Jessica Hamilton didn’t need convincing to try a race on Zwift. Racing is what brought her here. Jessica was already using another platform for structured training when someone told her about Zwift. She learned she could compete against other Zwifters in races, and that sounded like fun.
Now a member of the BRT Hellcatz team, Jessica helped found the Wild Women Racing Series, where she frequently makes the podium. She also took part in the first Zwift Classics race, the London International, which included professional women’s cycling teams and some of the best racers on Zwift.
Recently, Jessica gave us her tips on racing as a sprinter plus some encouragement for women to give Zwift racing a shot!
Zwift: How long have you been racing on Zwift, and how did you get started?
JH: It was around February 2018 that I joined Zwift and started racing in shorter, flat races like the WBR (now 3R) 1 lap events. Then after Women’s Week in March that year, Zwift posted a news article about women’s teams on the platform. Two days later, I joined up with the BRT Hellcatz, and haven’t looked back! And my racing has grown from strength to strength...
Things like social rides came later, eventually becoming a staple of my riding, and also helping with my depression.
Do you have experience racing outdoors? How does it compare to racing on Zwift?
JH: I’ve done a lot of local club racing, raced in NZ National Criterium Championships once, and plan to race in that again in 2020. Racing on Zwift is fairly similar to racing outdoors in my experience, however, there are a couple of notable differences. Unlike racing outdoors, you can’t really stop pedaling in Zwift, it’s pretty much full gas from the gun – you can reduce your effort, but you can’t stop pedaling. Also, the starts are far more explosive than outdoors – you don’t win the race outdoors at the start, but in Zwift, you can at least lose the race at the start. And outdoors, you can get totally screwed by poor placement in corners, which people tend to accelerate hard out of, and you don’t get so much of that in Zwift.
What’s your favorite Zwift race course and why?
JH: I quite enjoy Richmond Flats, as I’m a sprinter, but I’ve been known to be savage in my short hill attacks such as Innsbruckring, the climb up to the Watopia Esses, as well as London Classique, though to a lesser degree.
If you could invent a Zwift powerup, what would it be?
JH: I was pretty happy with the Aero powerup before it got neutered to 15 seconds. It was perfect for breakaways! A great example would be hill sprinting the climb into the Watopia Esses then using the aero on the downhill to stretch the gap out further.
Perhaps a tractor beam powerup that would drag you up to a racer in front of you to close down the gap if you get dropped. The Aero used to help with that, but now it’s too short for closing that gap down, so definitely need a tractor beam.
What types of races do you do best in, and how do you try to make them go your way?
JH: I’m definitely one for the shorter, flatter courses. As a heavier rider than most category A women, it’s a bit of a penalty on the hillier courses! I’ll still race them, but I know that it’s my weakness and have no expectations for doing well. As for how I make them go my way, I tend to try and whittle the field down progressively – usually via hill sprinting attacks – and sometimes this can also lead to a breakaway. And if it doesn’t, I’m sitting in the pack trying to recover as smartly as possible for another attack.
I had one race where I was fast enough out of the pen to make a break immediately (it was a small field), but I tired and got caught after 10km. I then rested once I was caught, and then with 10km to go, one rider attacked, and I countered and it turned into another breakaway which I held to the end.
The point was that I knew I was going to get caught, so there wasn’t any point in wasting energy; I was better off slowing down a little, to ensure I had enough energy to stay with them once they did. Then recover in the group, conserve when it was pointless to attack, and be ready for whatever happens next.
Are there any workouts you like that help you in Zwift racing, especially as a sprinter?
JH: I’m possibly an atypical sprinter, as I tend to rely on brute strength rather than high leg speed. However, I do use cadence builds and holds to work on improving my leg speed. These are low-intensity efforts that focus on pedaling speed. Builds aim to smoothly build from around 90-100rpm to your max over 30 seconds. My current max is around 150rpm; still trying to get to that elusive 200rpm club… and holds are holding a steady high cadence for one minute.
Then in contrast to the leg speed workouts, I also work on low cadence strength efforts, which have a similar effect to leg presses in the gym. For these, I’ll do 50-60rpm effort at or above FTP, with a focus on both pushing on the downstroke and pulling on the upstroke.
Finally, for balance, I do a lot of core work with my personal trainer. My biggest gains on the bike are actually from training off the bike. A strong core is key to a strong sprint, and benefits all areas of your on-bike performance.
What challenges have you faced as a female racing cyclist, both on the road and on Zwift? How have you dealt with them?
JH: Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve faced many challenges for being female. However, the one thing that I have found a little disappointing is the low number of female cyclists who race. There are a lot of women I’ve ridden with that would be great racers, and it would be amazing to race with them. Getting more women in Zwift into racing can also be quite difficult. And yet, when they do, they love it!
I don’t know how to break that barrier down, other than putting on more women’s only series. This is exactly how the Wild Women series — a collaboration between BRT Hellcatz, Velocity Vixen, and ZSUN Ladies — came about: a series by women, for women.
It looks like most of your Zwift racing is in women-only events. What do you like about them, and do you approach them differently than mixed-gender races?
JH: As one of the founders of the Wild Women series, I try to race every week to support the series. I do actually enjoy mixed-gender races, which are perhaps more challenging, I guess as I’m more of a midfield cat B racer in mixed fields.
However, being more of a midfield cat B racer in mixed fields also seems to make me less likely to attack mid-race. At least in women’s races, it’s more fun in that I can have more confidence in attacking. Even when an attack doesn’t pan out, there’s still a good chance to avoid getting dropped. I definitely prefer races that have lots of attacks, it’s a lot more fun, and a lot more challenging! Sitting in until a bunch sprint finish is boring!
For women who want to race on Zwift but are unsure about it, what advice would you give them?
JH: Just jump in and give the races a try! Do a variety: hilly, flat, short, long. Get an idea of what you like, what you don’t like. And don’t feel discouraged if you don’t do well in your first races. It takes time to learn the nuances of racing. And invite your friends too! Racing is more fun with more competition.
I also recommend joining a Zwift team. People find teams motivating and encouraging, and working together in a race also adds another dimension to racing on Zwift.
What's one thing you would tell new Zwift racers to help them perform their best?
JH: Sleep! Seriously, sleep, rest, recovery days. Even the pros have rest days! You cannot perform at your best without good recovery or good sleep. And this is something I personally still haven’t learnt to do; I get told to rest all the time, and then wonder why I’m not bringing my A-game!