

Point was moot as Mike couldn't escape. Unbeknownst to us he'd done massive work the prior day at a different race, soloing for a while, bonking, and basically crushing himself for today.

So with Mike mysteriously not soloing away from us the laps counted down to the finish. The field stuck together, despite some strung out times, and things started looking good for the sprint.

And that meant it looked good for me.

This was the first week I felt healthy and the 20 pound weight loss compared to last year made the hill a good place, not a struggle. I held back on the hill most laps - if I made even a little move I'd move right to the front. It felt good and I figured that I could move up pretty hard on the hill on the last lap, get through the last turn in the top 5 or 7, and try to win the sprint like that.

Bell lap.

At the bell I was a bit far back, but that was okay. I felt pretty confident about being able to move up hard between the top of the hill and the last turn.

Getting a bit tight.
Note who's to the right?

Just after the start/finish, when the course curved left, things got a bit tight. I waited behind a Foundation rider (based on the helmet cam video), as the tactical situation seemed somewhat stable.

Green/yellow guy Kevin shows up to the right, this time for real.

I didn't know it but the key to my race showed up as we headed onto the backstretch. It was Kevin of Claremont Cycle Depot, the guy in the green/yellow kit to the right. He'd made the trip down from VT and didn't want to leave without making a go of it. He started moving up hard with half a lap to go.

Foundation rider and Kevin come together.

With a bit of wiggling going on the Foundation rider ended up contacting Kevin who had been following another rider up the right side.

Foundation rider pushing off.

After a little bit of contact the Foundation rider moved off. You can see how suddenly the others gave them a bit of room, with Kevin heading to the right to move away from the contact.

I used that contact to move over to Kevin's wheel.
I almost lost the wheel here as I started to run out of room after getting squeezed from the left.

This actually opened things for me as I ended up on Kevin's wheel. I wanted to be to the right, the wind protected side on the hill, so I could make my move/s. This meant not fighting to stay on the Foundation wheel. I wanted the right curb and Kevin was there so I moved onto his wheel.

Kevin starts to go.

As we hit the hill I was hoping that Kevin would go, else I'd be boxed in. Fortunately for me he started going. At first I just felt relief as I didn't have to squeeze all the way right. I expected him to tuck in just behind the front but Kevin kept accelerating.


Rear wheel skip.

He actually dug his pedal, skipping his wheel to the side, and kept going full gas. I closed up over the top of the hill, the bit where I felt best on this course. I was feeling good, letting myself do some work without having to hold back. When I checked the power file after the race I saw that I'd done a pretty solid effort, doing an 800w jump to go with Kevin.

Kevin putting in a big dig.

Instead of looking around Kevin put his head down and kept going. He wasn't just moving up, he was making his last move for the race.

Kevin telling me to go.

Kevin eased (blew?) about 10 seconds after we went flying past the front. He turned to me and yelled, "Go! Go! If you don't go we're gonna lose!"

My first thought was that if I went then he would lose. I looked back and realized that we were just about leading out the field. In a thousand races I'd never have thought of going from the front but for some reason I went. I abandoned Kevin and try to get a gap before the last turn.

The view from Douglas, who was leading the field, as I jumped.
I was just a few meters in front.
Still from Douglas's YouTube clip of the race.

I jumped, the field a few lengths back, and thought for sure I was throwing away the race. I didn't do a full on jump because I figured I was leading out the field. I needed to do a fake jump, just enough to get the speed up, and then do a real jump out of the turn. So this effort was just over 600w, not even as hard as my initial surge to follow Kevin.

Kevin follows.
From the cameraman's point of view it looks ideal here.
He's sitting 3rd wheel with about 20 seconds left in the race.
Still from Douglas's YouTube clip of the race.

Kevin tried to go with me. Later he told me he wished there was one more guy because if one guy stayed on my wheel he'd have been able to respond. The reality is that if someone had been on my wheel I think both of us would have lost. Because Kevin looked like he was just off my wheel everyone figured he'd effectively neutralize my move and no one moved around him to get on my wheel.

Out of the last turn.
Still from Douglas's YouTube clip of the race.

I wasn't totally committed when I exited the turn because I thought everyone was on my wheel. I did another half-hearted jump, this one about 700w, just to get the speed up to something reasonable. I expected everyone to be on my wheel and I was hoping to do a real jump, 1000-1200w, when I had to out jump whoever was on my wheel.

Kevin didn't jump but I did my big jump when I saw I had a small gap.
Still from Douglas's YouTube clip of the race.

The key here was that Kevin didn't make a huge jump out of the last turn. I looked back, saw I had a gap, and realized that I absolutely had to go RIGHT NOW.

So I did.

I did my max effort, which after the three efforts in a few hundred meters, meant a relatively weak 900+w jump. For me, though, it was full on and I hoped that this would make it harder for those closing in on me. In fact I actually stretched out the gap.

I'm actually panicking up there.
Still from Douglas's YouTube clip of the race.

Because I had only 20 or 30 feet when I did my 900w jump, and I knew that the jump was way below my normal jump (1200+w), I figured that there'd be a couple guys that were doing a normal sprinter 1200w jump and closing in on me hard.

I struggled, shifted into the 11T as I started running out of pedal revs, and did a final dying-gasp 500w jump. I thought the imaginary 1200w jumpers were closing in fast and were about to blow by me at the line.

I'm actually throwing my bike at the line.
Still from Douglas's YouTube clip of the race.

My bike throw.
Not great form but I was so redlined I didn't want to crash myself doing a big bike throw.
I should have thrown the bike more forward, gotten my butt back further off the saddle.

At the line I threw my bike, to beat those guys about to swarm me. I was so tunnel visioned I couldn't even look back. I was shocked when no one flew by me, even more so when I looked down and back after the line.

Bike throw, my view.
I'm looking to the left to see who is there.

Looking back to the right.
Where were those 1200w jumpers?

Obviously it worked out for me.

Worked out for my teammate Stan as well. Ends up that Mike had a really hard last lap, getting forced over the yellow line and then later onto the grass. Not only did he not get 5th or better, he sat up before the finish.

With him not placing, with no one else up there from the overall classification, Stan kept the Verge Sport Leader's Jersey. The 10 points I got for winning ended up putting me on the podium for 3rd overall behind Stan (with 15 points) and Mike with 12 points.

It was a great way to finish the Series. I rarely win races, like really rarely, and I basically never win alone (once I did), so to win on that day, in that way… it was good.

Weird, too, to be honest.

I didn't really feel like I won. There was no one around me, no desperate lunge to the line while watching another guy throwing his bike next to me. I didn't get this feeling of "ultimate jump" to launch my bid for victory. It was a series of staggers, sort of, stumbling my way to the finish, winning despite myself.

Only when I saw Douglas's YouTube clip did it start seeming real.

I still have to do some work on the races, get the final overall published, thank sponsors and such, but I needed to get this post up.


And a final note. As a consolation prize Mike got his Cat 2 upgrade based on his incredible results from the last five weeks. So everything worked out in the end.