Climbing Alpe d’ Zwift

Let’s just say that I have been thinking about this ride for a while and needless to say I got a big head even before I started. Zwift dangled the release Alpe d’Zwift for a few days before it actually dropped onto Zwift. There was a lot of speculation on whether this was going to be a true reproduction of Alpe d’Huez or Zwift’s version, which in fact it is. The new addition to the many miles of Zwift soars 7.5 miles into the pixelated sky, gains 3,400 feet of elevation by the time you reach the snow-capped summit, and grinds up and around 21 hairpins and switchbacks at an average grade of 8.5 percent. Some of the ascent ramps up to 14% grades, which really get your legs singing the blues. The new segment is part of Zwift’s Watopia Island course and can be accessed through the Mayan Jungle Expansion, which means it’s only open to Zwifters who have Zwifted long enough to have racked up requisite XP (experience) points. There are a few ways to experience “The Climb”, one being the “Fire To Sky Road”, which starts you in the Volcano and meanders through the Mayan Jungle for a nice warmup of about 3 miles. The second option is a little longer, but also gives your legs a chance to properly warmup before digging into the climb. As you power through the expansion gate from the Mayan Jungle, there is a slight descent as you are leaving the jungle and entering the Alpine Meadow. As you are staring straight into the eyes of the beast, you quickly hang a left and start the ascent. The grade in the beginning sections immediately jumps up into double digits, getting your mind already spinning negative thoughts, wondering whether this will go on for the next 7.5 mles. As always, Zwift had done an exceptional job on the scenery with some very lovely meadow flowers and some fine trees It is very clear from the beginning that this is a monster climb, but the adrenaline is really flowing now as you are about to conquer the Alpe, or at least so you think. The first kilometer up to hairpin #21 is covered with some motivating street art and gets you into the flow of the climb. As with all climbs this one is about finding that rhythm, but needless to say my rhythm has me already dropped down into a 34-24 gearing, which is making me wonder why Zwift doesn’t have roadside mechanics that could help me with a quick rear wheel change that has a 28 tooth or greater cassette, which would make spinning this climb a bit easier, so again my mind is wrestling with “Stop being a wimp” and “Shut Up Brain and Legs” and enjoy the ride. Some neat features in the early going include a snow protection tunnel and a few beautiful glimpses of the valley below. The map on the upper right of Zwift is now clearly showing the progression through the hairpins and we get our first glimpses of the alpine homes. Do you think someone would be out front with an Espresso to help fuel me for the rest of the climb, I can only imagine. Over the next 3-4 hairpins you are hugging the mountain and the other side gives way to some pretty steep drops. The road also is beginning to narrow and I am wondering if I hit the U turn button, if the road is wide enough for me to make the U turn or if I am going to go over the edge. At hairpin 16 we now are approaching the Alpine Village, which fits much nicer into the landscape than some of the plain structures at the real Alpe d’Huez. As you pass through the village and exit through the gate, snow is beginning to become prominent on the landscape. The meadow also gives way to pine trees and a more rugged terrain, more Alp like. Just before hairpin #13, construction equipment is visible making me wonder whether this is for an expansion of some sort or may more development near the castle which sits prominently at the corner of hairpin #13. As you continue to climb the trees start giving way to a more rocky landscape and then with the 4.3 KM sign on the right there is also a Yeti crossing sign. Again, the distractions are excellent for as the next few minutes I am pondering, whether it is a Yeti crossing or a Sasquatch crossing. Not quite sure the Yeti comes this far west or the Sasquatch comes this far east. A few more rock tunnels make the scenery quite enjoyable at this point. The grade has nicely settled in at about 7-8% and my legs feel like they are recovering, but there are still 10 hairpins to navigate. It also begins to snow, so I turn on my feel to feel the cool air. Zwift also added a nice feature of snow blowing across the road, which makes you wonder if wind will soon be added into the application. As you are approaching hairpin #9 there is a dark looking figure at the corner, clearly I have found Sasquatch or are my eyes deceiving me. As it turns out they are, it is merely a dead tree, nice addition there Zwift. As you leave hairpin #8, the landscape give way to a winter moon scape as we are clearly above the tree line at this point. At hairpin #7 the Dutch have set up their camp ready to cheer on their favorites. Go “Johan Cruyff” should be painted on the road here, oops wrong sport. As you take this corner you also get your first clear glimpse of the summit, with what appears to be quite the sculpture, but I can’t quite make it out just yet. Having seen the top, gets the legs spinning a little quicker now, but as it turns out that is more because the grade is 6-7%. As you continue your ascent you are now riding through a wall of snow as the road gets even narrower and the snow wall is well over 6 feet tall on both sides of the road. As you are now realizing you are going to make it, the grade kicks back up to double digits, but you’ve made it this far, so a few more kilos can’t be all that bad. At hairpin #3, I am thinking of Marco Pantani and his explosive blast up the mountain at this point. The last few kilometers the snow disappears and give way to a true mountain top barren landscape. As you crest the summit the sculpture turns out to be a guy and gal holding up a wheel. As you blast through the finish gate and realize that you have made it you have a good 3-4 minutes of flat land pedaling before you realize you are going to now descend this mountain. All I will say here is that it was a nice 48-52 mile an hour descent and some of those hairpins are a bit harrowing, so you may have to close your eyes once in a while. To summarize this is a great addition to Zwift, I can only imagine that it feels very similar to the real thing. As it turns out I loved it so much I climbed it again two days later, and took 3 minutes off my ascent time, but now my legs are killing me. With the Tour of Watopia having just launched, I just discovered that stage 3 is back up the Alpe. I can hardly wait. Ride On!!!