Data Dive: Which Triathlon Stars Will Master Zwift And Dominate At The SLT Arena Games?

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Graeme Acheson: SLT Arena Games Rotterdam – Pre-Race Data Dive

So. August 2020 and it’s the first race of the season. Who would have thought it? Despite being in the predictions business, I certainly didn’t see this year coming. Anyway, here we are at the Arena Games in Rotterdam, and grateful to Super League for the chance to whet our appetite for some live racing.

The restrictions we see from Covid-19 mean we have 10 men and 10 women racing in a new, innovative format. A 200m swim in a pool, followed by a 4km Zwift race, finished off by a 1km treadmill run.

So tell me, what’s likely to happen in Rotterdam?

Well, nobody can really say for sure. But we at Sports4Cast like to think we may be able to add some insight. The view from 30,000 feet is that this is a race for the purists, the athlete’s athlete, as there will be little ‘racing technique’ involved and it will be more of a test of athletic capability. Each of the athletes will largely be operating in a silo, aside from the interaction of their avatars on Zwift.

Super League Triathlon eSports Cycling Series on Zwift Max Stapley

Therefore the consensus is that best athletes in each of their respective disciplines will gain an advantage, as the weaker athletes won’t be able to draft them and stay with the pack. This event should polarise the disciplines, with greater disparity between the best and worst athletes in each area.

So who’s got the best athletic capability?

Now that’s an interesting question. Last year we gathered all the available data from previous Super League Races and used that to make predictions for the upcoming Jersey and Malta races. For the Arena Games we are doing similarly, but this time we have also gathered information from Zwift (or at least from those athletes who have raced publicly on the platform).

From this we can do several things. Firstly, make the same predictions as we have previously, but also include some insight of how the athletes might perform indoors, as well as making some comparisons between indoor and outdoor performances.

Interesting. Why have you done this?

Mainly to annoy my wife. It’s a good excuse to get away from the kids.

I can relate to that. But you didn’t actually answer my question …

No. Well spotted! But what I was getting at was that it could be quite a difficult question to answer, as most of the data we have on the athletes has been gathered under race conditions, and therefore may not be directly applicable to this race. But we can have a look and see what the predictions would be for a normal race, and then perhaps make some sensible assumptions on top based on our own knowledge, and the information we have gleaned from Zwift.

Good stuff. So hit me with some specifics. What do we know on the women’s side?

Well, the data we have from previous Super League races tells us that Cassandra Beaugrand is comfortably the best swimmer and runner in the field. Over a race of this distance we’d expect her to gain five or six seconds on the next fastest in the field over those two disciplines, which is rather a lot over such a short distance. However, her weak spot is her bike. Klamer and Taylor-Brown, the strongest cyclists in the field, would be expected to regain four or five seconds on the bike alone, closing the gap back to Beaugrand.

This is further backed up by their Zwift data. We’d expect the 4km bike round the Zwift Crit City course to take a little over 5 minutes. The maximum 5 minute power output we have seen from Beaugrand on Zwift is around 4.8 watts/kg, with Klamer and Taylor-Brown capable of putting out considerably more, 5.3 and 5.4 watts/kg respectively. For those unsure of their power data comparisons, don’t worry too much, just know that higher is definitely better.

Jess Learmonth is another strong cyclist, with a 5 minute power output also of 5.3 watts/kg. Learmonth is also the most experienced Zwifter in the field, with 31 completed races under her belt (at the time of writing). Taylor-Brown is also experienced on the platform, having raced 28 times. Beaugrand? Just four.

And how important will this experience be?

It’s hard to tell. From my own exploits on Zwift I can say that it does take a bit of getting used to (but that’s probably a reflection of my own abilities … !), so it could play a large role in deciding the outcome of the race. But then again, it may be that Beaugrand just hasn’t publicly released much of her data from Zwift and we are looking at an incomplete picture.

Sneaky. And on the men’s side?

Tough. Jonny Brownlee is technically the strongest athlete in the field according to our data, but that is partly as we have no hard data on Javier Gomez. Gomez has only raced Super League once before (Hamilton Island – 3 years ago), and also has no publicly available Zwift data, so it’s difficult to make any relevant comparisons.

Javier Gomez Noya is competing in the SLT Arena Games in Rotterdam

Richard Murray, Pierre Le Corre and Anthony Pujades are the other likely contenders from the men’s field, all with very similar bike times predicted on previous Super League data. Interestingly, though their 5 minute Zwift power data are quite different. Brownlee and Pujades are the most powerful, capable of 6.2 watts/kg over the 5 minute period. Murray, despite having the fastest predicted bike time based on race results, is actually the least powerful of the group based on Zwift data, sitting on 5.6 watts/kg.

Gomez is also a strong biker. As an experienced long course athlete he will have spent a lot of time time-trialling, which could match the profile of this bike course on Zwift – despite there being drafting on the platform, it is often more difficult to achieve than in real life. This could play into his hands.

Again however, experience on Zwift could play a factor. Gomez has, at least publicly, never raced on the platform. Murray has only raced twice. Brownlee is the most experienced of the group having completed 9 races.

Talk to me about the run. I’ve seen Gomez training on a curved treadmill. What’s up with that?

Yes, the run is to be completed on curved, self powered treadmills. These are very different from normal treadmills, in fact one recent study put the difference in perceived exertion and workload at about 30%. Runners consume about 32% more oxygen and have 16% higher heart rates than on normal treadmills. The writers of the study liken it to running up an 8% gradient with the difference in pace at around 20%. Over the course of the 1km run, and the roughly 3 minutes it should take, this could be up to 30 seconds, so bear that in mind when looking at the times.

This could also have implications for athletes recovery, or given SLT’s unique take on triathlon and the triple mix format, subsequent disciplines. If athlete’s mistakenly go too hard by trying to run at their normal pace, they could damage their chances further down the line.

Interesting, interesting. But let’s revisit our first question – what’s likely to happen in Rotterdam?

On the women’s side I’d expect to see Beaugrand out of the water first, with Taylor-Brown and Klamer close behind. I’d imagine that Taylor-Brown and Klamer would then catch Beaugrand on the bike, and it’ll be interesting to see if Beaugrand can negotiate the Zwift drafting mechanics to stick with them, or if they blast straight past – and which other athletes have managed to stick with them at that stage.

If they can get away from Beaugrand then they’ll be looking to put enough time into her to stay away from her strong running. I’d expect they need at least 5 to 10 seconds for that so watch out for that time gap on the bike. Klamer has a stronger run that Taylor-Brown so I’d expect her to get away from the Brit at the end.

And of course, all of this is without mentioning current Ironman World Champion Anne Haug. I’d imagine the distance will be too short for her to really show her strength (140.6 miles to just over 3. About 2% of the distance!), but who knows…

Woah. Hang fire. She’s the reigning Ironman World Champion and you’re only mentioning her now? What’s the deal?

Anne Haug. Yes. She took the long distance crown in Kona last year where she chased down Britain’s Lucy Charles-Barclay, making up a 7 minute deficit and posting a 2:51 marathon to take the title. It was quite a race if you didn’t see it. I’d imagine that she won’t have the pure speed in the legs to win here in Super League, but she could do things on the bike. Similar to Gomez, as a long course athlete she’ll have good time trial experience. So watch out for Haug on the bike, she could make a move there.

Anne Haug Ironman world champion at the SLT Arena Games for Super League Triathlon

And what about the men?

In the men’s race there is a surplus of strong swimmers. Pujades is likely the strongest, so watch out for him exiting the water first, closely followed by Brownlee, Le Corre and Schomburg with Gomez presumably there or thereabouts.

From there I’d expect to see Brownlee, Gomez and Pujades get away from the others with potentially Richard Murray joining them on the bike at some point – if he’s not too far off the pace after the swim.

Pujades run isn’t of the same calibre as the other three, so I’d expect to see a run off, likely between Brownlee and Gomez, and maybe Murray. If it does come down to a run, then it would appear that Brownlee and Murray are in good form. Brownlee just dropped a 13:46 5km – a new lifetime PB – and Murray a 7:58 3km. Wheels. Watch out for some firecrackers on the run.

Anything else we should watch out for? Any long shots?

I’m watching out for Maya Kingma on the ladies side. She has some impressive Zwift data – from that she is potentially one of the strongest cyclists – so if she can match those numbers on the swim and the run she could pull off a surprise.

On the men’s side Justus Nieschlag is perhaps one to watch out for. Similar to Kingma he has some strong Zwift power numbers, so could take down a few big names if he can produce on the day.

OK – enough dithering. Give me two names. Who’s going to win?

Jonny Brownlee on the men’s side for me. I think he’s got the short distance pedigree to outsprint Gomez and the experience on Zwift to get away from the other swimmers.

The women … hmm. Beaugrand is technically the strongest, but I have a feeling Klamer or Taylor-Brown might pull it off given their strength on the bike and the relative importance there. I’ll go for Klamer. Home turf will see her through.

Excellent. What next?

Well, now we wait! No doubt there will be some injuries or other revelations that will change everything and make me look very silly come race day.

I’ll look forward to that happening. Thanks very much.

You are most welcome.

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