No, you can’t ride outdoors
I love riding outdoors. I also love doing long and challenging rides. I have done a few 1000km audaxes – see The Beast, the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris and Everested twice, on Northcliff and Bantam Drive. In February my friend Stanley Freiman started talking about the Coronavirus that had emerged in Wuhan, China. I watched the Chinese response of building huge, temporary hospitals and the severe lockdown there.
Once the virus hit Italy and started having a devastating effect on their health system, it became clear that it was coming to South Africa and we certainly weren’t ready for this. My initial thoughts were that it was going to be devastating regardless and our best strategy would be to get it over with quickly. I did some more research and then did an about turn. Slowing the spread of this disease in our country was an imperative.
As the first cases arrived on our shores, it was very soon evident that we could not contain them. I am involved in the management of ICG – a large group of cyclists, with daily rides around Johannesburg. Within a few days, we went from “lets try to stagger our starts and ride in smaller groups” to “all group rides are cancelled”.
In our business, we were well positioned for working from home and we shut our physical office 2 weeks before the formal lockdown in South Africa.
I knew lockdown was coming. I started posting Strava rides with titles like “Playing in the park while we still can”. I also did whatever cradle rides I could do. I was hoping that I would be allowed to continue to ride during lockdown, but suspected there was a good chance that I would not.
I had this dread of riding indoors. I had bought a cheap, dumb trainer a few years ago, but it sat in the garage and had only ever been used to do bike setups.
The day after our president announced the 21 day lockdown, I was very sure this would go on for longer than 21 days. As the realisation of this hit me, I avoided the queues of people buying food and toilet paper – why buy things you know they will sell during lockdown! – and went out to buy a smart trainer and a lot of alcohol.
Zwift and the amazing world of virtual cycling
Why buy a smart trainer, when you have a perfectly good dumb trainer already? Set up on our Veranda, looking out over Delta Park, I can ride it for as many hours as I like. However, that is not why I cycle. I like to be outdoors, exploring.
Although I am unsurprisingly not the most vocal in the bunch, I really enjoy the camaraderie of group rides. I had made the transition from canoeist to cyclist largely because frequently I used to paddle alone in the early mornings and now was riding with lots of other people. At ICG we kept having to split into more groups, to keep the group sizes manageable. We race each other up climbs, regroup at the top (sometimes!), ride slowly together some days and usually stop for coffee and a chat afterwards. (I did not drink coffee before I started cycling and now am an addict!)
And then on Sundays, I would ride with Louise and another group of people from Cycle Lab.
Zwift goes a long way towards recreating this social environment. In addition to creating interesting, visually appealing and challenging virtual routes, Zwift has a strong focus on the social aspects. You ride with real people. You can create meet-ups with your friends. You can take place in races against other real people. You compete for times up various climbs and there is a text based chat facility where you can chat to people around you.
When I mentioned that I had bought my Kickr Core smart trainer, I immediately got added to the the ICG Zwift WhatsApp group and got added to a Discord server, where we can have group chats while we ride together on Zwift. This is not the same as riding together, but it is much closer than I had thought possible.
Challenging time demand new challenges
Lockdown, Day 1, I posted on the ICG WhatsApp group:
I have become know for doing long rides. There were a few comments about indoor trainers not being suitable for long rides and Audaxes due to overheating, to which I replied:
So there it was. I was Everesting. Tiaan de Lange also mentioned that that “the ultimate thing to unlock in Zwift is the Tron bike. Join the Everest challenge in Zwift and climb 50km of elevation to unlock”. He went on to say “no one will unlock it during this lockdown, but work towards it anyways”. Awesome – another challenge! Don’t tell me something is impossible! (Spoiler alert: This one was too much for me!)
And so I had 2 challenges. Complete a vEveresting and get my Tron bike.
Tiaan then created a spreadsheet for me, with my Everesting in it and it calculated the number of addition metres I had to climb each day. (I think mainly to show how impossible this was going to be!).
I knew how to Everest, having done two on the road. You pick a hill, calculate how many repeats are required and ride up and down the hill until you have done the required number of repeats and your GPS reads over 8 848m of climbing. Simple, but not easy!
There is documentation on vEveresting, which sets out the rules, but is very short on practical guidance. I quickly went about the following:
- Choosing the route. The go to route on Zwift for vEveresting is a Alpe du Zwift. A massive climb of over 1000m, at a relatively steady gradient. Modelled turn by turn on Alpe d’Huez, it has no downhill sections on the climb. This is a huge advantage in Zwift, as you can climb off the trainer and watch your avatar descend by itself. Twelve minutes of free rest each lap. 8.5 laps required. That was my chosen route.
- Getting access to the route. Alpe du Zwift is level locked. When I joined Zwift, it required level 12. Due to lockdowns they changed that to level 6. That was much easier – I got to level 6 in two days.
- Finding the best points to turn at the top and bottom and even simple things like learning how to do a U-Turn.
- Getting the best equipment in Zwift. You start off with an entry level carbon bike. You want a light climbing bike and wheels, which give the same advantage you would get in the real world. You get equipment by doing challenges or by unlocking higher levels and buying them with “drops”, Zwift’s virtual currency you get based on energy expended. By my first Everest I had managed to get the fastest climbing bike (Specialised Tarmac Pro, purchased at level 11) and the lightweight Meilenstein wheels, won on the prize wheel at the top of Alpe du Zwift on around by 5th visit to the top.
And that was that. I was ready to go. Hells 500 (the organisation responsible for Everesting had announced a “World Lycra Party” for the weekend of 10 April and wanted to get as many people as possible to do a vEveresting on Zwift.
Saturday 4th April lockdown day 9 Alpe du Zwift
In preparation for the following weekend, I decided to do 4 laps of Alpe du Zwift as a full “dress rehearsal”. After climbing on the scale (to prove my weight) and doing a quick trainer calibration, I started riding at around 6h45. I started on the “Road to Sky” route as a warm up to the start of the climb. Very soon I was on the the first ascent.
My gearing wasn’t ideal. I had my 36 on the front and my 11/32 cassette. Riding slowly and steadily, the gearing was too hard for me and I was standing a lot. At the top of every lap, I could get off and use the 12 minutes it took for my bike to go down the hill to refill bottles and take toilet breaks. I ate no breakfast, but had just a few energy bars for later if necessary. I was planning on burning mostly fat.
The 4 laps took about 7 hours. Despite the gearing I was feeling ok. Sometime in those 7 hours, I committed myself to doing the full Everest.
Ride up the hill to the spinning wheel at the top, collect whatever prize it landed on, quick U turn, climb off and get everything ready for the next lap, get back on just before the bottom (as you don’t want to freewheel past the base of the climb, quick U turn and repeat. Slow and steady, with no wasted time. But I was starting to get very sore – my knees in particular were not used to so much standing.
Like all long distance endurance events, if you just keep going, eventually you get over the line. In just over 15 hours I was done. As I hadn’t planned on doing the full vEveresting from the start, I was not sure how many metres I had climbed to get to the base of the climb (those do not count), so I did some extra to be sure. There was no ways I was going to be caught a few metres short! 8912m of climbing.
Friday 10th April lockdown day 15 Reverse Epic KOM
6 Days later, I was back for the World Lycra Party. This time it was planned from the start. I also had a group of ICG riders also wanting to do it, and a whole bunch more who were keen to join for a few laps.
Roger, Reinhard and myself were going to do the Reverse Epic KOM. Tiaan and James were going to do Alpe du Zwift. James planned an early start, the rest of us planned 5am.
The Reverse Epic KOM is a gentler gradient on average (with a few steeper sections). It also has some climbing on the descent, meaning that you can’t just leave your bike to do its own descending. It requires good timing to apply power at exactly the correct moment as you get to the bottom of the hills. Your trainer has spun down to a stop and you have to get it moving again before Zwift changes it to high resistance for the uphill part. I had practiced this in the preceding few days.
Just over 20 laps are required. You need to cover more distance than on the Alpe, and don’t get nearly as much rest on the downhills. However, I wanted to do a different route. I did swap the 32/11 cassette with the 34/11 from my road bike. I was hoping that the lesser gradient and the better gearing would be far kinder on my knees.
It was nice to chat to the others on our ICG Discord server and there were lots of messages on our WhatsApp chat group.
James started early and was the first to finish at around 5pm. Craig, after saying he would do a few laps, was starting to look like he would do the full vEveresting. Roger and Reinhard were initially going faster than me, before Roger had his Zwift crash on him and eventually needed to start a new activity (and submit both the Hells 500 for verification – they are very understanding).
Tiaan had started off fast – too fast – and was paying the price for that later. He was posting that he was in a world of pain. However he pushed on and by 6:30pm he had finished.
I was next to finish at 7:10pm, followed by Reinhard only a few minutes later. Roger, after losing a lot of time with his technical problems, took a break to join his family for dinner, but got back on to finish by 8:40pm. Craig, eventually called it a day after 5 laps of Alpe du Zwift and became one of the first to get the newly announced Everesting Basecamp (half Everest – 4424m)
Saturday 18th April Lockdown Day 23 Alpe du Zwift again
Sometimes you have to ask yourself why you do something and in this case, I really don’t know. I didn’t bother to ask any of my ICG friends to do this one. They were all still shell shocked from the last one! Back on Alpe du Zwift, I started at around 5:40am. I was riding a bit faster and this, together with using the 11/34 cassette, made the gearing much better than on my first attempt up the Alpe. The first 4 laps went well. Nice and steady. Then Roger noticed my ride elevation on Zwift and posted on the WhatsApp group. I had lots of support on the group for the rest of the ride.
I finished at just before 7pm. I was feeling pretty good – certainly much better than after the first one and over 1.5 hours faster.
Before I decided to do this Everesting, I had set up a 200km virtual Audax for the Sunday morning. By the morning, I was in no shape for that, but I was the organiser, so I had a go. I did manage to do 100km, but that was it.
The three vEverestings in Lockdown were followed by another ridiculous event – the v360km MTB race on Zwift the following Friday. You had to ride on the Zwift MTB and the route did the Epic KOM and the reverse Epic KOM each lap. I found it much harder than the Everestings. It started at 3pm on Friday and I rode through the night and finished 18 hours later. No stops – I just kept going. My knees got really sore and the last laps were very tough.
That took me to the end of April and the full lockdown. From 1 May, we were allowed to ride outdoors again, between 6am and 9am only. Once I could ride on the road, my Zwift rides dropped down to an occasional one and not a single Zwift ride since July.
Despite that, my Wahoo trainer is one of the best investments I have made. I don’t know how I would have got through Lockdown without being able to take on these challenges.