By Polly Mason, elite e-racer for Saris + The Pro's Closet
Many weeks have now passed since I lined up at my first ever UCI race in Spain, with my in real life (IRL) team Belori Vipeq, a small Spanish Elite team out of Mallorca, so it feels like a good time to reflect on the experience.
With the world feeling uncertain amongst the Coronavirus pandemic, the races felt anything but certain. Having never raced anything bigger than the British National Championships in 2019, I had quite a mix of feelings leading up to flying to Spain! For most of the pro peloton, these races marked the start of season 2020.2. However, having not raced myself since September last year, this was to be the start of my 2020 IRL season.
I did not know what to expect, having only ever raced three UK National races previously. You could say my experience of racing in a large peloton was rather limited! My goal was to get round. I didn’t really know if this was too ambitious, or not ambitious enough! I have quite a headstrong mindset, and I fight to finish a race whatever the circumstances, something which I find is very good to practice in Zwift racing. I have always managed, by chance or determination, to get round every race I’ve competed in before, despite crashing at 0km in one round of the UK National Series and suffering three mechanicals in the National Championships…I really like finishing races!
The week prior to the races was far from ideal, with a bout of sickness and pretty much zero time on the bike (that’s the way life goes sometimes), so I felt pretty underprepared for what was going to be one of the biggest races of my life so far. The quality of the start list was also unbelievable, given that these were the first UCI races to start season 2020.2. I think this lowered the feeling of nervousness and pressure though, since we were one of the smallest teams to compete in these races, and we knew the big teams would be putting the pressure on from start
Unfortunately, due to the ever-changing nature of rules and restrictions regarding Coronavirus safety precautions, our team, along with several others, were not allowed to start the 1st of the Navarra Classics. However, we took to the start line the following day to race a pretty punchy series of short, but steep ‘walls’ over the roughly 120k course.
As expected, the race was full gas from the start, incredibly fast as well as windy! Narrowly avoiding hitting the tarmac in the first 30km, with tyre burn to the leg, I found myself chasing with a few big names who had also been caught out, to rejoin the back of the peloton. Around halfway in, with the stricter time limits in place, the group I found myself with had fallen too far behind the front of the peloton and we had to retire.
Next up was another lumpy course in the Basque Country. Durango Durango 1.1 consisted of five local laps with a small climb, followed by two laps of longer climbs. This was to be the first time I’d ever raced up (or down) a significant gradient. I live in the Norfolk in the UK, where are longest ‘climb’ is 1.3 km, with a flat bit in the middle. (This is why I like to spend time in Mallorca!)
Durango was another full gas race, with the first hour of the race at an average speed of 43 kmph. Just when I was starting to feel like I was able to find a better position within the peloton and maintain it going up the local lap climb, I found myself going backwards on the descent, much as a result of my massive lack of experience. Along with a few others, we chased back onto the back of the peloton, at which point it was almost time to ascend the local lap climb again. It almost felt like deja vu, however they say the best way to overcome your fears is to face them, so after 3 or 4 laps of this descent I felt like I had acquired a new skill, however a little too late… 80 km in and with the peloton still in sight, we had to retire.
The IRL and eSports Overlap
I found stepping up to racing UCI level to be a very steep learning curve, however I feel like I can say that I’ve learnt more in the two races in Spain combined than the rest of the IRL races I’d done before.
Positioning, descending, taking water from the team car, racing back through vehicles to get back to the peloton, the list goes on. There is no need to know how to descend in Zwift, or worry about where/when to get water, or moving up through the bunch, but one thing does remain constant, the pure physical limits you push yourself to, and the challenge of finishing a race, whether in real life or the virtual world.
Moreover, without the opportunity to be able to race week in and week out on Zwift throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, I doubt I would have been able to get to a position, physically or mentally, to even be able to line up at these UCI races in Spain. I would encourage anyone who gets the opportunity to race at UCI level to really go for it, as the amount of experience you gain is unreal.
On reflection, I feel like I have found my place in two teams this year, amongst the uncertainty of the Coronavirus, both in real life and the virtual world. I can share experiences of the different types of racing I do, having already been asked quite a lot by my IRL team about my Zwift racing! Having had to quarantine after returning to the UK, I have already been reacquainted with my ‘pain cave’ and I am more motivated than ever to smash the ProAms with my teammates of Saris + The Pro’s Closet!
Polly lives in Norwich, UK, and has a massive soft spot for Mallorca. Being sporty had always been a big part of her life, and in 2013 Polly bough her first proper road bike. She joined her first local cycling club in 2016 and escalated quickly from there including a stab at national series racing in 2019, and now her first UCI race in Spain. Polly believes consistent Ziwft racing has played a big part in gaining race fitness and really pushing her physical (and mental) limits. Learn more about Polly and follow Team Saris + The Pro’s Closet.