It’s the most mythical climb in cycling, and the virtual version of Alpe d’Huez is the most iconic challenge on Zwift.
If we all want to ride in the wheel tracks of Fausto Coppi, Marco Pantini and most recently Tom Pidcock in racing up the 21 famous hairpins as fast as we possibly can, users of Zwift also want to record their fastest time on Alpe du Zwift.
Replicating the exact gradients and distance as the real thing, Alpe du Zwift is the game’s most emblematic challenge, setting riders the task of completing the 12.24km course - whether in a race, a group ride or a simple solo spin.
Tom Pidcock won stage 12 of the 2022 Tour de France which finished on the Alpe d'Huez (Image by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
The imitation of the surrounding mountains transports you to the French Alps from the sweat dungeon of your own Pain Cave, and summiting the Alpe virtually is something all Zwifters are capable of, but recording a personal best requires preparation and sensible tactics.
Ian Jenner, an Italian-based coach, advises that riders treat the climb like a negative split, which is to say you start slightly slower than your overall stated average watts and speed, and then finish faster.
“It should be treated like a time trial where you manage your effort in the beginning before slowly ramping the effort up towards the end,” he says. “You should split it into three or four different sections.”
This tip is shared by British e-racer Gavin Dempster who tells Rouleur that “I’ve done the Alpe three times in the past five days!”
“I’m building up again after some time off training, so it’s a great way to do longer intervals. For me, you have to ride it in 10 minute blocks and then a minute or two minutes of easy riding between sections.”
Going under an hour is deemed a good time, and a generic estimate suggests that riding at around 3.2w/kg will help you achieve a sub-hour time. The on-screen graphics will show your numbers, and will helpfully detail how many hairpins remain.
To better manage an effort, the rider should be aware of their power and heart rate and keep a constant eye on their figures. Jenner adds: “The first thing to understand is your training zones - they need to become common knowledge to you.
“People can get caught up with FTP and all their numbers, but FTP and training zones are a range - they go from one number to another. Understand that, and also know your heart rate zones. You don’t want to be climbing in Zone 5 as you’re not going to last.
“I tell my coached riders that it’s actually better to ride up the Alpe focusing on your heart rate because there are other things increasing it, such as the warmth of the room you’re in. To get a fast time, pay attention to both your heart rate and power zones.”
To best prepare for a faster-than-ever ride up Alpe du Zwift, users should fuel and hydrate well before the ride, just like they would approaching the real mountain in itself. That means a carbohydrate-rich meal the evening before, and it’s advisable to bring along a bar or a gel during the ride. Electrolyte drinks should also be prepared as you’ll be sweating a fair bit.
Riders should also warm up for at least 30 minutes. It’s best to choose a fairly flat course to train on but with a few small hills to warm up the climbing legs.
Once you load up the Alpe, don’t be too tempted to rush off. “The big mistake that people make their first time up the Alpe is that they have fresh legs and smash their legs to pieces in the beginning,” Jenner adds. “You can’t sustain an effort like that.”
It’s why Jenner recommends that Zwifters ride up the virtual 21 hairpins every so often. “Ride it as much as you can,” he suggests. “The more you ride it, the more you understand where you can gain time and where you’re likely to lose time. That way you can plan your sections, knowing that on this bit or that bit you can go harder or easier. The first few times you do it, you’ll take a few minutes off your previous best time as you’ll know the climb better.”
Riders unlock Alpe du Zwift at level six, and as they progress through the levels better bikes and wheelsets become available. It is recommended to purchase these upgrades as they will better one’s time on the climb, some by as much as 30 seconds on other bikes or wheels.
(Gameplay image by Zwift)
Achieving a sub-hour time is a good barometer for the average club cyclist, while under 50 minutes is fast for most racers. A time under 40 minutes requires an effort at around 6.5w/kg, something only really the pros are capable of doing.
Whatever your time, enjoy it – and don’t take Dempster’s review too literally. “It’s an horrendous climb to race or ride up!” he laughs, before revealing he’s always riding up it. “Ah, yeah, I suppose it’s the best climb there is, really.”
Of course it is.
Cover image provided by Zwift