This piece has been made in association with Zwift.
When Illi Gardner shares her advice on climbing, she who holds the women’s Everesting record and tops the Strava leaderboards for mythical ascents such as Alpe d’Huez and Mont Ventoux, it’s a wise idea to listen.
For here is not just one of Britain’s rising cycling stars, but someone who is on the verge of becoming an iconic figure in the world of climbing up mountains and hills.
But she’s not emerged into greatness because she has the Alps or the Pyrenees on her doorstep, long Alpine climbs on which she can practise on all year-round; no, she’s honed her immense climbing ability at home in South Wales, spinning away in her pain cave on Zwift.
“In the last two winters I didn’t ride outside very much and spent most of my time on Zwift,” she says. “And it’s a massive help for my climbing. It forces me to do efforts, whether that’s in Zwift races or not, and pushes me to push myself in the same way I would outdoors.
Illi Gardner at the top of Michaelgate Hill during the Women's HSBC UK National Road Championships in 2021 (Image by George Wood/Getty Images)
When Gardner travelled to southern France in the summer of 2021, she became the new Strava Queen of the Mountain on Mont Ventoux, not long after securing the equivalent QoM on Ven-Top, Zwift’s virtual version of the Bald Mountain.
It was proof to Gardner that Zwift has advanced her climbing enormously. “When I went to France last year I had no idea how fit I would be on the real climbs as I’d only been riding indoors,” she explains. “I had been doing a lot of races in the Zwift Racing Leagues which are 40-minutes long and are essentially raced at high power. It was that sort of power that I would need to ride up the longer climbs in France.
“It turns out I had the fitness from Zwift and that translated onto the road; I was able to carry the same form onto the road. The Zwift races are intense racing - and this was proof it was a big help for my training and my fitness.”
Gardner, who only began incorporating Zwift into her training schedule on a regular basis during the March 2020 Covid-induced lockdown, partly credits her record-smashing time of Ventoux to gaining knowledge of the ascent via Zwift. “I think riding Ven-Top and Alpe du Zwift was a big help,” she says. “The muscles you use on the turbo trainer are always going to be a bit different to what you ride outdoors, but the first time I did Ventoux in real life I realised how well I knew the climbs. It was strange how accurate it was.”
In the following year-and-a-half, the CAMS-Tifoso rider has cemented her place as one of female cycling’s strongest climbers, resetting her own Everesting record this summer with a time of 8-03.29.
Her ascendency through the virtual and real-life world is testament to the mounting evidence that Zwift can substantially improve a rider’s climbing ability.
(Gameplay image by Zwift)
Dan Lorang, head of performance at WorldTour team Bora-Hansgrohe, recommends that riders treat uphill riding the same as pedalling away on more even terrain.
“Everything that is true for training on the flat, you can adapt that to climbing,” he says. “VO2 max training, intervals, working through the zones, training just below threshold, doing four lots of 10 minutes intensity - all of that can be done on hill-climbs.
“Normally, on hills, you’re riding at around 60rpm, and when doing some of those workouts I’ve just mentioned, try to keep the cadence between 60 and 70rpm. This stimulates what happens on a climb really well.”
Gardner shares Lorang’s tips, and adds that she sees noticeable benefits from hard Zwift sessions that last just under an hour. “If you do an e-race where you have to sustain high power for 40 minutes, such as Zone 4 or 5, it’s really good specific training for long hill-climb efforts,” she adds.
“Of course it’s never the perfect stimulating for riding outdoors, but you can’t let off the pedals or freewheel, and that repetition of doing long hill efforts is great for developing long term power.”
There are a great deal of races, group rides and challenges on Zwift that prepare riders for bettering their climbing skills, with routes such as Watopia’s Road to Sky and Climber’s Gambit among the favourites. Elsewhere, workouts such as those tailored for people doing a Haute Route, act as great training sessions.
Riders can also cheat a little with the physics by raising their wheel up on a few books to mimic a gradient; it’s generally recommended to aim for between five and eight percent. “Your position on the bike is a little bit different when you’re climbing, and it’s an option to have the roller simulate that,” Lorang adds. “If your trainer allows you to lift the front wheel up, give it a go. You’ll notice the difference between that and having the trainer flat.”
Gardener was the winner of the Women's Ryedale Grand Prix in 2021 when she was racing for CAMS-Basso (Image by Craig Zadoroznyj/SWPix.com)
What Gardner finds works for her is training for short amounts of time but with the focus squarely on intensity; she is then able to push out high power for a long period of time when she reaches the hills of South Wales or Europe’s biggest Cols.
“I do a lot of 20-minute sweetspot workouts on Zwift,” she says. “In a lot of the training I do, I force myself to go hard. That means a few blocks of 15 minutes at Zone 4 tempo, and a lot of low cadence work. But the best thing for me is making myself ride hard in a number of events – it doesn’t matter if they are sanctioned races or not, it’s easy to find events to ride in that I just pick one and push myself.”