Since Lockdown started earlier in 2020 indoor cycle training has seen a massive boom in popularity. Zwift, Trainerroad, BKool, Rouvy, Sufferfest and a number of others have all seen a huge increase in turnover since the Covid19 virus introduced itself to the world and people have sought to carry on their training inside, maintaining social distancing.
By far the most popular of these is Zwift which in 2018 had a reported 500,000 members and now has many, many more than this (exact figures are not available on the Zwift site) who are training in this virtual environment on static trainers in their lounges, sheds, garages and balconies in countries around the world.
Having ridden my bike through all seasons and weathers pretty much daily since 1998, I was pretty reluctant to step off my winter hack and join in this indoor revolution, but due to the restrictions being placed on people in the UK and the uncertainty of having any kind of opportunities to race this year I reluctantly signed up for a weeks trial. I already had a smart trainer (I have an Elite, but Wahoo, Tacx, Saris, Kinetic and Cycleops among others also make smart trainers too) in my shed so once I had fettled that and set up the apps on my phone and found a way to position it so I could see what was happening (cheap tripod by the way, works a treat), I was ready to go. I’ll admit I was pretty underwhelmed at first, I didn’t really understand the racing structure and didn’t really like the clunky graphics, and as someone who isn’t massively into stats, the overwhelming amount of data on screen at once made it quite hard to concentrate. However, at the end of my trial week I figured that the races might just have enough in them to encourage me on to my bike in the colder evenings and windy days, so I signed up for my first full month (about £12) and I’m now a week into that.
So what have I learnt about Zwift that I can pass on to you. I have read many accounts of how awesome Zwift is and seen many more articles on how to set it up properly, how to dial in your apps and powermeter and all that lovely stuff, but I want to tell you the top 5 things that no-one seems to tell you before you get started. I do this to help you avoid making the same uncomfortable and often costly mistakes that I made, and to give you a bit of a laugh at my expense too.
- This is pretty much the basis for all of these top 5 so worth kicking off with it…YOU WILL SWEAT!
Having ridden so much outside and having mastered the kit choices for all seasons, I am used to riding in relative comfort outside all year round now. Once I had completed my first Zwift race I was astounded at how much sweat was pooling around the bottom of my bike and how wet my shorts and bike frame were. I was challenged to ride 100 miles by a friend last week and I got 40 miles in and had to stop and go and change my shorts as it was becoming unbearably damp. So I would recommend that you set your bike up somewhere well ventilated and get yourself a fan or 3. I do not have a fan and so my rides now end in me looking like I’ve ridden through a wet and wild UK winter ride and having to wring my shorts out in the garden before I am allowed to enter the house again.
- Which leads me on to…Your handlebar tape will end up stinking by the end of week 1.
I rode for roughly an hour a day for a week and by the end of that time my handlebar tape absolutely stank! It was expensive tape too as I used the bike that I rode Paris-Roubaix on, that I shod with Lizard Skins luxury comfort grippy stuff. After the end of the first week the tape was so sweaty and stinky that I simply took it off and chucked it in the bin (the outside one too, I couldn’t risk the smell permeating the kitchen). I now ride without any tape on the bars at all, instead I drape a towel over the bars and use that for both comfort as well as a safety, sweat catching device that also protects my wheels, headset and shifters from the same fate. I found this out too late and at the weekend I stripped the entire front end of my bike down and was amazed at how much salt had already been pooled around my stem, headset, down through the forks, everywhere! If you sweat all over your best race bike, you will find that you need to strip it down and replace all the bearings and bolts before you think about racing it out on the roads again…also, did I mention the smell! Again, a towel draped over the handlebars seems to protect the worst of this, but be prepared that you’ll need to service your bike before you get it out on the road next summer.
- Don’t wear your best shoes as they will get wet!
I didn’t think about this before I got started and just dug out my shoes that went with the bike, so ended up with a rather nice pair of Mountainbike shoes on and a week later (recurring theme here) they now have to live outside on a permanent basis as they are also banned form the house. I have washed them, scrubbed them, deodorised them, put tea bags in them and tried every other trick in the book, but I now have to accept that they will always smell faintly like they have been lived in by an incontinent cat for a few weeks. So my recommendation here is that you use an old pair of shoes or a pair that you will dedicate to ‘Turbo Trainer only use’ as I don’t think, post-lockdown, you would be very popular with your riding buddies if you turned up smelling like a 3 week old litter tray and got yourself a permanent ban from your favourite mid-ride coffee shop.
I appreciate there is a bit of a quandary here, as you will want to ride in comfortable shoes that are stiff and allow you to get the most power you can out of every pedal stroke, but trust me, don’t wear your poshest shoes, you’ll regret it, as I have!
- Chamois Cream is your best friend. As you will sweat so much, you will be permanently damp and your bum will bear the brunt of this. Again, riding outside has many advantages, as well as getting your layering right and having a stiff breeze to keep you relatively dry and comfortable throughout, you can also stand up and stretch on downhills, shift your weight around to ease your dead spots and simply move about to ease the pressure on your perineum occasionally. You don’t have that luxury on Zwift, especially if you’re mid-race trying to push out as much power as you can to keep up with the group you’re tenuously hanging onto the back of. If you stop pedalling for even a second you’re out the back, on your own with just your thoughts, some 90s graphics and your sweaty nether region for company. While you’re immersed in your race you’ll largely forget about your sore bits and plough on through, however when you stop you’ll quickly realise your mistake and spend the first 5 minutes of your post-ride shower and the rest of the evening regretting it. So my recommendation here is to get the best chamois cream you can find and slather it on liberally. If you’re doing a big stint (anything over an hour I would say) I would also recommend a brief stop to change shorts and re-apply your lifesaving salvation or you’ll end up sitting on one of those doughnut shaped pillows during your next Zoom meeting, questioning your life choices.
- You won’t be very good. I have since discovered that there are a number of Zwift hacks that everyone else seems to know and I definitely did not. As I lined up for my first race with a mixture of confidence in my years of riding and disdain for the clearly inferior mere mortals around me I was unprepared for the sheer speed that everyone starts at. I was spat out the back and spent the first 5 minutes of the race catching up with the back markers. Whereupon I had used so much energy to catch them that I was summarily dropped again. It turns out that the trick is to build up as much wattage at you can while the clock counts down to GO, then smash out 500+ watts for the first minute, before settling down to a pace that is way out of your comfort zone for the next 20-30 minutes, depending on how long your chosen race is. I repeat, you will not be very good. After my first 3 or 4 rides I had all but given up on trying to keep up with anyone in the races, and simply riding around one of the chosen ‘worlds’ with thousands of people from around the globe held absolutely no motivation or stimulus for me at all, so I persevered and eventually found a couple of races that I could keep up with the second group in (for reference in my last race I was 27th out of 70 riders and I was pushing over 300 watts the whole time! For anyone that’s not familiar with Watts, as I wasn’t, 300 watts roughly translates as ‘going eyeballs out and sweating a lot’) and that gave me enough hope to keep going and try to get better. I’ll admit that the drafting took a while to get used to and doesn’t really reflect what it’s like to get behind someone in a race out on the roads, where you can take a proper breather, grab a drink and get back on the front again. Instead, on Zwift, I found myself yo-yo-ing up and down the group as I hit the front, maintained the same power, then drifted back through the group before having to put in another surge to get back into the group which then naturally put me back on the front again, at no time getting any real respite from pedalling. But in fairness, once you get used to it, it does make you work harder than you normally would and that’s a real benefit to your training once you accept that you won’t (or probably shouldn’t) want to race every night.
For me, I don’t think Zwift will ever replace the sheer joy of being out on my bike in the fresh air, seeing new places and the feeling of speed and the undulations in the road, but now I’m used to it (reminder, I’m only 2 weeks in to trying it) I can certainly see how it can help the training and keep riders interested, especially through the long dark, cold winter months in Europe. Once you get used to sweating profusely and pushing your self to your limits it’s also quite rewarding, and the chance to compare your own average speed and power as well as test yourself against others keeps you interested and brings out your competitive side. I personally wish that someone had managed my expectations and taught me a couple of hacks before I got started so I could have hit the ground running, so hopefully these 5 things that people don’t tell you before you get started should help you to get into your stride straight away and you can concentrate on the fun bit…trying to keep up with the Sega Megadrive style characters in front of you.
Marc Molloy is a cycling coach and enthusiast who owns and runs Sole Cycling. He has been riding bikes in earnest since 1998 and now races Cross Triathlon for the Great Britain Age-Group team and has competed at the World and European Championships.
First Published in May 2020 on www.solecycling.co.ukFollow us on Social Media or Blog post updates.