Cast your mind back to June last year, when Steve Cummings secured a remarkable double at the National Championships, becoming the first rider in ten years to win both the road and time trial titles. What made Cummings’ double all the remarkable was his return to form after a ten-week break from racing due to injury.
Except Cummings had been racing - not with Team Dimension Data in the WorldTour peloton but on the turbo trainer in Zwift’s online world. “I used Zwift everyday," Cummings, who had undergone surgery on his shoulder, tells RCUK. “It definitely helped because it was easier for my head to stay [motivated] on the trainer for long periods."
Cummings certainly isn’t the first pro cyclist to win races off the back of virtual miles on Zwift, with Mat Hayman spending hour upon hour on the turbo in the build-up to winning the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, having fractured his arm just weeks before.
Zwift has captured the imagination of pro cyclists and amateurs alike, with the world’s best athletes rubbing virtual shoulders with everyday riders on the roads of Watopia.
The question is, why have some pro cyclists embraced Zwift so quickly? And how do they use it? We got the lowdown from Cummings and the man who introduction him to Zwift in the first place, Dimension Data team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen.
An early adopter
Of course, Zwift is a relatively new training platform, but Boasson Hagen says he’s been using it since day dot, spurred on by the inability to ride his bike outside due to injury and a recommendation by Zwift’s Steve Beckett.
“I can’t remember if I started using Zwift for a broken collarbone or shoulder, but Steve contacted me and introduced me to it," he says. “I’ve use it ever since, especially to come back from different injuries, but I use it even when I'm not injured.
“When you’re injured it can be difficult to get on the bike quickly, but it lets you train for longer when you are initially coming back."
Following ‘The Boss’
It wasn’t long before Boasson Hagen introduced Cummings to his new training tool, and since the winter of 2015 it’s been a mainstay of the double British champion’s training, as followers of Cummings on Instagram will have seen.
“I tend to use Zwift whenever the weather is bad or it’s dark outside," says Cummings. “That makes it perfect for before or after travel, but on some weeks I can use it everyday."
Critics of turbo training have often cited boredom as a reason to avoid riding indoors, but Cummings says he uses Zwift precisely because it shakes up the daily grind.
“It’s another training option, and I think it can keep interest up - sometimes I look forward to bad weather, just so I can have a change from the usual and ride on Zwift," Cummings says.View on Instagram
If Cummings, whose training base is in Tuscany, likes to use Zwift regularly as a way to keep him motivated, Boasson Hagen is sometimes left with no choice thanks to the often-harsh weather his Nordic homeland can experience.
“I use it quite regularly when I’m in Norway when the weather is not so great, which can be often in the winter as we get a lot of snow," he says.
The ways pros think about their training has changed almost beyond recognition in recent years – now it’s more quantified and more clinical, with power meters, scientific testing and ever-innovative technology coming to the fore.
As pro cyclists, Boasson Hagen and Cummings are no strangers to the turbo trainer - indoor training has always been a requirement for high-quality sessions - but both say Zwift’s realism has made the turbo a better replacement for road riding.
“You can train as normal with the feeling of the road, but indoors," says Cummings. “It hasn’t actually changed the way I train, but it has helped in terms of getting the training done. I think I just stay on the trainer longer now with Zwift, so from that perspective it’s definitely helped my turbo sessions."
Boasson Hagen agrees, highlighting the versatility of Zwift as one key reason why he now goes online for his indoor training sessions.View on Instagram
“It really makes the time go by faster when you have to do your session indoors," he says. “You can still ride with other people, and I find that really helps with my motivation.
“On those days in the past where the weather was really bad and I would hesitate whether to ride or not, now it's easier to just jump on Zwift and get the work done. If I need to do intervals or a recovery ride, then that’s no problem. I guess that’s evidence of how realistic and useful Zwift can be."
Competition and interaction
We all know racers are competitive animals, so it will come as no surprise that Cummings particularly enjoys racing for Zwift’s KOM awards. In fact, he says racing for Zwift jerseys is what he finds most beneficial when riding online.
Meanwhile, Boasson Hagen is a fan of the variety of maps available, providing a visual stimulation to otherwise monotonous training sessions. “It’s the different courses and how they change that makes a more realistic and interesting ride," he says.
“Although, I have to be honest and say that I’m not really the best at interacting on Zwift. I use it as a tool for work so I’m quite focussed," he adds. “It’s nice to see the encouragement and read messages from fans though."
It might not be Boasson Hagen’s thing, but Cummings likes to interact with other Zwifters. “It’s nice, I like it," he says. “It makes it more like a group ride and personally I enjoy the banter."
Banter or not, Zwift helped Cummings enjoy one of his best seasons to date in 2017, thanks to that national road and time trial double. One thing is for sure, whether it’s sportive riders tapping out winter miles or pro cyclists preparing for the biggest races in the world, Zwift isn’t going anywhere.