There is an army of cyclists out there virtually training their ass off and racing around a volcano while covering their kitchen in sweat! Welcome to the world of Zwift.
I have to be honest, this is a bit of kit that doesn't usually see the light of day until the winter months and I initially resent myself for logging on, "You have the clothing, so get outside". Until recently, I would always choose the outside option - regardless of the weather. A winter month tumble and time off the bike made me realise there are sensible options that can take place! So the bike got hitched on the turbo and Watopia was calling.
I build my avatar, "Can I choose to have hair even though I don't really have any?", "Who the hell would not pick to wear socks! Who does that!". I choose my bike, "How on earth do you unlock the Canyon, surely that will make me faster!" and away I go. I plan to ride the newly developed mountain, to see what everyone is going on about - nothing too hard just a tester! 10 minutes into the ride I am pushing 250 watts and desperately trying to cling to the wheel in front "How the fuck is he going so fast, probably mechanical doping!". Zwift has the ability to turn a regimented training ride into a group race; unintentionally but this can be frustrating! It will require discipline to not grab the wheel in front but instead stick to the ride you had planned!
The mountain is long and it seriously kicks up at the end, constantly teasing you with short views of the summit ! You're out of the saddle pulling your best Contador moves and eagerly begging for the finish - legs burning, lungs inside out and a pool of hard work flooding the house! It is at this point you really begin to understand how much of cycling is in the mind! I do not have a smart trainer (although I would love one but I'd much rather spend the money on another bike!), so my training is done on a 'dumb' trainer and I use ZPower (a source of power that is hugely looked down upon from the power meter gangstas, so be warned!). My resistance does not resemble the mountain, it remains the same throughout the ride. The only data that confirms I am riding uphill is the dramatic drop in speed and the digital scenery. So if nothing has really changed then why am I begging for the gradient to drop off! There is no mountain! This mind game is proven once you hit the descent, you pedal down as if it was easier - but nothing has changed! The same resistance is pulling on my tyre, only my speed is now hitting 70kph and my mind is convinced we are going downhill - life is ok again!
Could it be that Zwift is not only a sensible winter option but also a great way to train the mind - a key player in the world of pain. Can I use this digital mirage to convince my mind in the real world, "There are no real mountains, everything is the same!". I read a report about the burning effect of chilli's the other day. It explained how the brain thinks and acts in a way it thinks it is actually experiencing burns - the same responses to pouring boiling water over your tongue. The chilli is not burning at all, we all know this but instead it is covering taste buds in an oil like coating that tricks the brain. The brain is going into meltdown and instructing the body to cool off - you start sweating, panting and in some cases get the shakes. This is a reaction the brain has chosen to act upon - it has been fooled into thinking something is happening when the facts are completely different. This amazes me! Zwift is a chilli, the fact is you are at home in a shed or in your kitchen but your mind is acting upon signals that are not actually happening.
So surely this effect can be managed better? Should I be reading self help books on how to be happier or diving into the world of power meters and how a number of zones will improve my training. Will I be a better rider if I learn to control my mind as well as building power in the legs? How does one do that? Is this how some people on Zwift are pushing numbers I can only dream of? Is there a secret formula I have yet to stumble upon? There are a million questions and so little answers. Cycling has a mediation element that frees the mind, allows you to forget about work stress and life hurdles. You rarely return from a ride with things more complicated than when you set off. We find grace in suffering and confidence in ability - the mind is hugely influential to how you ride.
Zwift may be a key tool to establish mind base miles...then came the introduction of races!
After a few weeks of pixel abuse I got talking to a friend on Twitter about organised races. He recommended I try one of the KISS events, "You will love it, it's great fun!". So let me get this right... I sign up for a race, get to a start line, warm up and then a counter goes off and a couple of hundred turbos become instantly loud across the world?!? Ok I'm in! No harm in trying!
I joined a 50km race, picked a category I thought I could hold onto and prayed for the best. We shot off the start line and I found myself in the front group with a single piece if data screaming at me that this will not end well - I was at 270 watts and they appear to be holding this (for the record 245 is my max over the hour according to Zwift, I haven't done an FTP test but at the moment this is what my brain believes we can achieve). I decided to hold on and see what I was capable of but something bad happened! I got the digital puncture!!! All the riders disappeared from my screen and my power kept dropping from 270 to 0, 270 to 0, 270 to 0. On a flat course there was no way I was going to recover from that! All riders reappeared and I was off the back of the group! I tried everything to get back on but only wasted energy! I was swearing at my Mac, the partner pokes her head into the kitchen and casually remarks "You are insane!". I eventually finished, with nothing left in my legs and sprinted to the line with some dude from Ireland. I collapsed on the floor and instantly began to reflect on my race.
Are we insane? Are we slightly more insane to virtually put ourselves through physical and mental abuse?
I don't think it matters! My bike's stem cap reads the following "I Can I Will" - Someday I won't be able to do the things I can do now! The ability to test yourself is an honourable reflection of what makes us human! The pain in my legs, the burning feeling in my lungs and the constant tapping on the shoulder "Just stop, you don't need to put yourself through this" are all elements I can use in my everyday life - the virtual world supporting reality. Surely this is a good thing?!
Zwift will remain a training tool for me. It sure as hell beats staring blankly at the bread bin for 45mins but it will never replace the real world - you shouldn't be comparing the two, it is not designed to replace or remove anything from your world of cycling. It is there to enhance an experience and more importantly test yourself - work the mind!
More racing next week - I have lessons I need to put right! Ride On