Living Room Cycling Adventures
I’m 40 mins into my bike ride. The road has been rising steadily through an Alpine vista, past green pastures, a stone castle and even through a picturesque village with cobbled streets and colourful houses that reminds me of South Tyrol. Now, after passing under avalanche tunnel, there is snow on the verges and melt water on the road.
As the gradient steepens, the cyclist I have been following for the past ten minutes starts to pull away. He’s a Czech rider in a fetching blue outfit. Proud as I am, I can’t bear to lose his wheel. So, although sweat is dripping from my forehead and I feel the burn in my thigh, I kick on and see my heart-rate spike.
At this moment my 4-year old boy comes through the door and looks in. He sees me, red-faced and breathing heavily, sitting on my bike INSIDE the house. Towels are spread on the floor, and I’m staring intently at a computer screen.
“What are you doing, Papi?
“I’m… huff… nearly… puff… at the top, darling… huff… I’ll...puff... be with you soon.”
Life is hard enough to make sense when you are just 4-years old without Daddy doing bananas.
Late to a Pandemic-Era Trend
I shouldn’t laugh about mental health these days.
This pandemic has been tough and we have all had to do whatever we can to keep afloat. One of my coping mechanisms has been to become one of the many millions of virtual cyclists who ride with each other and even against each other on a growing number of online platforms.
Virtual cycling means you bring your bike into your home, removing the back wheel and installing a “smart trainer”. That’s basically a treadmill for a wheel which you attach to your normal bike.
This smart bit of tech measures the power you are putting through the pedals and converts it to a moving avatar on a computer screen. The hardware is not cheap: mine set me back nearly 1,000 euros. But how many holidays have we had to cancel these days!
Then you have to pay a subscription for the virtual world on your computer. There are a few Apps that allow you to do this; including Rouvy, Wahoo Systm and TrainerRoad. They all seem to cost around 14 euros a month. I’m on Zwift, because it is the biggest and many of my friends use it. That means I can ride with cycling buddies who live in England and the USA and whom I haven’t ridden with in real life in years.
We could even chat online while riding. If only my hands weren’t too sweaty to touch my phone.
On Zwift you can ride on dozens of roads through real-world landscapes that have been pain-stakingly re-created, such as the World Championship courses in Innsbruck or Harrogate (on the familiar roads near where I grew up).
Other entire worlds have been flamboyantly imagined. These landscapes include erupting volcanoes, roads behind waterfalls and climbs past Mayan temples.
You can dress your avatar and as you ride more, you unlock more and more pieces of kit for your alternative self; from socks to flashy glasses. Currently avatar Chris looks like a wasp.
You might well know all of this; and have known it for years. As ever, I’m late to a new trend. Zwift has existed since 2014, but its popularity has sky-rocketed since the onset of the pandemic. Covid-19 has forced us to spend a lot of time at home, and, let’s be honest, often limited our options for having fun.
I’ve always enjoyed riding in winter and have developed an absurd pride in it. If you’d asked me a few years ago if I’d ever ride inside, I’d have scoffed and said something stupidly macho like “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes!”
Outside? Inside? It’s Not „Either, Or“
But life catches up with you, doesn’t it? My child keeps me busy during the day and the winter nights are dark, long and cold. Indeed night-time roads can feel very dangerous for a cyclist.
So it is not a question of riding inside instead of riding outside, it is often a question of riding inside or not at all.
The trend of virtual cycling is also changing the way we ride outside, says Vienna-based cycling coach Brigitte Stöcker who met me for an outside ride on a frosty morning this month. “The benefits are that you can carry on with a high intensity training throughout the winter.”
For years the riders she coaches had been focusing on long, relaxed rides during the winter. These keep the base fitness ticking over. However, the fun, hilly, competitive edge of virtual cycling platforms have encouraged riders to push themselves even during the cold months, often several times a week. There are regular group rides and competitions. You can even earn money!
I’ve only been virtual riding since December but, after just 6 weeks, I have noticed a change in my own approach to cycling. I love cycling but I have never owned a cycling computer. Often, I ride in my own dreamy rhythm; a sort of Sunny Side Up tempo that is jaunty but unrushed. In recent years, due to the commitments of fatherhood, I often ride alone whenever I find a two-hour window.
With no-one else to test me, I soak in the forest of riverine countryside and get lost in my thoughts. That’s important, and the fresh air does me wonders, but it also means I never really push myself.
Bitten By The Competitive Bug
As soon as I started virtual cycling, however, I got ludicrously competitive. You can find a group to ride in and cleverly the smart-trainer reduces the resistance slightly to imitate the wind-shadow effect. Usually, I have never met these riders, who might be from Japan, Sweden or Canada, and in all probability I never will. Yet I can’t seem to bear the humiliation of being dropped out of the back of the group so I push myself to my limits to keep up.
I’ve also started paying attention, for the first time, to all these statistics associated with cycling: there’s my power output measured in watts, my average heart-rate and average speed. Somehow, I get “likes” from other riders and, in this emotionally needy state I’ve found myself in, I revel in that. The game lets me log my data, collect and compare it over the passing weeks. I can see how I am improving or otherwise. It’s all motivating in a way that I have found genuinely surprising. I am more of a geek than I thought.
Keep Riding Outside When You Can
Don’t overdo it. Cycling coach Brigitte Stöcker recommends we cyclists mix up the indoor and outdoor training; firstly to get that balance between the short-intensity riding and the more slow-burn riding and also to make sure we don’t lose our outside riding skills.
However I do believe that indoor and outdoor complement each other well. I’ve found that I have enjoyed riding outside more since I started riding inside. That’s simply because I am fitter so I get up the same old hills in slightly better shape.
I think it’s also OK to mention on a personal level the mental health benefits of indoor cycling.
At times I have found this pandemic era genuinely hard to cope with. There’s the claustrophobia of home office, there’s a sense of underlying anxiety I can never quite put my finger on as well as the sense of simultaneously having a lot of time and no time at all. Then there’s the lack of an escape, less travel and fewer new experiences. At times I have felt stretched to my psychological limit.
A quick blast on my bike in a virtual landscape can turn a difficult day into a good one. It’s like pressing „restart“ on my internal computer. A quick change of clothes and off I go; there’s no journey to the start of the ride, there’s no great preparation and no bike cleaning afterwards. You can fit it into the busiest and most overwhelming of days.
Once an inveterate traveler, I haven’t travelled outside of Austria for two years. This might sound a little pathetic, but it is better to be honest than cool. It’s 5pm and dark in January in Vienna, but I’m pedalling around a digitally recreated France where it is summer with fields of lavender at the side of the road. The road is full of other cyclists and no cars to watch out for; you can ride for two hours with new vistas around every corner.
I’m sitting on a bike, all on my own. I haven’t moved a metre. But I feel happy and fulfilled. It is pure escapism.
Publiziert am 18.01.2022