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Commentary: Pro riders and Zwift veterans battle to a draw at the Zwift Classics

In the unofficial battle between pro riders and dedicated Zwifters, both sides came out with victories on the 2020 Zwift Classics series.

The 2020 Zwift Classics series wrapped up on Saturday in dramatic fashion, as solo attacker Gavin Dempster was caught by the peloton in agonizing fashion, just a few virtual meters shy of the finish line.

Irish rider Christopher McGlinchey took the sprint ahead of Ollie Jones, with Brad Gouveris rounding out the podium.

Look, I get it, you’ve never heard of any of these riders, and McGlinchey vs. Dempster at Crit City isn’t exactly Bernal vs. Alaphilippe on the Col de l’Iseran. Here’s the thing: Saturday’s result carries weight in the larger storyline swirling around the very unofficial battle between In Real Life pro riders and Zwift specialists on the classics series.

Dempster, Jones, and Gouveris all race for Zwift teams, while McGlinchey races for Vitus Pro Cycling, a UCI Continental road team. And if we add this result to the five other races on the 2020 Zwift Classics series, we get a tie between Zwifters and IRL pros. Riders from Zwift teams won three rounds while riders from pro teams won three.

Why is this important? It’s a sign that professional riders and Zwift regulars are perhaps on equal footing in the topsy-turvy world of virtual racing, where power-ups, strong drafts, and intense 40-minute racing replace soaring climbs and WorldTour tactics.

As the coronavirus pandemic quickly shut down our sport, more IRL pros looked to Zwift to race. As this happened I, for one, expected to see pro road riders simply ride away from the packs of Zwift riders (Zwifters?), but alas, it was not to be.

Charlie Issendorf, Zwift’s vice president of events, and the race director for the Zwift Classics series, said the results of this year’s 2020 confirmed his suspicions about the racing dynamics on the virtual platform. Pro road riders are stronger and generate more power than Zwifters. But Zwifters have an advantage in tactics, the racing dynamics, and perhaps most importantly, the course design.

“When Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle won Paris-Roubaix [in 1992] he knew every cobblestone and every inch of the course, and it’s just as valuable to know these courses in Zwift,” Issendorf said. “You go around the corner and what is there? There could be another KOM climb or an arch, and if you’re coming into the race for the first time you’re at a huge disadvantage to somebody who knows the course really well. It’s hard to beat a dog in its own backyard.”

Indeed, the results of the races uphold Issendorf’s take. Two of the three women’s events were dominated by Team Heino, the Danish powerhouse squad that studies each racecourse as if they were prepping for the MCAT exam. Heino’s Cecilia Hansen won the Yorkshire Grand Prix and Watopia Cup events, with Heino winning the points race at Yorkshire.

The other Classics race, the Trofeo Bologna, was won by WorldTour rider Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, who was undoubtedly the strongest rider in the field.

“Pros are the strongest in terms of pure power,” Issendorf said. “You saw that with Ashleigh winning Trofeo Bologna. Of course she knew that climb in real life which shows that if you know the course you have an advantage.”

IRL pros fared better in the three men’s races, with teenager Filippo Agostinacchio — an elite mountain bike and cyclocross racer — taking the uphill finish atop Box Hill to win the London International. Zwift regular Dan Fleeman won the Richmond Challenge, with pro team Vitus winning the points race. Then there was McGlinchey, whose last-ditch win over Jones brought IRL pros even with the Zwift riders.

So, are there any takeaways from these results? Sure. For starters, Zwift levels the playing field between those daredevil bicycle racers with impeccable handling skills and world-class pack-riding skills, and those riders who can push the pedals hard.

Second, the very short and intense Zwift races are tough to predict. WorldTour fitness helps riders churn out huge wattage numbers after five hours in the saddle. In Zwift races, those five hours of racing are removed, leaving just the intense racing at the end. It’s this fact that is another equalizer in this strange new world of virtual racing.

“If this was a 200-kilometer race I wouldn’t win because of fatigue — in a Zwift race everybody is fresh,” Fleeman said after his win. “It’s apples and oranges.”

The biggest takeaway is that the most successful racers on Zwift really dedicate themselves to studying the course and honing in their strategic objectives for the event. Heino takes that to extremes, of course, and the team’s director, Lars Husballe, videotapes himself riding each course before the riders begin their study session.

Of course riders don’t need to take their Zwift preparations to such fanatical levels, and Husballe is the first to understand that.

“It’s the route knowledge and tactics that are our keys to success,” Husballe said. “You can be as strong as you want but if you don’t know the route and you don’t know what to do, you won’t win. Once pro riders realize that, then we have some problems.”

Even the strongest pro riders needed to study up on Zwift in order to win. McGlinchey is no novice, and his page on the Zwiftpower.com includes results from 87 races, including multiple pro/am events. And in this interview with British website VeloUK.net, he said he has spent the last year or so learning to race on Zwift.

“It’s been trial and error for me. Last year there was the Zwift KISS league and I got a kicking in most rounds where I think my best result was top 20 or top 30,” McGlinchey told the site.

Even Moolman-Pasio did her homework, dedicating herself to regular Zwift riding for several weeks before she raced the Trofeo Bologna.

The only outlier seems to be Agostinacchio, the 17-year-old kid who dropped the pro riders on the final climb to Box Hill. A relative newcomer to Zwift, Agostinacchio rode smartly in the front group and then attacked at the right moment and suffered his way to the line, all from the confines of his parent’s basement in Northern Italy.

What’s the takeaway there? Maybe we will find out in a few years when he’s racing the Giro.