My First Foray Into the Virtual World…

Okay, one huge slice of humble pie for me please… In my last article “New Year, New Me?” I wrote:

“if it means sitting on a turbo trainer night after night chasing people around a fictional Volcano and rarely getting out in the “real World” then, quite frankly I’m not that interested. (No disrespect, it’s just not my thing -plus my internet connection is terrible.)”

But then came the rain and boy oh boy did it rain…over and over again, relentless. I physically couldn’t dry my shoes out between rides quick enough, time to revise my anti-turbo stance perhaps. For the record;  I’ve never “hated” the Turbo Trainer or those who use online training platforms such as Zwift, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed the group chat banter at the expense of our in-club Zwift users. However, I still don’t see the point of riding on it regularly anytime after March or anytime before November/December. I understand the training rides are very interactive and “virtual doping” aside it’s probably very accurate and very beneficially to your off-season training, but when the sun is shining just get outdoors. The main reason I have for joining the Turbo party is I’ve simply had enough of getting cold, windswept, wet and trashing my kit every single day, I’m no stranger to cold and wet wintry rides but lately…Jeez! I’ve spent a reasonable amount of money on shoes, I even have a dedicated grotty-weather-pair, but  I’ve probably spent the same amount of money on overshoes too,  I’ve had; Velotoze, Craft, Spuik, Castelli and Giant, unfortunately they’ve all succumbed to the weather in some way or another. So quite frankly I’ve had enough of it.

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My “Training” has been going okay, for me this time of year its more about getting lots of base miles in to build a platform of sorts. I’m fitting in as much as I can around work, It helps that I commute 4 days a week to one job and finish earlier the other 2 days on my other job. But its early morning miles and then post-work miles, hard to build any sort of consistent program. As before mentioned; this year i’m going to predominantly focus on my timetrialling, aside from riding on the courses there are very little places to train over that distance and at that pace uninterrupted by traffic, junctions or just being on a dual carriageway solo with no warning notices!

So here goes.. If i’m going to get any seriously productive training done, i’m going to have to swallow my pride and join the Turbo brigade and get on Zwift. These are words that believe me, I never thought I’d ever utter…

 

What is Zwift? In brief, Zwift is an online cycling and running video game-come-training programme set in a virtual world. You ride as an avatar around a range of maps set in the fictional world of Watopia or in the newer maps located in New York, London, Richmond or Innsbruck. You can customise your avatar by unlocking different cycling kits, bikes and accessories, you do this by gathering “XP” (Experience points) for accumulating miles and achievements, some easier than others, for example: Drafting a rider for 10 seconds will give you XP as will hitting 1000 Watts, I know which is easier!

Zwift was founded in 2014 by Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin in the cycling hotbed of California. It’s currently £12.00 a month for full access to the game, this includes unlimited freeride across the aforementioned Virtual worlds, all the training plans and even the races. Zwift gathers the data from your Power Meter, Heart Rate monitor, Turbo Trainer, Cadence etc through ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart technology to replicate your in-garage efforts to your in-game effort.

I’ve gone the whole hog, I’ve set up a designated turbo spot in the garage, got the floor fan, the towel, the turbo wheel and tyre, I’ve even knocked up a rickety-looking shelf for my iPad to sit on. Technology isn’t one of my strong points (I can hear Stu and Nick laughing!) so aligning and syncing the Garmin to the Power Meter, Heart Rate, Speed/Cadence and Trainer was…interesting..

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I’ve recently acquired a Rotor In2Power left hand crank driven Power Meter which I’m seriously looking forward to using this season. Eager to get to grips with it I went straight home to set it up, “Turn the cranks putting 2.5kg of pressure through to wake up the power meter.” I jumped on and started spinning, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes… This wasn’t funny. I flicked back through the set-up pages examining each bullet point, I’d done everything correct so why wasn’t it working? I scratched my head over it for a while before reading the last line on the last page: “batteries not included”. I was that wound up my heart rate was soaring and i’d not even started my workout! I tried to get into the battery slot with my fingers turning the dial from the padlock to unlocked but it wouldn’t go, I grabbed a tyre lever -all the while getting more and more exasperated and attacked it, slipped and took a chunk out of my knuckle on the cadence sensor! Right that does it…I asked my Dad to do it. (Again, Stu, Nick I can hear the laughter…) 

 

Once everything was synced and responding properly I was ready for my first turbo workout of the year and boy oh boy was it tough: what was comfortable and efficient last season now seemed horrendous, how on earth did I push that big gear, how on earth did I sit on that saddle and how on earth did I spent any period of time in that praying mantis position! I started off with an Hour long session including three 10 minute efforts close to race pace. My new toy was up and running with all data fields pouring data out, I set a page on my Garmin dedicated to Power Data but in all honesty it was overwhelming. There was so much different data to look at that I didn’t give anywhere near an accurate reading. I would stare at the power numbers, then look at my heart rate then speed then time left of the interval, It was up and down and far from the smooth line I’d thought it would show.

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Rather than aimlessly pedal, a few clicks on the Internet and I easily found a wide variety of free to download power training workouts to follow, including a whole host of week-long plans specifically designed for the aspiring time trial enthusiast. I scribbled down a few workouts that appealed to me, at this point the numbers all meant very little to me, I was just collecting as many relevant workouts as I could find so as not to get bored with repeating the same over and over again. A couple of workouts later and my mind is wandering all over the place, I need some visual stimulation as the numbers make for very boring reading and serious mind numbing. I need something…like Zwift?

I did it, I finally did it. I bit the bullet and against all previous things I’d ever said and written I signed up to Zwift. I fired up my recently upgraded iPad, loaded up the Zwift, Tacx and Trainer Road app and Synced the turbo to it. Easy as that, or so I thought. I started my first few pedal strokes on the streets of London (The London map on Zwift) and I could instantly see the attraction; the like-ness and graphics were very good and pretty accurate. My first thought was “wow thats a lot of people”, the virtual roads were heaving with different riders, from individuals like myself to others in fully fledged pelotons acting out chaingangs and training plans. My first ride was very much experimental, cruising around the streets of London transfixed by the screen, watching the kilometres tick by. This was perfect, exactly what I wanted from it initially, some visual stimulation to take my mind off the task in hand. Once my warm up spin was over I started my efforts, the wattage, speed and heart rate on screen gradually increasing with my real world effort. I was so deep in the interval with my head in my hands that I didn’t see the Watts creeping over 1000! Im a reasonably fit guy with reasonable power but according to my post-ride analysis I’d averaged 550 Watts for an hour!? Didn’t Wiggins average 440 for the Hour Record? Amateur.

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Im sure you won’t be shocked to find that it was incorrect; It turns out all the Power, Cadence and Speed readings were being taken from my Tacx Trainer and not from my Garmin sensors or even the Power Meter. The iPad was only picking up Bluetooth and not ANT+, I’d need to get hold of a dongle or an adaptor to make the data correct. Everything on my Garmin display was correct but the data displayed on Zwift was not. Much to my embarrassment I’d even won some virtual KOM and sprint Jerseys by quite a substantial margin, I felt bad so didn’t save my ride and just uploaded the Garmin file instead.

I called upon a few of my friends who were more experienced in Zwift than I to say the least, they talked about re-calibration and system updates to no avail. Simon volunteered to update my laptop and Stuart made a “James Does Zwift” checklist for me. I still rode on Zwift I just didn’t save my Virtual rides as before, I did however enjoy customising my Avatar, opting for the Garmin Kit with a much more acceptable sock height and fitting some deep sections to my virtual Specialized Allez.

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Turns out my Laptop was un-salvageable so a new plan was hatched; Stuart had recently upgraded his Computer so donated me his old one –what a legend- along with all necessary cables, adaptors, screen and keyboard, my high-wattage problem was soon resolved with ANT+ rectifying all the data to finally read correctly. No more sky-high watts. Unfortunately.

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The Zwift display is easy to use and clearly shows all the necessary data in a sort of Heads Up Display. In the top left hand corner; Power, Heart Rate and Cadence. In the middle of the screen there’s your Distance, Speed and Elapsed Time along with your XP bar so you see how far or how close you are to the next level. On the right hand side is a map of where you are riding along with all the “dots” indicating other riders, this is great as you can see prospective turnings and route changes should you want to explore the maps further. Zwifters’ in your immediate vicinity are displayed in an ever-changing column on the right hand side, each riders name shows nationality, watts per kilo and distance they’ve ridden. There’s a leader board on the left hand side of the screen showing you comparative efforts between yourself and others for different sections or segments, such as the climbs or the sprints. One thing I did notice was that there appears to be a lot of riders’ names followed by the team or club name they ride for, I seem to ride for anyone and everyone so I took a diplomatic approach to this and decided upon starting my own; Levy Thundercatz CC… A pretty rad name I’m sure you’ll agree!

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In addition to the freeride option there are hundreds of pre-loaded workouts tailored to your FTP, previously I thought the workouts were self imposed or pre-planned with friends and acted out on Zwift. There are Races too, again your FTP decides if you’re a category A, B, C or D. For now I think I’ll do the social rides and the training plans and  leave the races for a few weeks just until I get used to it all.

The Zwift companion app lets you befriend other riders, see both your rides and your friends, compare your stats and see how many slices of pizza you’ve burnt! It allows you to send a “Ride On!” which is sort of like a Kudos on Strava. You can arrange to meet up and ride with your friends too and select what type of workout or race to do.

 

 

This is in no way a replacement for “Real World” riding, I’ll still do all of my commutes and try to get some longer club rides in too. There are a lot of variables in the real world that are out of our control; weather, traffic, terrain and other road users just to name a few, having Zwift enables me to alleviate these variables and follow a training plan without interruption. Zwift also lets me complete beneficial workouts within tighter time frames, for example if I only have an hour after work I can easily throw on some shorts and shoes and jump on the turbo ready to go, rather than having to kit up which, with the inclement Cornish weather is more of an ordeal than it sounds.

To conclude, Zwift doesn’t replace road riding but accompanies it to enable riding to work for everyone regardless of time available or even ability. If you’re having doubts about jumping on the virtual bandwagon, don’t. Don’t be like me, I poo-poo’d the suggestion of it for a long time without really looking at it in depth, I’d advise you to have a go first. You never know, you might like it and if you do give me shout and let me know how you find it. Thanks for reading,

Now, Just Go Ride!

James Grogan (LevyThundercatz)

 

 

 

 

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