Dr Hutch column: In the brave new world of Zwift, dishonesty and deceit come along for the digital ride, but ZADA’s catching up

"Give us all a year or two, Zwifting will be indistinguishable from real life"

Dr Hutch

Amid the wreckage, there are two organisations that have had a good 2020/21. One is the Covid-19 virus, which has outperformed all its expectations and is no doubt planning to float on the stock exchange. The other is Zwift.

A year ago I would have been very frightened indeed by the idea that what was coming was going to be so dramatic that turbo training was going to count as light relief. But that’s how it’s been.

I used to write rather more about turbo training in the past, when it was the gold standard for misery. I once did six hours on an old-fashioned dumb turbo without music, radio or any entertainment other than an empty wall and my own demons, partly so I could impress people with my zeal. They weren’t impressed. No one ever said, “Hey Hutch! Love your zeal!” Most people were scared. Several stopped waving to me out in the lanes, and stared coldly into the passing hedges instead.

Zwift has its flaws, but it’s better than that. It’s been folded into the narrative of cycling and racing almost effortlessly. We can feel a small swell of pride at the smoothness with which we’ve reimagined some of the venerable traditions of cycling. The people who used to turn up late to group rides are still the people who turn up late to group rides, which makes me doubt even more than I already did their unvarying claims of a stiff headwind on their way to the meeting point.

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We have adapted many of our best excuses and moved them straight to the virtual world. “I got shelled off the back after my Bluetooth dropped out,” is just another mechanical to add to the list – you even have to chase back on afterwards. Give it another couple of months and it will be perfectly normal to have a team car alongside you out there in the garage with a spare trainer on the roof.

My current favourite excuse was that of a friend’s clubmate who missed a ride, and simply sent a photo of his bike out in the snow and said, “I couldn’t bear the thought of the turbo, so I just took the soft option and went for a ride outside instead.”

It’s not just excuses. We also seem to have cheating in our blood, so to speak.

For instance, we’ve reinvigorated one of the oldest methods in the book, where a male rider enters a female-only race. Quite why anyone would do this is beyond me. At least the last time it was in fashion, if you got off with it, the East German government would give you a one-bed flat, a Trabant and a lifetime supply of Spam. (Also, many is the man who casually assumed that he was going to be able to beat a group of women, only for events to unfold dramatically to the contrary).

Other methods are as basic as lying about your weight, just the same way as you’ve always done – except this time you’re lying to an algorithm rather than to yourself, so it actually works. You can attach a 500W drill to your chainset, or hack the calibration of your power meter or trainer.

Just how successful we’ve been you can witness from the fact that Zwift has had to create ZADA, the Zwift anti-doping cops (really), to try to keep up with us. They run a sort of power-data version of the biological passport system. Meanwhile, cyclists try to work out how to cover their tracks with manipulated files. It feels very familiar.

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I’d say that if you give us all a year or two, Zwifting will be indistinguishable from real life. Of course, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends very much on your point of view.

How to...home school a cyclist

Lots of parents and children are currently discovering that teaching isn’t nearly as easy as they all thought it was. It’s much simpler if we can all agree that cycling is the only topic worth considering.

Physics: the power required to overcome aerodynamic resistance is a cubic function of speed. You can investigate this function in detail with a few time trial efforts. If it helps, you can go and do the time trial efforts while the children play some video games.

History: make your children learn the winners of the Grand Tours and the Monuments and the World Championships. This will stand them in good stead when it comes to shouting corrections at TV commentators, or at the very least, ensure you’ve an appreciative audience when you do so.

Maths: if a break of six has a 65-second lead over the peloton with 10km to the finish of a Giro stage, how many teams will need to ride on the front of the bunch to catch them in time? How many more or fewer will it be if the TV moto does a 2km turn? Extra marks for any child who points out it’s the Giro, so of course the TV moto will do a turn.

Geography: plot the route of the R25/3H time trial course.

PE: there is only cycling.

Act of cycling stupidity - A story of home-schooling strife

A studious child appeared in the home-office door of a parent. “I’m trying to follow my history class, but the Zoom link keeps freezing because there’s not enough bandwidth with Dad doing a race in the garage.”

Concerned parent went to the garage to relate this issue. “It’s a question of priorities,” gasped the rider, struggling to hold on to the back of the front group on the Innsbruck Worlds course.

“You mean, the relative priority of your race versus your child’s maths GCSE?”

“I’m glad we’re on the same page on this,” gasped the rider.

Somehow, leaving the garage, the more responsible of the parents contrived to trip over the power supply to the trainer and end the event abruptly. By all reports, the child’s maths is still atrocious.

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