Real Fake Riding

I participated in my first Zwift event today, and I’m completely smitten with everything about it. While the video game aspect of riding in an online peloton of fellow riders was certainly enjoyable, I think the instant camaraderie was what really hooked me.

Before the event began, the 100+ racers bantered through the app’s chat interface. I quickly learned I had found my way into an event organized by an virtual bicycle racing and support group that calls themselves “The Herd.” When I asked about it, over a dozen people welcomed me as a newbie, and began MOOOOOing at me. It would have been pretty unsettling in real life, but over chat it was kind of charming.

Once the event began, it immediately became clear the only thing “beginner” about this event was the short distance. The eventual winning group raced off ahead, never to be seen again. I was committed not to really race this event as I had already put in a challenging workout earlier in the day, was scheduled to also run immediately after the “race” and am planning on a 21 kilometer trail run in honor of the Xterra Train Run World Championship this Sunday. Not nearly the same elevation but 21 kilometers in the foothills is still a serious endeavor. Anyway, I stuck myself in with what felt like a well organized group and away we went.

Just like would happen in a real world event, the mostly good-natured call outs began after mile 4 or so. The folks who weren’t taking their turns pulling the paceline got reminded to take their turn out front. That’s right, the program simulates drafting so it’s a very noticeable lesser effort to draft behind a lead rider. Except in Zwift land there’s no need to fear a nasty peloton mass crash event. Your avatar just clips right through the one in front if you get too close.

I’m a sucker for data charts. Here’s the timeline graph of my beginner’s race today in Zwift. I love being able to review the relationship between my heart rate and power output. My legs felt just about exactly the same after this virtual event as they would have after putting out the same effort outdoors in the real world.

I’ve been fascinated with Zwift for some time now, but have been biding my time until I could find the right “smart trainer” on the used market for the right price. I was so stoked when I found a highly recommended model in my local bicycle classifieds that I made my family take a detour on our way home from Thanksgiving Weekend camping to pick it up. The thing connects to my computer (or smartphone/tablet if you prefer) over bluetooth. The app plays nicely with my heart rate monitor, which allows all of the data in the aforementioned timeline graph to be tracked over time.

Over the past few years I’ve heard several cyclists scoff at Zwift, usually with some kind of deprecation about it being “just a video game” and since they’ve added races, the critique of the races being fake achievements because they’re online has made a certain kind of sense to me. After all, if it’s online, people must be cheating, right? Here’s the thing, maybe it’s the pandemic and the fact I haven’t been on a group ride in over a year now, but I think what’s enthusing me the most about this new training tool / video game is the social connections. I don’t know nearly any of the people, but just like the connection you feel when another rider says “nice bike” at the mid-ride cookie stop, the opportunity to ride alongside other people (via online avatars) while chatting or competing or simply waving is pretty darn cool and I’ve realized it’s just what I’ve been needing. And those connections, those achievements? They’re real even if they’re virtual.

It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with one of my students about “school friends” and “real friends.” But that’s a post for another week!

Here I am after running in our 39 degree weather (for real! outside! alone) immediately after my Zwift race. You can see my indoor bicycling setup in the background if you can make it out amongst all of the basement clutter.

Oh, one more thing. Even though I wasn’t racing, I admit I still sprinted a little at the end. I came in 45th out of a field of 127. Which is ok with me since I wasn’t racing. Right.

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