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Power Analysis: Virtual Tour of the Gila

Coach Zach Nehr breaks down last week's Virtual Tour of the Gila. As it turns out, racing indoors is similar to outdoors: The more watts exerted doesn't always mean winning. It's where and how you deploy those watts that matters.

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Some 177 riders from 12 different countries lined up for the Virtual Tour of the Gila this past weekend, a three-day Zwift stage race organized by Project Echelon and broadcast on Zwift Community Live.

Here, we analyze the power files of riders who were at the front of the men’s race. The field included 24 teams, such as pro squads Elevate-Webiplex Pro Cycling, Wildlife Generation Pro Cycling, and Team Skyline, as well as virtual cycling specialists Saris + The Pro’s Closet and Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother.

Next week we will analyze the women’s race.

As with racing outside, more watts inside doesn’t necessarily translate to winning. Rather, how a rider uses those watts and at what point during the race is what really matters.

The three-stage race kicked off Friday night with a 23-kilometer team time trial (TTT), followed by a hilly 70km circuit race on Saturday, and culminating in Sunday’s Queen stage which finished atop Watopia’s Epic KOM.

Here, we dive into the numbers behind stage winners and GC podium finishers, to see what it takes to be one of the best Zwift riders in the world.

Zwift, Zwift Power, and World Tactical Racing Leagues (WTRL) helped organize and police the Virtual Tour of the Gila, ensuring that rider data and subsequent results are as accurate as possible. Special thanks for all of their hard work.

Stage 1: Sand and Sequoias TTT (22.5km)

The Virtual Tour of the Gila kicked off with a team time trial around Watopia’s Sand and Sequoias course. After 10km of flat roads, riders hit the Titans Grove climb, the only significant climb over the flat and rolling course.

Saris + The Pro’s Closet proved again just how important experience is, flying across the line in a time of 27:32. Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother finished second, and in third was Project Echelon Racing, a team that I am lucky to be a part of, even if it means suffering like crazy in a Zwift TTT just to hold my teammates’ wheels.

Gavin Dempster (Saris + The Pro’s Closet) revealed the team’s strategy after the race. “We aimed for 30-second pulls,” he said. “To be quick you need to be pulling at 7+ w/kg. I was targeting around 550w (7.9w/kg) while on the front.”

Thanks to their smooth swapping, most of the Saris + The Pro’s Closet averaged a relatively low ~5.1 w/kg for the duration of the TTT, despite their monster pulls.

Dempster Stage 1:

  • Time: 27:32
  • Average Power: 360w (5.2w/kg)
  • Dempster – Stage 1 TTT

You can see exactly when Dempster is pulling at over 500 watts, and the slow build-up in power as he approaches the front of the Saris + The Pro’s Closet train.

Holden Comeau, in the Zwift U.S. national champion kit at the back of the Saris + The Pro’s Closet TTT train, averaged 385 watts (4.9w/kg) for the 27-minute effort.

Other teams struggled to match the energy-saving skill exhibited by Saris + The Pro’s Closet. Zach Gregg (Project Echelon Racing), for example, averaged 5.6w/kg while his team finished 32 seconds down. Cory Lockwood and Eder Fraye (L39ION) averaged 5.8w/kg and 6.1w/kg, respectively, and still lost 1:13 to Saris + The Pro’s Closet.

In the end, experienced teams used skill and positioning to go faster with less overall power, while more amateur teams – many had never even raced a Zwift TTT before – were left perplexed that their greater watts failed to translate into a higher speed.

Stage 2: Big Foot Hills circuit race (70km)

Stage 2 offered five major climbs: Titans Grove, Watopia KOM, Volcano Climb, Titans Grove Reverse, and Watopia KOM Reverse. With an intermediate sprint point just 2.6km in, the race was on the moment the clock hit zero. Over 60 riders were dropped by the top of the Titans Grove climb, with another 10-15 trailing off after the Watopia KOM.

Christopher McGlinchey (Vitus Pro Cycling p/b Brother) wanted to make the race hard. He and his teammates were looking to take back time on GC, and so the Irishman lit it up on the Volcano Climb.

McGlinchey – Stage 2 Volcano Climb:

  • Time: 6:00
  • Average Power: 477 W (6.4w/kg)
McGlinchey on the Volcano Climb

As the group whittled down to about 30 riders, McGlinchey went for a solo move with 11km to go.

Saris + The Pro’s Closet helped reel McGlinchey back in and set up their sprinter, 2019 Zwift U.S. national champion Holden Comeau. In the drag race to the finish, Comeau came out on top, just a few thousandths of a second ahead of McGlinchey, who also earned the Sprint and KOM jerseys for these efforts.

Comeau, a former collegiate swimmer, weights his Saris H3 trainer and front wheel down with weights to stabilize it under sprinting.

Comeau – Stage 2 final sprint:

  • Time: 0:12
  • Average Power: 1,268w (15.5w/kg)
  • Max Power: 1,364w (17w/kg)
Comeau’s finishing sprint

Stage 3: Medio Fondo road race (73.5km)

The final stage of the Virtual Tour of the Gila finished atop the Epic KOM in Watopia, a 9.5km climb with a final 1km kick to the line at over 6 percent. Before all that, riders would tackle a number of other climbs including the Volcano Climb from the previous day. McGlinchey and his team moved early and split the field down to less than 60 riders by the time they reached the Volcano KOM.

McGlinchey Volcano Climb

  • Time: 5:45
  • Average Power: 454 W (6.1w/kg)

The pace stayed hot, but comfortably so for the indoor specialists. It would all come down to the final climb, and it was there that McGlinchey followed the attack of Jordan Cheyne (Elevate-Webiplex Pro Cycling) on the lower slopes. The duo’s gap was never more than 15 seconds to the dwindling chase group behind as they continued to press on at over 6w/kg.

McGlinchey – Stage 3 Final Climb

  • Time: 18:01
  • Normalized Power: 453w (6w/kg)
McClinchey on the final climb of stage 3

Cheyne – Stage 3 Final Climb

  • Time: 18:02
  • Peak 20 min Power: 372w (6.1w/kg)
  • Peak 5 min Power: 397w (6.5w/kg)

Cheyne took off inside the final kilometer, doing everything he could to hold off the chasers who were just a few seconds behind. But in the end, it was McGlinchey who had the strongest kick, passing Cheyne with just 100m to go, taking the stage win and moving up to third in GC.

McGlinchey – Stage 3 Final Attack

  • Time: 1:33
  • Normalized Power: 599w (8w/kg)

Hidden in the bunch was Gavin Dempster, who played his cards brilliantly and took the GC win ahead of teammate Ryan Larson.

Dempster – Stage 3 Final Climb

  • Time: 18:20
  • Average Power: 404w (5.8w/kg)

Dempster – Stage 3 Full

  • Time: 1:43:14
  • Average Power: 314w (4.5w/kg)
  • Normalized Power: 341w (4.9w/kg)
The full stage 3 power file for race winner Dempster