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Zwifting along

The Boston Marathon has turned out not to be possible for me. I spent three months babying my knee (after just barely beginning to run regularly in the fall) and still, within a month of starting marathon training it was as bad as ever. I was living on ibuprofen, and most mornings it was so swollen I couldn’t bend it past 90 degrees.

I really need some form of regular self-directed exercise though. I miss it when I don’t have it. Cycling doesn’t seem to bother my knee to any appreciable extent, so it has been filling the hole left by running.

I’ve also been doing some cross-country skiing. I did a series of three introductory skate-skiing clinics in January. I had snapped up a set of skate-length poles out of the sale bin in 1991 when we were living in Iroquois Falls, ON, thinking “I’ll gradually accumulate what I need on sale, and then I’ll learn to skate.” I never expected that it would take me 25 years to gather the rest of the gear, the time, the opportunity and the momentum to make it happen. I have loved being able to mix classic and skate-skiing depending on conditions, but overall I prefer skating!

Biking in the big screen

But biking has become my new obsession, especially since I brought my bike and trainer to Nelson for Zwifting. I’m there from Monday to Friday, and I can use the projector and the pull-down big screen to get the sort of immersive experience that leaves my stomach lurching when I crest a rolling hill at speed. Even though I have to move everything (laptop, water bottle, side table, bike, trainer, wheel block, portable fan) into and out of the living room every time I want to do a ride, it’s worth it!

The lookout at the top of Watopia mountain, just after sunset. Days on Watopia take a couple of hours; nights last half an hour. But the sunsets are spectacular, so no one minds.

Although I haven’t felt compelled to sign up for a race yet, I’ve been joining group rides several times a week, following friends’ progress, chatting through text or voice and hanging out on Facebook groups to exchange tips, ideas and enthusiasm.

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 3.39.02 PM
Pretty consistent exercise log over the past while: as much exercise as during my peak marathon training weeks last year.

Group rides are usually oriented around a particular level of difficulty, and most are “no-drop,” which means that the group works together to stick to the advertised pace, stick together to create a good drafting effect, and support riders who may have slowed through encouragement, dropping the pace for a while, and by ‘offering a wheel’ (one or two stronger riders slowing down to meet the dropped rider and providing a draft effect to lead them back onto the peloton).

Some group rides have a bit of a training focus, with the leader encouraging changes of pace or occasional sprints followed by regrouping. The TGIF ride is an easy ride where beer is the encouraged source of hydration, and is followed by an optional After Party harder challenge.

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In case the fitness stats, social life and achievement badges aren’t enough, there are additional challenges. After climbing the equivalent of 5 Everests, I will be awarded the glowing Zwift Concept bike, a.k.a. the Tron bike.

I started out doing the gentlest of group rides, the eternally friendly and polite PAC rides. These are well-organized and well-led. Rider power (scaled in watts of pedalling power per kilogram of body weight, the metric which is then combined with Zwift’s terrain to produce virtual speed) is held to less than 1.5 or 2.0w/kg.

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Strava’s crude but affirming graph of my changing fitness level (baseline mid-December, when I started on Zwift).

As I got braver and stronger, I began venturing into other types of rides, including stepped laps which have gradually increasing paces as high as 3.0w/kg. I can now sustain this for ten minutes or so.

As a distance runner, I was never strong: I could just keep going. When I started Zwifting I knew strength was something I would have to build. I think it’s coming, though very slowly. I’ve done a set of two dozen workouts as part of a six-week program for beginners designed to improve FTP or Functional Threshold Power. I haven’t tested my FTP since finishing (it’s a nasty test you don’t want to do too often: essentially ‘go as hard as you can for twenty minutes, hopefully, though not necessarily, without puking) but my FTP has gone up from 141 watts to at least the mid-160s.

To most Zwift cyclists, runners are still a novelty

On the weekends, back in New Denver, I run on the treadmill. If I stay there, on the controlled even surface, and don’t exceed 10 kilometres per run, my knee doesn’t flare up. Recently I have been using Zwift in running mode. A cheap foot pod, some beta firmware, a secret easter-egg click in the Zwift welcome screen and pretty soon my avatar is running in the Zwift virtual cycling world. Running doesn’t have nearly the realism of cycling (no drafting, no group events, no change in speed based on virtual grade) but it’s better than staring at a treadmill console.

There is still snow and ice and sand and slush all over the roads, and half a metre of snow on the rest of the ground. Last year I did a lovely spring ride up the pass towards Kaslo on March 20th. There is no way that is going to be possible this year. But I am looking forward to trying out my nicely-primed cycling muscles in the real world as soon as the snow goes. I will have to remind myself to steer, and to use my brakes, and to unclip from my pedals when I stop.



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5 responses to “Zwifting along”

  1. Mads Bau Hansen Avatar
    Mads Bau Hansen

    Hey! read this post with great interest since i’m reading up on hometrainers and the compatibility with zwift…I live in the Norwegian mountains and would like to join zwift to be able to exercise with my friends in Denmark online.
    I’ve looked at the Stac Zero and I’m wondering just How quite it is? I’ve seen videos on youtube, some are completely quite and others reach decibel levels of approximately 75 (which seems weird since it should be silent right?)
    I guess you adjust the magnets to a certain point to achieve resistance – but riding in zwift without the “smart” solution of adjusting the resistance in accordance with the terrain-changes; do you just use the gears as you see fit to achieve some sense of riding uphill?
    Thank you in avance 😉

  2. Miranda Avatar

    Hi Mads, my Stac Zero is completely quiet. There are no moving parts … it’s nothing more than a frame which hovers some magnets near your bike. All the sound comes from the bike itself. If you have an old dirty, poorly adjusted drivetrain in need of lubrication, you’ll hear a lot of clicking, whirring and grinding noises on top of the sound generated by your spokes stirring up the air. If your bike is in tip-top shape, you can whisper over the sound and be heard easily. Having said that, cycling indoors requires use of a fan for cooling. My fan is by far the loudest element in my set-up!

    The Stac is considered a “dumb trainer” in that it doesn’t change the resistance in response to outside input. The Stac only sends information out (power and wheel speed, if you get the power meter version), but doesn’t receive information from apps. So you are correct that changing gears is the simplest way to get the ‘feel’ for hills. However, Zwift adjusts your apparent speed on-screen according to two things: your power output *and* the grade of the virtual terrain. So even without changing gears there there is some visual sense of grade: spinning 150 watts in a middle gear on a downhill has you flying, whereas the same 150 watts in a middle gear will leave your avatar crawling slowly up an 11% grade. You feel as if you’ve shifted into a granny gear when you hit a steep uphill.

    I know the Stac team has talked about the theoretical possibility of using electromagnets rather than rare-earth magnets to provide resistance, and making the electromagnets responsive to control signals from apps like Zwift (i.e. building a smart-trainer version of the Stac). I’m not sure whether they’re doing any actual development in this area though. I think I would love the controllable aspect of a smart trainer for its greater immersiveness.

    For me as a Canadian the Stac was a clever domestically-produced Kickstarter project that was very affordable relative to imported alternatives. Its silence was a perk rather than a completely essential attribute. If I lived in Scandinavia and shipping and import duties were going to add to the cost, I think I might have gone with something like the Tacx Vortex Smart, a controllable trainer that would probably cost less. On the other hand if minimizing noise is your biggest priority I can heartily recommend the Stac — that and an obsessive drive-train tune-up!

    1. Mads Bau Hansen Avatar
      Mads Bau Hansen

      Thank you very much for a fulfilling response! Much appreciated 🙂

  3. Thermo Sculpt Avatar

    Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering
    if you knew where I could get a captcha plugin for my comment
    form? I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having trouble finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

  4. Miranda Avatar

    I’m using Captcha by BestWebSoft. I just searched for it under Add New Plugin. It has worked flawlessly for me. However, if you are running WordPress as a free version hosted on a WordPress server (rather than installing and hosting it on your own domain) you may not have access to many plugins.

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