It’s a mild morning just after the Easter weekend when I line up at the start of a cycle race in the centre of Bologna in northern Italy. The historic arches and café awnings of Via Ugo Bassi are turning golden in the low spring sunshine. I can hear birdsong and the excitement of the spectators.
After a countdown we’re off, heading east at more than 30mph. The short, fierce race follows the route of the time trial that kicked off last year’s Giro d’Italia. It ends with an ascent of the fearfully steep Monte della Guardia, up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca.
I shouldn’t really be here. Cycle racing has been suspended all over the world — Italy’s Giro, which should have begun next weekend, is unlikely to happen before October. Moreover, Italy, like France and Spain, has outlawed recreational cycling as part of its strict lockdown. Yet here I am, pedalling through the ban, in dangerous proximity to more than 150 other riders from all over the world.
Indoor cycling was booming before the coronavirus pandemic upended sport. New technology and gaming apps have transformed once notoriously dull and solitary training sessions. In the lockdown, Zwift, the most popular of these apps, and my Wattbike Atom — a smart exercise bike connected to an iPad — have turned my spare room into a sweaty portal to a new world.
While my real bike collects cobwebs, I have cycled around a virtual Central Park, through the hills of Surrey, along the streets of central London, and over the cobbles of Harrogate and Innsbruck. On a fantasy island called Watopia, I have taken on a remarkably accurate recreation of the celebrated climb to the French ski resort of Alpe d’Huez.
I hop on the Wattbike almost every day. When I fire up the Zwift app, I can pick a race, group ride or training session with intervals of varying effort. I can then choose from several locations, many inspired by famous races, and hit “ride” to escape reality via my customised avatar.
The iPad and the Wattbike communicate so that when, say, the road starts to get steeper towards the edge of Bologna, the bike increases the resistance on my pedals accordingly, as well as adjusting my avatar’s speed. When I ride close behind someone else, I feel the benefit of their slipstream — the aerodynamic advantage that turns cycling from a mere test of fitness into a tactical team sport.
On Monte della Guardia, sweat collects in my lockdown beard as I hit the climb, which rises alongside the 17th-century Portico di San Luca, a terracotta covered walkway by which pilgrims — and tourists — reach the sanctuary. I struggle to settle into a steady rhythm. When I look over my handlebars, I see not asphalt and views across Bologna, but — through a window — my son playing in our garden in south-east London.
I’ve been riding nowhere — and everywhere — like this for a year now. Virtual cycling has been a useful training aid when weather, work or domestic life deprive me of the real thing. But now that several countries have discouraged or banned outdoor riding, the pixelated roads that I’ve come to know are noticeably busier.
Smart exercise bikes have been in higher demand than bread flour. Wattbike, a British company, says sales doubled from February to March. Turbo trainers, which are smaller machines in which it’s possible to mount a normal bike (a roller applies resistance to the rear wheel in the simplest models) are scarcer still.
Meanwhile indoor fitness apps are experiencing soaring demand just at the time of year when people typically hit the real road. Zwift, based in London and California, does not reveal its active user numbers, who pay £12.99 a month, but says they are now covering more than 4m virtual miles a day, up from 900,000 this time last year.
Even in countries where leisure cycling is still permitted, including in the UK, group rides and café stops of the sort that define the sport for millions of weekend warriors are typically off limits. Zwift attempts to fill this gap too; every rider in the game is a real person, sitting somewhere in a garage or basement. A chat window means we can talk as we go.
I prefer not to chat but I appreciate the company. Tragic as it may sound, I get a kick out of beating distant strangers, or zipping along with them in a murmurating peloton. It’s certainly motivating. There’s no way I could sit for an hour on a standard exercise bike and get a meaningful workout. In a virtual race, time flies. I’m also pushing harder than I could on the road, freed as I am from such inconveniences as traffic lights.
The sense of mutual escape is also impressive. Even on my little iPad screen, I can feel transported out of my loft. The game’s graphics are basic enough for easy streaming, but good enough to include the particular motion of swirling snow, blown across a high Alpine pass. In Zwift’s Innsbruck, someone has taken the time to render the funicular rail station by Zaha Hadid.
Away from its races, Zwift says it has seen an eight-fold increase in “meetups”, in which it’s possible to arrange a casual ride with someone else or in a group. Cycling clubs and travel companies are scrambling to boost their virtual presence.
Rapha, the London-based cycle clothing company and club, is hosting dozens of Zwift social rides and races. Hotchillee, a British cycle travel company, has cancelled its summer trips this year but now has daily online events, including Zwift social rides and spin classes via Google video calls. “It’s been heartwarming to watch our community thrive in this new virtual world,” Hotchillee founder Sven Thiele tells me, after himself recovering from a nasty case of Covid-19.
Social riders without technology are having to be more imaginative. Michael Hutchinson, the cycling writer and former British time trial champion, regularly races on Zwift from his home near Cambridge. He heard recently about two local men in their seventies who are recreating their twice-weekly rides together. They cycle on turbo trainers while keeping their speaker phones on, chatting as usual. After an hour of steady pedalling, they get off to make tea and have a slice of cake before hopping back on to “ride home”.
At the other end of the spectrum, with the professional race calendar on hold, many of the world’s best cyclists are training in cyber space — dozens of them on Zwift. Eager to maintain links with fans and to give visibility to their sponsors, some teams are organising online rides with members of the public, while others are even competing in digital races. Last weekend saw the culmination of the Swiss Digital 5, a televised five-day series of virtual races that used webcams in riders’ homes along with filmed footage from previous races and live commentary. Star participants included Rohan Dennis, Vincenzo Nibali, Julian Alaphilippe and Greg van Avermaet, the latter fresh from his win in the inaugural virtual Tour of Flanders earlier in the month.
On a recent Sunday, I enter a group ride on Watopia, a world of mountainous islands that Zwift has created as an alternative to its renderings of real places (the Alpe d’Huez climb, which rises improbably from a Mayan jungle, is the only hint of anything recognisable). Team Ineos, formerly Team Sky, has organised a series of rides across the afternoon, deploying its pro riders in their own homes. Everyone is wearing the team’s black and red kit and riding its fancy Pinarello bikes (big manufacturers offer their bikes for virtual sale in Zwift, to be purchased using the sweat drops currency that members earn as they ride).
A popular event in the game might attract a couple of hundred riders. When I hear a rumour that four-times Tour de France champion Chris Froome will join the 3.30pm race, I land in the starting pen alongside almost 2,000 other people.
“Wow, the boys at the front are flying,” Froome says in the chat window that hovers on the edge of my screen. “And the girls . . . ” adds an American rider called Leanna. I slow to let Froome pass but he never does. Either that or I miss him in the chaotic scrum of fans trying to ride alongside him. I do see one other name I recognise: Eric Min. The Korea-born entrepreneur has trained inside for years, initially struggling to find motivation on a basic turbo trainer. When he sold a software company in 2012, he met a computer games programmer with a big idea. They launched Zwift together in 2014.
“When the lockdowns started, we saw a huge spike,” says Min, who is Zwift’s chief executive, when I video-call him the day after the ride. He lives in London, where he uses a giant TV screen to enhance the immersion. “But whereas before they were probably driven by training more than anything, people are coming now for social rides.”
Cycling attracts purists, not all of whom are convinced. “Riding a bike inside makes no sense to me,” says cycling writer and commentator Ned Boulting. He feels uncomfortable riding outside in the lockdown, so keeps fit by running up and down the stairs of his south-east London home 100 times a day. “I tend to do it with the 5pm Downing Street briefing on the radio so I get physical distraction while I’m listening to increasingly grim news,” he adds.
Back in Bologna, I lose touch with the front of the race on the climb. Locals by the roadside cheer me on as I hit the steepest stretch, the columns of the portico emphasising the forbidding gradient. The road eases slightly past the sanctuary itself and, praying for the finish line, I lose a sprint against a young French rider called Antonin. I get my breath back, switch off my bike and walk downstairs.
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