Zwift Academy: tried, tested and sweated

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At the beginning of this year, UCI Women’s WorldTour team Canyon-SRAM and the social fitness platform Zwift announced an innovative way to find a new rider for the 2017 season.

The search for that rider, labelled ‘The Canyon-SRAM Racing and Zwift Academy Project’, started in March 2016 with women around the world plugging in and completing a series of trainer tasks on Zwift to identify their physical attributes and potential. The field will be reduced throughout 2016 until only three riders are left. These three athletes will compete on virtual and real roads for the chance to become a professional cyclist with Canyon-SRAM.

Curious about the program, I tried it for myself.

Getting to know Zwift

Hearing a lot about Zwift and having some dedicated users in my group of friends, I was excited to try out Zwift for myself. I was offered to join the Zwift Academy as well and while I’m not in any way under the assumption that I will make the top three who will battle for the Canyon-SRAM contract, I was very curious to see how it works.

Part training tool, part multiplayer online game and part social network, Zwift enables cyclists to virtually ride together in real time and even compete on the virtual copies of famous race courses –all while never leaving your home.

For it to work, Zwift requires sensors to measure your output and transmit that to a computer. A smart trainer is typically the easiest and most accurate way to obtain data. It also has the ability to change the resistance based on the course; so as you go up and down hills in Zwift, you’ll feel that change on your bike.

What you need to use Zwift

Check CyclingTips’s Matt de Neef’s review of Zwift and his explanation of how to set up everything.

For the best experience, I received a KICKR Snap trainer to demo. I started to set up with excitement but was seriously bummed when I discovered I had to wait for the ANT+ dongle to arrive before starting my Zwift rides.

A week later, after receiving the ANT+dongle and USB extension, I didn’t venture outside for a training ride, but instead set up the KICKR Snap and did my first Zwift test ride on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year so far. Perfect timing (!).

My first experience of virtual riding in real time was incredibly enjoyable. There have been lots of products and initiatives to make riding on an indoor trainer more pleasurable, and while they have always been exciting at the start, you’d always come back to the point where indoor riding becomes a drag.

Zwift is different. Even if you ride the same digital circuit, there are other riders — cyclists who like you are at that moment riding their trainers in their respective living rooms and basements.  This makes the experience very interesting and different each time.

Enrolling in the Zwift Academy

Female riders going after the Canyon-SRAM contract had to join at least nine Zwift Academy training rides and complete all 27 workouts in the program amounting to several training rides each week.

Additionally, there are weekend rides without any exercises, to give Academy participants the chance to have a little chat with each other throughout the ride. It’s also a great way to figure out how everything works, discover the nuances of the system and to practice your cadence on a lower intensity ride.

The qualifying rounds for the Canyon-SRAM contract are currently ongoing, and I joined the Academy mid-July, purely for the purpose of this review. The Semi-finals will be held in September and I’m told there are some standout candidates already with a real chance to sign that Canyon-SRAM contract.

The Zwift Academy group is much larger though, with lots of riders who, like me, are not aiming for the pro contract, and just enjoying the rides together.

The Riding Experience

Zwift launch Sept 30 2014

A Zwift Academy group ride starts by signing up for it via the computer software or Zwift mobile app. Counting down towards the start of the ride, you are being asked to join that particular ride. If you click ‘yes’, you’re being teleported to the start of the ride.

More digital cycling friends line up as the countdown is on. If you start pedalling at this point, an indoor trainer icon appears behind your bike identifying your digitally warm-up.  This warm-up time doesn’t count towards your exercise time, however, so when the program automatically uploads your work-out to Strava or TrainingPeaks afterward, the warm-up time is not included.

One person acts as group leader, giving tips and directing the group through the exercises. The Zwift Academy group leaders are mainly women and I did most of my rides with Zwift’s Crystal Haggard, a friendly, enthusiastic coach who made us all feel very welcome and patiently answered all question she was asked throughout the rides.

Men are welcome to join the rides too, as long as they stick to the group tempo. There’s a real sense of community, with banter, talks about pro cycling and supporting each other to perform well during the exercises.

One particular Zwift Academy ride, on August 16, consisted of sprints on the Prudential RideLondon course. With maximum recovery between the sprints, it gave us plenty of time to talk in between the sprints.

Essential 1: a fan (some even use two or three!). Essential 2: a towel. Essential 3: water! Essential 4: a floormat, like this nice one from Wahoo.
Essential 1: a fan (some even use two or three!). Essential 2: a towel. Essential 3: water! Essential 4: a floormat.

I experienced some slight wheel spin on the KICKR Snap during the sprints and felt the power output wasn’t as accurate, noticing that while I increased my power output, the power on screen went down. Haggard explained the more capable KICKR PowerTrainer would be more suitable for sprint exercises.

In all, we did six laps with six 200-meter-sprints at the end of each lap. It’s incredible that you actually have to approach these sprints like you would in real life. The smart trainer even registered the draft if you’re behind another rider, so you can increase your performance by staying out of the ‘wind’ for as long as possible.

You can also use the draft from each other to increase speed, for example to return to a group if you got dropped. Essential for any pro rider and possible to practice on Zwift. It’s all very lifelike, which suprised me, to be honest.

Other than the slightly inaccurate power output, I had a blast during the workouts. I forgot to keep pedalling after the first sprint in the August 16 workout, which meant Digital Me came to a standstill as your power output becomes 0. I had to put in another sprint to get back in the group (Haggard noticing I had fallen behind and ushering the group to not take it above 1.0 watt/kg until we all had regrouped) and didn’t forget about it the next sprints!

Zwift has some small peculiarities like these and you have to figure them out before an official group ride, but the realism of this digital world astonishes me and continues to amaze me each ride. The London courses even have rain and thunder to mimic London’s natural weather conditions, which is a neat design.

From Living Room to the WorldTour: Thoughts on using Zwift as a recruitment tool

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Zwift’s unique capabilities like measuring a rider’s power output, being able to detect drafting and simulating weather conditions is suppose to help Canyon-SRAM staff determine whether someone has at least the physical ability of being a pro cyclist. Of course wheel spin and other power meter issues limit the accuracy of someone’s power output in Zwift, so a real life test is still required, but overall I can see how the program is a good indication of someone’s abilities and progress over time.

With that said, I have been wondering whether you can cheat in Zwift. Since Zwift uses the power output, heartrate and accurate rider information (weight being an important one) to move the digital rider forward,  you could of course lie about your weight, height, etc. You could even have  someone else complete the workouts for you, but in the end, the team will do real-life testing with the three finalists. And I’m not sure I’d want to be there when the team finds out you cheated and you wasted their precious resources and the chance for an honest rider to show what she can do!

The future of Zwift Academy
There are some future plans for the Zwift Academy, but no details have been announced yet. There are now over 1,200 Academy participants and Zwift acknowledges the added value of the Academy, especially from a community standpoint.

So while there is no green light for something similar next year, it’s likely that Zwift will want to continue the Academy in some form.

In the meantime, the Zwift program keeps developing, with the launch of an iOS Beta program in September. “We’re committed to making Zwift more accessible, easier to set-up and stress-free to ride. Zwifting on iPad and iPhone achieves all of this without compromising on a quality experience for our users,” Eric Min, Zwift CEO and founder, explains.

“Very soon, Zwift will be available at the tap of a finger from the App Store, entirely portable and easy to connect via Bluetooth. This is great news for cyclists across the world who live in city apartments and shared homes, where space is a premium.”

Conclusion

I loved the Zwift experience. The Zwift Academy community is a fantastic group of people, with experienced trainers and lovely fellow cyclists. Even if you’re not actively going for that contract, you are most welcome and feel part of the group.

Combining the Zwift world with the real one is a unique feature of the application, which has tons of opportunities to be worked out in the future. I can’t wait to see what else they come up with. Before you know it, we’ll be having global Ella group rides on Zwift, with Ella kits available in the webshop too!

In any case, I’m not at all worried about the winter to come, with those typically Dutch cold and icy weather conditions, as it means I can join a ZA group ride indoors. I’m even secretly looking forward to a very bad winter!

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