Time flies. Unusual nice strike of autumn weather persists, but it won’t take long for typical November mist to set into lowlands of the northern hemisphere. Cold temperatures, short daylight time, wet roads, entire weeks under the fog, depression, runny noses,.. It’s inevitable all coming up. So it’s time to set up our pain caves.
Depending on how well we will manage to perfect our indoor environment, our winter training campaign might vary. From zero or miserable time spent on boring stand-alone rollers or trainers to great and motivational time spent within social interaction with either close summer friends and competitors or just regular virtual fly by’s.
Here are some thoughts and suggestions on how to build your own perfect pain cave and how to turn your indoor environment into an enjoyable and virtual social place with as much road feel and emotions as much technology today offers. From most important to less, let’s dive into the basics.
The virtual platform represents the very basic. There is a plethora of virtual platforms available out there, every single one with its pros and cons. From very simple ones like Elite My e-Training coming with company’s trainers purchase to very sophisticated, graphically and socially superior ones like Road Grand Tours, CVR Cade or Zwift. Arguably, the most popular tends to be the best, with Zwift currently being on top. It’s worth noting, that Zwift is also by far the most expensive one. Since it’s the most crowded virtual space currently, and our winter league will run on the Zwift platform all the following equipment suggestions are tailored for the best possible Zwifting experience.
Interactive smart trainer/roller/bike
Right after choosing the virtual platform, the next biggest influence on indoor riding has the choice of a smart trainer or some other indoor training aid. Currently, the vast majority of »smart« equipment falls to trainers. There are some great smart rollers options out too, but they are less frequent, especially among racers and with the same price tag as smart trainers. There are also complete indoor e-bike’s out there with full up&down motion support, but they are very expensive and very limited in terms of transportation and other useful options like warm-up equipment during summer.
Term »smart« refers to the ability for the trainer to connect to 3rd party app (like Zwift) which can then control unit resistance according to virtual road incline, drafting behind other rider or drafting in a group of riders. Without that functionality, any trainer or rollers are just »dumb«trainers. The rider can not get any subtle feedback under the legs when he gets draft assistance or the road is kicking uphill or downhill. He needs to visualize it. And that just ain’t it. It’s not the road feel you can get with solid smart units.
“Wheel-on drive” or “direct drive” trainers are the next issue. Wheel on trainers are much cheaper than direct drive. They might be good enough for the very beginners and for people who don’t expect too much sophistication from social interaction. They just like to ride alone with their own goals. But for any ambitious rider, trying to exploit the social component as deep as possible, solid direct drive unit is almost a must. If the unit has a heavy enough flywheel, so the inertia becomes a relevant part of the pedaling cycle and super-smooth braking technology, then the virtual road can become a really enjoyable place. Once paired with a group riding, all the suddenly minutes don’t last like hours anymore. They fly-by just like on road, and the only constraint can become your time and fast physiological changes in your system due to the usual overheating/dehydration process. You would love to do a few kilometers more, but huge amount of water under your bike doesn’t allow you anymore.
There has to be one thing very clear. Your computer has to be a beast! Any modern platform with its sophisticated algorithms and high resolutions, to run smooth, requires a strong and fast computer. Running Zwift in a resolution lower than full HD (1980x1080p) simply means a suboptimal experience. Once the resolution is high enough, like in 4K for instance, you can start observing very small and subtle differences in objects or other riders coming closer to you or riding away. For any computer to run a Zwift in 4K resolution usually requires at least Intel i5 processor with 8Gb of memory and strong graphic card with at least 2Gb. More on required specs can be found here. If you want to compare how your computer runs in relation to other computers within Zwift community you can use Zwiftalizer as well.
Let it be straight. The bigger, with as high resolution as possible, the better. Small screens on phones, tablets do fine, but to really enjoy your virtual environment, you need a big screen. And you need details. How big is your screen depends a little from your pain cave space availability as well as on your wallet. But generally, any 4k TV from 100cm on will do the best.
There are three basic conditions that have to be exact as possible in order to be fully comparable within Zwift’s virtual world to your »in real life« sensations or performances. Your height, your weight, and your power. If those conditions represent your true value than your Zwift riding experience and performance will be almost identical to one out on the real road. This has been proven a dozen times since Zwift’s algorithms do mimic real-life cycling physics as good as it gets.
While your height is a constant, your weight is not. Like in real life, day to day weight variations are part of the normal biology of any active human. Seasonal variations might be even bigger and to be the same on the virtual road as outside it is necessary to honest with your weight. Same as weight influence your climbing and sprinting speed outside on real road, same does it affect your virtual speed.
But the most crucial of all three basic conditions is power. Power has to be as accurate as possible. Without a solid and reliable power meter, your virtual experience won’t be the same as outside. If your power meter doesn’t measure your true power you will be either to slow or too fast in relation to your real-life peers out on the road. While it certainly might feel good for someone to fly up the virtual mountain with magic numbers like 6w/kg, it doesn’t represent your true self and thus neither your nor community’s social experience can’t be optimal. Solid, accurate and reliable power measuring device is a MUST!
For beginners who never used any kind of a power meter before, the cheapest option is to simply buy a smart trainer with a built-in power measuring capabilities. Simple »wheel-on« trainers can go as low as 250-350€, with the least accurate and reliable power measuring capabilities. Those units can be fairly inaccurate, and practice usually shows that real power can be 10-20% or even more off reported one. Direct-drive trainers on the entry-level are much better, and for about 500-700€ you can get power reading within +/-5%. For power accuracy within 2-3%, it usually requires to go to the top end of the price spectrum and that means 900-1200€ for smart direct drive trainer. In any case, purchasing a high-end trainer has its rationale, since you don’t need to invest in extra power meter unit, and those can cost you anywhere between 600-1800€ alone.
The best option for power to be accurate and reliable throughout the entire intensity spectrum (similar accuracy while easy coasting, all-out steady-state climbing or hammering on sprints) is buying a respectable power meter. The best options that do work well with your outdoor bike are power meter within a spider (like SRM, Power2Max, Quarq, Rotor, etc) or within pedals (Garmin Vectors, Assioma Duos,..).
While riding hard indoors, mayor issues any cyclists experience sooner or later is heat removal. Our bodies generate 4-5 times more heat than they do mechanical work. When average cyclist generates during endurance riding, say 200w on pedals, his working muscles release about 800-1000w of heat. If this same cyclist goes all-out uphill at 350w, his muscle releases 1400-1700w of heat. That means, if you don’t cool down your body, your core temperature will rise sky-high within 10-20 min. And once your core temperature rises above a critical threshold, your own brains, your central governor will inevitably shut down your contracting muscles all the way down as needed, even paralyze you if needed, just to keep you on the safe side of a barrier.
How to manage cooling in your pain cave can be somewhat of an art. Have a little to cool temperature in your pain cave during winter and have a little too much of fan speed and you will get a cold. Have a little too high temperature and above all a little too much moisture in the air (which is mayor issue in any small space anyway) and you won’t be able to follow other more than 45 min. After some time at high intensity, you will inevitably overheat yourself and your performance will shut down as a result. So what works the best? If it’s possible, the space volume of your pain cave should be as big as possible. Air conditioning with heating option (during winter) and solid moisture management is the second-best solution. The temperature within the pain cave is ideal at around 18-20°C. Lower temperatures are possible, but the probability of catching a cold once or twice a winter rises with colder temps. Fan or two is an integral part of any pain cave setup. Some like several small fans with wind direction into different parts of the body, others like one big fan with powerful and wide airflow. In any case, body temperature management or simply sad »cooling« during hard indoor session, is probably a single most important physiological aspect that has to be addressed. Everything else from hydration, nutrition is less important and inferior comparing to effective cooling.
So, these are the basics. There are millions of other small things that can make your pain cave more popular and enjoyable space, but those described above are the biggest and most influential. All the written might sound for someone new into indoor virtual crazy expensive fun. It’s hard to argue, indeed a solid pain-cave setup can cost you a minimum of 1500-2000€ if you have to buy A to Z from scratch (like the computer, power meter, and other peripherals most already has at home). But that’s still comparable to any mid-range winter gadget, like a mountain bike or cyclocross bike. And above all, no matter how cold or how much snow is outside, how wet the roads are, how long your working hours are or when your kids might have post-school afternoon activities, your bike setup is waiting there and in the virtual world, it’s always somebody out there you can pair with.