Glancing out of the shed window I see the light layer of snow on the ground, sparkling despite the darkness of the evening. A voice in my ear brings my focus back to the screen in front of me. "Ok - coming off in 10 seconds. 5..4..3.." It's my turn at the front - I grasp the handlbars firmly, pump my legs and pedal harder. My cycling avatar on screen surges forward. "Ok!" I say into my headset "I'll take the next minute". Sweat dripping over my eyes I spin faster on the stationary bike, settling in for 60 seconds of effort.
It's a Tuesday night and I'm taking part in a weekly online cycle race - an activity new to me but one that has provided light through through the dark winter lockdown.
Back in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic a friend who runs a cycle studio was renting out his stationary bikes - with restrictions imminent I jumped at the opportunity. Over the next few weeks I discovered the online virtual world of Zwift. Free rides through cities and fantasy worlds, one off racing events and meetups with friends from across the world.
With the summer, warm weather and reduced restrictions the lure of the real world meant I only managed the odd ride. Most of my exercise time was spent running or paddling through a pandemic. The main cycling I did was just to pootle about town and avoid public transport.
Dark cold nights of winter
With winter coming, dark nights and more restrictions the indoor bike really came into its own. Even then I struggled to motivate myself to ride regularly - until I got a call from my friend who had rented me the bike: Would I like to join their team and race as part of an online weekly league? Excited to try something new and to have a commitment outside of work I signed up. Tuesdays I would be part of the Southampton Tri Club B team racing in the C category of the WTRL racing league - all of which meant absolutely nothing to me.
Free for all
The league consisted of two types of events. The first event I joined for was a free for all race where everyone was in a mass start. There was plenty of tech to setup from signing up to new websites, linking those to Zwift and setting up discord so I could chat to the rest of the team. The first race was tough and exhilarating but rewarding. It was fun to have an event to look forward to and some new people to chat to. The ride itself was a learning experience: how to race in a pack, dealing with being dropped and working with complete strangers.
Team Time Trial
A week later I joined for a Team Time Trial event. Here teams of up to six riders set off every 30s. The overall time of the team is based on the fourth person over the line so everyone has to work together to get the best overall time. There is an excellent physics engine in Zwift - when sat close behind other riders the power needed to keep up is about 20% less. Within the group everyone takes a turn at the front to put in an extra effort, they then roll off and take a break in the pack until it's their turn again.
It sounds reasonably straight forward but there was so much more to it - the setup means that you can have a range of different abilities and everyone takes different amounts of time at the front. Lots of talking, comparing energy levels and making sure everyone stuck together. Hills would cause the group to break up and more experienced riders would drop back to haul the stragglers back into the fold. When dropping off the front and through the group you needed to put a burst of energy in before you disappeared off the back. As the B team we tried as much as possible to keep all our riders together - while we wanted to be competitive this was also a fun event for the whole team.
Tuesday evenings became a highlight of my week and I also joined in on Thursday team time trials - these are big events with around 900 teams taking part with events ranging from 40 minutes to just over an hour. The make up of the team changed each week and there was always a different dynamic - some weeks we rotated at the front like clockwork, some weeks we had a plan, others times we made it up as we went. I got a feel for how others cycled and enjoyed recognising familiar names and voices in the group as well as welcoming newcomers. In the new year a new season started and we'd progressed up a division. Celebration!
A huge thank you to the Southampton Tri club and especially Rob and Marius (and others) who do all the organising and messaging. Signing up to an event while sat on the sofa on a Sunday is easy and then on Tuesday you're committed so the motivational hurdle to get changed and riding is low - the team are relying on you to turn up!
The real world
About ten years ago I tried to get into cycling but found it never quite stuck - being in central London meant dealing with lots of traffic and when I did get out to cycle with friends my fitness and endurance wasn't up to scratch so struggled to enjoy the rides.
Inspired by the indoor cycling I've decided to give it another go, bought a road bike and been for a few rides. It's fantastic to be out on the road with the wind in your hair and your senses stimulated. The restrictions mean that the roads are generally quieter but you still have to watch out for traffic, pedestrians, red lights. It is real life though and not sat sweating in a shed looking at a screen!
The indoor cycling has been a welcome extra hobby for most of the year but in the winter lockdown it's become one of the highlights of the week. With lighter, warmer days I'm enjoying rides in the real world as a way to further stretch my horizons. Fortunately I don't have to choose between the two and can do both depending on the circumstances.
The next few weeks will see me pedalling through the tail end (hopefully!) of the pandemic and perhaps into a new passion. Let's see how it fits into life as other things become possible as restrictions lift and the vaccines flow. Perhaps I'll even get to cycle with some of the Southampton Tri club in real life!