It is time for you to cruise your first race. The first time you are probably cruising out of category, without a proper cheater’s license, as a first step in downgrading to a lower cat. Or just to try it out to see what it is like. You really should, even if you hate cheating. You really should, just because you hate cheating.
You could also cruise against a lower cat, in your mind, while racing your normal cat, as long as it is a race with visible off-cats and simultaneous starts, but I would advise against it. That would be a simulation at best. Those you attempt to cruise against will react differently to you than if you were to cruise in the same cat as them. There is no point in trying to win against you, so they will give you a much easier time. If you want to try out cruising for real, then you will have to accept that UPG tag in your ZP race history. I know, it ain’t pretty, but neither is Zwift’s racing. What, Zwift really thought the frogs they kissed in their own stinking frog pond would turn into princes? Fat chance… rrrrribbit!
Look for suitable races to cruise in the Zwift Companion app or, preferably, from today’s event list on ZP. On your first cruise you would do well to choose a race with not too many and not too few ZP registered participants in the cruising cat of your choice. Something like 10-20 might be a good number early on. That is enough people to create some dynamics, to make it interesting and a good learning experience, but still not too many to become chaotic.
Remember that many participants will sign up late, on a whim, so if you see early on that 9 or 10 have already signed up, then that figure will usually rise in the last few minutes before the race. There is a lag between Zwift and ZP to consider, so check the Companion app too. Also remember that what you see on ZP are only the racers that ZP knows of since before. There will be a fair few unregistered legit racers and sandbaggers too on top of that.
We are going to go through an example of somewhat advanced cruiser race selection. You don’t have to do all this in your first cruises. On the contrary, it is better if you don’t get too tangled up with tactics and hypotheses about other participants early on. You should concentrate on managing your average and only that, because that can be tricky enough and we don’t want you to get overwhelmed in the beginning. Soon enough, once you have your cruising under control, you can start to aim for podiums and then the below will make sense to you without becoming overwhelming. So read it through once and come back to this post later on for a re-read.
Now, let’s assume you are a cat B rider who would like to cruise in cat C. You happen to find the below race in the ZP events list 20 min before the race (I have edited out all names as usual so it will look a little different for you).
With 12 signups already and with time still for more to join, this could be a suitable and interesting race. At first glance it actually seems like the perfect beginner’s race for an aspiring cruiser!
We notice immediately that only two sandbaggers have signed up so far, one from cat A and one from your cat, and this is an unusually low figure. There will be more in the last few minutes, count on that. Most sandbaggers tend to avoid advertising their presence. Oh, don’t worry, they are just on a recovery from injury and wanted a slow ride and have absolutely no ambition to snatch the podium from under your nose. But they still made sure to not let you know too early as to not scare you away. How thoughtful!
Generally don’t worry about sandbaggers though. Tell them to invite a few more friends. Just make sure you don’t get carried away and try to follow them too far after the start as they will probably not stay under cat limits even after the first few hard minutes.
We note here, however, that the sandbagger from cat B is actually not very strong in his cat, if you look at his past efforts (3.5 W/kg * 0.95 = 3.3 W/kg). In this race he may well end up cruising with you, and as a cruiser he could be a force to be reckoned with. Even worse, if he isn’t deliberately cruising the race, then he might go full speed instead, which is only slightly above the performance ceiling in his case. It could prove dangerous to follow this guy if he has a say in setting the pace. You can get baited into going over limits. Watch your average W/kg!
When looking at the list we instantly notice one guy (Danish, 3rd row) who ZP hasn’t categorized yet in three previous races. You can tell because he doesn’t have that mini C icon like everyone else and his rank score is at the default starting point of 600.00. However, don’t take him for a lamb just because he is new!
We can see that he has an excellent lap time on the route and at impressive Watts and W/kg. This guy could spell trouble. He is likely not a cruiser but might put up a good fight, and remember it doesn’t matter if you can do 4.0 W/kg in your regular cat B races. You can’t do that here. You race under the same performance ceiling as him and you could both risk going over limits if you push each other too hard. Your strategy against him will be to wear him down long before the finish. If it turns out he is not droppable, then you aim to make sure his legs are too sour for a really strong sprint finish. The difference in 15 sec performance can be lower on average and is far more variable from rider to rider between one cat and the next than the 20 min average. Always have a healthy fear of the legit rider’s sprint.
There is also another guy who hasn’t raced before. It’s the Dutch guy just below the Dane we just talked about. He is categorized but ZP has no knowledge of any past 20 min or 15 sec performance. He is a wildcard and you can’t completely rule out that he is top of category even though the odds speak against it. But you have bigger concerns. Forget about him for now.
Now look at weights. In the bottom row, for example, is a Dutch guy who weighs 92 kg. If that means he is considerably heavier than you, then he could pose a threat. The deciding factor is his W/kg. In this case it turns out he has been able to push 3.4 W/kg for 20 min, meaning he is on top of category. He might be able to do whatever it takes to stay in the race. Neither his 20 min fitness nor his weight is an obstacle for him. The only potential weakness is his staying power. Can he do 3.4 W/kg for longer than 20 min? For the entire race? You can.
The Dutch heavy can be a problem to you, although you don’t know the full extent of it yet. What you know for sure is that he is allowed to go faster than you on the flat in the first crucial 20 min of the race without going over limits. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he will. It all depends on the speed of the group you are in. Just be aware that you could end up in situations where you can’t keep up with him. It’s not that your fitness wouldn’t allow it. If you come from the upper end of cat B you could easily smash him in a normal race. But Zwift races are not normal. They are German board games. In a high-speed group you may have to produce Watts high enough for you to go over W/kg limits while he still has a margin. You will be forced to drop because you need to avoid a DQ. He won’t. You are stronger than this guy but you are not allowed to drop him. He can drop you though!
On the upside, we notice that this guy’s 15 sec record isn’t particularly high. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t sprint well, but at least he has no track record of it. So as long as you can allow yourself to stay with him, and if it turns out he can’t be dropped, then maybe you can outsprint him at least. Usually that’s not the case with heavies if you’re light. They often have stronger legs.
We notice something else about the Dutch heavy. His ranking is far from the default 600. And that’s bad news. Without going into too much detail – you can get those from ZP – your rank drops permanently by a few points every time you place well in a race. The higher the placing, the more points are deducted. So a low rank is a good rank.
People in higher categories get naturally lower ranks, which you can see if you look at the cat A sandbagger. But there is nothing stopping a cat C from reaching a low rank if he does well in races and keeps at it since the rank score can only decrease. So what if you spot a cat D or even a cat C with a remarkably low rank among the signups for a race? Well, there could be a natural explanation. Maybe he has been racing for years. Every once in a while you get lucky even if you aren’t very strong in your cat, and then your rank drops permanently, bit by bit. If he is good, though, and he races frequently, then getting to a low rank happens much quicker.
Wait a minute, a low rank in a low cat tells us something else too, doesn’t it? It tells us that this individual has not moved on to a higher cat, or if he has, then he has been downgraded since. If he hasn’t actually been racing for years, and you can easily find out by clicking his name and studying his past races, then how do you explain his stable fitness level? Sometimes it’s a heavy rider who has plateau’d and can’t or won’t increase his fitness further. Being heavier than the average cat C racer, he runs little risk of getting DQ’d or upgraded because his W/kg will be lower than his peers’. But what if he isn’t heavy even? Yes, you’ve got it. Then it’s another cruiser like you!
If we leave the poor Dutch heavy and move on to the rest of the participant list (repeated above), there is actually more to discover in it. For example, if you look at 2nd row, there is one English guy with a shocking rank score of 434, a score you normally don’t get to unless you have raced in cat B. And he is not heavy at all!
To make things even worse, there is a very unusual discrepancy between his 20 min W/g and his 15 sec W/kg. He is on top of cat C. It may seem like he is above cat C with his 3.4 W/kg, but you have to remember that his best 20 min get multiplied by 0.95, i.e. 3.23 W/kg, only slightly above limits, something his 90-day average has tolerated (obviously, or he would have been upgraded). Now, 3.4 W/kg in cat C is one thing, but he can sprint at 11.0 W/kg! Sure, but he’s light, you may think. Maybe his actual Watts aren’t that high? But they are! They are the second highest after the cat A sandbagger!
We clearly need to check this guy out. Let’s click his name in the start list!
We need to go through his race history to figure out what is hiding behind this avatar. Although the dates and races have been edited out in the picture, I can reveal that this guy has been racing for almost two years. He was cat C until early Jan 2020, when a win with an adjusted best 20 min of 3.33 W/kg brought his 90-day average above limits and he got upgraded to cat B.
The very day after his upgrade he joins a cat B race and suddenly performs worse than before, an adjusted 3.0 W/kg, well within cat C limits. Hmm… And then just in a matter of days he joins a few more races in cat B, staying within cat C limits every time except his second B race where he must have been baited into going ever so slightly above limits, 3.21 W/kg, which is still fine since the average of his three best races from cat B is well below 3.2 W/kg.
Then he stops racing for 90 days. Patiently he waits for his decat. Once he has renewed his cheater’s license he starts racing in cat C again but scews up his third race and gets a DQ for going over limits (WKG). Then he apparently takes a break from Zwift, staying outdoors presumably, but over three months later, in Sep 2020, he is back with a vengeance and can build a new 90-day average where the WKG no longer reduces his wiggle room under the 3.2 W/kg cat ceiling – he can make full use of it again.
The summer did him good apparently. He immediately goes on a winning spree you rarely see, even among cruisers. Seven straight podiums! Six wins! And that’s just the beginning of the rest of the story. As you can see, his last result was still processing when I took the screenshot.
Let’s look further at his stats. We know already of his very strong sprint for a cat C. We now notice his exceptional Punch index of 96.3% (the blue bar in the upper right corner). And we also notice that his NP, his Normalized Power, has these partial colorings. Red, orange and green. You can read up on the details on ZP, but what it tells us is that this guy’s Watts varies a lot during his races. His peaks deviate highly from his average Watts. Partly, it can be explained by his strong sprint efforts. But it doesn’t take a genious to figure out that in a climb this is the kind of guy who drops you like a half-eaten jambon-fromage from the Eiffel tower.
In fact, this is one of the most determined and scary-looking cruisers I have ever seen.
The other participants in the race pale by comparison to this cruiser ace, but there are still more in the starting list who could be problematic! (I won’t go through it.) So what initially looked like a perfectly fine race to cruise in actually turns out to be a complete nightmare.
This is one race I would stay clear of. There are two reasons. First, there is too much competition for the podium, to many contestants. And you don’t cruise to lose. Second, it’s a high-risk race. There is likely going to be one hell of a pace and you might end up in too many too difficult decisions whether to stay with others or to drop to save your average. It’s your (future) cheater’s license at risk here and it’s not worth the WKG or upgrade to participate in this single race. There are plenty of other alternatives in the schedule. Leave it and take consolation in the fact that the race will be a nightmare even without you. Some other guys might be taking hits to their 90-day averages in your absence which is good for you.
If you don’t bother with the pre-race research in your first cruises (and you shouldn’t), then you’ll just have to deal with it as it unfolds. The important point, your only objective in your first cruises, is to stay alive, i.e. to not get carried away and let your average drift away. Full focus on the average and you’ll be fine. But you won’t win of course. Winning comes later with more experience. At that stage, what we went through in the signup list here won’t seem complicated at all to you, because by then every number in all those ZP tables will be meaningful to you. And you will be able to do the above exercise in just a matter of minutes, which also happens to be all you got since it’s the time available between a decently filled starting list and your deadline to sign up yourself.
You should never sign up early to a race as a cruiser. That’s actually one of the few mistakes this ace cruiser does. If you are familiar with investments, or poker, you will have come across the term expected value (EV) before, i.e. the payout on average from a certain investment, or move in poker, after your costs have been deducted. Negative EV means that on average you will run at a loss if you would repeat the move over and over. Like when playing roulette at a casino or buying a lottery ticket. You may win once or twice in roulette or the lotteries, but in the long run you will lose money because the game is stacked against you. And signing up early is a negative EV move. You might get lucky and then it doesn’t matter, but there is no actual upside to signing up early. The only payout you get from signing up early is zero effect or negative repercussions on the race, and in the long run you will run at a deficit. (You need to think like this as a cruiser, not just when signing up but in many situations.)
Think about it. Does it matter when you sign up? Not to the average Joe, José or Jürgen. He won’t look at the start list. He might not even know it exists. Would anyone look? A cruiser would. Now ask yourself, what cruiser would join your race after having had a look at the start list, where he spotted you in there, had a glance at your race history and realized that you were a cruiser too? Only a cruiser who thinks he can beat you of course! And you don’t want to race against him. You should be the one making the choice who to race, not him. So sign up late.
Signing up late helps you make informed decisions. Scout for suitable races ahead of time but have a last quick check 5-10 min before race start. Does the race still look reasonable? Then sign up and warm up quickly. Has the race turned sour due to certain late arrivals? Well, you’re dressed, the water bottle is filled and you’re warmed up already. Go do something else in Zwift. Do a hard solo workout. You’ll need it if you cruise a lot. Or wait for another race a little later in the schedule if you have the time. There are always more races.
Remember, though, that there are no perfect races for a cruiser. A picky cruiser doesn’t get out much. There will always be adversaries, only sometimes enough is enough, like in the race above. And the adversaries you have to put up with are mainly not legit racers in your cruising cat. You don’t really compete for podiums against legit racers. You are cheating. You expect to win against them. Not always but often enough. Your true opponents are cruisers, heavies, lightweight women, light junior cyclists, anyone with an unfair advantage like yours, or worse. It’s them you battle for the podium.
Groping for Edges in the Dark
A perfect race for a cruiser would be a race with just a bunch of mid-cat legits signed up. You could crush all of them. But races like that don’t really exist. So how do you know when to accept a race with contestants in it and when not to? How do you tell apart a promising race and a plain bad race? Where do you draw the line? It’s all about edges. Your edges. You need to be able to picture a scenario where you win the race. Exactly how could you win a certain race? This takes experience and will not be so hard to decide later on.
Let’s play around a little with the above race just as an example. Is there any way you could win this race, including beating the cruiser ace? Yes, there is. Let’s say you happen to be one of those 18-wheelers in Zwift, a superheavy at, say, 117 kg. And let’s say you can perform well right under the ceiling and do a 20 min 3.4 W/kg easily. And then another. And then another. Then there is a child’s play strategy just for you, although it would have been even better if the route had been Tick Tock rather than Titan’s Grove.
The plan is to end this mid race. You are concerned about the hills but not overly so since you can make up for it on the flat, and then some. What you don’t want is to take it to the sprint finish. So at start you go as hard as your average will allow. Stay with the sandbaggers for as long as possible. Your average W/kg can take much higher Watts and much higher km/h on the flat than the cruiser ace can since he is so light. If you are lucky with the speeds of the early groups you are with, then this might actually be enough to create early time separation that can’t bridge. And it should take care of the other contestants as well. But if it isn’t enough, if he manages to survive the first 20 min without a DQ and is still with you, then if your group at the time moves too slow you just go on a solo breakaway at cat limit. Your fitness can take it and it will by definition be faster on the flat than the average group can go. He is forced to follow you or he will lose the race. He will suck your wheel to minimize his average. But it won’t be enough! Just keep hammering the fuck out of the little shit. He will be banking on your getting tired and cutting pace, but since you won’t (you may actually have to work hard for real here for a change) he will either be forced to drop or face a DQ. As long as you are in control and set the rules here, then it’s impossible for him to win.
This plan could sort of work even if you are quite a bit lighter although still heavy. But then you might have to scrap the cheesy solo breakaway. He will follow and sucking your wheel might equalize your averages, so it’s a no-go. Do the maths in advance and see if it’s possible or not (I won’t go through that here). So then your strategy rather relies on influencing the group speed to such levels that he can’t keep up without a DQ. You can’t stay in the wind too much (or you’d be able to go on that solo breakaway) but stay near the front and help pull. Keep adjusting up the pace.
So what were the edges here? It’s your weight and it’s going steady. The cruiser’s edge isn’t his overcapacity, because you have that too. It’s his explosivity, especially uphill. So you go steady, steadily too fast on the flat for the cruiser ace, exploiting your weight advantage. And if that isn’t enough, then you still have a shot at silver on ZP, which counts for something at least. At any rate there is a winning scenario in your mind. If you can’t come up with a single winning scenario given a certain start list and given a certain course, then chances are you are absolutely right and then the race isn’t for you since it could be unwinnable. That is one thing you need to be aware of. There are races that are unwinnable and that is because of the performance ceilings.
Once you have decided on a race, then what do you do with all the information you just dug up? Do you just forget about it now that you think you have picked a race with not too many problems in it? No, absolutely not! You memorize the information! Or write it down or make it otherwise visible and accessible during the race if it is indeed too much to keep in your head e.g. in a race with a huge start list. All of these little details are highly valuable intel and will influence many of your decisions in the race. You didn’t dig it up just for the race selection. Like we said, there are no perfect cruises, so you will have to bring the information with you into the race. And cruising is not about going out there making your best aerobic effort. Cruising is more of a mind game. Zwift is a German board game and not a bike race.
Does it seem hard to remember a lot of names and numbers? It does when you are new to thinking like this. But you must not forget that right now all these pieces of information probably mean very little to you. It is only when you have cruised a fair few races that it all falls into place and then the information turns from meaningless into very meaningful and revealing.
What does it mean to you that so and so is heavy and seems to be able to break the early 20 min ceiling with ease but seems to have somewhat low staying power? It only means something to you if have raced against similar people before. Then information like that also becomes much easier to remember without even trying. It might even be hard to forget, so you start remembering e.g. cruisers you have met in previous races. “Oh no, not that guy again…” And you can quickly visualize what cruising a race on such and such a route will be like with so and so a guy in it. So don’t worry and don’t push yourself too much early on. It will all fall into place soon enough.
Bonne chance in your race selection! Next lesson will teach you how to manage your average W/kg in a cruised race.