Tom Gakes doesn’t go into Zwift races with a plan. He says he reads the race and adapts to whatever happens.
He’s had to adapt to changes throughout his years as a cyclist, too. Gakes used to race at the elite level, specializing in road criteriums but also taking part in track racing. Later on, he picked up tandem racing and made it to the World Cup level as the captain for a visually impaired athlete.
“The goal was to make it to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, and the results were improving,” Gakes says. “Unfortunately, racing tandems around the world is rather expensive so we would depend on sponsors.”
In 2017, they did find a sponsor, but a new bike the pair was promised never came. Without the money to continue pursuing elite tandem racing, Gakes decided to get a new job and move his racing to Zwift.
Now, Gakes has participated in more than 350 Zwift races and has quite the trophy collection! He represented Team BRT in the Tour de Zwift and Tour of Watopia Pro-Am Invitational Races, along with some Zwift Classics races where community teams are invited to compete with professional riders.
Recently, Gakes let us in on his tips for what to do – and what NOT to do – while racing on Zwift.
How did you first find Zwift, and when?
TG: I started Zwift after I quit IRL (in real life) racing in the summer of 2017. The last part of my career, I was doing a lot of tandem races together with a rider with a visual disability. For him, Zwift was the only way to get his training done when I was unable to ride with him. And Zwift was a way to still ride together, even though we were at the other side of the country. And for me, it was a good way to still race competitively without riding during the day or being away from home all weekend.
How long have you been racing on Zwift, and how did you get started? What was your first race like?
TG: I started with Zwift in the summer of 2017 and the first thing I did was to jump straight into a race. The last IRL race I did was a tandem World Cup where we competed at the front of the race, so Zwift racing must be easy, right? I found out quickly that I was wrong. I got dropped before we had fully left the starting pier and finished the race over 10 minutes behind the cat B winner. This happened because I thought it would be easy and approached it like a local club race. The next races I went in mentally prepared for a hard race, and my 3rd race got me my first win.
How does outdoor racing compare to Zwift racing, and does your experience help you? Are there any tips you'd give to someone used to racing on the road?
TG: There are many similarities between IRL and Zwift racing, but also some big differences. In both, the ability to position yourself and save energy in the peloton are very important, but it is a very different skill. IRL, you need to maneuver and sometimes actually push against other riders to get in position, but once you are near the front you can stay there for a long time. IRL, my ability to get near the front half of the peloton was just ridiculously bad. Basically, I would just wait at the back of the peloton until it was lined out and then sprint past everyone to get to the front. Obviously, I was wasting a lot of energy that way. Especially if you consider that as soon as the peloton slowed down and bunched up again, I would immediately drop to the back again.
In Zwift, you are constantly moving up and down the peloton and you can play with this by giving more or less power. The timing of this is critical and to time it right, you really need to know the course. This is something I'm really good at.
Another similarity is that there will be many tempo changes. Some riders are really strong, but never get very good results in races, whether it's IRL or on Zwift. This is usually because they can ride a very hard pace for a very long time, but can’t handle the tempo changes. This is also where racing is different from group rides or free riding, and why you need to race to get better at racing. This is where road racing can help Zwift racing as well as the other way around. And to do well in races, you'll always need to be prepared to go hard. Otherwise you'll end up like I did in my first Zwift race.
How would you describe your racing style and strengths? How do you race in a way that uses those strengths?
TG: If you look at my power profile, I'm not really good at anything and really bad at longer climbs. So my results are way better than you would expect from someone with my power profile. My strength is that I can see what others are going to do before they have thought it up. I read the race situation and adapt to it. For this reason, I never go in a race with a plan.
When I see that some strong riders are near the back, I might suddenly hit the front and try to break up the group. But when I see that all strong riders are near the front, I won't waste this effort. And my drafting skills are really good. I can put in several attacks in a race and still come in with the lowest average power of my group. I have a decent sprint, but usually there will be better sprinters in the race. So to win in a sprint, I will need to time it better. This is something you'll learn with experience, and it's partially a natural instinct.
What have you learned NOT to do in a Zwift race?
TG: Don't go for an “easy race.” Never race in a lower category than your own, because even if you just sit in the peloton, it disrupts the race for riders who actually belong in this category. If you want an easy ride, there are many group rides for all abilities and here it is accepted to join a ride below your category.
If you do decide to line up for a race, be prepared for a really fast start. Give it all you have until things settle. Don't go in thinking it will be easy, because it won't. Go in knowing it will be hard, but also believe that you can stay with that front pack. Races are won or lost in your mind, this is more important than your legs.
What’s your favorite Zwift race course and why?
TG: There are too many good race courses to pick one. I like anything with a lot of very short, punchy climbs. Sections like the Esses or Titans Grove. But I also like most courses in New York, Yorkshire, and the Innsbruckring. The renewed Richmond courses with the reverse climbs are really cool. And although London is my least favourite world, I have to admit that Greatest London Flat is a very nice race course.
But if I really have to pick one, I'll go for a new one that I haven't officially raced yet: Watopia Seaside Sprint. I say I have not officially raced it yet, but I used to lead team tactics training sessions for Race3R in the 2017/2018 winter and we often used this route with manual navigation for those training sessions.
Do you have any pre-race rituals? How about post-race?
TG: Pre-race I rush home from work, eat dinner, get the kids to bed and rush on the bike to immediately join the pen without a warmup. Not the perfect preparation but it works and it allows me to combine racing with a full-time job and family life. Post-race I might continue to ride, whether it's a new race, a workout or just easy pedaling.
If you could invent a Zwift PowerUp, what would it be?
TG: I thought long and hard about this, but I think I would rather take some PowerUps away. Not because I like racing without PowerUps, because I think PowerUps are fun and add something extra to the game. But for racing, I would like to go back to 3 PowerUps: feather (50%), aero (25%) and van (25%). No ghost, burrito or XP. I chose 50% to the feather because this is the best one to use for a mid-race attack. And if I had to choose, I would make all PowerUps 30 seconds.
What's one thing you would tell new Zwift racers to help them perform their best?
TG: Join a team! I started racing with RaceWBR (now Race3R) and switched to BRT past summer. Both are great teams with riders of all abilities and everyone is willing to help other riders improve. Racing with a team is more fun and the best way to learn from other riders.