The team has hung tough on the climbs, but as the course flattens, a small gap is opening. You pound the pedals to rejoin the pack with your heart pumping hard, making it feel two sizes too big for your chest. Your legs burn, the lungs plead for oxygen, and sweat pours from your face, collecting in a growing pool of sweat equity below your trainer. Can you close the gap and pull out a win? You’ll have to beat a 3-time sub-9-hour Ironman and her premiere squad of professional triathletes and top cyclists to do it today. Doesn’t sound like your typical session on the trainer, board and staring at the wall, does it? Not if you’re competing on Zwift, and not if one of those squads is team IRACELIKEAGIRL.
Indoor cycling is all the rage at the moment and thousands of riders have flocked to Zwift, an online cycling program that blends the intensity of training with the look and feel of a video game. With structured workouts and over 130 routes in 10 worlds, it enables users to train and ride in a virtual world. Competition can be fierce when it comes to races.
“Zwift racing is different in a lot of ways,” IRACELIKEAGIRL e-team recruiter and lead racer, Amanda Wendorff said. “First, the races all start incredibly fast, unlike outdoor races where most start a bit more gently. Drafting is essential in Zwift, but it’s a different kind of technique. You don’t actually feel the draft, although it’s there, so staying with a pack requires constant attention as to exactly what the other racers are doing so you can make quick adjustments and decisions.”
Due to the algorithms in the Zwift program, small gaps can quickly become almost impossible to close, even if riders fall back by a mere second or two. The margin of error is razor-thin, and it would require maximum effort to rejoin the pack, which makes e-racing more intense than normal road races where generally there are some opportunities to sit in the pack.
“Even in a pack in Zwift, you still have to work very, very hard. So, the Zwift races often resemble something more like a threshold test. Races are almost always decided on climbs or the final sprint. The good thing is that you can make real-time observations of competitors much easier. We can live track many races, knowing exactly where every person is in the race and how hard they are working.”
Competition isn’t new to Wendorff. She is a professional triathlete who started racing in 2010 in hopes of simply relieving the stress of being a big firm attorney in Chicago. Although cycling was the last discipline for her to fully pick up, it soon became her strength.
“Most of my cycling accomplishments have been through triathlon. Those include 3rd at Ironman Ireland, 3rd at Ironman Coquimbo 70.3, and 5th at Ironman Mont-Tremblant. Prior to turning pro, I was the age group champion at the 70.3 World Championships.”
Wendorff is just one of the prolific athletes on the IRACELIKEAGIRL squad who you might be racing on Zwift. Their premier team is mostly professional triathletes with a few top cyclists including Katheryn Curi who was the U.S. National Road Race Champion at one point. Then there are the former professional runners and, of course, multiple 70.3 and Ironman Champion, Angela Naeth.
Naeth jumped into the world of triathlons in 2008 after “dabbling in some cycling races and a few triathlons as an age-grouper,” as she put it. In college, she rode with a club cycling group three to four times a week after classes. She also joined a few club races in college, and then back home in Canada as well, when she’d be there during breaks. Naeth loved the idea of three sports and was always active, even while working as a pediatric and orthopaedic physiotherapist for three years after graduating.
“I wanted to stay active after college and really enjoyed my first race, a local triathlon up north in Canada. I won the race and really wanted to see what I could do in the sport. It was quite a quick decision on my part to go full-time.
Now, Naeth is known in the cycling community for her strength on the bike and she’s an absolute powerhouse in the triathlon world, carrying quite the resume: 3-time Ironman Champion, 6-time Ironman podiums, 36-time 70.3 Ironman podium finisher, and 19-time 70.3 Ironman winner including the 2015 Ironman North American Championship.
“My wins at the 2014 and 2019 Ironman Chattanooga, and of course, my first win at Ironman Texas in 2015 standout,” said Naeth. The 2018 Ironman World Championships was the most memorable.”
That year, Naeth placed 8th at the Ironman World Championships in Kona with a sub-9-hour time of 8:57, all while battling Lyme disease.
Naeth is also the founder of IRACELIKEAGIRL, the women’s triathlon and cycling community she created in 2017 to provide opportunities for girls and women of all abilities and ages to encourage, inspire, and support one another through endurance sports. As a professional woman athlete, she felt the responsibility to help women succeed in sport. It was her way of giving back.
“I fell in love with the sport of triathlon because of the community and strong supporters such as PEARL iZUMi. The IRACELIKEAGIRL global team is an opportunity for me to give back to the sport and help other women achieve their goals.”
The IRACELIKEAGIRL community also celebrates what it means to be women, and women athletes at that.
“We highlight what it means to be a woman and race like only a girl can race. This is the strength behind the girl. To me, the idea that being called a girl is a negative term is an unfortunate mindset. I know that not all women feel this way, that perhaps one feels when they are referred to being a girl, it’s an attempt to deny a woman of her power, grace, maturity, and strength. Iracelikeagirl is about just the opposite. It’s about celebrating what it means to be feminine. I’m proud that Pearl iZUMi stands behind me on this mission.”
This year the COVID pandemic has created havoc across the world for many industries, sports included. And because the pandemic essentially shut down the entire racing season, including the 2020 Ironman World Championships, Naeth has had to find other ways to remain competitive, to race, and to be among the cycling community she loves in some way.
“I really found a desire for more motivation and community.”
That’s when she enlisted the help of Wendorff with whom she shares a coach and is part of the same QT2 Systems club.
“Angela has been an inspiration and friend,” said Wendorff, “and together we started to develop the e-racing component of IRACELIKEAGIRL this summer.”
Team IRACELIKEAGIRL started as a small group of eight professional triathletes and cyclists entering weekly team time trials. They were soon being invited to elite team races after doing well against some of the best cyclists in the world. Now, they’re one of the strongest teams on Zwift, ranking among the top five teams in the Zwift Racing League as they continue to compete against long-standing and financially backed squads.
You don’t have to be a top-rated athlete for IRACELIKEAGIRL to compete, or on Zwift for that matter, though. As the program has grown in popularity, they’ve rolled out more female-specific races, including a 10-week league with five categories: Premiere, A, B, C, and D. By word of mouth alone, IRACELIKEAGIRL has grown to approximately 90 racers and has multiple squads in each division.
“We are open to any female-identifying racer who is committed to fair play and honesty and willing to be a part of a community that is supportive and positive,” Wendorff said. “Our community league teams are largely triathletes working on their cycling. Some are amateur world champions and Kona qualifiers, while many others are just hard-working age group racers working on their skills.”
As the team leader, Wendorff’s goal is to make every rider, no matter their level, have the opportunity to explore those skills. “We often talk about getting comfortable being uncomfortable, learning to control emotions, ration out energy, cope, and embrace pain instead of shying away from it. Zwift racing is perfect for that.”
It’s paying off, too. Of the nine IRACELIKEAGIRL squads competing at various times in the A, B, C, and D divisions, racers are landing on the podiums every week, and their TTT teams are among the elite with two squads regularly finishing in the top 10 in the weekly time trial series.
“Overall, we are currently a top 10 team on Zwift, which is remarkable given our recent entry into the world of e-racing.”
The future of e-racing is bright, and 2020 has underscored that for a few reasons. First, there’s the issue of safety. More cyclists are being hit and killed during their training rides out on the roads and as Wendorff mentioned, “it’s only natural that many riders are thinking about safety and bringing some of their training indoors.”
Then there’s the fact that races can be intense and challenging, which builds up pain tolerance helping riders to push beyond their perceived limits and really get after it. “These races are very intense, right from the get-go,” Naeth said. “There’s no easing into it. You want to be fully caffeinated and I find it quite hard! But I’m all over it and definitely see it as part of my new racing goals and plans.”
Finally, there is the sense of community it provides.
“Zwift added a whole new dynamic to indoor training that made it conducive to community building,” Wendorff said, “and I think people have really craved that. On IRACELIKEAGIRL, we’ve got several eight-person team time trial teams that race together on Thursdays, and each of them are separated by geography but have become incredibly close friends and teammates.”
Some might also say that the popularity of e-racing is a natural evolution in the sport of cycling. And in sports, where women have always faced an uphill battle when it comes to equality and access, e-racing can join the lead pack when it comes to inspiring more women to not only join and compete in sports but to celebrate women as role models and mentors as well. Women supporting women will push e-racing’s popularity and the evolutionary process even further, and that’s where IRACELIKEAGIRL truly rides strong.
“In triathlon and cycling, there simply are not as many women as men competing,” Wendorff said, “and the sports, while incredibly rewarding, can be quite intimidating to break into and difficult to navigate for many women. I believe building a community of women who empower each other, and welcome new women into the sport is good for society and overall well-being.”