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Dan Fleeman attacked out of the virtual peloton in the waning moments of Friday’s Richmond Challenge and then churned out a leg-cracking 596 watts into his stationary trainer. On screen, Fleeman’s avatar slowly ascended the final rise and then crossed the finish line solo.
Fleeman had won the second round of the 2020 Zwift Classics virtual race, holding 9 watts-per-kilogram for a solid minute in his final burst to the line.
The victory marked an impressive stepping stone in Fleeman’s progression as a Zwift racer, when considering his first racing experience on the virtual cycling platform ended in disaster.
“I got dropped after one mile and literally just stepped off my trainer, grabbed some beers, and sat there thinking, ‘this is confirmation that this whole thing is stupid,’” Fleeman told VeloNews. “I was thinking the same thing that a lot of these pro guys are thinking now: This community is full of cheats. There are 200 guys in this race and I’m the first one dropped? How dumb.”
That moment occurred back in 2018, the year after Fleeman retired from pro racing. Fleeman was a strong, workaday pro throughout his 17-year career, chasing top-10 finishes in major stage races and one-day events across the European calendar. In 2009 he raced in the UCI ProTour with the Cervelo Test Team, and in 2017 he won the Rutland-Melton Classic, Great Britain’s biggest one-day international road race.
But like most first-timers on Zwift, Fleeman struggled to grasp the tricks of racing on the virtual world. He didn’t start pedaling until the race actually started, and watched the other participants zoom up the road. Then, once in the group, he burned his legs out by doing too much work on the front of the group.
The early failures and indoor setup were a turnoff. Fleeman was a one-time British national road champion who had raced Paris-Nice and won the country’s National Hillclimb Championships — why was he so bad at video game cycling?
“In my 17 years of pro racing I probably rode a turbo trainer five times, and I absolutely hated it,” Fleeman said. “It’s too boring.”
Of course life has a way of getting in the way of long training rides, and Fleeman’s life became dramatically more complex after he retired. He launched an elite coaching business and took on co-parenting duties of his two children alongside his wife, herself an elite cyclist. Between work and parenting he had perhaps one hour a day to ride his bicycle, and that window corresponded to the length of a typical Zwift race.
So, Fleeman tried, again and again, learning through trial-and-error how to ride in the peloton in Zwift events. He completed just five races in his first year on the platform; today, he does that many during a typical workweek.
“I can do one hour, 1:10 the most,” Fleeman said. “I get my workout and then get on with it.”
Fleeman saw that elements of his racing fitness remained, despite his reduction in training and intensity. During his career Fleeman was a rider who could generate a strong punch after 200 kilometers in the saddle. As a Zwift racer he could still generate punchy accelerations in the shorter Zwift races, and those accelerations helped him win. His success slowly convinced him that maybe not everyone who had dropped him was cheating.
“A lot of people compare Zwift to road and say, ‘these guys are all cheating because they are putting out more power than WorldTour riders,’’’ Fleeman said. “You aren’t comparing apples to apples. I was looking at my power file from La Flechè-Wallonne in 2009 and I did something like the last four minutes up the [Muur de Huy] for 460 watts, but that was after five and a half hours of racing. You could say the [Zwift] power output is similar but that’s after 40 minutes.”
In January, Fleeman joined the Indoor Specialist squad, the top-ranked squad in Zwift racing, and he committed to the Zwift Classics pro/am series. As one of the stronger squads in pro/am Zwift competition, the squad entered each event with a pre-determined strategy.
On Friday, that strategy called for American rider Holden Comeau to target the opening two sprints; Ryan Larson and Matt Gardiner would chase the next two sprint and King of the Mountains banners; David Talbott would attack up the final climb for KOM points.
That left just Fleeman. His strategy was to sit in the group throughout the event and then mount a charge for the final line, where 25 maximum points were on offer.
When the time came, Fleeman launched his attack, bent over his trainer, and suffered his way to the finish line.
And then, after a quick warm down, he went back to looking after his kids.