Alpe du Zwift? Don’t you mean Alpe d'Huez?
No, strangely enough. Alpe du Zwift is the virtual twin to the 21 hair-pinned climb in the heart of the French Alps (Alpe d'Huez). The virtual edition follows exactly the same gradient and distance metre for metre, the only difference is you can ride it from the comfort of your own home! Ride the exact same summit finish from the Tour de France, minus the weighty cost of travelling to Europe to experience it in real life. In Zwift, you will find the climb on the only other road out of the "Jungle Circuit". It is a road to nowhere, just like the real thing (which leads up to Huez village and ski station) so once you get to the top, you come straight back down the same way. If you haven’t yet completed any climbs in Zwift, you will need to ride a few before you unlock the Road to Sky, which is the route the Alpe resides on. You will have to be at least level 6 to access this, so if you’re new to Zwift you will have to accrue some miles before seeking out this challenge. It is such a beast that I would advise doing some of the other climbs first anyway to prepare yourself! The Volcano Kom is a good start; at 3.7 km and only 3% average gradient, it will ease you into the Zwift climbing experience. Then tackle the Epic Kom to really find your climbing pace, before heading to the Alpe.
How long is Alpe du Zwift?
Just like the Alpe d'Huez from the Tour de France, this route is 12.24 km (7.6 miles) long, with a total elevation gain of over 1000 meters (3400′)! It’s a brutal 8.5% gradient, which is never constant - you have to deal with frequent ramps of 13-14%. The Road to Sky route is 17 km and is the shortest route to include the Alpe. This route includes the run down into the Jungle - wave to the sloth and pass the ruins, then turn off the gravel and hit the first 10% ramp. Don’t be fooled; even this meagre 17 km route will take in excess of 1 hour at a strong pace! If you ride the entire way up at 3 w/kg I would expect you to summit in around 1 hour; the fastest times on the official Strava segment by Zwift Insider are 32:27 for men, by Jason Osborne (the rower who recently became the Zwift World Champion) and 37:39 for women, by Sarah Gigante. My fastest time is 37:42. If you can get under the hour for your time, you are doing well - anything near the hour is a very good time. 1 hour 30 is a nice steady pace and a good starting goal. When you start the climb, Zwift changes the map screen in the top right to show each bend, and on the right you will see split times with average power for each sector between the hairpins - this means you can very easily break down the climb mentally so it doesn’t feel as long as it otherwise might. Be warned, though, it is very easy to overestimate your pace at the beginning!
How to tackle the Alpe du Zwift for the first time
You’ve reached level 6 and you're ready to tackle the beast; you’ve ridden down into the Jungle and you’re onto the tarmac leading to the first steep kick. The biggest thing is to not push too hard in the first 6 km. You’re going to need the watts at the top! If you’re not the lightest rider in the world, you'll want to try and ride a constant tempo - don’t spike your watts on the hairpins. Imagine you’re towing the Ineos team train in smooth style. This will mean you don’t go into the red too early. Of course, when climbing, w/kg is the most important figure. Every rider is different and it is important not to become preoccupied with your weight as your power will suffer. Fuelling is key to good performance so eat quality whole foods, and if you do want to lose weight for the Alpe then do it over the course of months, not weeks.
So, you’re pressing up to the first hairpin; time to make sure you're setting the right pace. Pacing is so easy on the Alpe, because you get the info on the game for your power between each hairpin. Try to keep the power the same in each sector. The game counts down the 21 hairpins for you, which is obviously helpful but can become disheartening as you near the top because the bends get further apart. The final 3 km can seem to go on forever, so be prepared to dig in as you near the end! Don’t focus too much on your speed; this will naturally vary as the gradient steepens and shallows. Your power reading is your best friend here.
Another important note is your Trainer setting. You can make it easier by changing the 'Trainer Difficulty', which you can find under Menu > Settings. The default is 50% which is theoretically half as hard as real life; 100% is as hard as real life. At 100% difficulty the gradient changes on Alpe du Zwift will feel nearly impossible! To allow you to ride at slightly less torque, lower the trainer difficulty by a few percent - it will work miracles for you. By learning what power you can hold for an hour and sticking to your data, you will conquer this 1000m mountain with ease.
What do you get for completing the mountain?
When you reach the top there is a nice surprise - every time you summit, a spinner is activated which spins around and lands on various “free gifts”. This ranges from additional XP (experience points, how you level up) to the lightweight Meilenstein wheelset, the best climbing wheels in Zwift, to really pimp your ride.
How to get faster
Losing weight will of course help, but everyone has their optimal weight and it is not always safe to tamper with that. You can also increase your w/kg by increasing your power output. Get stronger, get fitter, and you will travel faster. Most of the time when you train more you naturally shed a little bit of excess weight anyway, doubling the effect of having surplus watts! Interestingly (and if you are new to Zwift you may not know this), the bike you select from your garage will have an impact on your speed too. Some bikes are much faster than others in different scenarios. The fastest bikes uphill, as verified by Zwift Insider, are the Cannondale Evo or the Specialized Tarmac Pro. Sadly, you need to be level 33 or more to buy these from in the Drop Shop! Never fear, though, there are fast options available at various levels which you can see here: Fastest Climbing Bike Frames and Wheels at Each Zwift Level - Zwift Insider.
Pacing your speed is probably the fastest way you will improve your time on the climb. Ideally, as you climb the mountain, tick off the hairpins, and get closer to the top, you want to get faster and faster. Now, don’t take this as lifting your speed, because pacing on climbs varies greatly - the gradient can increase to leg-numbing walls and then dip again to more manageable false flats. You need to base your pace off your watts. Start at a manageable pace where you are breathing hard but in a controlled way, then, as you reach the final 3rd of the climb, lift your pace.
If you are familiar with your Power Training Zones then you'll want to ride most of the climb just below your threshold; if you’ve paced it right, use the final 3 km to try to lift to your threshold power or just above. In the final 1 km you really don’t want to push too hard as you will blow. 1 km may not seem far, but on a mountain it will take 2-3 minutes, if not a little longer. Wait for the final 400 metres at the earliest to start “sprinting” for the top - this will ensure you don’t come to a painful, grinding halt as you gasp for air. You don’t have to contend with the air thinning because of altitude gain, but you will feel the oxygen debt from the effort of 50-60 minutes of hard riding.
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Ride the mountain in a group ride or race to improve your time even more. The draft will lift your speed for the same power, even a climb. It’s not as great an assistance as on the flat but it will still make you faster, plus the added morale of having other riders to push you will make a difference to how far you can push yourself.
Practise the other climbs in Zwift to give you an idea of how fast you can go uphill. Use the short hills and the long climbs; the Zwift Kom is good for honing your 2 minute effort for the burst of speed you want at the top of the Alpe, while the Epic Kom will train your 20 minute effort which will help boost your overall threshold.
Plain and simple, ride the Alpe du Zwift - the more you ride it, the better you will know it and so you will begin to learn where to push on and where to ease off. You will start to understand what sort of power you can hold for the duration of the mountain, and when you get to this stage you will find that you naturally get faster and the 1000m elevation becomes child’s play!
Other Zwift climbs to try
So you’ve completed the Alpe du Zwift? If so, you’ve probably already done the aforementioned Volcano Kom, and the Epic Kom with the radio tower add-on. If you haven’t, go give them a try. The next climb to attack is the Innsbruck Kom; this is not nearly as long or as steep but it is a tough test in the Austrian Alps. If you’ve done the Alpe du Zwift first, though, it will feel like a little bump in comparison. The step up from the Alpe du Zwift is another infamous Tour de France climb - The Mont Ventoux (Ven-top route-"Ven-Top" Route Details (France) - Zwift Insider), a giant mountain of Provence. This is significantly longer than the Alpe, it is hard, and it will push you to your limits. Use what you learnt from the Alpe to conquer this exceptional beast! Good luck, and RIDE ON!
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Blog by Tim Torrie
Tim Torrie is a semi-professional cyclist racing for TBW 23 Stuart Hall Cycling Academy p/b Trainsharp. Tim has raced at an international level since he was a junior and has raced in the top flight of the Zwift world for the past 3 years. Tim knows his way around Zwift and loves to see new riders getting on the platform. He hopes these blogs will help users get the most out of the fantastic software that is Zwift. Keep your eyes peeled for Tim in national races and time trials in the UK this year!