Training over the winter has traditionally been a choice of two options in the northern hemisphere; layer up and brave the elements or substitute potential rain for the guaranteed monotony of a turbo trainer.
Zwift has transformed the latter, creating an experience that can transport you to another (simulated) world when training indoors.
Gone are the days when your only motivation or distraction during turbo trainer workouts was a good Spotify playlist or film.
In its place are re-creations of real-world spots (such as the Champs-Élysées, Alpe d’Huez and even Surrey’s Box Hill) that mimic everything from their gradients to their road furniture, while there a whole host of dreamt-up courses and routes ripe for exploring.
Throw in a friendly and engaged community of riders who are on hand to give you encouragement during a group session or put your fitness to the test in a race, and Zwift provides a genuine alternative or accompaniment to winter riding.
At its heart, though, Zwift is about providing an indoor cycling experience that – in terms of accuracy and convenience – can be as good as (if not better than) hitting the road, helping you iron out weaknesses or prepare for an event without leaving your home.
“Zwift offers whatever you want to get out of it, whether that’s long rides, paced rides, socialising, races – you can kind of scratch whatever itch you have,” explains Shayne Gaffney, a USA Cycling level one certified coach (the highest level) who has used the platform for numerous years for his own training and that of his clients.
You can, of course, opt into a training plan and Gaffney is Zwift’s training content manager, as well as the creator of its most popular training plan, ‘Build Me Up’. (We’ve got a full guide to the best Zwift workouts and training plans, as well as an explainer on cycling training zones).
But if you’re keen to break from the mould or want the flexibility to create a drill on the fly, just as you might on the road, it’s worth targeting set routes and courses depending on what your aims are for a session.
Here, Gaffney talks us through each of Zwift’s 11 worlds, how you can plan a workout to best utilise the terrain on offer, and how to maximise every session to ensure that there are no wasted pedal strokes.
Watopia is a hub world that is always available to ride whenever you fire up Zwift. As the biggest map on the platform, it is home to numerous zones that riders can easily lose themselves in.
“Watopia is the most diverse world, where you can do anything you need to do from a training perspective, as long as you know what you’re looking for in those courses,” says Gaffney.
Tempus Fugit/Tick Tock
Both of these pan-flat courses take in the desert zone of Fuego Flats, and the minimal elevation allows you to focus on sustained, sweetspot efforts. “There’s not a lot of undulation, so you can hit a certain wattage and just stick with it for as long as you need to,” Gaffney adds.
Road to Sky
Zwift’s turn-by-turn modelling of the Alpe d’Huez climb (and its 1,045m elevation) can be attempted on this 17.3km route.
It’s not just a way to attempt one of cycling’s most iconic climbs – Alpe du Zwift, as the ascent is known, can also be used for longer efforts or even improving sprint strength.
“Going up Alpe du Zwift, you can work on your ability to sustain function threshold power (FTP) and your time to exhaustion,” explains Gaffney. “You can also use the steady gradients to work on low-cadence and high-torque work.”
Zwift’s newest addition, Makuri Islands, was launched to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s really cool because it’s going to be our second hub world,” he says. The world already has the contrasting zones of Yumezi (a mixture of countryside and small villages) and the neon-lit, downtown Tokyo-inspired Neokyo, and more areas are in the works.
Temples and Towers
The Temples and Towers route is the longest in the Makuri Islands at 32.6km.
It takes you over all three of the world’s three KOMs and combines periods in Yumezi and Neokyo. Gaffney recommends doing high-intensity work on the climbs and recovering between the segments.
“This route is kind of like the Tick Tock or Tempus Fugit of Watopia, making it ideal for low-intensity recovery rides or high-intensity, steady-state rides where I’m looking to get a power stimulus out of it,” explains Gaffney.
Created for the first Virtual Tour de France in 2020, this world gave riders another iconic French climb to tackle from their front room – Mont Ventoux (known as Mont Ven-Top on Zwift).
The map has more than one string to its bow, though, and Gaffney says the varied terrain can be used for a wide range of training.
Translated literally as “leg-breaking”, the term is used by French cyclists to describe a difficult part of a ride. The Aqueduc KOM is the perfect example of this, and Gaffney suggests using the 400m climb for hard but relatively short efforts around VO2 max.
The recreation of Mont Ventoux can be treated like its Watopia alpine equivalent – Alpe du Zwift. “It’s a really long, hard climb, but again it’s great for threshold training or working on climbing-specific cadences,” he explains.
Another world added to Zwift for the 2020 Virtual Tour de France, the recreation of the French capital’s most famous cobbled street, the Champs-Élysées, is also the smallest map on Zwift.
The only choice when it comes to routes is the direction you take around the 6.6km circuit, but the world is more than a simple sightseeing spin. It’s an ideal option for unleashing your inner Mark Cavendish and improving your sprinting.
“It’s just great for sprinter drills because you can go really hard down the Champs and then recover up the back end and then do it over and over again,” says Gaffney.
As the third course released on Zwift, Richmond was created for the 2015 UCI Road Cycling World Championships and was refreshed with updated graphics in 2020.
Although there aren’t as many routes as you’ll find in some of the bigger game worlds, it can still be used for both high- and low-intensity sessions.
The Richmond map is home to two segmented climbs – Libby Hill and 23rd Street – that can be attempted back-to-back to help practise the repetitive surges of a race. “I like to use it for high-intensity recovery training so your body’s used to it and prepared,” Gaffney says.
The Fan Flats
Short (5km) and flat (13m elevation), Gaffney recommends this route for recovery or endurance rides, due to it being really easy to get into a rhythm and regular cadence.
The UK capital has been immortalised on Zwift, giving riders around the world the chance to ride past landmarks such as Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the Thames before making their way to the hills of Surrey.
“London is kind of like Watopia in that it can offer really hard epic routes like a “PRL Full” (173km and 2,290m of elevation), which is great if you want to just beat yourself up for a day and recover for a week,” says Gaffney.
“This is probably my favourite higher-intensity route because it goes over Box Hill – a seven-to-10-minute climb that is a really nice VO2 max stimulus before recovering down the backside,” he suggests.
Greater London flat
Although it’s not as flat as the routes in other worlds, this is Gaffney’s favourite choice for steady-state endurance rides on the London map: “You do still have some undulation in the terrain, but it’s not as bad as a KOM or Box Hill would be.”
The second UCI Road Cycling World Championship course added to Zwift, the Innsbruck world has a range of routes that can be ridden at varying intensities, depending on what you want to get from the session.
Home to the “Leg Snapper” (a 450m-long, 7 per cent climb), this route around downtown Innsbruck is ideal if your weak spot is fatigue resistance, according to Gaffney.
“Every time I race it, I get destroyed the first time up that climb, but it’s really great for anaerobic power and anaerobic capacity as you repeat it,” he explains.
The polar opposite of the short, sharp climb of the Innsbruckring, either the Lutscher or Lutscher CCW sees you ascend the Innsbruck KOM and gain more than 800m of vertical ascent, but they have their differences.
“The normal route is longer but way less steep, while the CCW version is like climbing a wall for the entire time,” says Gaffney.
“Depending on how many gears you have and what your FTP is, you can hit the climbs either really easy, and just be in zone two or zone three, or you can pick it up a little bit and bring it up to FTP or zone four even.
“I like climbs for working on higher-intensity or FTP-type efforts because I like to just get into a rhythm, find a gear and just hit it.”
Gaffney believes this is the toughest course because there’s no chance to rest and recover – ”you’re always either going up a fairly steep climb or descending and trying to keep up your power or with a race.“
Training aside, it’s important to remember one of Zwift’s attractions is how it makes indoor riding bearable thanks to visual stimulation. Enter Everything Bagel.
“This is really fun because it does the KOMs, but it also goes from riding in New York to then taking a right turn into 2080 – complete with flying cars, glass roads and nice distractions.”
The third and final UCI Road Cycling World Championships course to be added to Zwift, the Yorkshire world reimagines the undulating roads that surround the real-life Harrogate.
“It’s pretty challenging too, just because there’s not a lot of flat in it – I don’t like to race on those courses because I just can’t recover,” adds Gaffney.
Royal Pump Room 8
The 27.7km course takes in the Yorkshire KOM from both directions with a short recovery window in the middle. “I like to do a really hard effort up the climb and then try to recover as best I can before hitting it again up and down,” he says.
“The same thing is really great for working your fatigue resistance and being able to respond to really hard efforts and repeat that hard effort multiple times.”
One of two event-only worlds on Zwift along with Bologna (below), Crit City is for, you guessed it, crit races.
While it’s not a course to attempt a workout on per se, Gaffney believes that signing up to a Zwift race in the map could be a great alternative to a high-intensity session.
“Racing is way more exciting and it’s a lot more viscerally motivating to dig really deep as opposed to in a workout.
“You’re not just looking at a clock waiting for the time to expire on your next interval – you have that carrot to chase and you don’t want to get dropped because that’s a terrible feeling.”
He notes that the one thing to look out for on the course is a “pretty gnarly kicker” on turn three. “That race is about hanging on and then trying to hang on up the hill. It’s about how good you are at responding to attacks, recovering really quickly and repeating that same effort 25 times in a row.”
The Italian city was recreated in Zwift form to mark its hosting of the 2019 Giro d’Italia prologue time trial.
The event-only course takes riders from the flat, portico-lined streets of the centre before arriving at the foot of a climb that Gaffney describes as “horrible”. But it is worth signing up for a TT on the course if you want to focus on your pacing.
“A lot of newer cyclists don’t really understand pacing – they’ll go really hard as soon as the gate drops and burn themselves out within the first three minutes before hitting the climb.
“It’s a good exercise to learn how to go hard on the flats but not to go so hard that you can’t turn it up another gear on the climb. You’re going to win or lose the race on the climb – not on the flat beforehand.”