It’s 10pm on a Tuesday, and I’m sitting in the bathtub at my girlfriend’s house, shaving my legs. She said the process would take me five minutes, but almost an hour has passed and I’m still here, struggling to navigate the razor around the lumpy contours of my knees.
I finish up, spritz my shins with the shower head, and return to the living room. “Why did you do that?” my girlfriend asks. “It’s my big race tomorrow,” I respond, my legs as smooth as the day I was born. “I need to get race ready.”
For those of you who haven’t been following my progress, let me distill it here for you. Around a month ago, I pledged to get into the best shape of my life using Zwift, and win the Cycling Weekly virtual 10-mile time trial. I had never used the training app before, but it was, I thought, a quick-fire way to get my name in the results pages of our magazine.
There was also something else from our conversation that stuck with me. “You should get ready for a race indoors like you would for one outside,” Armstrong told me. “Sometimes, they say for job interviews you should dress up, even if it’s a phone interview, because you present yourself a little bit more professional.”
And that is why, like an aspiring accountant putting on a tie for a phone call, I decided to shave my legs.
It’s a mental thing, really, a way to trick myself into thinking I’m a high-calibre racer. There is of course little (see: absolutely no) benefit to shaving your legs for a Zwift race, I am aware of that, but suddenly I felt as slippery as Filippo Ganna, and maybe that would help me channel some of his power.
I’d need it, after all. For my race week, the course for the time trial was ‘Tick Tock’, one of the flattest on Zwift. Winners on that course tend to average around 400 watts. Less than a month ago, I could barely do that in a sprint.
On Armstrong’s advice, I spent days doing recons of the course, as I would do for an outdoor event. For each of my last few training rides, I transported myself to Tick Tock and memorised all the key elements of the landscape: the waterfall, the giant green dinosaur, the remote highway town that reminds me of Radiator Springs from the Disney film Cars. Then, in the second half of my race, there would be a series of underwater tunnels, something that seldom features in the great British time trial scene.
The night before, as I slip into bed with my newly shaved legs, disaster starts to brew. I’m ill, I realise. I try to sleep it off, but at 2am, I’m sitting upright with my face over a boiling mug of Lemsip. Not now, please. I try to reassure myself. Remco Evenepoel won the time trial at the Giro d’Italia with Covid, I remember. I’m stronger than a sniffly cold.
When I log into my race the next day, I’m too nervous to think about the fact I’m getting sick. I flick on my playlist, and with five minutes to go, Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’ quickly dials my heart rate into race pace.
More and more people join, their avatars bobbing by the start line. A raft more then tune in with seconds to go. Three, two, one. As the flag drops, the song switches to Slipknot’s ‘Duality’. “I push my fingers into my eyes,” sings Corey Taylor. I chose this song as my opener to remind me to hurt, to harness the pain. I bring my cadence up, kick over 350 watts and take a deep breath.
As I watch the screen ahead of me, almost immediately, I realise I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. The Cycling Weekly time trial is a mass start event, allowing you to pick people off as you shift around the course. Right from the gun, around 20 of the 70-odd riders competing blasted up the road, never to be seen again. There goes my big victory, I think to myself, the one I said in my last article I was “guaranteed” to taste. I’ll eat the humble pie later.
In the meantime, it’s time to race. I settle in and readjust my goals. As things are playing out, I find myself around the middle of the field. If I can tag a handful of riders and make the top 30, I’ll count that as a win.
My heart rate rises and rises. I stare blankly at the numbers on my screen. 185 beats per minute. My power data teeters between 260 and 300 watts. The sweat, my word, the sweat. I turn my fan up a notch, and try desperately to hang onto my high cadence.
As I get to the halfway mark, and the water tunnels appear, my playlist deals me an ironic blow with Linkin Park’s ‘Faint’. I thought it would be funny when I picked the songs. It doesn’t seem so funny now. I swig my water, go back to the bottle for seconds, and pedal as hard as I can.
Three miles to go. This is crunch time. This is where I find out if I’ve timed my effort well or burned the candle down with a blowtorch. There are figures up ahead. I set my sights on them, crank up my pace, and work my way around them. I smile as my avatar brushes past theirs. This is great fun.
With the finish line in sight, there’s one final doomed soul I’m determined to tag. My legs are screaming, and as my heart tries to pound through my ribcage, I manage to lay down over 400 watts. I whirr past the rider in front with just a handful of pedal turns to go. Bet they wish they shaved their legs now, I cackle. Then comes the sweet release of the finish line.
I gave it everything I had. I bow my head and gasp, loudly, for something to breathe in the stuffy air of my bedroom. When I look back up, the race results are on my screen.
I finished a valiant 29th out of 71 (it didn’t actually say valiant, I added that bit). I did not win, my name will not appear in the magazine, but I feel I’ve made enormous progress, and a sense of pride absorbs me.
My race data confirms what I thought. In just a month of training, my FTP has gone from 252 watts to 265, my watts per kilogram rising from 3.2 to 3.5. I am, factually, a more powerful rider, and I feel it, too.
When I think about my main takeaways from a winter on Zwift, it’s the data that stands out to me. Thanks to indoor training, I have done more winter miles than I have ever done in my life. I spent hours on end in Watopia, sharing the virtual tarmac with tens of thousands of like-minded people, all with their own fitness goals.
Until recently, the only number I took note of was my average speed. Now I know my heart rate zones, threshold power and estimated VO2 max (I won’t be winning the Tour de France anytime soon, either). Put simply, I understand myself and my cycling better.
This may have been my first experience of racing on Zwift, but it won’t be my last. Expect to see me at a Zwift race near you. I’ll be the one with the freshly shaved legs, cranking loud nu-metal music, and having a generally great time hurting myself.
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