INDOOR PAIN = OUTDOOR GAIN?
CYCLING WEEKLY|September 24, 2020
After countless hours sweating it out in his shed, CW’s Steve Shrubsall decided to find out if he could convert Zwift-toughened tenacity into a real-world PB
Steve Shrubsall
As the end of our locked-down summer approached, it was time for a personal stocktake: what had I achieved? I’d accrued a few dozen hours of aimlessly ambling around Zwift’s virtual parcours; I’d tried and failed to teach my daughters long division; oh, and there was a notable increase in empty bottles of booze amassing in the recycling bin. I had become directionless. Bereft of my usual way of life, I’d become a jack of all trades: an imitation maths teacher, a pseudo-cyclist, a semi-professional imbiber of premium strength lager beer. Something needed to change – ideally the erasure of this blasted virus – but failing that, I needed a cycling target achievable in these restricted times.

The virtual time trialling scene is – thanks to Covid restrictions –currently booming, with events of various distances on flat, undulating and mountainous courses regularly popping up on the Zwift calendar. I bought into this and raced countless virtual TTs over the course of lockdown. Road racing on Zwift, although fun, had started to get a little demoralising – my comparatively hefty 83kg pins my FTP to around 4.4w/ kg, meaning that in A-category races, the merest suggestion of a slope leaves me reeling in the red, before being promptly spat out the back. On the other hand, in a race against the clock on a flat course, comparative heft is no disadvantage. The question was, could I train to excel in Zwift TTs in a way that would result in real-world improvement too, ready for when restrictions were lifted?

Indoor disciplines

With a huge array of training sessions and events available online, I wanted to know which would give me most bang for my buck. It was time for a word or two of wisdom from one of Zwift’s most prolific time triallists, Ed ‘Cleatless’ Ray – winner of just about every race of truth he enters online. What does he attribute his success to?

“I acquit myself far better in TTs on Zwift than in outdoor races,” admits Ray, “due to having a decent threshold capacity, but hopelessly limited peak power. The disciplines of indoor and outdoor racing differ greatly.”

According to Ray, you need experience on Zwift and a deep understanding of its quirks. “Adapting to the platform’s frequently debated physics can be a tricky task, almost akin to learning a completely novel form of cycling.”

If Zwifting is a cycling discipline in its own right, would it be of limited use in making me good at racing outdoors too?

“On the contrary. Though relying exclusively on [indoor cycling] to accomplish a goal outdoors might seem illogical, I think it’s generally more efficient,” says Ray. “Using structured intervals, competing in events, as well as impulsive freestyle sessions, perhaps using music to dictate power and cadence, I’ve added roughly 60 watts to my FTP – and even reduced my bodyweight by a kilogram.”

Ray doesn’t ride solely indoors; his nickname ‘Cleatless’ references his jaunts on his flat-pedalled road bike on the roads in and around the South Downs. I was yet to learn how to best combine my indoor and outdoor training.

My next source of expert advice was a time triallist who has proven form both virtually and in the real world. An erstwhile national record holder, Rachael Elliott holds countless Strava trophies and course records, as well as boasting an eye-watering FTP of over 5.3w/kg. Having suffered a stroke in 2018, Elliott now races on a tandem and regularly tops the results in her club Newbury Velo’s midweek TT on Zwift. It was this event that first piqued my interest in Zwift TTs – witnessing riders like Elliott and Ray setting big benchmarks while the rest of us ate their virtual dust. Having achieved success inside and out, Elliott seemed the ideal person to advise me on the differences between the two.

“I personally find TTs easier indoors,” she says. “Maybe because you can completely control your efforts and you don’t have to worry about any external factors.”

Simply put, there are more variables outdoors.

“When I line up for a race on the road, I’m worried about what cars I’ll meet at the turn, avoiding people, punctures, that sort of thing,” adds Elliott. “You can measure your effort better indoors. My power is better indoors too.”

However, higher power figures and a more measured effort don’t necessarily equate to the best results: “You definitely go faster outdoors. I don’t think there’s enough difference in Zwift speeds across the field, so things like drag coefficient are not really recognised. Indoors, I could do a middling 20 [minutes, for 10 miles] while outdoors I could do a middling 19.”

The same does not apply to newer riders, explains Elliott: “Often, people who struggle to do a 30-minute ‘10’ outside are able to ride 26 minutes on Zwift. We find the top-end riders don’t go as fast, but the beginners can go faster.”

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