Training

Power analysis: What it takes to make it through Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge on Zwift

A contract with Movistar esports racing squad was on the line. Here's the power and strategy needed for making it through the qualification rounds to the finals.

Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge recently wrapped up, with 50 of the top amateur riders on Zwift advancing after two races to Round 2 to fight for a spot on the first-ever esport racing team by a WorldTour-licensed organization, Movistar. I was one of them.

Using a bracket-style competition, five lucky men and five lucky women will eventually be chosen for the Movistar esports team, and receive full support from Team Movistar including team bikes, team kit, access to Movistar coaches, physiologists, and training camps, and indoor racing equipment.

Two weeks ago, I competed in the community open qualifier races that were open to anyone. All riders in the top five of these events advanced to the first invitation round. I placed third in my qualifier, putting me through to Round 1 with less than a week to prepare.

At the same time, I was racing Tuesdays in the WTRL Zwift Racing League, and competing in the Echelon Racing League hosted by RGT Cycling, an eight-round series featuring virtual courses from some of the most famous races in North America such as the Redlands Classic, Tour of the Gila, and Tour of America’s Dairyland.

It was a lot of online racing packed into a small window.

The weekend before the two races of Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge, I competed in the virtual Joe Martin Stage Race as part of the Echelon Racing League.  I didn’t feel great in the opening time trial, but I set a 10-minute power personal record with a normalized power of 434w (5.93w/kg). Still, the field was so stacked that I missed out on the top-10, finishing 12th.

On the stage 2 road race, I imploded on the final climb. As soon as we hit the 1km to go banner, my legs said ‘No.’ Despite the sub-par feelings, I had a normalized power of 348w (4.7w/kg) for an hour and 43 minutes of racing.

Stage 3’s crit finished with a steep uphill kick at the end of each lap that wore riders out over the course of 25 laps. My teammate Peter Olejniczak (Project Echelon Racing) and I went all-in for the field sprint, but came up just short – Peter finished 4th and I finished 6th. But again, the power numbers were some of the best I’d ever done: 700w for the final 43 seconds, at the end of a race where I had averaged over 5w/kg normalized power for over an hour.

With Joe Martin finishing Sunday, and WTRL Zwift Racing League on Tuesday, and then the Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 races following on Wednesday and Friday, Monday’s training was an easy ride for 45min, keeping my legs ticking over, and my mind on the details of the upcoming races.

Zwift Racing League – Mighty Metropolitan Team Time Trial

Before Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge was Tuesday night’s WTRL Zwift Racing League, a 20km team time trial around the Mighty Metropolitan loop in Zwift’s New York world. TTTs can be one of the most painful events in endurance sports, and Tuesday night was no exception. Less than ten minutes in, I was clinging to my teammates’ wheels heading up the NYC KOM, a 2- to 3-minute effort including pitches of 15 percent. The rest of the course was heavily rolling, with some more steep kickers thrown into the mix, and a tough finish to round out the 25-minute effort.

Once again, I didn’t feel great, but my power numbers were telling me that my legs were good. After averaging 400w (5.4w/kg) for the first 14 minutes, I hung in the draft as much as I could in the second half, and finished with my NeXT eSport teammates to take the win in the WTRL Zwift Racing League – Americas E Division 1.

Zwift Racing League Team Time Trial

Nehr – ZRL TTT Full:
Time: 25:38
Average Power: 379w (5.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 395w (5.4w/kg)

While some riders prefer an easy day before a big race, I actually prefer quite a hard effort to fully open up my legs and lungs for the following day’s effort. Many riders use ‘openers’ the day before a race to wake their mind, body, and legs up from a bit of rest or even a mini-taper. ‘Openers’ are typically short rides of less than 90 minutes, that include multiple anaerobic, sprint-type efforts, and maybe one or two aerobic, steady-state efforts to get your heart rate up and perspiration flowing. In this case, Tuesday night’s TTT turned out to be a great “opener” effort for Race #1 of Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge.

Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race #1

Both races of Round 1 were run as scratch races, with points awarded to the top 50 riders across the line. Then, the 50 riders with the highest point totals from races #1 and #2 advanced to Round 2. Round 2 is the same drill, but with only the top 20 riders receiving points, and the best 20 riders after two races moving on to the finals round.

Scratch races can dim the racing, especially in a bracket and elimination-style competition like this. With every rider vying for the best individual finish possible, there is a lack of fireworks throughout the race, apart from maybe the final 10km. Every rider is content to save their matches for the end, even if it means getting 20th instead of first.

Here’s why: a rider with a weak sprint would typically try for a breakaway in order to win an everyday Zwift race. But with stakes like this, and points awarded to the top 50 riders only, it is very risky for a breakaway-style rider to try a move early in the race. If their breakaway gets caught, this rider has likely burned a lot of matches, and could well be spit out the back – no big deal in a weekday Zwift race; but getting dropped in the Movistar Team Challenge could easily spell the end of their campaign. When you consider the additional fatigue you’d be carrying into a sprint finish after multiple breakaway attempts, it seems much more appealing to relax in the pack and take your chances in the sprint.

The first few minutes of Race #1 were just like the start of any other Zwift race: 500w+ (8w/kg+) off the line, and not much of a slowing down until after the first climb of the day, the Watopia Hilly Forward KOM. The famous site of the 2020 UCI Zwift World Championships finish, this 900m climb makes for a brutal nearly 90-second effort. The pitches are steep – around 7 percent the whole way up – but with a field of this quality, the peloton stayed mostly intact for the entire race.

Nehr – opening 2km:
Time: 3:00
Average Power: 438w (6.1w/kg)

Lap 1 – Watopia Forward KOM: 1:37 at 525w (7.3w/kg)

Laps 1 through 3 were nice and steady. There were no major attacks and no major splits. The climb was the hardest part of each lap, but even that didn’t cause any splits in the field.

Lap 1 – Watopia Forward KOM: 1:37 at 525w (7.3w/kg)
Lap 2 – Watopia Forward KOM: 1:39 at 513w (7.1w/kg)
Lap 3 – Watopia Forward KOM: 1:38 at 533w (7.4w/kg)
Lap 4 – Watopia Forward KOM: 1:36 at 532w (7.4w/kg)

Lap 4 was a bit more nervous. There were no major attacks, but a few accelerations at the front of the field strung things out for a bit. I was content to sit in the group and take my chances in the sprint. I held onto an aero power-up for the last lap and a half. A risky move – most of the field used a power-up each lap on the climb, making it harder for me to stay in the group if I chose to forgo my power-up – but one that I knew would pay off if I could get into a good position for the final sprint. As we came through the finish line with one lap to go, it was ‘gruppo compacto.’

On lap 5 we flew up the climb, but the group was so strong that there wasn’t even a single split. Or so we thought. Three riders attacked over the top of the climb, and within a few meters, their small acceleration created a gap at the front of the field that no one was keen to chase.

Lap 5 – Watopia Forward KOM: 1:35 at 549w (7.6w/kg)

I was on my limit at the top of the climb, sitting around the top 20, but still trying to bring my heart rate down from 185bpm. As the gap to the breakaway grew, so did the pack’s nervousness. We were flying now, rolling at over 50kph on the roads around Watopia. With 4km to go, we hadn’t slowed down, but we also hadn’t made a single chip in the breakaway’s lead. Inside 3km to go, we hit the final few rollers before the downhill run-in to the finish. I punched hard to stay near the front of the field, but I couldn’t believe my eyes as the breakaway kept a hold of their five-second gap.

Final lap of Race 1

Nehr – final lap of Race #1:
Time: 11:06
Average Power: 356w (4.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 410w (5.7w/kg)

With 1km to go, the road dips down at -2 percent before flattening out with about 350m to go. I waited, and waited, and waited, and maybe launched my sprint a half-second too late. I slapped the space bar on my keyboard to activate the aero power-up before smashing out 1,000w for 19 seconds in the final sprint. A nice little power PR for me that earned me 17th place on the line, a result put me in good position heading into Race #2 of Round 1. But I was still left wondering, what if I had launched just a second or two earlier…

Movistar Team Challenge Round 1, Race 1

Nehr – Round 1 Race #2:
Time: 59:12
Average Power: 303w (4.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 368w (5.1w/kg)
Peak 2min Power: 513w (7.1w/kg)
Peak 30sec Power: 797w (11.1w/kg)
Peak 15sec Power: 1032w (13.3w/kg)

***

Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race #2

Race #2 of Round 1 took place on the Muir and the Mountain course, a 39km route that included two trips up the Titans Grove Forward KOM, plus the Epic KOM and the Radio Tower Climb. It was set to be a brutal race, with tests of 1-, 5-, 10-, and 20-minute power splitting the group, and leaving only the strongest riders on top.

After a brief descent through the Titans Grove trees, we were straight onto the Epic KOM, made even worse by the addition of the Radio Tower climb just after the Epic KOM banner. All said, this was going to be roughly a 17- to 18-minute effort up the Epic KOM, followed immediately by a 4 to 5-minute effort up the Radio Tower climb. It was almost like doing a 20-minute power test, resting for ten seconds, and then doing a four-minute power test.

Absolutely. Positively. Brutal.

Coming into the race, I had done my homework – I knew that the Epic KOM includes many sections of flat or flattish road where the gradient dipped under 3 percent. These sections would be draftable, meaning that I could recover a tiny bit more in the draft, and save as much energy as possible going up the climb. So every time the road tipped up, I put the power down and went as hard as I could to stay with the group. As soon as the road started to flatten, I backed off the power, took a few deep breaths, and used the sticky draft to tag onto the back of the group whilst saving 100w on the guys pushing the pace at the front.

17-and-a-half minutes of suffering later, I made it to the top of the Epic KOM with the front group, which was now down to just 27 riders from the original 50 or so that had started.

Epic KOM climb

Nehr – Epic KOM:
Time: 17:43
Average Power: 385w (5.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 399w (5.5w/kg)

Before it *literally* all went downhill, things figuratively went downhill for me as soon as we started the Radio Tower climb. I just didn’t have an extra gear when we hit the 15 percent-plus slopes, and 400w was all I could do to the top of the climb. Normally, 400w for 23 minutes is something to be proud of. But on this day, racing on this course, against the caliber of riders in Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge, I was well and truly dropped. I hemorrhaged time on the steepest slopes, and came over the crest in 23rd position, already 45 seconds behind the lead group which contained my NeXT eSport teammate Scott Catanzaro, and about 15 seconds behind the second group on the road which included my teammates Brian Duffy, Jr. and Chris Uberti.

Nehr – Radio Tower climb:
Time: 4:34
Average Power: 401w (5.6w/kg)

Catanzaro – Radio Tower Climb:
Time: 3:49
Average Power: 508w (6.6w/kg)

The descent down the Epic KOM Reverse is tricky because it’s not all downhill. There are a number of ramps, including a steep, 15-second pitch that can catch riders out who aren’t paying attention. In order to keep your momentum and make it down the descent as possible, you really need to sprint over these bumps on the descent with everything you’ve got – remember, Zwift hasn’t banned the supertuck, so you can coast in between your sprint efforts.

Once the road finally flattens out, there were only a few kilometers until the start of the final climb, and the rolling roads up the Titans Grove Forward KOM. Since I missed the main groups coming off the climb, I was with only one other rider on the flat roads heading towards the finish. We rotated well together, taking turns pulling through at around 5w/kg, and sitting in each other’s draft at 3-4w/kg. My legs felt pretty empty at this point – that’s what a 23-minute power test followed by a few sprint efforts will do to you – but I knew that if I could make it to 1km to go, I could muster up the energy for one final sprint to the line.

With the groups in front of us well out of sight, my incidental teammate and I were really just pushing the pace to avoid getting caught by the riders behind. Even so, one rider made the junction with us inside 1km to go, as we readied our sprints for 22nd place. Now, in a normal Zwift race, 22nd would be nothing to write home about. Heck, if I was dropped on a Wednesday weeknight race, I wouldn’t even consider sprinting for 22nd. But with the ramifications of the Movistar Team Challenge, and the all-important top 20 placings coming to the fore next week, I was going to give it everything I had to see where I stacked up.

In the end, I launched a great sprint with some 500m to go, and almost set a 30-second-power PR on the way to the finish line; but the mightily impressive catcher came around me inside 200m to go, and so I settled for 23rd.

Final 3.5km of Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race 2

Nehr – final 3.5km of Round 1 Race #2:
Time: 5:37
Average Power: 362w (5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 431w (5.9w/kg)
Peak 30sec Power: 801w (11.1w/kg)

Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race 2

Nehr – Round 1 Race #2:
Time: 58:13
Average Power: 326w (4.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 369w (5.1w/kg)

Instead of warming down for 10 minutes like I know I should have, I ended up chugging a cold bottle of water and laying on the floor right after the race. Just long enough that I could gather my thoughts and remember where I am, and remind myself that I get to do it all again next week. At the end of Round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge, I finished in 15th overall after two stages of racing, putting me well into the top 50 needed to move onto Round 2, and also giving me a boost of confidence heading into next week when the top 20 is all that matters.

The details of the finals after Round 2 are currently a well-kept secret. Little has emerged about the format of races that will be used in the final round; it isn’t just the races that count. Movistar’s staff and GCN will be interviewing each of the final 20 riders, as the lucky five winners will be both talented eracers and interesting personalities. It will be fascinating to see if the Premier League’s best will take all the top spots, or if a Community rider or two will make it into the team. Whatever happens, the finish of the Movistar Team Challenge will be one of the most fascinating and unpredictable events that Zwift has ever seen.

***

Results

Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race #1 Results

Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race #2 Results

***

Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava and Zwift Power

The teams at ZwiftPower and ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis) helped ensure fair competition for all, and data verification for riders competing in the Movistar Team Challenge.

***

Men’s riders: 

Zach Nehr

Scott Catanzaro 

***

Livestream of the Movistar Team Challenge Round 1 Race #2: