Videogames are fun places to disappear into, but they’re not going to prepare you for real life, right? Gran Turismo means little in a full-throttle racing car and Grand Theft Autowon’t aid your rise up through an actual criminal underworld. Okay, it might. With Zwift, however, the virtual world will help you conquer real mountains. Just ask our trio of riders.
- Cycling Plus's trio of riders get serious with their hill climb training
- Double up your training riding indoors and out
In October they jetted out to Tenerife to take on Mount Teide, the volcano that dominates the island and, at 3,718m, is Spain’s highest peak. While the road tops out at 2,325m, its continuous climb from sea level makes it a favourite destination for European roadies.
For the past six months, our trio have been doubling up road riding with intensive indoor sessions on Zwift, delving deep into the game’s various worlds in a bid to get ‘Teide fit’.
What began in the summer with a 4km test on Zwift’s Volcano Climb in the Watopia world ended with a far bigger – and very real – test on this active volcano. Each rider would ride their own preferred version of the climb, dependent on what they thought they were capable.
They all had different reasons for taking part. For Adrian, it was a chance to refine his already considerable Zwift usage by tapping into its training plans more intelligently.
For John, it was an opportunity to keep his hand in while waiting for shoulder surgery that would correct a problem that was limiting his time on the road.
For Hannah, it was her first indoor training experience outside of spin class, and Mount Teide represented the biggest jump in difficulty for any of our trio — a quadrupling, in elevation gain, of her biggest single climb.
Having not long since returned from the double-century hell of the Ötztaler Radmarathon in the Austrian Alps, there was never any danger in Adrian not making it to the top of Teide. The man blitzed it. He might well be in the best shape of his life and credits this, in large part, to Zwift.
“I’m not sure where I’d be without it,” he says. “I can’t commit many hours each week to the bike, and certainly not many hours at once, so being able to crunch my training into hour-long chunks with hard Zwift sessions has given me a short-cut to good form. I still make time for a longer weekend ride each week, but the majority of my training is on Zwift.”
It’s a big majority, too. Of the 8,537km he’s ridden in 2018, 63 percent was in his garage. “It’s paid off. I’m setting personal records on my local hills, without specifically trying. I think those who dismiss Zwift and training indoors as not ‘real’ cycling are missing out.”
For Hannah, the relentlessness of an hour’s Zwifting proved the perfect preparation for a long climb like Teide. “It’s such a pure workout. Living in a city, an hour’s ride during the week would be spent at traffic lights and junctions. It’s half an hour to reach the best climbs. Zwift cuts that out — it’s hard spinning, from beginning to end.
“It’s an exercise hit I can do when it suits me. I work shifts, so Zwift fits around a busy lifestyle that I need to constantly juggle. Even if it’s just half an hour, while my partner is making dinner, for example, it’s half an hour of quality training that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
One of the issues with training on the road, particularly during the working week, is that you can be limited, either because of time, confidence or, more commonly, geography, to a small number of routes, which can get repetitive over time. It’s Zwift’s variety, with multiple worlds, courses and training plans that Hannah finds so appealing.
“Heading outdoors, there are few interesting rides on my doorstep that I can do quickly,” she says. “Zwift gives me a different challenge every time I train.”
John also found his Zwift experience invaluable: “I’ve been carrying a shoulder injury for over a year and it’s been a big limiter on how much time I can spend on the road, as long rides aggravate it. Indoor training is easier — I can set my bike up to limit the weight I put through my shoulder when it’s sore.
“I’m unusual in having a high boredom threshold when it comes to indoor training. You could stick me on a static trainer with a list of intervals to hit, and as long as I had a bit of music I’d hit them. Now I’m on Zwift, with all the fun gameplay it offers, I’m like a kid in a sweet shop.”
Despite his reduced road riding this year, his Zwift experience ensured he made short work of Teide.
“I certainly didn’t feel like I hadn’t been out on the road that much. It was a warm day, right the way up the climb, but I felt in decent nick the whole day, tapping out that rhythm I’ve gotten used to on Watopia’s monster climbs. It was a grind at times, because while Teide’s scenery at the summit is worth the effort, for much of the rest of it, it’s far from the best-looking climb I’ve done.”
Teide revealed certain things that Zwift can’t prepare you for: the scorching sun, high altitude and mixing it with traffic, for instance. Zwift always maintains that it exists to complement road riding, rather than replace it, so any good training plan needs a healthy mix of both to get you in the best shape possible.
With the challenge over, what advice could our trio offer to Zwift newcomers?
“Never start any ride without the Holy Trinity of a fan, a towel and a water bottle,” reckons Adrian. “And if someone asked me if I thought Zwift was for them, I’d say yes, no matter what experience they have. It’s a very inclusive game. Everybody will find something that works for them, whether it’s races for competitive sorts or training plans for those wanting self-improvement.”
“I’d just say ‘go for it’,” says Hannah. “My legs are so much stronger for the experience — strength I know I wouldn’t have had if I’d just ridden outdoors one or two times a week, or a weekly spin class.”
John’s advice would be to not to think of Zwift as a seasonal/winter thing but something that can benefit your cycling all year round: “An excuse I often hear about not exercising is ‘I don’t have the time’. But having a Zwift set-up at home, stealing an hour here and there, and blasting through a workout, that excuse doesn’t stand up.
“One thing I’d say, though, have your Zwift set-up in a shed or garage, or somewhere separate to your living quarters. My Wattbike is in my living room 5ft from the sofa, which doesn’t always serve as the greatest carrot in the pursuit of ‘one last interval!’”
Climbing Mount Teide
- Distance: 21km / 13mi
- Elevation: 1,053m / 3,454ft
- Time: 02:34:36
“There are no warm-ups on Mount Teide, particularly true when your ride starts from Vilaflor, Tenerife’s highest village. At first it was a matter of one pedal stroke at a time, trying to put some tarmac behind me.
"I concentrated on my quickly changing surroundings (just like Zwift!), the forest above Vilaflor thinning out to reveal something recognisably volcanic up in Teide National Park. The wind picked up, but with clear blue skies on Teide, the sun was stronger than ever.
"Onto the plateau, in the shadow of the volcano, and the worst of the climbing was behind me. Weaving through this strange land, there were a series of rises and falls, and twists and turns, before I reached the Parador at the summit, where the only thing left to do was cool down with an ice cream. I’d climbed 21km yet it looked like I’d reached the moon.”
- Distance: 25km / 15.5mi
- Elevation: 1,776m / 5,826ft
- Time: 02:42:20
“What awaits you on Teide is apparent from the start. Staring up at it from the coast, it’s all laid out in front of you. It’s colossal. There are distinct sections to Tenerife, and my ride was a cross-sectional delve into it, with the arid, dusty towns closer to the coast giving way to vineyards, then forest above Vilaflor, before the lava fields of the summit reveal its true origins.
"I never doubted my ability to make it to the summit, it’s just that these contrasts didn’t exactly fly by, particular once Vilaflor was in the rearview, as the altitude began to dig in its claws. By the symbolic 2,000m mark, I was panting hard and knew more than ever that, short of relocating my Zwift set-up to an altitude chamber, there are some things a computer game can’t prepare you for.”
- Distance: 36km / 22mi
- Elevation: 2,184m / 7,165ft
- Time: 03:11:37
“Under three hours. That was my target. In El Medano, the sun was searing and the traffic bustling. I expected harder breathing later on, at altitude. I just hadn’t bargained on the traffic fumes.
"Come my first checkpoint, Granadilla, I was on target. To my second, Vilaflor, I turned dizzy through the relentlessly bending road. Focusing on cadence, as Zwift has conditioned me, was my priority. I stopped for a refill in Vilaflor, the final chance before the summit, and remained on target, but the pause broke my momentum.
"Through the forest I embraced the much-needed shade, only for cramp in my right leg, which gnawed away. Despite stopping to stretch it out, it was enough to send me 11 minutes over my summit target. Still, I’d made it there — a full-on test of endurance and a challenge like no other.”