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“I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed,” is what I wanted to say, when I first heard that The Sufferfest - the 2008 born training video series with a wicked sense of humour (and my favourite indoor training app) - was rebranding to be absorbed into the new, infuriatingly vowel devoid, Wahoo Systm.
However, it is usually best not to judge something until you’ve tried it. I have now tried Wahoo Systm, and I’d advise that you do the same before you (excuse the emotional angst) write it off as a corporatisation of all that The Sufferfest ever stood for.
Wahoo Systm doesn’t take away from The Sufferfest, it just makes it a training tool you can, sustainably, use every day; those who have completed The Tour of Sufferlandira will know that the archetypal Suff experience is not a recommended daily devotional.
Systm's library builds on many of the newer content styles that have been appearing within The Sufferfest app in recent years, but as its founder Dave McQuillen notes, "didn't really fit within an app called The Sufferfest."
There are recovery sessions set alongside inspiring films, iconic climbs at sweetspot effort designed to deliver a cascade of culture as well as an immersive ride experience. If you want to hurt, the ‘Pro Rides’ section includes final one to two hour stints from World Tour races, allowing you to put out the same effort as your idols, scaled to your ability.
“When I decided to name this app Systm, not The Sufferfest, that was a decision that took a long time to make,” confirmed McQuillen - who, yes, is still very much involved. “But, it was inevitable, I knew The Sufferfest couldn’t cover it.”
McQuillen says the reaction of the “die hard, tattooed” Sufferfest users “kept [him] up at night.” However, some of the most ardent Sufferfest devotees have been involved in Beta testing, to positive effect; “many of them went through all the stages of the grief process,” McQuillen semi jokes. “Outrage, disbelief, resignation - it was pretty personal man! But now, I’m really happy to say that all of them have come out the other side.”
The Sufferfest - with its molten lava, minions, and straight jacket leader's jerseys - is not for everyone. But behind the humour, there is some serious cycling science, and Systm will both make that more accessible, but also allow users to get a complete training experience with easier sessions, too.
Take a step back: what is The Sufferfest?
For those uninitiated, The Sufferfest began life in 2008 as a series of paid for downloadable training videos with oodles of character. The Sufferfest is more than just a training resource, it has its own community, with a forum, a Facebook page; hell, there are even people walking around with actual IWKMATTKYT (I will kick my ass today to kick yours tomorrow) tattoos inked into their actual skin.
The world has moved beyond videos passed (secretly, you weren’t meant to share them) around cycling clubs on USB sticks, The Sufferfest later progressed to create an app, with training plans, strength training and yoga included. Then, in 2019, it was bought by the US giant that is Wahoo.
From September 28, 2021 (that’s today), The Sufferfest will now live inside Wahoo’s new app, Systm. However, this is by no means a prison in which The Sufferfest goes to die. Rather, it is a chance for users of The Sufferfest to enjoy a more complete training - well - system.
What is 4DP?
One thing that sets The Sufferfest apart, and will continue to do so, is its 4DP zones. Riders can set their zones by completing the 'Full Frontal video'*, which leads its willing lab rats through a five second, one minute, five minute and 20 minute effort.
Training targets are set according to your strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to having all efforts based upon your FTP, as is traditionally the case. The result is that sprinters will be pushed harder in sprint sessions and enjoy zones they can actually hit during longer efforts, and vice versa.
The Sufferfest has a complete sports science department, headed up by Neal Henderson, coach to the likes of Rohan Dennis and Kasia Niewiadoma.
*I did note to MacQuillen that the Full Frontal test is very much Sufferlandrian in narrative, however, he says more 'coach led' sessions, for those who don't find images of being chased by hungry dinosaurs funny (no idea why), are on the way
New video styles within Wahoo Systm
Wahoo Systm is a new app. It includes all of The Sufferfest videos (and, The Sufferfest will continue to make more), as well as slightly less taxing sessions which are set to films, ‘no vid’ workouts for those who find staring at colour bars on the screen more engaging, strength training, yoga, mental training and more.
The home page is, well, very white, very clean, very clinical. But there's a maze of training, testing, and (yes) useful recovery behind the doors.
On Location: Sweetspot style sessions with a story
“The on location workouts are tough, but not Sufferfest tough - for days where you want to do a structured workout, but you dont want to dig that deep,” McQuillen says.
For existing Sufferfest users, this a series of sessions similar to ‘To Get to The Other Side’: more ‘sweetspot’ than ‘spewing on your stem’, with a side order of cultural tourism.
“We want to make you feel like, not only did you go and ride this road, but you were there for the weekend,” MacQuillen says.
“Working with Mike Cotty from The Col Collective, we created videos where Mike takes you to an amazing road, he takes you through a structured workout - but while he does that, we also have these sections where Mike goes into the castle you just passed, and shows you around, or goes into the place they make the cheese, or has a beer at the local brewery - so you really get a feel for the area.”
Cycling through these sessions when sat at my desk, I was disappointed to note a lack of music, something MacQuillen said was intentional, as Beta testers reportedly preferred the heavy breathing and gear clicking of Cotty throughout the climb. I was skeptical.
However, having completed 'Le Cap de Long', my approach was to play background music from my phone/speaker set up, and listen to Cotty via headphones. The combination worked perfectly, keeping me entertained throughout, and the ride really did feel like a recreation of taking on a col abroad.
As a rider with a long-term disdain for sweetspot sessions, which I know are deeply beneficial - but also an effort level I find deeply boring - these could be a real gamechanger.
The warm up did mimic the climb's gradient, meaning that the suggested power output was an 'average', whilst the trainer resistance adjusted to create the increases/decreases you'd get outside. A smart trainer with ERG mode - where resistance adjusts automatically - is almost essential to enjoying the full experience as intended, though there were the traditional Sufferest sound effects to tell non-smart trainer users when to react.
Regardless, once out of the inital warm-up and onto the steeper ramps, the effort requirements were always displayed on screen, so those using a 'dumb' trainer would have no problems following the session from then onwards.
A Week With: follow a pro for a week
Another new addition, this series lets you into the life of a pro, or 'cycling celebrity', for a week. The series launches with former Team Sky pro turned gravel racer Ian Boswell, and coach Neal Henderson.
“With Ian’s week, on the first day Ian welcomes you to his farmhouse in Vermont, shows you around, tells you what you’ll be doing over the course of the week, then you do his morning yoga routine with him. On the next day you head out and do a structured workout, and every day there’s a workout with Ian, but in the recoveries, he and his wife take you to their favourite swimming hole, he takes you fishing, you get ice cream with him... you get to know what his life is like and the things that matter to him.”
I did test the waters of this series with Henderson's 'Rabbit Mountain' session. The workout itself was excellent, testing, but not self-destructive, and the coaching points and encouragement throughout were motiving.
There was also no music during this session, however, the coaching points were sufficient that I didn't feel the need to add a distraction.
On a more picky note, it's very hard to make content that appeals to a wide demographic; Henderson's notes on how to keep a paceline smooth might not suit seasoned racers. However, they will enjoy the warm glow of knowing that the Surge-ey McSurgesons of the future may be tuning in, and there were more complex sports science nuggets nestled elsewhere; you can't please everyone, all the time.
From Boswell's week, I selected the 'Morning Yoga' routine, which included strength work and some foam roller stretching as well. My key takeaway? It transpires that the Wahoo Frontiers rider appreciates a good back click even more than I do.
Inspiration: films and documentries with recovery sessions
The new app contains around 20 videos, with structured - but more recovery focused - workouts, set to cycling films and documentaries. “These are always tied to recovery sessions or longer endurance sessions; it includes one called Afghan Cycles, which is both inspirational and heart breaking,” McQuillen says.
If you’ve ridden Half the Road (the story of the women’s peloton’s fight for a women’s Tour de France) or The Holy Week (a look at the week between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix) in the existing Sufferfest app, then these videos are more of the same.
Pro Rides: experience the final 60-120 minutes of a World Tour race
Again, for Sufferfest’s existing users, think ‘Norway’.
MacQuillen explains it better, “we take the onboard camera footage from a rider in the pro peloton, and then we take their power file and convert it to a workout - then we scale it to your 4DP profile, and add a director sportif voice-over and other graphics. You press play and it gives you an experience identical to what the pro did, and allows you to feel exactly as the pro did - minus the six hours of racing beforehand, in a way that’s relative to your own ability.
"So when they’re doing 100% of their aerobic capacity, at say 600 watts, so are you, at 300 watts - you feel the same but it's scaled to your ability.”
Having tried Norway, my only caveat here is that the changes in pace are rapid, and not all turbo trainers can keep up with this in Erg mode, where the resistance changes automatically to meet the demand. If you're not on the best turbo trainer, you might need to change to manual mode and use your gears to hit the targets.
Strength, yoga and more
There’s a lot more to the app, but if you’ve got this far, it’s probably better you log on and try it. The Systm also includes ‘No Vid’ workouts, there’s also yoga, and strength training.
Having given the videos in the Beta app a go, I can confirm that the strength training sessions were spot on for my needs as a cyclist: taxing, functional, but not DOMS inducing - think bear crawls, tempo press ups and sit-throughs. All the exercises your physio tells you to do.
“The strength training has been being completely re-done, we’ll launch with very focused strength training routines for lower body, upper body, dynamic movements, core and posterior chain,” McQuillen says.
Calendar, and the future for Systm
How much will it cost?
Wondering how much Systm will cost? There's no price hike, like The Sufferfest app, Systm costs $14.99 a month or $129 a year - that's about £11 a month, or £94 a year, there will also be a free 14-day trial available.
The app runs on Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android platforms. All existing user's data will be automatically transferred to the new app when they update their app.
The app revolves around a calendar - select a training plan, and your calendar will be populated with sessions to complete.
The training plans have been redeveloped, so you can tick the boxes to create a plan based around your goals and availability.
And, there’s more to come.
“It’s killing me that it didn’t make launch,” McQuillen says, referring to the coming analytics and outdoor integration. Eventually, System will include tables to show “cumulative [stats]”, think Training Stress Score on Training Peaks or Training Load on Strava, as well as the ability to see your outdoor rides within the calendar, and push workouts from Systm training plans to your head unit.
“Our goal is to be the only training app an endurance athlete needs,” MacQuillen says.
“What we have now is the beginning, it's the foundation. When we start adding the ability to add outdoor rides, analytics, when we start adding more predictive technology - we just hired a guy with a specialism in machine learning and artificial intelligence - when we start adding that into the picture - we will be there.
"You won't need another app,” says McQuillen. Well, the first Knight of Sufferlandria always has been ambitious.
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Michelle Arthurs-Brennan is a traditional journalist by trade, having begun her career working for a local newspaper, where highlights included interviewing a very irate Freddie Star (and an even more irate theatre owner), as well as 'the one about the stolen chickens'.
Previous to joining the Cycling Weekly team, Michelle was Editor at Total Women's Cycling. She joined CW as an 'SEO Analyst', but couldn't keep her nose out of journalism and in the spreadsheets, eventually taking on the role of Tech Editor before her latest appointment as Digital Editor.
Michelle is a road racer who also enjoys track riding and the occasional time trial, though dabbles in off-road riding too (either on a mountain bike, or a 'gravel bike'). She is passionate about supporting grassroots women's racing and founded the women's road race team 1904rt.
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