Moving to Spain from London two years ago, I have quickly become used to the quiet, smooth roads, and long winding climbs surrounding Madrid where I live. Famous cycling destinations punctuate this beautiful country- Alicante, Girona, Calpe, Mallorca, Sierra Nevada and more. Spain is not just the cycling playground of Europe, but the world, so the recent ban on outdoor exercise has been a bitter pill to swallow. For the time being, Covid-19 ensures we can’t do what we have always taken for granted- riding outside, exploring new roads, clearing our minds to release stress and feeling the wind against our faces.
There is hope, however. For those lucky enough to own a turbo trainer or even rollers, indoor cycling lets us ride, stay fit and avoid going crazy in our apartments. Whether racing indoors, doing structured training sessions, group rides or solo epics, indoor cycling is a salvation during this difficult time.
In recent years, the popularity of indoor cycling has grown hugely as smart turbo trainers and immersive riding platforms like Zwift make the process far more enjoyable and realistic. The old images of cyclists toiling away in their garages during winter, staring at walls while completing painful intervals has been consigned to the past along with downtube shifters and toe clips. In the past, one hour of riding indoors was principally a test of a riders mental strength, but Zwift makes two hours exploring their various worlds feel easy. Feel like smashing Richmond’s cobbled climb like Peter Sagan in the 2015 World Championships? You can. Want to recreate Alejandro Valverde's sprint victory at Innsbruck in 2018? Go for it.
To get started with indoor cycling you need three things- a turbo trainer or rollers, a bike and most importantly, a fan because you will get very hot. Do you need smart trainers and power meters to enjoy indoor cycling? Not necessarily. A simple heart rate monitor or just riding on feel will still allow you to explore the worlds of Zwift or complete your own intervals. However, if you want the maximum training benefit and best ‘road feel’, a smart trainer is for you. Smart trainers feature integrated power meters and ‘communicate’ with Zwift, replicating the roads found in their virtual worlds, so when you hit Box Hill in ‘London’ or Alpe du Zwift in ‘Watopia’, the trainer’s resistance increases along with the gradient.
The first time I rode Zwift’s hills using my smart trainer, I was blown away. Here I was, in my living room, tackling famous climbs and getting a sweat on. For someone that takes an almost masochistic enjoyment from punishing myself on climbs, it was great to know I could recreate this feeling at home.
When you first begin on Zwift it can be confusing to know where to start. Provided you have a smart trainer or power meter, the first port of call should be one of Zwift’s FTP tests, either a ramp test or traditional 20 minute maximum effort. These are painful but invaluable, allowing you to subsequently get the maximum training benefit from future rides. Armed with your new FTP data, every training session, group ride or race will be catered to you, making choosing one far easier. If you can’t do an FTP test, you can still do a functional threshold heart rate test (FTHR) to find your heart rate zones.
My rides on Zwift are similar to my outdoor riding, albeit shorter. I do a mixture of high and low intensity- group rides, individual intervals, occasional races or just exploring Zwift’s various worlds. One of my favourite Zwift activities is group riding. These are great if, like me, you miss riding with others. The Zwift companion app lets you choose rides, graded between A-E, making it easy to find the level that applies to you. As in real life, riding with others is motivating. When I’m riding with a group of strong riders outside, I push myself, and Zwift rides are no different. People take turns at the front, often go hard on climbs and the pace fluctuates. Zwift doesn’t offer coffee stops or let you point out potholes to fellow riders. Who knows? If this quarantine continues Zwift may add these as a feature.
For something more intense and competitive, try Zwift racing. Every Zwift race I have done is very tough with an unrelenting pace from the start. It is fascinating just how similar these races are to the criteriums I used to race in the UK. Breakaways form, work is shared between riders, tactics come into play and you can draft behind others to save energy. The elated, adrenalised feeling you get from giving your maximum effort in a competitive environment is something I highly recommended. Whether you win or come last, these races are fun and will get you fitter and faster. Guaranteed.
Finally, if racing, group rides or intervals are not appealing, you can ride at your own pace and explore one of Zwift’s worlds. Each world is unique with different terrains and challenges. There are three World Championship courses at Richmond, Innsbruck and Yorkshire. There is also London, which includes part of the 2012 Olympic Road Race course and the Surrey Hills. Watopia, the original Zwift world, is my personal favourite. It is an epic mixture of long flat roads such as those in Fuego Flats, undulating hills like those in Titan’s Grove or mammoth climbs like Alpe du Zwift, a recreation of the monumental Alpe d’Huez.
When I want to practise my climbing and escape mentally, the Epic KOM in Watopia is my destination. This 9.5km climb starts at sea level, passes through a village and gradually rises over the snowline until you reach the icy summit. As in real life, you are in and out of the saddle, spinning away at your own rhythm or grinding away as you approach the top. The feeling of personal satisfaction at the summit illustrates just how far indoor cycling has come.
The value of indoor cycling during this challenging period can not be underestimated. Whether you use a smart trainer to compete on Zwift or simply ride on the rollers, indoor riding keeps us fit, healthy and pedalling as we focus on a brighter future and the road ahead.
Words: Charles Graham-Dixon