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Inside Team Twenty20’s new strategy for Sunday’s Zwift Classics race

Team Twenty20 comes into Sunday's Zwift Classics race with a communication app that could boost the squad's performance.

When Shayna Powless leads Team Twenty20 in Sunday’s Yorkshire Grand Prix, the opening round of the 2020 Zwift Classics series, she will do so with a new trick up her sleeve.

Powless will be able to talk to her Twenty20 teammates as if they were riding in a real life peloton. The five riders on Twenty20 will be wearing headsets and communicating to each other through the voice chat app Discord for the first time.

“We’ve never been able to do that before, so usually we’ve just been doing our own thing in the races,” Powless told VeloNews. “Hopefully we’ll be able to communicate better.”

Real-time communication is key for undertaking strategic goals during any race, and Zwift racing is no different. Sunday’s event is a team points race format, with points available at QOM and sprint banners along the 27-kilometer route, as well as at the finish line. The squad that accumulates the most points through the race wins.

Squads must determine whether to send riders up the road early to chase after those points, or to ride more conservatively and save their riders for the final sprint. Often times teams come into Zwift races with a pre-race plan. Adjusting that plan midway through the race, however, is often harder to accomplish without voice communication.

Not all teams use the Discord app, says Zwift veteran Leah Thorvilson of the Turbo squad. Some use it while others do not.

“I imagine it will become more and more common,” Thorvilson said.

A veteran squad on the U.S. domestic road scene, Twenty20 has spent the last year or so competing in regular Zwift races, including the 2019 Zwift Classics series. The pivot helped Twenty20’s riders gain valuable race days amid the dwindling U.S. women’s road scene.

The Twenty20 riders soon found out, however, that the Zwift races were just as hard —sometimes even harder — than pro races on the road. Communication was also a hurdle. During last year’s Zwift Classics races, the relied on the messaging app WhatsApp for its in-game communication. After several races they riders discovered that texting each other while pedaling 350 watts was an inconvenience.

“We’d talk about the race beforehand but communicating [during the race] was hard,” Powless said.

Powless leads Twenty20’s squad, which includes Georgia Simmerling, Courtney Nelson, Simone Boilard, and Amanda Coker. The squad faces off against a number of veteran Zwift teams, such as the Team Heino and Turbo squads.

Powless is the team’s Zwift veteran — she started racing weekly on the virtual racing platform in 2019. Other riders on the squad will be competing on Zwift for the first time.

“We all have our different strengths — the key to racing Zwift is keeping your power up and being smart with when to go for the QOM and sprint points,” Powless said. “I think that one or two of the girls might go up the road for a QOM and then all of us want to be able to finish well.”

The short races start with a furious sprint and then settle into a high-paced, high-power battle across the short and punchy course. Powless likened the effort to that of an individual time trial. There are few, if any, moments when riders aren’t putting power into the pedals. Often, they are riding an extremely high tempo — at or over 300 watts — with surges taking them into the 400-watt range.

“If you don’t go super hard from the start, like I’m pushing 300 to 400 watts just to hold on for the first two or three minutes, then you’re going to get dropped,” Powless said. “After those first few minutes it settles in but you’re always pushing pretty hard for the entire time. Overall, it’s a solid threshold effort race, plus a few VO2 efforts mixed in there.”

The racing dynamic is far different from that of a road race, where the pack rolls out together and the action doesn’t start until a few kilometers into the event. Yet the pain and suffering is just the same. When VeloNews watched Powless’ then teammate Erica Clevenger compete in the 2019 Zwift Classics event on the London circuit, Clevenger nearly collapsed off of her bicycle after the final sprint.

Powless said just the way it is in Zwift racing.

“It’s brutal,” Powless said.