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When the coronavirus lockdown was first announced in the UK, on the 23rd March 2020, I didn’t go out and ride on my bike on the then eerily quiet roads around Rochdale in Greater Manchester for the first few weeks. I was worried about being involved in an accident and needlessly ending up in the local hospital. To be honest, I didn’t mind, as I could use my daily exercise allowance to head up into the nearby hills and run across the empty bridleways and remote trails that surround the town. The fact that the weather was almost perfect, with bright sunshine and stunning sunsets that gave great views over the Greater Manchester area, added to the surreal nature of the time. The lack of cars meant that air pollution was at a minimum, so Jodrell Bank Observatory and even North Wales were clearly visible from over 30 miles away from the top of Rooley Moor.
However, I wasn’t too concerned about not going out on my bike as the instructions were clear to stay at home. I dug out my old turbo trainer, and got it set up in the garden. After purchasing speed and cadence sensors, I spent next few weeks hooking my road bike up to the turbo, and racing for hours against riders on Zwift and even watching the pros in virtual races in the evenings and weekends.
Everything started well. I was competing in virtual races around Richmond, Innsbruck and Harrogate on the respective World Championships courses. I even beat Mark Cavendish on one ride! I had cycled over 100km in a few days, battled from the last place to a top 20 finish in a World Championship race around Harrogate’s pretty town centre and rode with the Israel Cycle Start-Up Nation cycle team on a training run. All of these exciting cycling stories occurred without even leaving my garden in Rochdale!
What happened next however, turned into a story that has links into the wider pandemic story. During one race I was battling through the virtual peloton when I heard the sound of clanging metal and snapped plastic. My turbo trainer had broken, and was now completely unusable! I’d like to say that it was because I was smashing the power to weight ratio, but in reality, it was an old turbo that had been on shaky ground for a while. I also knew that the Speed and Cadence sensors wouldn’t work on my back-up Spinning bike, due to problems with the crank and wheel circumference, and that I would have to try and find an alternative solution.
I started to look online in all of the usual places such as Wiggle, Halfords and other online bike retailers, but it was all to no avail. Apparently there was a nationwide shortage of turbo trainers, due to huge demand and a lack of shipments coming in from China. Halfords were even getting a reported 200 visits a minute on their web page for their basic £50 turbo trainer! I have looked around on Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace, but it didn’t feel right to head out and get one, when it isn’t really ‘essential’ to do so when I have a spin bike in the shed. It was time to improvise…
When Team INEOS held their ‘Alpe du Zwift’ challenge and BKool hosted the Tour of Flanders ride, I realised that I could follow the races on YouTube and simply pedal along using my spin bike. I even dug out my Samsung Gear VR headset for added realism. If I could match the resistance to the gradients on the screen, then the ride would still have the same level of difficulty without the stats. I have continued this style of riding during the The virtual Tour de Suisse, renamed the The Digital Swiss 5 too. I used to go spinning all of the time; about 3 times per week at the gym, so I can feel the resistance on the bike through muscle memory and what a 5% gradient on the road feels like as a comparison.
I can only estimate that I have cycled over 200 miles in my garden over the past few weeks, and gained an impressive set of tan lines too, under the unseasonably sunny Rochdale skies. I really think that virtual cycling has a future when a few kinks are ironed out, such as connectivity issues, user-defined power to weight ratios generating huge (and unlikely) race-winning wattages, and slightly clunky graphics reminiscent of early Playstation 2 sports games.
The impressive back-to-back 12-hour Zwift charity rides by Geraint Thomas, for the NHS, and dominant race wins by Rohan Dennis have been backed up by the sheer amount of newcomers who have discovered ‘virtual cycling’ in the past few weeks. In the not too distant future, I would love to see tournaments being held in exhibition centres around the country, when the lockdown and social distancing conditions allow for such events to happen. A virtual Tour de France with pro riders held in a detailed virtual world is surely only a slightly faster internet connection away now.
When the lockdown is over, and we look back on this tragic, yet surreal time that has affected us all; it will also be remembered as a period when many of us started to use technologies such as video conferencing apps like Zoom to continue working away from the office, rediscovered local outdoor spaces with close family on daily bouts of exercise and when we rode in virtual worlds without ever leaving home.
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