Journals

Alice Lethbridge journal: Zwift has made me a better outdoor racer

Journals 2022: Alice Lethbridge #01

AWOL O’Shea’s Alice Lethbridge is one of our eight journal contributors in 2022. An ace time triallist, Alice also excels when it comes to e-racing and recently represented Great Britain at the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. In her first journal post, Alice explains why Zwift improved her road racing…

Two years ago I too would have smirked at that headline, completely dismissed it, and thought the author of the article was more than slightly deluded. I would have been wrong to do so though. I didn’t really know anything about Zwift beyond the ‘mick-taking’ memes I saw on mainstream cycling channels, and I had never actually tried using the platform myself, so I had fallen into the trap of being an ‘uneducated expert commentator’. 

I was so dismissive of Zwift as a training tool (and bona fide racing discipline) that I even told a close friend I wouldn’t sign up for Zwift if he paid me £1000 to do so

In October 2019 I was so dismissive of Zwift as a training tool (and bona fide racing discipline) that I even told a close friend I wouldn’t sign up for Zwift if he paid me £1000 to do so. Sometimes we get things wrong though, and being ‘forced onto Zwift’ was definitely a positive to come out of the pandemic for me.  The time I’ve spent racing and competing on the platform has been invaluable over the past two years in developing me as an athlete both mentally and physically, and whatever anyone else thinks, I am always going to be immensely proud that at the end of February, at the (old) age of 37, I got to pull on the GB team jersey for the first time and represent my country in cycling in a UCI World Championship event. 

When it was announced last October that the UCI would be holding the Esports World Championships at the end of February, I faced a bit of a dilemma. I’d just come off the back of the Women’s Tour, which was by far the most exciting sporting event of my life, and I really wanted to dedicate the winter entirely to focusing on the 2022 road season. At the same time, with the announcement of a unique qualifying pathway for amateur athletes (last time federations like BC had refused to even consider amateurs even though we were winning elite races on the platform) I knew I’d regret not trying to earn a spot in the race, and the national jersey that came with that. So at the end of November, despite having initially made the decision that I was going to take a step back from elite racing on Zwift as Monday nights were logistically so difficult with work, I lined up for the UCI Continental Qualifiers race. A fast downhill finish sprint did not suit me, or my Team Heino teammates, so we made a plan for an all-out attack on the last punchy hill before the finish and after a successful execution, I found myself with a UCI-endorsed spot for the World Championships in February. 

Winter training now needed some restructuring. I still wanted to prioritse the 2022 road season, but I also wanted to make sure I had the best race I could in the UCI Esports World Championships. It was just a matter of working out how to make training compatible to benefit both aims. If I’d had the opportunity to go abroad to train in the sun, things probably would have been quite different, but faced with a seemingly incessant wet, windy and cold weekends in the UK I took my training pretty much entirely indoors. Whilst I would have preferred to be doing long outdoor group rides, I didn’t see a need to make myself suffer in the cold (I get really bad Raynaud’s symptoms) when I had a good alternative. I was also confident that it wouldn’t be as detrimental to my outdoor riding as many think, as when outdoor racing resumed in the UK April 2021 I was pleasantly surprised at how much the online training had benefited my outdoor riding, not only in terms of fitness but also bike handling (read on before you raise those eyebrows too high…). 

Whilst there’s never going to be a substitute for riding in a high speed bunch, racing online can enhance outdoor astuteness, confidence and awareness

One of the most common arguments heard against using Zwift as a training tool is that it ruins your bike handling skills. Whilst there’s never going to be a substitute for riding in a high-speed bunch, racing online can enhance outdoor astuteness, confidence and awareness.

Taking a corner at the 2021 Women’s Tour. Photo: Hugh McManus

In my preparation for the Esports World Championships, I spent several weeks riding exclusively online. Getting back outside on the bike since I am noticeably more confident in my cornering and descending, two skills that have always been my biggest handicap in transitioning from a time triallist to a road racer. Whilst my overly-analytical mind benefits me greatly in many ways, it’s my biggest enemy at other times, and if I have time to think, I’ll talk myself out of a lot of things, including cornering fast or descending freely. Spending many hours intently watching a screen, where my avatar automatically follows the racing line has facilitated subliminal learning with respect to learning the right line to take and becoming accustomed to the surroundings moving past at high speed.

Racing indoors at a high level also increases your ability to be more automatically aware of what is going on around you. To be successful, you have to take in, and rapidly process, multiple pieces of data at once – your own metrics, the movement of the avatars of other riders, the in-game terrain and the w/kg and position of the racers near you. This develops a high level of alertness and response. I’m not in any way trying to say that if you’ve never raced outdoors that racing on Zwift can teach you the skills you need, but if you are already experienced in racing outdoors, I do genuinely believe it can help you practice things you are less confident with, in a less risky environment, and work on developing these in the winter racing break. 

Racing on Zwift also gives riders the opportunity to work on their weaker power durations in a lower-stakes environment. The racing has forced me to improve my top-end power, particularly efforts from 15 seconds to 3 minutes

Racing on Zwift also gives riders the opportunity to work on their weaker power durations in a lower-stakes environment. The racing has forced me to improve my top-end power, particularly efforts from 15 seconds to 3 minutes. Even as a young runner, I was always the kind of person that took time to wind up and then would happily sit at a steady state. If running power curves existed mine would have been flatter than my cycling power curve, with my 3km PB being set in my 5km PB, and my 800m PB within my 1500m best!

Alice at the Women’s Tour. Photo: Hugh McManus

Embarking on Zwift as a seasoned time triallist with absolutely no sprint saw me immediately placed in the top category of racer (due to categorisation being based entirely on 20-minute power) but getting spat out the pack within a few minutes on any punchy race. This obviously wasn’t much fun, but rather than get annoyed at all the ‘cheating’ I saw it as an opportunity to work on my weaknesses. I felt I could push myself harder to try not to lose the pack than I would outdoors as I didn’t have to worry about ‘blowing up’ and getting stranded on some random road in the middle of nowhere and this taught me to reset where my limits lie. On stage 6 of the Women’s Tour last year when I ended up in a small group that had got gapped through a narrow twisty section with about 10km to go, I reminded myself of how hard Zwift has taught me I can dig and then recover and put in a big 1-minute effort to pull my group back to the peloton. 

I would have never had the confidence to try and step up to racing at UCI level if it weren’t for the time I spent racing on Zwift during lockdown so I’m very glad I gave it a chance

This brings me to my last key benefit of the platform; I think it has a massive part to play in making women in particular confident enough to try racing outdoors. It’s been fantastic to see so many women and girls sign up for race training days and take part in their first outdoor races after having their first competitive cycling experiences on Zwift. It’s obviously essential that people don’t assume good results on Zwift mean they’ll be fine in a bunch on the road; adopting that attitude leads to a high chance of things ending badly for the rider and everyone around them. But with the right mentoring from those of us that are used to bunch racing it’s definitely a great new pathway into the sport.

For female riders, it can often be really hard to find someone local to give the advice and guidance on how to start out in racing, so the global connections that online racing enables are fantastic for spreading that information.  On a personal level, I would have never had the confidence to try and step up to racing at UCI level if it weren’t for the time I spent racing on Zwift during lockdown so I’m very glad I gave it a chance. 

Featured photo: Hugh McManus

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Journals 2022: introducing… Alice Lethbridge

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