Today I managed to increase my FTP by an unprecedented 9W without intending to, and found myself in the top 4% of times on one of Zwift’s most popular segments, but how did I manage it? I thought my days of such improvements were behind me, where did this form come from?
As some of you may be aware, Zwift are running a series of events called “The Tour of Watopia” throughout April which take you around the most popular routes on the now famous island. I decided that aiming to complete all of these would be a good way to keep myself motivated as managing a rapidly growing business really eats into your time available to train.
The first stage was around The Big Loop, taking in the epic KOM and the Mayan ruins, as the gun went off there was a predictable surge as groups started to establish, but it’s only a Zwift race and I was just looking for a stretch of the legs, so let them get on with their attacks and span my way round taking in the scenery.
The second event is the Road to Ruins, a much shorter route with less elevation but the shorter nature of the event meant I was less conservative with my power figures, finding myself just outside of the top 120 riders, not going to sniff at that.
This morning was A Tour of Fire and Ice, a route which takes you through the volcano and up the Alpe Du Zwift, their new expansion replicating the legendary Alpe D’Huez climb in France, 12KM long with an average gradient of 8.5%. I went up it last week on a recce and came in at just over an hour, I thought I’d have been better up the mountain given that I weigh as much as a half empty packet of crisps, but I figured a lot of people were probably fiddling their weight to help them post competitive times and I was hardly pushing hard. As we approached the foot of the mountain in the race I noticed I was now within the top 100, that’s decent.
By the time I hit the second switchback I was in 50th. With another 19 corners to go I started doing some very rudimentary maths in my head, and realised that the race was on, I’d taken the bait and I was going to chase down the front of the race.
What followed was 46 minutes and 52 seconds of pushing hard and maintaining a fairly consistent power. I was taking places hand over fist, and working at a far higher power than my FTP figures told me I could hold, but I felt completely in control and pushed on. At the end of the ride I crested the mountain in 19th place, with the 13th fastest time up the climb within the event itself. I was rewarded with not only a solid result which could have potentially been a top 10 finish if I had followed the attacks at the start of the race, but also a massive 9W increase in FTP.
With the release of the Alpe Du Zwift expansion I saw lots of people posting FTP increases on social media, boasting about how within the hour or so it took them to get up the mountain, they set a new FTP. “Absolute nonsense” I thought to myself, if you can hit a new 20 minute PB within an hour effort then you simply weren’t trying hard enough in your 20 minute FTP test. However here I am a few days later with egg on my face, within my 46 minute ascent I managed to hit a new 20 minute best. This makes no sense, and what’s even more confusing is that I averaged 219W for an hour, which is only two watts lower than my previous FTP, so the writing is on the wall, I didn’t push hard enough in my previous FTP tests. Bearing in mind I did my last FTP test only a month ago and I haven’t put in enough training to warrant such an increase, we have to ask what has caused such a result to appear. I believe there are a few factors here
Rabbit to chase
Even when I made up 50 places in the first two switchbacks, I knew I wasn’t in a position to win the race, the guys ahead of me would be as fast if not faster than me up the climb, and they arrived at the foot of the climb several minutes before I did. However as I started taking places hand over fist, I was motivated by shutting down the next cyclist, then the next, and the next. Using each rider as a target I kept myself motivated and it reminded me of the way that I race a 5K run, picking my way through the field using the athletes ahead as targets. This gave me the motivation to push myself further and harder than I would do with only a clock and my power figures for company.
Distance vs Time
I knew that the faster I rode up the mountain the sooner I’d get to the top and the sooner it would all be over, the same can’t be said for a 20 minute FTP test where no matter how hard you push the torture is not ending any sooner.
Why is it that riding uphill is harder than riding on the flat? Mostly it’s just because of the increased resistance provided by the gradient and gravity. This is well simulated by my Wahoo Kickr which means that I can’t spin my legs out, I have to keep up a higher power to keep moving. I can’t shift down a gear or two when my legs start to tire, I can’t increase my cadence to lean on my aerobic system, the resistance prevents me from making it easier for myself, so I’m more likely to keep a high power for longer. For those who don’t have a power meter for the road, a high quality trainer such as the Wahoo Kickr is fantastic for replicating the demands of steep climbs.
After I finished my ascent I collapsed over my handlebars in the same manner I did at the top of my previous FTP test, both times convinced that I couldn’t go any harder, when it’s clear from the numbers, that I could have gone harder both times. WKO4 estimates my FTP sits at 138W, 8 W higher than the already incredible 8W increase calculated from my 20 minute best effort.
Unfortunately this means I have to ask myself some very difficult questions, namely why aren’t I a much better cyclist? Why do I struggle to hold the wheels on fast, flat rides? I’ve always been fairly handy on the hills, but if I use the FTP that WKO4 believes I should be riding at then I should be hitting 4.5 W/KG at threshold pace. Bearing in mind that 5 W/KG is normally the domain of professionals or at the very least top level age groupers, this leaves an awful lot of difficult questions for me to mull over. Do I struggle because I believe I will struggle? Are there other factors such as bike handling skills, or a simple lack of willpower/belief in myself that are holding me back? Is it simply that I look at people with legs the size of my head and tell myself there’s now way I can keep up with them? Is my nutrition strategy all wrong? Am I just not willing to push myself hard enough? These are difficult questions to ask with no clear answer. I’ll have to do some soul searching in the coming days for answers.
Now that I have my nice high FTP and I know that I can hold that power over those times, this will hopefully help me to dig deeper and put out the figures that deep down I know I’m capable of achieving.
So what are the takeaway points for others here? I guess the hard truth is that we can all push harder than we think we can, given the right motivation. Fitness testing isn’t sexy and is far from engaging, pedalling your bike into nothingness or running along with lungs burning as the clock ticks down. While we can learn to get better at these tests by playing mind games with ourselves to push our bodies further, we are all motivated by different things. I’m clearly motivated by chasing anonymous riders down on a virtual mountain, other will be motivated by holding the wheels of those faster than themselves and others with a specific playlist blaring in their ears. We’re all individuals so play around and find what makes you tick.