The start of any race can be intimidating. Often, the gun sounds, and the race seems to turn into an FTP test. Fortunately, the pace eventually settles down but not before a significant number of grenades have been tossed into the field. Surviving the initial onslaught is the first step to competing for the podium position. If you lose the group as the race starts, then your race is over at the sound of the gun. Today, we focused on how to manage the start without preemptively ending your day.
Over the past few months, we have focused our classes around mid-race and end-of-race tactics that give a rider the best chance to close the race with a positive result. However, if a rider misses the move from the beginning of the race, no amount of tactics will make up for that mistake. Races normally start in one of two ways, a neutral rollout or a mass start. The two starts have some similar characteristics, but they are completely different animals. One key aspect of both starts, though, is that you need to do just enough to make the front group. You are not trying to make a solo break from the start unless you are just so much stronger than everyone else. If that is the case, you probably need a more challenging event or category.
Neutral Rollout Starts
The first race start we covered is the neutral rollout start. This type of start is very common in IRL road races and can be found in a number of Zwift races, including the Magnum MOnDayZ ride, the ODZ Coffee Ride, and a number of others. The intent is to get the riders moving to ramp up into a pace, rather than a mass sprint from the pedal click. The rollout start can also be found in auto racing where a pace car is utilized.
As we go through this type of start, remember that above all else, positioning is the most important factor for a successful rollout start. A rollout in a road race is a pretty simple affair. Riders stay behind the lead vehicle, and at a designated point, the race commissar drops the flag, announcing the start. As riders accelerate, the lead vehicle does as well. Zwift races work a little different, as there are no lead vehicles or motorcycles on Zwift. Instead, the ride leader announces the designated start point, and riders are obligated to stay behind the leader until the start is given. As the group approaches the start line, it is imperative that you are positioned in the front third, at a minimum, and the closer to the front the better. That will reduce the amount of time you have to spend at high power output to get into the front group.
The best part of the Zwift rollout start is the ability to use the ride leader as a slipstream slingshot. Once the ride leader announces that the group is approaching the official start, try to create a two to five meter gap between you and the ride leader. It does not matter if other riders fill in the gap or not. If they do, you’ll be able to benefit from their poor judgement. Many times, the ride leader will slow as the start line approaches to allow the group to bunch up, causing riders to accidentally overshoot him/her. In the effort to get back behind the leader to avoid being disqualified, the riders ease off the pedals, usually getting shuffled back to the middle of the field as the subsequent group acceleration overtakes them. The second reason to maintain the gap is to use the lead rider as a slingshot. As the ride leader approaches the designated start point, get into a gear that allows for a quick jump in power and begin to slowly ramp up your effort. Once the start is given, you will already be accelerating, and your next burst should get an aero benefit from the leader’s draft, propelling you forward with the initial attackers. Be prepared to go all out for a few seconds and then settle into an FTP or just above effort for the next few minutes. After the initial huge effort, your goal is to settle into the group, not ride solo.
The second and most familiar start on Zwift is the mass start, or going from the gun. This start is also used in many criterium races on the road, but the execution is a little different due to Zwift putting riders on trainers in the starting pen and allowing them to pedal in place. Positioning is significantly less important in the mass start, but the ability to get to max power within a few pedal strokes plays a major part in getting in the lead group. For the mass start, it is a pretty easy process. Get in a hard enough gear to be able to accelerate quickly but not so hard that the first pedal strokes are a grind. In the module starting pen, you will be able to pedal and get your gearing ready for the start. Again, choose a gear that will only require one or two shifts to get to a very high power output. If you have to make numerous shifts, you run the risk of dropping your chain due to the tension on the chain under high power. Like in the rollout start, you need to go hard at the gun, and you may have to sustain near max power for upwards of 15 seconds or so. After that, you will settle into the group. Again, the point is not to go clear of the bunch. It is to get in the lead group.
For both start types, the time after the initial effort is pretty much identical. Be prepared for numerous accelerations as the pace settles. Riders may not be happy with the size of the group or may identify that a strong rider missed the move. If that is the case, riders may want to up the pace to either get rid of the strong rider before he/she can rejoin or to make them burn enough matches just to make the move that the strong rider may not have the necessary punch or energy to contest the finish. Likewise, the pace may stay fairly high until the group hits a terrain feature or tricky intersection. The high pace keeps things strung out and somewhat safer in IRL races. In Zwift, this technique can be used just to burn off riders who may be good at one aspect but not so strong in another (climbing versus flats) or just to reduce the group to a manageable size from a tactical perspective.
Making the front group is not easy. For riders not accustomed to that intensity so early in the race, just making the move jeopardizes their ability to finish strongly. However, with practice and targeted training, you can teach the body to handle those initial stresses and then recover once the pace eventually settles. Attentiveness will allow you the opportunity to make the effort to join the move, but it is ultimately up to how much a rider can handle to stay with the group once it forms.
Finishing up, I would like to thank those who were on Discord for this week’s class. My hotel’s internet and an iOS crash dropped me from the group mid-ride, so only those on Discord received the last half of the class. I will be back at the house for next week’s class, so all will be back to normal. Next week we will practice attacking the bunch and defending those attacks. Until then, Ride On!