Notes from the Gruppetto
And why you should get out of the digital peloton
Why I won’t be racing virtually any time soon
It’s summer. The birds are chirping. The sun is out. The roads haven’t seen salt for months. So ask yourself this question: are you still riding on Zwift? Are you choosing to race on Zwift instead of racing people in the real world? If you are – during the peak of our all-too-short Canadian summer– for the love of God, stop now.
A little background for the uninitiated: Zwift is an online virtual training world that you can use to make the monotony of indoor training not only more palatable but, I dare say, enjoyable. The ability to “ride” with friends, to “climb” mountains and to push yourself for personal records makes indoor training much more fun.
The platform is not just for training. During the past year, I’ve learned that there is a whole world of racing on Zwift. You can sign on to race in a league in which you compete against athletes of similar strength to see who can pedal hard enough to become the first to hurl in the home pain cave. Apparently, a lot of people enjoy this kind of isolated yet communal self-flagellation – so much so that an entire league (called Cycligent) has formed to not only get people racing on Zwift but also to create a spectator sport that allows adoring masses to watch people race on trainers.
Let’s just pause for a moment to consider what this all means. We are reaching a point where we would like to watch people spin their legs on an indoor trainer while we sit and watch. Now, I know some people decry bike racing as boring, but watching some middling Belgian bike race featuring pro continental riders still is 10 times more enjoyable than this proposed travesty of a virtual sport.
What’s more, as much as I like Zwift as a winter training tool (which is more than standard indoor training but far less than the real world), the experience of racing in it leaves much to be desired. These races are more like wattage competitions. They tend to be less than an hour and are absolutely full gas from the gun. There’s no rollout, no easing into it. It’s just 350 watts from the gun. And virtual drafting aside, it really does seem to come down to who can time trial for the full race.
If you haven’t ridden in Zwift, well, you are not actually turning your handlebars or near other people. You are in your basement. Pedalling. The excitement of a road or cyclocross or mountain bike race comes from being present with others. With Zwift, you miss out on physical things that make bike racing so exciting: feeling the draft, moving within the peloton when you have to get to the front and feeling the effect of the wind after you make a turn. Zwift just can’t replicate any of these elements.
And of course, people dope in Zwift. I have learned that people “weight dope” or “trainer dope,” which apparently consists of adjusting your recorded kilograms so you go faster uphill, or so your trainer produces more watts than you actually generate. C’mon people!
Now, I’m not poo-pooing Zwift in general. I much prefer riding in Watopia to Boredom-topia, where I was resigned to training in the winter. But the idea that we have leagues and race series that won’t just serve as winter training but rather an actual substitute for road racing is just tragic to me. What makes bike riding and racing special isn’t just the wattage we produce and the calories we burn (visually represented by pizza slices in Zwift). It’s the friendships, connections and rivalries that we form doing this racing thing inches apart from one another, united by our desire to compete.
So shut off the computer. Get out there and pin a number on, irl (in real life). We’ll all be happier for it.