A Better Zwift Indoor Cycling Ride?

Assessing Wahoo’s Kickr Axis Action Feet

Unpacking the Wahoo Kickr Axis Action Feet
Unpacking the Wahoo Kickr Axis Action Feet

Quarantine and lockdowns are a lot more palatable as a cyclist with Zwift indoor riding. I am not alone, Cycling Tips reported on the record number of indoor mile grinders flocking to Zwift and other riding platforms as the pandemic hit last Spring.

For two years, my Zwift setup has been my trusty Specialized Diverge gravel bike attached to the 2018 Wahoo Kickr Indoor trainer. I have logged over 6,000 miles, most of my rides averaging 15-20 miles, and my longest stopping just short of 63 miles. Longer rides on indoor trainers are more difficult for me than riding outside due to being locked into one position causing more muscle cramping and saddle soreness.

I was therefore excited when Wahoo announced their 2020 Wahoo Kickr model last year with the addition of Axis Action Feet.

Wahoo states that the Axis Feet:

Enhance the ride feel of the KICKR Smart Trainer by mimicking the side-to-side movement experienced riding outdoors. These feet allow up to 5 degrees of movement and so the KICKR can respond more naturally to the rider tempo and body position changes.

and

By allowing you to move more naturally with the forces applied during long hard training sessions, KICKR AXIS reduces your fatigue, so you can go harder, longer.

Wahoo made the Axis Action Feet available as a separate upgrade for older Wahoo Kickr models at $79.99 — I was eager to purchase.

After several months, I finally could find the Axis Feet in-stock at the Wahoo store. Indoor trainers from all manufacturers have been in short supply for months due to high demand and supply constraints.

Each of the four Action Feet in comparison to the original Wahoo Kickr feet’s plastic bottoms have the addition of a high density foam material. Following the instructions it was a quick and simple process to upgrade the feet in under 10 minutes.

The Wahoo Axis Action outrigger foot upgrade with foam bottom in comparison to the original Kickr's plastic foot.
The Wahoo Axis Action outrigger foot upgrade with foam bottom in comparison to the original Kickr’s plastic foot.

The only decision to make was the size of the plastic cap to insert over the foam of the two outrigger feet, and this was based on weight. Since I am definitely over 181 lbs, I needed to use the largest diameter cap.

After several rides, I do like the Axis Action Feet upgrade. The addition of the foam on the bottom provides a nice and subtle lateral motion that is closer to riding outdoors. I still have more muscle cramping and saddle soreness than I typically have riding outdoors, however, this has been reduced and is a nice addition for indoor riding on older Wahoo Kickr trainers.

I think the Axis feet are a nice upgrade for indoor cyclists riding on hard surfaces — I ride on concrete in my garage on a thin mat. If you ride on carpet, then you may not notice the subtle motion of the Axis Action Feet and reap their benefits.

My Cycling Virtual Life in Zwift

It started in January. I asked a cycling buddy of mine if he wanted to join me for a weekend ride. “I can’t,” he said. “I have already signed up for a Tour de Zwift stage.”

For the first time, I began to notice virtual rides posted on my Strava friends feed, noting their accomplishments. Not one to pass on the chance to look at new technologies, I did some fast research.

Zwift is an online social game for cyclists and runners to ride and run together. Zwift also hosts special events, aka the Tour de Zwift, and even races. The real game-changer for me was the game’s physics. Zwift models what real riding outside is like minus the wind and sun. Meaning if I do a climb of 5 miles, I am getting the equivalent of that workout in my own home.

This was a real game-changer.

While balancing work and family, I am also preparing for a 100-mile gravel race at Southland, Texas this May. Zwift provides a virtual world to get the training I need on my schedule. Also, not many hills in the Lubbock, Texas region, so getting climbing workouts is a significant bonus.

I started with the basic setup. I already owned a basic wheel-on- trainer and an Apple TV to run the game. The only additional items I needed were Bluetooth compatible speed, and cadence sensors for under 60 dollars to monitor my RPMs and estimate my power output.

Even with the basic Zwift set up, I could immediately see that Zwift was going to change my cycling life. My actions on my pedals had a direct correlation with my avatar. I could now ride with other people around the world on climbs, through a jungle, and on courses modeled after actual places in the world like the famous Alpe d’Huez climb in France.

Riding in London
Riding in London

The basic Zwift setup had a significant drawback; however, my trainer resistance did not change when going up or downhills. To feel the impact of climbing, I would need to get a smart trainer, which automatically changes my pedaling resistance and accurately estimates my power output.

I invited my cycling buddy for a coffee to ask him about his smart trainer — a CyclingOps H2. I wanted to know how well smart trainers worked in the game. He said that his trainer worked great and made the Zwift experience a lot more realistic. I had noticed with the basic Zwift setup that on climbs, I would have to pedal fast to get any speed on a climb, and people were passing me right and left. I would need the changing resistance of a smart trainer to get the full Zwift experience. My friend said that he purchased his smart trainer through Zwift directly and that they had 0% financing. I was sold.

Before diving into a smart trainer, I scoured the internet looking for other cyclist’s Zwift setups, and I needed to discuss this with my partner — of course. In doing this research, I discovered a new world. I fell deep into the rabbit hole of YouTube videos of cyclists showing off their setup referred to as pain caves. I think on Shane Miller’s GP Llama channel, he has managed to test every conceivable Zwift configuration. I settled on purchasing a Wahoo Kickr from Zwift — 50 dollars per month through a financial agreement with Affirm, which provided the 0% financing credit. I also needed to get a Zwift monthly membership — adding another 15 dollars per month to my expense. My total cost per month with Zwift was now 75 dollars. I justified it to my partner as the cost of a gym membership fee.

My smart trainer arrived within a week, and I set it up that evening for a test run. Everything worked perfectly, but I was eager to try it in a Zwift event. Using the Zwift Companion Mobile App, I found that Stage 4 of the Tour de Zwift had events scheduled approximately every 2 to 3 hours the next day. To fit in this event, the only time slot that would work for me was 4:00 am. I am an early riser, but earlier than usual. But I was excited and eager to try the full Zwift experience.

At 3:55 am with coffee in hand and an egg cheese sausage English muffin, I quickly nuked in the microwave, I was ready to ride with the over 500 participants that had signed up for Stage 4: Watopia Volcano Climb After Party. A 25 mi stage with under 1,000 ft of climbing. I felt the excitement, at any time of the day, I could ride with other people from around the world.

When starting a Zwift event, the game shows all the participants warming up on their trainers before the event. I thought it was a nice touch. Like a typical bike ride, I was expecting the ride would start slow while I finished scarfing down my breakfast in warmup. As the final seconds, before the event ticked off, I thought I was ready. How wrong I was.

At the start, most of the cyclists were going all out 100%. I quickly fell behind. I would later realize that in Zwift races, the riders ramp up on their trainers before the start so that they are at full speed. In most Zwift events, the top racers go fast at the beginning in an attempt to drop as many riders as possible. In this first event, I learned this and also quickly learned the importance of drafting and the effect of my weight in the game.

During this first race, I had managed to find a group of riders with a pace I could hang on too. That is until we reached the volcano climb. At that point, my avatar started falling behind.

In Zwift, your speed is mainly determined by your ratio of weight/power. I am a big guy. I am 6 ft 7” (200.66 cm) and weigh 253 lbs (114.75 kg). On the higher climb gradients, your ratio of weight/power is the critical factor in determining your speed. On flats yo,ur weight is not a hindrance. Just like in real cycling outdoors.

After my first Zwift event ride, I was exhausted and motivated. This was a place that I could ride with other people day or night.

Over three months, I have made it to Level 15. I have ridden a total of 896 miles, climbed 11 miles, and burned 35,431 calories by spending over 49 hours on my trainer. I have lost a total of 10 pounds without any significant dietary changes.

I managed to complete all nine stages of the Tour de Zwift thanks to three makeup days at the end of January. I just completed the 797 mi Ride California challenge and unlocked the Specialized Tarmac Pro bike. I am now onto the Climb Mt. Everest challenge with a goal of climbing 50,000 m (164,042 ft) to unlock the Tron Concept bike.

Glorious Completion of Ride California Challenge and Unlocking the Sweet Specialized Tarmac Bike.
Glorious Completion of Ride California Challenge and Unlocking the Sweet Specialized Tarmac Bike.

Since my time on Zwift, they have introduced both a Men’s and Women’s professional league with live broadcasts. This past month they introduced the Drop Shop. As you ride you now accumulate sweat drops that you can then use to purchase bikes and other equipment in the Drop Shop. Definitely a motivator. I am currently riding a Specialized bike setup since that is my bike in real life.

Specialized Tarmac Pro is Now in My Virtual Garage.
Specialized Tarmac Pro is Now in My Virtual Garage.

The point is that Zwift provides plenty of carrots and motivation while riding alongside other cyclists from around the world, even professionals, at any time. Riding in Zwift is still exciting and fun, there are five virtual worlds to explore: Watopia, Richmond, London, Innsbruck, and New York. This allows a person like myself with limited time to get up early every morning to get a workout in to achieve health and fitness goals and to prepare for a bike racing event.

Forgiving Lance Armstrong?

Photo by Roman Pohorecki from Pexels

Lance Armstrong was fueled to seven Tour de France victories by doping. His admission to Oprah of cheating only came after his lifetime ban from the sport by the U.S. anti-doping agency. Several of his former teammates also testified to doping, but Lance was the very last to admit his guilt.

Lance could have rode off into the sunset by keeping his mouth shut and ending his career after his 7th Tour de France title in 2005, but he had to try his 2.0 comeback. His explanation for his comeback was to increase cancer awareness. I am sure this was a partial reason, but I think it was a banner of deception.

Why did Lance finally admit to doping? He wanted to compete, to race, and test himself. He won several triathlon events in 2012. He attempted to compete in a masters swimming event in his hometown of Austin, Texas, but had to withdraw due to the USADA reminding masters swimming to abide by its ruling.

Why couldn’t Lance just stop competing and walk from the public spot light?

Lance was a self-deceiver. People and athletes in particular that lie and lie to themselves are more successful.

For athletes the act of self-deception can reduce stress levels and increase pain tolerance, which helps in motivation and performance. Athletes that believe in themselves and have higher unrealistic performance expectations of themselves are more successful. This is not a surprising characteristic. We hear it all the time from athletes “psyching themselves up for an event”. Athletes before an event start to focus and tell themselves that they are the best and that they will win. There can be no doubt. This activity of getting ready for an event is self-deception. It ignores the reality for most athletes that they will lose. However, to actually be successful you have to think you will win and that you are the best.

Starek and Keating published a study in 1991 to determine the effectiveness of self-deception on athletic performance. Forty collegiate swimmers were given a self-deception test. An example of a question is “Have you ever questioned your sexual adequacy?”. People that answer no are self-deceiving themselves, and in contrast people that answer yes to this question are being more realistic. This is based on the idea that self-deceivers lie to themselves and other people to keep up their social appearance to conform to social norms. In this study of forty swimmers, those swimmers who scored higher on the self-deception test more likely qualified for the national swimming championships than non self-deceivers. Therefore, the act of self-deception is a quality for success.

Was self-deception an important factor in Lance’ victory over cancer. Remember, Lance was given less than a 40% chance to live. He had brain surgery and one of his testicles were removed.

“If children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice is there but to hope? We have two options, medically and emotionally: give up, or Fight Like Hell.”

― Lance Armstrong

I think self-deception was a very important reason Lance survived cancer. He maintained hope, and probably thought to himself that since I am a great athlete I will be able to beat cancer. I am different than other people, I will be able to beat the odds. We will never no for sure, an intimate struggle to survive cancer likely required several different self-deceptions to survive that kind of hell.

Can we forgive Lance Armstrong? It is very hard to forgive a person who lied, cheated, and used cancer as a shield against incrimination. Millions of people looked up to Lance, which also included thousands of people inflicted with cancer who saw Lance as a ray of hope, a symbol of possibility — that yes I can battle cancer and survive.

Lance deceived us, but he also deceived himself. He deceived himself in that it would be okay to try a comeback 2.0, that he could continue to keep up a lie. However, his crazy self-deception made him a successful athlete and also allowed him to survive cancer.

I do believe most cyclists during Lance’s era were taking some kind of PED. Lance and his team just did it better, and for a competitor like Lance, all Lance had to do was self-deceive and incorporate PEDs into the training regime. Lance may have thought to himself that I am special, I deserve to win, I beat cancer, I am racing for a better cause than any of the other cyclists, therefore, it is ok that I do PEDs, after all everybody else is doing it. Lies upon lies became a tangled mess that Lance believed would be okay because the cause was just.

I forgive Lance Armstrong. He didn’t have to admit his guilt. He confessed to doping so that he could continue to compete. Deep down I believe all that Lance wanted to do was compete with himself and against other people and he risked and lost his whole integrity in the process. Self-deception is a tricky slope.

Virtual Racing with the Pros on Zwift

Stage One: Giro d’Italia Time Trial Race

The 102nd edition of the Giro d’Italia, a 20 stage three-week grand tour, opened up in Bologna, Italy with an 8.2km time trial. The course starts flat at the Fountain of Neptune and remains even until the final 2.1km climb up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. This climb is a killer with a 9.7% average gradient with some steeper 16% gradient sections. Primož Roglič, a Slovenian rider with team Jumbo-Visma, was 19 seconds better than the next rider making it to the top with a blistering recorded time of 12 minutes and 54 seconds.

Zwift, a virtual gaming platform for avid cyclists and runners, recreated Stage One of the Giro d’Italia to allow cyclists to compete virtually against the best in the world. This course became open to riders on Saturday coinciding with the start of the Giro d’Italia. Along with 393 other riders, I signed up for the 9:00 a.m. race to see the new course and how I measured up.

The route starts in the square containing the Fountain of Neptune constructed in 1563. The trident Neptune is holding was the inspiration for the Maserati brothers for their iconic automobile logo. I missed seeing the fountain in my first pass through on the course — too busy ramping up my watts at the start of the race.

The first turn is at the Porte San Felice. This gate was constructed in the 12th century and was the westernmost gate and wall of Bologna at the time. This iconic landmark is all that is left of the medieval city boundaries of Bologna. I was able to maintain my pace fairly easily through virtual Bologna while also reserving energy for the impending climb.

With a hairpin turn, the climb up to San Luca began. This was a challenge. I immediately had to find a cadence I could maintain to avoid crashing and burning. The 16% sections were slow going.

I was able to take notice of the Portico di San Luca. A 3.8km monumental roofed arcade comprised of 666 arches. The portico was constructed between 1674-1793 to protect the icon as it was paraded up the hill to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. This is one of the longest porticos constructed in the world, and now often used by walkers and runners.

To add insult to injury, I noticed people walking through the portico’s walkway faster than me on my bike.

At the top of the hill, and thankfully at the end of this time trial sits the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The present church was constructed in 1723 on top of older churches that have occupied this place on the landscape since the 12th century.

My final result was a dead even 25 minutes. I was able to average 291 watts, 2.6w/kg. I finished 250/393 in my group. I was over twice as slow as the winner Primož Roglič.

The new Giro d’Italia course was a blast to ride in the context that the average cyclist can ride the same route on the same day as the professionals. Zwift keeps hitting it out of the park with these unique events that give riders a virtual chance to participate in events that they usually can only witness on TV.

Going Bigger with Continental’s Terra Trail tubeless gravel tires

Bigger is better

I submitted my name for the Dirty Kanza lottery in the hope of riding in the world’s premier 200-mile gravel bike race. After watching several YouTube videos and reading articles about the race, it was clear to me bigger tires were better to resist puncture and to navigate over the sharp chert rocks of Kansas’ Flint Hills.

As an archaeologist on the Southern Plains, I have studied prehistoric stone tools crafted from these rocks, and my fingers can attest to their sharpness. I have cut myself several times while making prehistoric tools for replication experiments.

I decided to upgrade from Stan’s No Tubes The Raven 700×35 tire to the larger Continental Terra Trail 700X40 tire. I ride on a Specialized Diverge road bike and regularly switch between a road and gravel wheel set. My gravel wheels are Stan’s No Tubes Grail S1. These rims can fit road tires between 25 to 32mm at tire pressures up to 115, and wider gravel tires with pressures below 45psi.

The new Continental Terra Trail tubeless tire
The new Continental Terra Trail tubeless tire

I have used Continental’s Gator Skin road tires and appreciate their puncture resistance. The Terra Trail, along with Terra Speed are Continental’s first tubeless gravel-specific tires — released in August 2019. The Terra Trail tires have a slightly more aggressive knob pattern for muddier condition compared to the Terra Speed; otherwise, the two tires have the same BlackChill Compound thread, a ProTection layer, 3 plies 180 TPI in the sidewall, and 4 plies 240 TPI under the tread.

I was shocked by how easy it was to mount the Terra Trail tires. A combination of sheer will, an arm pumping cardiovascular workout, and luck typically are needed to install tubeless tires without an air compressor. I almost gave up trying to get the bead to stick with the Raven tires. I had to purchase a special bike pump that can compress air until the valve is released, and it still was a chore mounting the Raven tires even with the new pump.

After placing the Terra Trail tires, with new sealant, on the rims, I was ready for a workout to get the new tires’ beads to set with my special pump. To my surprise, however, I just started pumping, and I immediately heard the popping sounds of the beads sitting. I did not need to use the air compressor function of the pump.

After a maiden voyage, I can report that I thoroughly enjoyed having the broader tires to provide more stability for navigating my local gravel trails.

Difference between the broader Continental Terra Speed 700x40mm (top) and The Raven 700x35mm (bottom) tires.
Difference between the broader Continental Terra Speed 700x40mm (top) and The Raven 700x35mm (bottom) tires.
Continental Terra Trail tires mounted on bike.
Continental Terra Trail tires mounted on bike.

I did not get into the Dirty Kanza for this year, but I am looking forward to using these tires in the 100 mile Caprock Gravel Grind in Southland, Texas, and other races this year.