Early this year, we enrolled track and crit racer Cat Gaskell into the Canyon//SRAM Zwift academy – a search for the next pro team rider via the social turbo-riding platform.
Zwift allows riders all over the world to cycle ‘together’ online. If you use a smart turbo trainer such as the Wahoo Kickr Snap Cat used inclines are replicated and your power to weight ratio dictates if you drop back or accelerate away on the climbs. Even the benefit of drafting is replicated via the resistance.
The idea was Cat would ride with the team in Belgium, and then complete the Academy to see how far she could get to being the next Canyon//SRAM team rider. Unfortunately, it didn’t all go to plan.
I came into this season feeling pretty strong - I had managed a fair few podium positions and wins at both crits and on the track and I had plans for plenty more races throughout the year. After my trip to Belgium with Canyon//SRAM and Zwift, I was also pretty excited to give the Academy a go. I never considered I’d get that far but thought it would be a fun challenge and was interested to find out how turbo training following a specific plan could improve my fitness and strength. I had never trained on a turbo before; rollers were always my go-to indoor training tool.
June arrived, as did a track open meet at Herne Hill. Unfortunately this day of racing did not go to plan and I was taken out in a very bad crash when several girls went down in front of me and I had nowhere to go but over my handlebars. I was knocked unconscious and woke up in hospital with a broken neck, cheekbone and eye socket, and a separated shoulder.
The first few weeks went past in a concussion-fuelled blur and only after my second op did I get told I’d not be able to ride outside for about 12 weeks post-shoulder surgery (in case of further crash damage). Devastating news, especially in the middle of the summer.
Fortunately I had taken delivery of a Wahoo Kickr Snap the day before my crash, to use for the Zwift academy programme. This, plus Zwift, turned out to be an absolute saviour for me – both for my mental and physical health.
The Kickr Snap trainer plus Zwift, turned out to be an absolute saviour for me – both for my mental and physical health.
Two weeks after my second op and 5 weeks after my crash, I was ready (desperate) to start getting my fitness back. The Canyon//SRAMRacing & Zwift Academy Project seemed the perfect recovery tool as it gave me specific training sessions and I didn’t therefore have to think about what I was doing.
To be honest, turbo training has never appealed before: I have a very short attention span and the idea of just sitting on a turbo trainer with no particular aim bored me to death. I hoped using Zwift would improve things dramatically. The Kickr Snap was also ideal as I started the plan unable to even rest my right hand on the bars and in workouts in ERG mode the trainer changes the resistance automatically - so there was no need to change gear.
Riding using Zwift & the Kickr Snap
So, being my first ride in 5 weeks, I wasn’t expecting much. I clicked ‘Just Ride’ and managed about 35 minutes, pouring sweat, but it was great to be back on the bike. The main decision I made during this ride was that I must source a fan.
The first stage of the academy involved completing 27 workouts and 9 group rides between the start of June and the end of August. I couldn’t start until mid July so had to squeeze them all into a shorter timeframe.
The first thing was an FTP test [a test of the power you can hold for one hour, that is then used to work out what you can hold for intervals - Ed] that was then to be repeated at the beginning of month 3. I’d never trained with power before so I had never done an FTP test before and had nothing to compare the result with. To be honest I was pretty disappointed with the first one but I had lots of excuses: arm in a sling, no fan, fourth ride after a crash, five weeks of mainly sleeping, ongoing concussion issues including vision problems…. I could go on but I won’t bore you! The slightly embarrassing result was 156 and as the following workouts are based on this, I found the first 2 months of workouts fairly easy, except the odd toughie (workout 9!).
By month 3, when I retested my FTP, it was at 193 – much better although I was still not overly excited by this number – can I blame my lack of a very effective fan? Oh, and concussion (still)? This increase did mean a much harder (already hard) month 3.
For anyone who has also completed the Academy - lets nod away and enjoy some shared wincing reminiscence: workout #23 was the most feared and led on from already super tough #21 & #22. The Zwift Academy Facebook group was great during this tough time as everyone was going through the same pain. It’s been a fantastic support and it was great to have met loads of other female cyclists from around the world.
Completing 9 ‘group rides’ on Zwift - as well as the 27 structured sessions - was a requirement to qualify for the next stage. These included a variety of rides that focussed on things such as sprinting and hill climbing. It was great ‘riding with others’ virtually and it definitely reduced the turbo boredom. The Academy laid on ‘ride leaders’ too who were also great, and gave tips on how best to tackle the sprints and hills.
One thing that was tough though was sticking to the watts/kg recommended at various points during the ride. I’m fairly light and would have probably been spat out the back fairly quickly if I’d stuck to this. I tended to ride on feel instead, which generally ended in me riding on my own or with a small group between the very fastest front bunch and the main group behind. I’m much better at bunch riding on the track and road, if I’m honest.
To me, these group rides weren’t as important as the workouts as my main aim was increasing fitness and, although they state you are able to work on your group riding skills, in reality you don’t need much skill to ride on a virtual road apart from being able to keep your pace at the same as those around you.
I completed the programme on Monday 29th August, 2 days before the deadline and am really looking forward to getting back outside more but also adding in a Zwift workout at least once a week. It has really helped me to see the benefit of more specific training sessions and I’m hoping I will come back even stronger than before the crash.
Yesterday, ten semi-finalists were announced from the Canyon//SRAM Zwift Academy. They’ll now go on to receive further training and eventually be whittled down to a final round - which will involve riding with the team before one rider is selected. For everyone else, Zwift continues to offer group riding simulations and structured training sessions – why not have ago?!