So when Zwift announced that they were adding an Alpine climb, and it was based on Alpe d’Huez, I was probably the only Zwifter in the world who was a little disappointed! However the last thing I want is to appear ungrateful for being able to live at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez and run a bed and breakfast for cyclists 🙂 Instead of thinking ‘why didn’t they do the Stelvio?’, I’ve now got the opportunity to ride up Alpe d’Huez outside when the weather is good and indoors when it’s not so great! Having ridden up Alpe d’Huez in excess of 80 times (6 times in one go is my best, which I doubt I’ll ever repeat!) I’d consider myself pretty well placed to answer the question, ‘how realistic is the Alpe du Zwift?’ Well, in short, very realistic. The team at Zwift have done a great job as far as I’m concerned with conveying the feel, changes in gradient, and difficulty of the climb – just make sure your trainer difficulty is set to 100% and you get a pretty realistic experience.
(edit – now this last sentence caused quite a lot of comment when I shared this post on the Zwift riders facebook page. I don’t mean to say that the climb is easier at a lower Zwift difficulty setting, just that it won’t reflect how it will feel in real life with regards to cadence and gearing – see my point about gearing in the next paragraph. The climb will take the same amount of effort (or work done in joules for my fellow engineers out there) whether you have the difficulty set to 0% or 100%. The difference is you will feel the effect of the gradient changes more realistically, with respect to the gearing you are running, the higher your difficulty setting (just to make it more complicated your trainer inertia will also affect this). In my experience, managing the changes in gradient correctly round each hairpin can marginally affect your overall time, and having totally unsuitable gearing could mean you might not get up at all…..but I’ll leave discussion of how to get the best time up the Alpe (real or virtual!) to another blog post….sorry yes I am a tease 🙂 )
In fact from the point of view of a training tool – either practicing for the real thing or any other fairly lengthy Alpine climb then all our guests who tell me ‘but we have nothing like this at home to train on’ have no excuses any more! It’s also a good way to test if your bike gearing is suited to long days in the mountains – if at 100% difficulty you are grinding away at 40 rpm up the Alpe du Zwift then you probably need to invest in a bigger cassette before you pack your pride and joy away for it’s overseas trip.
Moving on from training and feel, one area I felt a little let down on was the views…one advantage Alpe d’Huez has over cols in our area (a col is the French word for ‘pass’ by the way) is that instead of following a valley up to the lowest point between two peaks, it goes pretty much straight up the side of a mountain. The result of this is that you get some great views directly down into the valley below, but also of the surrounding mountains, which are much higher than the Alpe (up to 1500m higher in some cases). In Watopia, the Alpe du Zwift is by far the highest point, so from more than half way up you just see clouds, and in the lower half there is often a enough ground to the sides of the road that the view across or down is blocked. Now I understand that Zwift wasn’t necessarily going to recreate 500 square miles of French Alps just so I could get a good view, but I do think this is where the real thing will still take your breath away (if you have much breath left to give….sorry couldn’t help that one) while it’s not so impressive in the virtual world. It’s probably a good thing for me however that a visit to the French Alps is still worthwhile 🙂
Building on from this point, the topography surrounding the roadside is sometimes like the real thing, but most of the time not. The only point where I thought – this looks exactly like the real thing is a little after bend 7 (Dutch corner on the real Alpe) where the view straight ahead looks just like in real life, minus the hotels perched on the top of Alpe d’Huez. And while we are on the subject, Dutch corner (or Irish corner, on bend 10 for that matter) doesn’t get any mention other than a cursory ‘Ride on Gesink’ written on the road in front of it – no church, no screaming dutch fans with orange flares getting in your way….but now I guess I’m being a little picky, as while they have used the road layout of Alpe d’Huez, it’s still in the Zwift / Watopia environment & I’m sure they were not looking to exactly replicate the visual experience of riding up Alpe d’Huez.
However one area where I think they have missed an opportunity with is the hairpin numbers. In real life each bend has a sign with the bend number, altitude, and previous winners of Tour de France stages up Alpe d’Huez. Surely it wouldn’t be hard to have a virtual winners list (perhaps the live top 21 times up the Strava Alpe du Zwift segment?) I’m sure all Zwifters would love the chance to get their names up (even temporarily) on an in game feature. It does look like it’s all kicked off already though regarding who’s legitimately at the top of the leaderboard. If you’ve got 20 minutes of your life to spare you can read the comments on the actual Strava ride file….some are quite amusing! Ironically at the time of writing this particular guy is now down in 4th place, and the 3 above him don’t seem to be getting anywhere near as many comments (and one is definitely also on a incorrect Zwift set up, which is what created the controversy in the first place).
I however, took the climb at a much more pedestrian pace – I won’t list all my excuses, suffice to say my best one is that I’d done a half marathon a couple of days before:) – and managed 212w average for the whole thing. This is pretty much my ‘riding with guests pace’, and resulted in me getting to the top in just a shade over an hour, which I was surprised at. (For the Zwifters out there I was on the Tron bike and weigh in at 65kg). If this was real life, I’d have expected something slower, probably by at least 5 minutes like in this ride where I averaged 216w and got up in 1h 5m….especially as the Alpe du Zwift is a little longer than the real life segment (only by 200m, but it all counts at that gradient!)
So to summarise, Alpe du Zwift is a great training tool, feels just like the real thing (if it doesn’t look like the real thing), and you will probably be a little slower climbing up Alpe d’Huez in real life. However it’s definitely still worth a trip here to see & experience the real thing, not least for the incredible views and ambience!