The words ‘crazy’, ‘indoor’ and ‘cyclist’ are commonly found furnishing the same sentence, forming questions like: how does anyone sit on an indoor bike for hour upon hour without once breaching the four walls of their garage or utility room? For those of us not yet bitten by the indoor cycling bug, it’s tempting to assume that these cycling shut-ins have had a screw come loose.
But with smart-trainers gracing more and more homes, it’s apparent that riding indoors is not only acceptable these days but quite the norm. In Cycling Weekly’s recent reader survey, 70% said they train or race indoors at least occasionally. But as we’re about to find out, some riders take virtual reality riding to a level far beyond dodging a drenching outdoors. We speak to a selection of riders fanatical about indoor pedalling and ask about the method, as well as the motivation, to their madness.
One of the longest ever rides
Dr Alex Stavrinides’s epic Zwift ride, in which he achieved an incredible 1,851km in a single sitting, started in a galaxy far, far away…
“If you watch all the Star Wars films end-to-end,” says 42-year-old Stavrinides, “you can watch them all in 24 hours. So I thought I’d try and watch them all while Everesting.” The Audax aficionado had, like many cyclists, begun to embrace the indoor riding platform during the Covid-19 lockdown, and his trip to the Dark Side was just the beginning of a series of mammoth virtual excursions.
After completing a 1,000km ride, the cogs in his brain, as well as those on his wheels, started turning, and Nottingham-based Stavrinides decided that 2,000km was within the realms of his capabilities. But that 1,000km leap was going to take some committed training.
“I would do two hours Monday morning; five-hours-plus Tuesday nights; Wednesdays I would have off; and Thursday and Friday mornings I’d do two hours, “ says Stavrinides of his build-up to the the distance. The lion’s share of his riding was at endurance pace, 210- 220 watts, and he calculated when he’d begin to plateau, having reached optimal fitness for the attempt. “When I was able to comfortably ride for five hours, or 200km, on Tuesday evening, I knew I was making progress,” Stavrinides recalls.
On to the main event, then, which he undertook on the pan-flat Tempus Fugit course in Zwift’s Watopia, astride a virtual Pinarello Dogma F10. His plan was to average 30kph. Sitting at a steady speed, he decided, would be a better barometer of the overall effort than wattage. From the outset, though, things didn’t run anywhere near as smooth as Tempus Fugit’s blacktop.
“The early stages, the first 400- 500km, I did throw up several times. The digestion wasn’t sitting quite right. I had to adjust things to get that to work,” says Stavrinides. So what fuelling strategy did he eventually plump for? “Things like fruit cocktails, salty rice and rice pudding worked really well, so I kind of kept the stuff that worked and added variety just to break it up.”
Spending such a protracted period of time in the saddle, though, is bound to present problems, regardless of whether or not your diet is dialled in. “It got to a certain point, on the last morning, that I realised that my saddle was hurting,” he recalls with a grimace. “I was convinced the bolt had moved and the angle was wrong. But what had actually happened was that, through the riding, I’d lost soft tissue to the point that my sit bones were sitting slightly differently.” Over the latter stages, he admits that sustaining just 100 watts “felt like death”.
Reaching and breaching the pain barrier, he called it at 1,851km, beating Jasmin Muller’s distance by 23km but falling short of Chris Hopkinson’s 2,500km. A real stormtrooper of a ride.
Longest total time on Zwift
Keith Roy of Auburn, New York, unassumingly became the first ever Zwift user to complete an entire year, or 8,760 hours, of rides on the platform.
“I started using Zwift towards the end of 2016,” the 37-year-old tells me. “I was immediately hooked. I didn’t set out to complete this milestone, it just sort of happened. I did not realise I was going to surpass one year of ride time, or be the first to accomplish it – a friend let me know.”
However, with rides including multiple double centuries and a couple of 300-mileplus indoor outings, it’s hardly a surprise that Roy was first to reach 365 accumulated days.
“In my job, we’re free to schedule our working hours as best suits us,” says Roy, who is an integration specialist for a medical records company, “so that’s what allows me to ride so much. I’m usually on the turbo by 7am and I’ll do as much as I can squeeze in.”
This year, he has averaged over 100 miles a day – his average weekly distance over the last month has been 825 miles, with a stratospheric 101,215ft of climbing. But what has been his motivation behind such an extreme approach to training?
“I have never ridden under the guise of formal or structured training. I ride based off feel. I am not a bike racer or an ultra cyclist, I am just a guy who enjoys riding his bike,” says Roy, who was formerly a gym junkie. “I no longer have a power meter on my outdoor bike, and those numbers never really mattered to me anyhow. Some days you ride like Superman, other days like a wet noodle. All that matters is that you ride. In my opinion, there is no such thing as junk miles. I try only to keep moving forward.”
Employing Eddy Merkx’s ‘ride your bike, ride your bike, ride your bike’ ethos has today led Roy to the brink a world record: “I challenge myself to keep improving, and don’t like to set shortterm goals. Over enough time this has led me to surpass 40,000 miles for the fifth year in a row – and now with a functional outdoor bicycle, hopefully I will become the first cyclist to have ever surpassed 80,000km or 50,000 miles and 4,000,000ft in a single calendar year.”
Top ranked racer
At the time of writing, 49-year-old Claire Stringer-Phillips is the top-ranked British female on Zwift and ninth in the overall placings. We asked her what this actually means, and how she got there.
“It was actually Cycling Weekly’s Club 10 TT,” she laughs. “My husband looked at some of the results in the magazine, at their watts per kilo, and said I could probably compete with them. So I rode the Club 10 every week from December to July 2020 and got pretty hooked.”
Indeed, Stringer-Phillips has won more CW Club 10s than any other woman – and her talent and dedication did not go unnoticed. “I got approached by a team in the summer of 2021 and that’s when things really started to take off.” Becoming part of the Zwift-based BBB team inspired Stringer-Phillips to not only study the nuances of Zwift racing strategies and the associated teamwork required to win, but also to nurture a latent natural flair for cycling. She opted to subscribe to the ‘racing is the best form of training’ methodology.
“I do a broad mixture of races: time trials for the endurance and the constant power, team time trials, which are a bit like interval training with turns on the front and then backing off. Also, the Tiny Races on a Saturday [four very short maximal effort events] for VO2max training – you go flat-out for seven or eight minutes, recover for seven minutes and go again, four times.”
It was this racing consistency that first drew the Yorkshirewoman’s attention to the overall ranking system on online results platform Zwift Power, and she realised that if she continued along this competitive path, she could even infiltrate the top 10 of a table populated by thousands of riders. How did she maximise her points tally?
“It can be quite tactical, choosing races that you know you might be able to do well in, going for races with a bigger and higher-quality field – inside knowledge that you pick up from a team is really useful.” Her ZwiftPower profile reveals a best 20-minute power of 263 watts. Consistency, however, is the key component to obtaining the best possible Zwift ranking. “I’m not one of these people who dips in and out of Zwift; I do it all year round. The score is based on your best five races over 90 days, and if you drop off, your score resets.” Inside information, then, for those who want to challenge for places on the leaderboard.
The highflying duo
From climbing leaderboards to climbing mountains, Zwifting partners in crime Carry Cole from the Cotswolds and Ale Hdez (AKA Sweet Cheeks), who hails from the sunny shores of Tenerife, meet daily on the indoor riding platform. While pedalling for at least two hours at a time, they hatch plans for extreme riding challenges.
“I asked out on the ether [of Zwift chat] what should I do for 2021, and someone came back with the circumference of Earth,” 45-year-old Hdez explains their first challenge. “I thought, OK, that sounds silly but let’s do it.” It would mean a hefty daily average: “I did the maths and it came to 100km per day.” And he means for the entire year, with no breaks. “I actually went a bit too far,” Hdez continues, “as the Earth’s circumference is 40,075km and I went over 45,000km.”
Heading into 2022 and it was 54-year-old Cole who instigated the next challenge, this time aiming high, very high. “I started the new year with an Everest base camp [5,364 metres of vertical ascent], after that I said to Ale, why don’t we do 365 Alps [Alp du Zwifts] in 365 days this year, and he said yes – so it’s his fault!”
With a gauntlet officially thrown down, 2022’s pedalling commenced in earnest. “It seemed like a good idea at the beginning of January,” continues Cole, “we started off really strong and did around 60,000 metres of elevation for the month – and it was like ‘yeah, this is great…’ And then. Then it got really hard!”
As Greg LeMond famously said, ‘it doesn’t get easier, you just go faster’ – a statement that Hdez can attest to. “It’s not just the fatigue of doing 365 Alps, it’s about how we did the rides. We started by completing the climb in just under an hour,” he says, “Then 59 minutes became the new normal, then 55, and then we started trying for personal bests.”
Not only were Hdez and Cole climbing the Alp’s 12.2km with an elevation gain of 1,036m every day, but they were getting faster as the year progressed, accruing some very impressive times. “I think I maxed-out at 45 minutes, while Carry did a 49,” says Hdez of their best times up the mountain. After a year of climbing, the pair’s notion of gradient had been significantly revised: “Five per cent genuinely feels flat now,” concluded Cole.
Hell of a week
Last December John Walkley’s aim was to ride a thigh-throttling 4,000 kilometres in seven days. But what led the 45-year-old to embark on such an extreme cycling challenge?
“The primary reason was that my 13-year-old son, Edison, was diagnosed with quite severe Crohn’s disease last February and ended up spending a lot of time in hospital throughout the year,” says Walkley. “First of all, I wanted to try to raise money for the local children’s hospital that had been supporting him, just as a thank you.”
Undertaking such a ride, he hoped, would also set an example and act as inspiration to Edison. “When I was thinking about the challenge,” Walkley continues, “I wanted something that first of all was big enough to attract some attention. And it was almost impossible. Because I wanted to show my son that, even though things may seem impossible, if you keep pushing and keep working, keep trying, you can eventually get through to the end. I needed it to be difficult.”
And difficult it certainly was. No one on Zwift had ridden 4,000km in a single week, and it was never going to be an easy pedal, particularly given the unrelenting nature of the challenge: “My plan [in order to complete the 4,000km] was to try and do two or three hours at a time, change my bibshorts, have a quick shower, jump back on within 20 minutes and sleep when I could.”
Having reached the halfway point in reasonable shape, Walkley then started experiencing ride-compromising issues. “When I got to the fifth day, both my Achilles tendons flared up. I had a nap and woke up and both legs were very bruised and swollen, I couldn’t stand. I spent a good seven hours elevating and icing, trying to get the swelling down. I really thought it was all over at that point.”
But the Zwift and local communities had other ideas. The support Walkley had received before and during his effort inspired him to lift the lid on hitherto unexplored levels of suffering. “That’s the big thing about Zwift when you’re doing challenges,” he says of the encouragement he received, “Even though it may be a solo challenge, you’re always surrounded by people, whether it’s through messaging on Discord or people coming in and riding with you, you’re never actually alone.”
With his Achilles issues limiting his power output, Walkley had to reframe the ride – 4,000km was now off the table, but his bloody-minded determination saw him complete seven days of riding an incredible 3,334.2km, not quite a record but an outstanding achievement nonetheless. Chapeau, Mr Walkley.
CW tries... Everesting
Inspired by our interviewees, I decided take on a challenge of my own – a virtual Everesting, eight times up and down Alp du Zwift, to join the hallowed 8,850-metre club.
So buoyed up by my chats with bona fide Zwifting fanatics, I could barely imagine breaking a sweat, let alone failing to achieve my goal. What could possible go wrong?
My first ascent of the virtual Alp, however, did not paint a promising picture of things to come. The unrelenting nature of climbing (particularly indoors) was something that, after a spring and summer’s worth of unstructured gravel riding, my quadriceps were not prepared for. With a time of 75 minutes, my first ascent was lacklustre, spinning within the 2-3W/kg bracket, keeping a steady heart rate. Using the 12-minute descent as quite literally down time, I unceremoniously ate half the contents of fruit bowl and necked a few pints of water before clambering aboard the Wattbike for round two. Sweat having infiltrated every nook of my being, perhaps even my soul, round two was uncomfortable. Not even the latest Netflix series could distract me from how utterly rubbish I was feeling. Cresting the climb in 85 minutes, I knew this was the beginning of the end. Which was validated when, halfway up the third ascent, I had to use my hands to push my thighs through the pedals. I was officially done, completing my third and final climb in a sloth-like 117 minutes.
Everesting DNF – but still a triple munro, right?
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