Last year, the pandemic brought outdoor cycling to a standstill for athletes and enthusiasts alike. However, those who were equipped with an indoor trainer managed to continue training and riding, this time in the comfort of their homes.
The lockdown restrictions in Pune forced Neha Tikam to invest in a smart trainer in May this year. Since then, she’s had just two rides in the outdoors, as most of her workouts have moved to the trainer. “I was skeptical at first, since cycling for me has always been an outdoor sport. But I couldn’t leave the city, especially for climbing practice in the surrounding hills. So I invested in a trainer to continue cycling and soon realised that I didn’t have to modify any aspect of my training. I’ll be really keen to see how I perform at my first race in November since starting out on a trainer,” Tikam says.
Others like Kabir Rachure invested in a trainer a few years ago as a means to improve on their performance. “I had read that a lot of the training techniques depend on a power meter, which costs ₹40,000 upwards. The smart trainers have an in-built power meter, so it seemed like a better purchase,” he says.
A few of the luxuries offered by an indoor trainer were apparent right at the start. A lawyer by profession, Rachure would get home to Navi Mumbai and hop on to his trainer in the next 30 minutes, instead of preparing his bike and setting out on an outdoor ride. There was no issue of flat tyres either. He also realised that it was a lot safer, since he didn’t have to face the traffic on the road. “All the interval training happens on a trainer—whether it’s for VO2 max or sweet spot training or anaerobic sprints—since it gives me the power numbers necessary to assess my performance. When it’s an endurance ride, where the main focus is on saddle time of say 4-5 hours, I prefer to step out because the power numbers don’t matter. Or if it’s a recovery spin that doesn’t need intensity,” Rachure says.
“During sprint work, you are going all out, say 40kmph for 30 seconds to a minute. There was always this fear when I used to do this outside. Road bikes have thin tyres, so a small stone means a tense wobble. Now, all I have to do is look down and keep going,” Tikam adds.
Rachure also trains for inclines on his smart trainer, which can simulate inclines of up to 13% gradient. In simple terms, the pedalling becomes harder on the trainer, just like what one would experience on a slope. He says better trainers are known to simulate gradients of up to 25%. A few trainers also come with compatible climbers, which physically raise the front of the bike. Rachure says a simple fix while training for climbs is to place the front of the bike on another object and raise its height.
Since most of his training happens indoors, Rachure chooses to go to a race two weeks in advance to get used to the weather conditions. Back home, he does what is possible to replicate the environment. “You can put on the air conditioner to ride in cool temperatures or simply turn off the fan to experience heat. A few elite athletes also place steamers near their feet to understand how the body will react under humid conditions. So it is possible to ride in the environment that you will experience in the outdoors,” he says.
Sumit Patil, an endurance cyclist based out of Alibaug, believes that an athlete should have a healthy mix of training in the indoors as well as the outdoors to gear up for race situations. “If you have to race outdoors, there is no replacement for outdoor riding. The moment you are on the road, it’s all about survival because you are exposing yourself and are the most vulnerable creature on the road. There, if your skills are blunt, you are risking it big time,” Patil says. “But if you are going to race indoors, there’s no need to step out for any reason,” he adds.
The indoor trainer is also compatible with handy softwares and applications, which make training not only scientific, but also intelligent. Patil recalls a time from a few years ago when there were only basic trainers available. “It was mentally harrowing because you would be exhausted after the session, but soon realise that even the doormat has not changed its position with respect to you. The ambience was the same for hours. Smart trainers and its compatible tools have made it all very interactive,” he says.
While alternating between Alibaug and Leh, Patil has enough opportunities to ride in the outdoors. But softwares like Zwift has brought the outdoors to him in his home. Once a smart trainer is synced with Zwift, cyclists can visualise their rides on a screen that take them through multiple routes with their own distinct features, making it as close as it gets to a real-life experience.
“Depending on the trainer, it can simulate gradients upto a particular percentage. Then, if you are riding in a group, you can also experience the advantage of drafting while riding behind another cyclist. On a gravel surface, you’ll realise that your speed is decreasing for the same amount of power that you’re putting in due to the resistance provided by the road,” Patil says.
“Besides, you could never dream of cycling with some of the top riders in India and around the world. Zwift makes it possible to even ride alongside Tour de France winner, Chris Froome. What the World Wide Web did for general people, Zwift has done for the cycling community by offering a platform to bring them together,” he adds. These days, a lot of the racing has moved indoors through Zwift. It calibrates each individual’s online avatar based on the height and weight, and through an algorithm, determines how fast the rider would go while generating a certain amount of power. “These features make it a very level playing field,” Patil says.
While Zwift has its own races and challenges, there are also domestic races such as the National Virtual Time Trail organised by Irregulars that Patil is a part of. The first edition took place on 15 August last year, after the pandemic cancelled other race plans. The 6, 12 and 24-hour categories saw 26 riders in all.
“Indoor racing has picked up now and you can be part of eRacing teams as well. There’s even a proposal to include it as part of the Olympics. So if you know how to train and have reached a decent level of riding proficiency, a smart trainer is perfect utility,” Rachure says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.