Adventures in eRacing

Yesterday was World Bicycle Day and therefore an excellent time to celebrate bicycles and cycling. It’s also a perfect time to introduce eRacing – a hobby that has kept me both fit and sane during these strange pandemic times! 

There are lots of good reasons to celebrate bicycles. They are a fun way to travel and enjoy the outside but also have big benefits for our health and the environment. For millions across the planet, the bicycle is a vitally important form of transport – their simplicity makes them both affordable and easy to keep working. Bicycles are especially important in rural areas of developing countries enabling healthcare workers to reach their patients, students to safely reach their schools, and businesses to reach their customers or new markets. 

A bicycle parking lot in Amsterdam. Known as the bicycle capital of the world, Amsterdam has ambitions to be completely car-free. Source: Cerys Willoughby, [Image Description: A photograph of hundreds of bicycles parked in a bicycle parking lot near Amsterdam Station. In the foreground hundreds of bicycles can be seen parked together on the ground and in the background hundreds more are visible on multi-level ramps. Most of the bicycles look very similar to each other and are ‘Dutch’ style. Dutch bicycles have heavy, sturdy frames and characteristic handlebars that curve back towards the saddle and cause the rider to adopt an upright position.]

Necessity aside, cycling  in the real world is great fun, but there are certainly downsides. Cycling is both miserable and hazardous in dark, cold and wet conditions. Dodging traffic and pedestrians is not fun, and having a puncture miles from home is always a worry. Worst of all is the risk of serious injuries if you have an accident. Fortunately there is a fun and safe alternative – virtual cycling! Cyclists have long been riding indoors during the winter for training, but recent technology has made this previously boring pass-time into something both fun and functional. 

Trainers enable a rider to cycle without moving. This example is over one hundred years old. Source: Stanislav Jelen. [Image description: A metal frame with built-in handlebars, chain ring, pedals and back wheel to enable the user to ride without moving.]

Sensors can be attached to the bicycle or trainer and software can be used to determine how fast you are moving within a virtual terrain. Coupled with a smart trainer the resistance you feel whilst pedalling mimics changes in the terrain so it feels like you are going up or down hills. There are various virtual cycling applications that can be connected to bicycle sensors, but the one I use is called Zwift. Zwift uses the sensors together with information about your weight and height to move your avatar through a variety of different terrains and virtual worlds. The more power you push through the pedals, the faster you move. The main world in Zwift is called Watopia and contains a wide variety of interesting landscapes including deserts, villages, mountains, underwater tunnels and even a volcano! There are also a range of ‘guest’ worlds based on real world locations, often sites of World Championship or Olympic bike races, such as London, France, Bologna, Richmond, Innsbruck, New York, and the latest world released last month based on Japan for the delayed 2020 Olympics. Along with workouts and group rides, stages and races, Zwift provides a number of gamification elements. You can temporarily win a jersey for getting the fastest time on various sprints, hills, and routes. There are trophies for achieving particular objectives and challenges to to gain new equipment for your garage, including the infamous Tron bike.

I came to Zwift in mid 2015, while it was still in beta. I received a life changing brain injury when I flipped my bicycle and landed on my head during a time trial. After my accident I was desperate to do physical activity but couldn’t walk outside on my own without falling over due to dizziness and visual problems from the brain injury. Zwift became a life saver, giving me a way to keep fit whilst recovering and enabling me to enjoy cycling in a safe environment. Riding around the various courses is fun in itself, but I found out quite late that the real fun comes when you start engaging with other riders in group activities.

A group workout in Zwift – a great way to share the suffering! Source: Cerys Willoughby/Zwift. [Image Description: A screenshot from Zwift showing over twenty avatars on a mountain course with virtual screens to indicate they are riding a workout. On the left are the details of the workout being completed, in the centre are details of the current power, cadence and speed, as well as details of the distance and time elapsed. On the right a map of the current course location and a list of riders and some ride statistics.

Zwift has always been very supportive of women’s cycling and in 2016 launched the Zwift Academy program to test women for their suitability for professional racing. The program not only benefits riders, one of whom receives a professional contract at the end, but also the sponsoring team by giving them access to a much wider range of women. I joined the academy for the first time in 2018, not for the contract but out of curiosity about the group activities on Zwift. The academy gave me my first taste of both the wonderfully supportive Zwift women’s community and eRacing. Zwift enables you to race against others of similar strength – it’s not just about the speedy riders! Racing it turns out is enormous fun!

Hooked, I decided to join a team, the best decision I made. The shared experience working together has been fantastic, and as a result we regularly ride together in all kinds of races and other fun events. Based across the world, we try to organise events that work across different time zones. We use Discord or Messenger to communicate during our races. It’s always nice to catch up, talk tactics, and share the suffering! 

At the front of a race with teammates! Source: Cerys Willoughby/Zwift [Image Description: A group of thirteen avatars wearing a variety of different team kits riding on the Innsbruck course. There are buildings in the foreground and mountains in the background. On the left are details of my power, cadence and heart-rate, in the centre are details of speed, distance to the finish, and distance and time elapsed. On the right is a map of the current position on the course and a list of riders in their current positions in the race and some race statistics.

Riding with the team became an essential part of getting through the pandemic. Along with thousands of new Zwifters, we found ourselves anxiously stuck at home, with limited opportunities to ride outside but with more time to ride within the week. Having that human contact and that shared experience was so important. A new event we tried was Team Time Trialling. In the TTT, we work together as a team of up to eight riders against other teams to get the fastest time on the course. It’s really fun and not wanting to let the team down enables you to push much harder than you imagine possible!

Team Trialling in the desert, Source: Cerys Willoughby/Zwift. [Image Description: A side view of six avatars of riders in team kit riding on a desert course as a group. The riders are on a range of bicycles and with a range of different wheel sets.]

The supportive and friendly nature of the women’s events on Zwift make them really enjoyable. In addition to regular weekly women’s group rides and races, there are women only race series and multi-day stage events such as the Tour de Boudicca. This event was the first of its kind open to non-pro women on Zwift and hundreds of women took part generating a huge buzz within the community. Even where I am in the lowest category we have great competitive rivalries but also great respect and support for each other. We are women from different places and different age groups with a shared enthusiasm for cycling and racing. The best part of eRacing have been the friendships we have formed. eRacing is very much ‘Type II’ fun, pure suffering whilst you are doing it, but so much fun. The fantastic camaraderie of a team really enhances the experience. 

Fun and silliness with the team – hunting a dinosaur costume for your avatar at Halloween. Source: Cerys Willoughby/Zwift. [Image Description: A large group of Avatars riding on the gravel road on a jungle course. The avatars have a variety of dinosaur costume parts including head, legs and arms. Some of the avatars have ‘Ride On’ or ‘thumbs up’ symbols above their heads. In the background are trees and flowers.

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Cerys Willoughby
“Rock On!”

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