On riding in my first ever virtual group ride on Zwift
Read this post on my new blog 👉 https://gears.substack.com/p/on-riding-in-my-first-ever-virtual
I’ve been Zwifting for about 4 months now. It’s a fantastic platform for indoor bike workouts. All you need is a bike trainer or rather anything that can provide information regarding how much power you are generating on your bike. You can read up all the info on Zwift’s website regarding what you need to get going.
I started my subscription on Zwift when I bought my first bike trainer. The story regarding this is a little weird but in the end, I subscribed to a 1-month free trial and then kept my subscription as I was getting quite a lot out of it. And why wouldn’t I? It’s better than staring at the wall while grinding on the pedals.
Zwift is a platform for indoor virtual bike rides. It has a social aspect to it too, where you can meet up with friends and ride virtually. You can kit out your bike, buy new bikes, gear etc to make your experience better. I have a pretty standard carbon bike on Zwift but I can always switch to a sturdy steel bike if I wanted to make it more difficult for myself.
There is always something going on in Zwift. If you check the events calendar, there is always some group ride or race, or a group workout happening every half an hour or an hour, 24 hours, every single day. It’s astonishing how many people are on it at any given time. It’s always in the thousands! That in itself is pretty motivating. Every single time I open the Zwift app on my laptop, it’ll show me something like 4,000-6,000 people riding in Watopia (Zwift’s virtual world) or some virtual location. I’d just imagine that many people spread across the world, in their shed, garage or just in a living room pushing on the pedals, heart pumping, riding in the virtual world. That’s a lot of power and a lot of sweat!
So after having been on the platform for 4 months, I decided to sign up for a group ride. Now the timing of my group ride was pretty bad. On the day before I rode the Road to Sky route. For those of you who don’t know, the highest mountain in Zwift is modelled after Alpe d’Huez and is called Alpe du Zwift. Mountains in cycling are categorised in different categories, from Cat 4 (easiest) to Cat 1 (hardest). This mountain is a HC category climb, HC = Hors catégorie which means beyond categorisation, i.e. its so steep they can’t even categorise it. From a pure numbers perspective, the average gradient is 8.5% for 10.7 miles, although every single time I look up at the screen its always between 9-10%.
Needless to say, riding up this mountain, even though its virtual is hard work. My legs would be begging me not to do the ride from the moment I wake up on the day. It’s more mental than the physical effort to do the ride but the physical definitely matters. However, what I did was even stupider than this. Instead of resting for a day after the ride up Alpe du Zwift like I should, I signed up to the Zwift Academy Group Ride on the very next day.
On the next day, as if my brain was trying to sabotage this whole thing, I completely forgot I was supposed to be doing a group ride. Although I was smart (or dumb depending on the way you look at it) and I had set an alarm that would go off 30 minutes before the ride. Either way, I was totally unprepared.
*buzz buzz* *buzz buzz*
As soon as the alarm went off my whole body realised what was about to happen. The plot had been foiled and it was going to be 1 hour of suffering on the bike, definitely worse than the previous day because tiredness and fatigue from the ride up the mountain had already set in.
I quickly made a cup of tea to get that caffeine boost. I’d have made coffee but that’d have taken about 15-20 minutes to prepare. I prepared my bike setup – fished out the trainer, attached the bike, set up my laptop, connected my headphones and prepared my electrolyte drink. 4 minutes to go. I stepped into the shower to freshen up. When I got out, I had 2 minutes left. Changed into the cycling clothes and got on my bike. 1 minute late.
Now it took me a minute to figure out how to join the event from the Zwift home screen. I was more awkward than I anticipated. I thought it’d be a big red button on the home screen that would’ve said “Join Event” but instead I had to do a normal ride and then while loading the “World” Zwift would ask if I wanted to join the event.
When I clicked “Join Event” Zwift dropped me straight in the middle of a peloton, in some 430th position out of 493 total riders. I had about 5 seconds to get my cycling shoes on and start pedalling. Tick tock. I quickly slipped into my shoes and without tightening them I jumped on the bike and started pedalling. Nice! On every single upstroke, I’d rotate the lace tightening thing on my shoe to get it tighter. I eventually got it in after 30 or so tries.
I felt fine. The group’s pace was 2.3-2.5 w/kg but some of the riders were pushing 3.1 w/kg. So I started to follow them. Big mistake. It was here I realised I hadn’t connected my Garmin. *click* *click* *click*. Ok, its connected and I’m good to go. I started pushing it. 3.1 w/kg. 3.5 w/kg. Really pushing it to 3.7 w/kg. My position in the race kept changing. 410/493. 390/493. 362/493. Keeping this pace was hard so I slowed for a bit. It felt like only a few seconds but a few minutes had passed. I started pushing it again to a maximum 3.5 w/kg. I was flying up those flats at 27-29 miles an hour. I didn’t even know it and I when I checked, I was at 270/493. Woot! I eased off slightly to recover for a bit. I was only about 10 minutes in.
It was here that the fatigue from the previous day started to creep in. It wasn’t like hitting a wall, but more like someone stacking bricks on my rear pannier while I was cycling, slowly slowing me down. Suddenly a few guys passed me. I slipped from 270th to 280th. What’s going on? I checked, I was doing 2.3 w/kg. Ugh not good, need to keep pushing. For some reason this time it was hard to keep up 3.5 w/kg so I settled for 3.2 w/kg instead. After passing a few riders, I was at 272th.
When I started the race, with the adrenaline rush that I had, I thought I could make it to the top 100. Now, that wasn’t looking so good. Keeping position within 270s was proving to be hard work. My heart rate was at maximum to begin with, no point in checking that. I had no idea what else I could be doing. Looking at my power chart, I wasn’t doing too good there either. I started to see signs where I kept dropping power. I’d do 3.2 w/kg and it’ll slowly taper to 3.0 w/kg. Slowly getting slowed down. But the mind is a powerful tool and I kept pushing.
The slowly slowing down got me back to 300th position. I could really feel the fatigue. The torn muscle fibres, tired heart petitioning for me to stop. I was willing to slow down but mentally I was set. I’d rather pass out on this bike than give up this race. Even though it’s virtual there are 493 other cyclists riding. If they can do it, I should be able to as well. Sure not all of them rode up the Alpe on the day before but some of them surely did some sort of hard workout. If they can do it, why can’t I?
Two-third of the way through the race. I kept bobbing back and forth between 300th and 320th position. I was stuck in a group of riders and I was struggling to break out. I could see the next group ahead but could not conjure up enough energy to break away. I did a few attacks, ride up to 3.1 w/kg, almost get to the next group, and then slowly go down to 2.8-2.9 w/kg because the body couldn’t keep up.
Eventually, I found the pace I could rely on. It was 2.7 w/kg. I could sustain this pace for at least until the end of the race. I wasn’t too far. I just had to HODL the watts. 5 minutes to go, I ramped down slightly, just a sliver, hoping it was enough to build some recovery, enough for me to break out at the end. I slipped to 312th/493.
After grinding for four and a half minutes of pure suffering, my time had come. 30 seconds to go, maybe too soon? I didn’t care. I attacked. I conjured up the watts with all the energy I had. HR was screaming at 185 bpm. I looked down. My trainer indicated red – I was pushing it hard. I looked up. I was advancing in the peloton. 310th, 309th. 308th. I finally broke away from the group. I saw a rider trying to pass me from the left. Not today. The clock ticked to 0. I finished 308th.
I know it wasn’t a race, just a group ride so the results don’t really matter. But the position data made me competitive and it mattered to me. I’m sure even if I didn’t have the position data I would’ve found something else to be competitive with. But the best thing about this ride was that if I didn’t have it scheduled, if I wasn’t riding with 493 strangers on the internet, I would’ve done nothing today. I would have watched Netflix, probably done some shopping and found some other topic to write about on this blog. The social aspect of this platform made me go out of my comfort zone to push myself beyond my limits.
Now whether this is objectively good for my fitness or not is a different question. Should I have done an intense group ride after riding all effort up a flipping mountain? Probably not. But did I do it? Yes! Do I regret it? Hell no. Now I can order the greasiest burger or the fattest pizza and not feel bad about it at all. Although I’ll never do that, probably will cook something healthier to support my recovery.
I hope you enjoyed this post. What did you think? Do you like working out? Have you done something stupid like I did? Let me know in the comments!