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Pacing: can you find the climb?

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

Today I hopped in a Zwift race, one of the ones I like on the rolling Hilly Loop in Watopia where the terrain changes and you can get a moment's rest on the downhills.

Today though I messed up! I was complacent on one of the downhills, drifted off the back of the group and the next thing I knew they were riding away from me. Oops. That turned half of the race into a time trial, which lead to this post.

One thing many struggle with is pacing, in particular managing their efforts when climbing. It is important as a rider to learn to manage your wattage and effort. We don't want the terrain dictating our pace. If we let that happen we are likely to overdo things on the climbs and risk blowing up on our group ride or in a race.

With that in mind here is a screenshot from the race after I was dropped and had to time trial to the finish. Can you see where the climb is?

A trick question. You can't see the climb because power, heart rate and cadence are all stable regardless of the terrain. Here is the same graph with elevation.

Given that the race had turned into a time trial when I was dropped the goal became to do the max sustainable effort for the remainder of the event.

When I arrived at the climb I knew that I couldn't do more wattage than what I was already riding at. I had to manage my effort on the climb - I couldn't let the terrain dictate my effort or on the other side my effort would fade.

Watching my wattage, cadence, heart rate and paying attention to how my legs felt all played a role in controlling my effort. While we might want to smash the climb this would only mean a fade in the final kilometers. Riding within the limit allowed me to finish the ride strongly and without a fade in my power.

This same principle - of riding within your limit - applies across a variety of rides, not just in a time trial. For example, if you are doing endurance you can't let the terrain push you out of your zone. Or on a long ride managing our pace and effort is the key to not fading later in the day.

Learning how to control our wattage using cadence and gearing is an important part of improving as a rider. As riders we need to manage a 40-second effort within an interval set so that we don't overdo the opening few seconds. Or if we are rolling into a long climb, particularly with a steep start (think Alpe de Zwift as an example), we have to control our wattage within a range that we can sustain.

Despite the difference in length of the two efforts the goal is the same - we don't want to overdo the start and then spend the rest of the time fading. The ideal is a nice flat line power profile that matches our goal, whether it be to ride endurance or to do a maximal effort like in a time trial. Working towards this goal is always something to strive for.

So what does this mean for your riding? We need to control our urges to smash up hills or do huge pulls upfront, let the others hammer. Inevitably you will catch up while they are gasping for air and you maintain your wattage on the downhill to breakaway. Your efforts are sustainable, and you will finish the ride feeling good, allowing you enjoy a well-deserved beer.

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