Words and photos by Tristan Cardew
On March 14 I climbed to the top of one of the highest climbs in the Girona region and sat by myself for a while. I needed time to think, to process. The prior few weeks had seen attitudes towards Coronavirus shift from dismissiveness to near panic. Up to that day, Catalunya had 350 cases of Coronavirus and a handful of deaths.
The night before, I’d watched a video by an Italian woman who pleaded with viewers to learn the lessons Italy hadn’t; that quarantine didn’t mean time to go on holidays or to dinners with friends, that staying indoors is the only way to stop the spread of the virus. Within days, her description of hundreds of deaths had transitioned into thousands. I was jolted out of my malaise.
The day after my solo pilgrimage to the mountain top, Catalunya went into a mandatory 14-day lockdown. Borders were sealed off and roads were blocked. Every non-essential service was shut down. Overnight riding outside became illegal; with hospitals soon in crisis-mode and infections rising by the minute, any fall or incident requiring an ambulance, medical personnel and time away from trying to slow the spread of the virus was not something the Spanish health system could deal with.
That afternoon I went inside my apartment and closed the door. In the last 14 days I’ve been outside twice, for a total of 20 minutes each time to re-stock my pantry.
Life in quarantine
The story above may or may not ring true, but it’s likely it soon will. At the time of writing, some countries have enforced a complete lockdown, others have enforced a semi-lockdown, others haven’t done much at all and life goes on as usual.
From the position of someone living in a region where a complete lockdown has meant no riding outdoors and a state-enforced “permission-note” system for walking down the street, what seemed draconian at first is truly the only way to get the virus under control.
So what have I been up to? Outside of work (which I thankfully can do remotely), it’s been eat, sleep, and return, of sorts, to a new reality: training indoors.
When I moved to Girona three years ago, riding the trainer became all but obsolete to me. I’d used my home trainer a handful of times in Sydney through rainy weeks but had barely considered it since. In Girona, trainer time just isn’t necessary – it rarely rains for more than a day at a time and the riding outside is of such a quality that you’d never sacrifice a day outside for a trainer session inside.
In the last fortnight that has all changed. Not only have I learned how it feels to live in a place where riding outside isn’t an option (like some northern European countries through winter), I’ve also joined the masses of people riding, training and racing in the virtual playground that is Zwift’s Watopia.
A substitute for a ride outdoors it is not, but as a salve for challenges of isolation, it’s kept me sane (and in shape).
It’s worth noting that there are plenty of alternatives to the Zwift virtual training platform but it’s what I’ve learned to use and am going to write about here.
There are plenty of videos out there explaining the nuances of racing on Zwift – which courses will suit your riding style and what powerups to use and when – but what I want to focus on is some of the basics for the people who might find themselves cooped up inside in the not too distant future. Those who, like me, really didn’t know where to start with riding the trainer. Done right, it will keep you pedalling through a quarantine period.
Before you get started, do a quick check of everything below. There’s nothing worse than having to get off the trainer because you’ve forgotten earphones or a bottle…
Get a trainer and get on Zwift
First of all, you’ll need a trainer. It doesn’t have to be a Smart trainer – one that measures power output and allows Zwift to control resistance – but it helps. If you don’t have a Smart trainer, a power meter is the next best thing. If you don’t have either, you’ll need a speed sensor on your rear wheel at minimum. Garmin and Wahoo offer these for around $50. The speed sensor is necessary to measure your virtual distance and effort, and to make riding online as realistic as possible. Without it, you’ll go nowhere.
Next, you’ll need to download the Zwift app – it can run on a phone, tablet or computer and connects to them via Bluetooth. The app is around 650mb so it takes a little while to download and install (the first time I set it up my patience got the better of me as I thought my computer had frozen – don’t expect to be up and riding in a couple of minutes). Depending on your trainer and/or device, the Bluetooth connection may not always be strong, so keep them no more than a meter from each other to ensure you don’t dropout mid-workout.
It’s worth downloading the Zwift Companion app to your phone at the same time. This way you can follow other riders, join events and races, type messages to other users while you ride and keep track of all your workouts. It’s important to note that the Zwift app is what you’ll use to view your virtual world and all your ride data as you ride, whereas the Zwift Companion app is the social side to it all. They work in harmony and I’ve been very impressed with the way they link up.
Once you’ve downloaded Zwift, sign up for an account. Zwift is around $15 a month with a free, 7-day trial period included. Zwift links up with Strava and TrainingPeaks so you can track all your workouts accurately if you’re into that kind of thing.
You’ll need to set up your profile with some basic pieces of information – most important is your weight and FTP (functional threshold power – or the power you can hold if you were to ride steady for one hour). With your correct weight and an FTP input, Zwift will automatically calculate your training zones and give you accurate, attainable goals through their pre-planned workouts. If you don’t know your FTP, set the number to 2.5 times your body weight and make your first session an FTP test. If you leave it at 0, the trainer won’t give you any resistance.
Zwift offers a number of different ‘Worlds’ to ride in, all modelled off real-life cities with landmarks and climbs, along with their own added features – a futuristic see-through suspension bridge in Central Park, New York for example. Zwift also has it’s own virtual world, Watopia, which now includes gravel sections and a mountain bike track, as well as a very realistic climb that replicates the famous Alpe d’Huez.
What’s nice with Zwift is how new features and functionality are being added constantly. All the ‘worlds’ offer climbs, descents, flat routes and hilly, depending on what you’re feeling like. As you ride, you can navigate your way left and right at intersections based on what you’re feeling. If you’re using a Smart trainer, you’ll notice the resistance increase as you go uphill and decreases as you go downhill to replicate real riding conditions.
What to wear on the trainer
My favourite piece of kit is a summer-weight base layer. This goes for both on the trainer and outdoors on the road. I spoke about this on my Instagram when I rode 1,100 kilometres through France during last July’s record-breaking heatwave, and I’ll say it again here: a base layer is like your own personal air conditioning system.
It may seem counterintuitive to add a layer, but as you sweat into your base layer and air passes through it, it cools you down. This allows your body to regulate your temperature more easily and keeps you more comfortable. The more your core temperature rises, the more you’ll struggle to push the power. On the trainer, this is amplified because of the lack of airflow, and a base layer becomes even more important.
Saddle comfort is also a big consideration to make as you’re sitting in the same place without a lot of movement for long periods of time. On the road you’ll stop for lights, stand up for climbs, and have a break at the café, whereas on the trainer you’re sitting and pedalling almost non-stop. For this reason I go for bibs with a slightly thicker chamois – the Attaquer All Day bibs are perfect for this.
Over the top of the undershirt I run a jersey – the lighter the better. The Race Ultra Climbers jersey is super thin and super breathable. I’ve also been using it to keep me excited for the Summer to come…fingers crossed I actually get to use mine outdoors.
Attaquer’s Race Ultra+ socks are the more lightweight alternative from the collection, and even though I rarely run a cycling cap outside, on the trainer it really helps soak up sweat.
Now let’s talk about what else to bring to the party…
A fan. The bigger the better. I mean like…the biggest fan you can find. The most notable difference between riding the trainer and riding outside is the lack of airflow, so something to replicate that is critical. If you’ve only got air-conditioning (like me), pump it full gas for 10-15 minutes before you start your workout and keep it going throughout.
Towels. You’ll want three of them. One for underneath the trainer so your sweat doesn’t soak into your carpet or stain your floorboards. One to drape over your handlebars because salt doesn’t mix well with the moving parts in shifters and headsets. And the final one (ideally washcloth or tea-towel size) to wipe yourself down with as you train. Don’t underestimate how much you will sweat. While we’re on the topic of fluids…
Fluids. I’ve been going through two bidons for every 1.5 hours I’m riding the trainer. One with just water, and one with an electrolyte drink mix. For hard training sessions I’ve been using two bottles of electrolyte drink mix. Like heat, the amount of sweat you generate on the trainer versus outdoors is increased. You’re better off having 3 bottles available and only needing two of them than being 15 minutes from the end of a workout and having nothing left..
Food. Some people say an hour on the trainer is worth two hours on the road. Why? Because you can’t freewheel on the trainer. It’s amazing how much time we spend at very low watts when riding outdoors – people call this ‘micro-rest’ – but this isn’t available to us indoors, and as a result your body chews through calories at a much higher rate than it does out on the road. Bananas, rice cakes, muesli bars, and general ride food are important to have while on the trainer…you’ll know as soon as your muscles are glycogen deficient because your legs will start to ache. Keeping on top of your fuel intake on the trainer is important not because you won’t be able to make it home, but because it sucks to have to stop a session due to sore legs that could’ve been prevented with a couple extra snacks.
Music. I run my audio setup like this: Zwift on the laptop on mute. Podcast on the phone running into my earphones. I find for events music is most helpful, whereas for general riding something with a bit of information helps keep my mind occupied. Zwift does make its own in-game sounds but they aren’t exactly captivating.
Once you’re set up and riding…
Workouts on Zwift
Everybody wants to be quicker on the bike. That’s a fact. Not everybody wants to train for it though, particularly if coffee rolls with your mates are the alternative. If there’s one advantage to being stuck indoors riding the trainer, it’s that you can really make the minutes count.
Zwift offers a whole raft of pre-planned workouts, from simple FTP tests to base-workouts and race-simulations. Sessions range from 30 minutes up to 3 hours. You can learn to time trial better, climb better, build your anaerobic power and everything in between. You’ll find all the options under the ‘workouts’ tab when you open the Zwift app.
If you’re using a Smart trainer, be sure to select ‘ERG mode’ which will allow the trainer to apply the correct amount of resistance to keep you working at the right power.
The next level – Events on Zwift
Once you’ve learned your way around Zwift and done some training, you may want to jump into a few events. The platform offers both ‘group rides’ and ‘races’, but what I’ve learned is even the group rides always have a bunch off the front racing each other. Both rides and races allow you to draft other people like in the real world (a saving of around 0.5w/kg when you’re drafting), and bunches form naturally on the road depending on how hard people are going.
You can see a list of events in the Zwift Companion app, and you can enter in a category that suits your ability. A-grade is usually 4-5w/kg average power for the entire event, through to D-grade which is generally around 1-2w/kg average power. Some bunch rides attract up to 1000 riders in total, including professional riders from World Tour teams.
Once you’ve entered an event, begin riding any course at least 10-15 minutes before the start time, and a notice will pop up telling you the event is starting shortly. Click accept and your current ride will be saved and you’ll be taken to the start line where you can keep turning your legs over.
A tip for first timers: Races begin full gas – they’re more like cyclocross or criterium starts than road race starts, so a good warm up is crucial. I recommend building up a fair amount of power with 5 seconds to go (not quite a sprint but a very hard effort – I aim for around 400-600 watts), to ensure that once the flag drops you end up in the front bunch. Chances are, if you miss the front bunch you’ll never get across to it.
In this new reality, keep an eye out for events and challenges being put on by brands such as Attaquer. Join Attaquer’s Strava Club to be kept in the loop about challenges the team at Attaquer will be sharing over the coming months. It’s a great way to stay connected with others, and possibly pick up a few prizes along the way.
Post-script: At the time of writing (March 28, 2020), the quarantine period in Catalunya has been extended by at least another fortnight. The number of Coronavirus cases in Spain is now over 70,000 with many thousands of people having lost their lives. Parents, children, uncles and aunties, friends. It can affect everyone and it’s not something we should be taking lightly. This is also something the modern world hasn’t faced before and we don’t know where it might lead.
As much as staying indoors sucks when all we want to do is ride outside, we’ve never lived in a better time to be in quarantine than now. We have so much entertainment at our fingertips. So grab a trainer, clip in, and be buoyed by the fact that once everyone is allowed back outside, we’ll all be much stronger for it.