From the perspective of the race organizers, the story of racing on Zwift is one of innovation, trial-by-error, and good old-fashioned elbow grease. This is certainly true for Robert Baldi, who has organized the innovative Zwift Handicap Race (ZHR) in an attempt to create a race where it’s possible for everyone to not only enter but even win. Read below to learn more about Robert as a person, as well as the motivations and philosophy behind the ZHR.
Tell me a little about yourself–how long you’ve been riding, what sort of riding you do, when you discovered Zwift, where you live, etc.
I have lived in London for 35 years now but I grew up near Florence in Tuscany, where cycling was a bigger sport than football (soccer). I’ve been riding since I can remember, always for pleasure but with a brief stint of competitive racing when I was in my late teens. Working life and the resulting lack of time meant that racing took a backseat to commuting 35kms a day and long weekend rides; the woeful state of competitive cycling in Britain at the time also didn’t help but I continued to take part in cyclosportives, running races and triathlons.
As I got older, I became more and more interested in sports science, particularly relating to endurance sports such as running and cycling. I discovered Spinning in 2000 and became an instructor soon after, taking that science to group training. I took voluntary redundancy when it was offered to me and I doubled my classes within a year to become a full-time instructor. That led me to become a personal trainer, a Wattbike coach, and an endurance sports coach.
I’ve always ridden almost exclusively outdoors but, when I used to race, I did have a go at training indoors on rollers but I didn’t like it and it felt like a chore. I much preferred riding outside even when there was snow on the ground. When I heard about Zwift through Jens Voigt in late 2014, I was dubious that it would do anything to change indoor training, given I had access to a Wattbike and that was sufficient. When the Mac version of Zwift was launched, I applied to be a Beta tester just to see what was getting Jensie so excited and I was hooked. I now barely look at the Wattbike’s computer, I use Zwift to gather the data for later analysis, and I much prefer indoor riding now for short rides than heading outside because it’s so much quicker to get ready and the time flies by when you’re riding in a group or racing against others.
How would you describe your philosophy as a race organizer? What is most important to you when organizing Zwift races?
When I started thinking of organizing races, there was a lot of heated discussion on the various Facebook groups about how people using zPower should be excluded from races or from official results because they were perceived to be cheating or riding with an inaccurate setup, even though some power-measuring devices can be just as inaccurate. I’ve always felt that Zwift, if anything, is more beneficial for those without power meters, as it is a great tool to bring them into the world of measurable training. Those with power meters could still achieve that measured training without the aid of Zwift and I felt that zPower users were being bullied somewhat.
The scheduled races at the time were also in a state of turmoil with arguments about rules, categorizations and people complaining that those not able to crank out 4+ W/Kg never stood a chance of winning anything. That was the catalyst for the opening of new races but the discussion went down the road of having to prove your FTP, using Bluetooth scales to verify your weight, enforced exclusion if a rider was too strong, etc. I saw this as anathema to the philosophy of cycling in general and of Zwift in particular.
After talking to members of Team dZi at a cycling weekend over a couple of bottles of Tuscany’s finest wines, I decided to organize a race where it mattered not whether one had a power meter or whether they were Cat A neo-pros or Cat D fighters, and to make it as accessible as possible for everyone to not only enter but also to win, without the need to jump through various hoops to be “allowed” to be at the start line.
What race(s) are you currently organizing on Zwift, and how long have you been doing them? What makes these races different than other Zwift races?
I currently organize the Zwift Handicap Race (ZHR) every Sunday at 18:00 GMT where all riders are given a time handicap according to their previous performances so that everyone has a chance to win. The slowest rider (the “Limit”) will set off first; the quickest rider (“Scratch”) chases everyone down; I set riders off at timed intervals but I post in advance a list of start times so that everyone knows their slot and can use a countdown timer to help them.
The handicaps work so that, in theory, everyone arrives at the finish line more or less at the same time, whatever your ability or FTP. There are two main winners in this event: the first across the line and the fastest time overall. I also mention other riders, especially those who have improve their PBs (personal bests).
I’m currently looking at running the ZHR in another timeslot, one more suited to those in the Australian and Asian timezones. I also have ideas for other types of races and group rides but I’m waiting for Zwift HQ’s next update before committing myself to one of them. I may decide to keep it simple and run a ZHR-type event on the soon-to-be-released Watopia mountain route.
What suggestions would you give to someone interested in joining your races for the first time?
Try it, at least once! It will help if you’ve ridden and have a PB for the three laps of Watopia Hills in Reverse but it’s not necessary, as I can estimate a handicap and a start time accordingly. It is essentially a time trial but the thrill of the chase (and being hunted!) brings out the best in everyone, both competitively during the race and with a bit of banter on our ZHR Facebook Group.
If you’ve never raced like this before, don’t get too excited at the start! A negative split, where a rider is faster each lap, is better than going too hard at the beginning and paying for it later. The key is making a measured, sustainable effort that will have you closing in on your “prey” on the final lap, giving you something in reserve to attack the last climb. We’ve had sprint finishes and even a dead heat, with most riders finishing within a two minute window.
If the folks at Zwift HQ could add one feature to Zwift to make your job easier, what would it be and why?
A clock! I know the holding pen is coming at the beginning of March, with an event countdown, but a simple in-game (accurate) clock would be great; better would be a countdown timer that can be set by each rider. The ideal would be a UCI official counting down each rider with hand signals: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO.
But, whatever they decide to give us, I’m sure we will adapt and use to our best advantage to make Zwift and even better experience!