BLOG POST: Virtual Cycling & Racing Over Lockdown

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by Jim Haysom.

It’s just over 6 months since the UK went into lockdown due to COVID-19, and there has been no doubt that cycling participation has increased. This has to be one of the positive outcomes of this global pandemic and I hope that it remains.

Cycling retailers have seen a much-needed resurgence of trade and online marketplaces have thrived, as people desperately try to find a bike or accessories to buy. Government data had shown that cycling levels were up 300% during lockdown.

Getting your daily dose of permitted exercise in those early months, cyclists were fortunate that they could get easily outside without being penalised.  However doing hill repeats up Box Hill on Easter weekend, was something that many cyclists were told was non-essential travel.

Indoor turbo trainer manufacturers such as Tacx, Wahoo, Elite and Saris, were finding themselves stretched to meet the demands of consumers, as people looked to benefit from being at home more, and still wanting to exercise. Virtual cycling and even virtual racing was now starting to appear more frequently in the timelines of Strava users.


Freeriding around GTA IV using my turbo trainer was insane.

For me personally, virtual cycling has been the mainstay of my cycling activities since the beginning of 2019. As a bit of background, I am new to road cycling and actually bought my first road bike as part of a ‘get myself fit and lose weight’ mission I had in 2018. I trained for the Vélo South 100-miler predominately on my mountain bike and bought my first road bike in the summer.  I was gutted the sportive ended up being cancelled only months later.

In late January 2019, I bought a wheel-on smart trainer, a Tacx Vortex. With additional purchases of a new rear wheel, cassette and turbo tyre (for easier wheel swapping), I was all set to give Zwift a try with their 7-day/25km free trial.  With a shiny new bike doing very little in the garage, it gave me an opportunity to get some exercise in those dark winter nights. 

Fast forward to September 2020, I have now ridden 8,400 km on a virtual bike with 114,000 metres of elevation! That’s a whopping 70% of my total distance pedalled in the last 20 months. Sorry Wheelers, I have to confess to only 3,600 km of outside riding in this time, and only half of that has been on my road bike!

I would have to admit, virtual cycling can become addictive, especially if like me, you have a long daily commute and parenting duties at weekends.  Since the UK lockdown started on 16th March 2020, I’ve ridden a crazy distance virtually… over 4,000 km.  That has been across Zwift, Rouvy, FulGaz, Road Grand Tours (RGT Cycling) and even within Grand Theft Auto IV.  It was a perfect opportunity to try different virtual platforms and the many extended free trials that were on offer. See bottom of post for links and current pricing.

Apps like FulGaz and Rouvy, augment you or an avatar onto real-life filmed routes around the globe and use your power and speed metrics to simulate the ride and feel. Doing Toy’s Hill on FulGaz virtually was a fun trip down memory lane.

 I haven’t ridden in The Alpes before, but doing it virtually was a visual treat.

RGT Cycling even gives you the ability to upload rides (GPX files) and re-ride them in a virtual experience, opening endless roads to ride on.  Good idea if you’re doing a real-life event and want to know what it might feel like or reminisce one of your own. 

In Zwift, there are 8 worlds to choose from, their own cycling and running playground called Watopia, and locations including New York, London, Paris, Richmond (Virginia), Harrogate, Innsbruck and France which features a replica Mont Ventoux climb.

Put your smart trainer difficulty setting to 100% and experience the real gradient on the climb.

All the virtual platforms ramped up their community events and put on more group rides, challenges, multi-stage events, celebrity and pro-cyclist meet-ups, and plenty of virtual races. There were no in-real-life (IRL) races and professional cyclists and triathletes needed a place to train. I managed to ride alongside Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan, Rigoberto Urán, Philippe Gilbert, Sir Bradley Wiggins and many.

Quite a few people turned up to ride with former Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas.

Exercise is great for positive well-being and mental health. Being furloughed for 3 months during lockdown and having to manage home-schooling for two children was rather stressful. Escaping to the garage and entering a virtual world was a real saviour to my sanity. It gave me back some ‘me-time’ and a way of channelling the remaining energy I had, after the house and DIY jobs that were thrown at me.

All my running and cycling races I had signed up for were being cancelled and virtual cycling was a perfect way to maintain and improve fitness. My gin and chocolate consumption seemed to be increasing, so I needed to burn more calories!  I needed to get my competitive mojo back, and racing on virtual platforms was a great way to push yourself.  

Many of the platforms offer races against other riders, or you can set up your own races amongst friends and people you follow. In my experience, there is no better way to increase your functional threshold power (FTP), than to race full gas at your very limit for 20-60 mins or maybe even more!

British Cycling already had a partnership with Zwift and carried out a race series involving numerous events during the week. It was great that British Cycling South East decided to put on their own race league across two series. The BC South East Zwift community Facebook Group was the go-to place for inter-club banter, post-race updates and the definitive results.  The series involved 60 local clubs and 2,300 riders in the first 6 weeks, who battled it out on the imaginary tarmac for podiums, points and bragging rights.

Racing on Zwift is intense right from the very beginning! Expect to go into the red.

Club member, Rob Sones, deserves a lot of credit for setting up the Crawley Wheelers Indoor Cycling Facebook Group, the Crawley Wheelers Indoor Cycling Club (CWIC) on ZwiftPower, and being the liaison officer with BCSE.  We now have 16 club members who have taken part in Zwift Races, which is great to see. Age, ability and experience is no barrier, with members ranging from Junior, Masters, Veteran, 50+ and 60+ age groups.  It would be great to increase our virtual club membership. If you ride on Zwift, then follow these Connecting to ZwiftPower instructions to link accounts and then sign up to the CWIC club on the link above.

During the BCSE race series, we were successful to get a few podiums even with a small representation of riders compared to other local clubs. We also pulled off an incredible Team Time Trial effort with two teams taking part in the finale of the first 6-week series.  Using the mobile app Discord, we got intimate hearing the sounds of team-mates’ heavy breathing and being at threshold for 37km and almost an hour of racing.

Crawley Wheelers Indoor Cycling (CWIC) looked amazing in TTT formation!

Now that lockdown restrictions have eased, we’ve had some good spells of weather and club rides have come back, albeit smaller numbers, virtual cycling still has a valid place outside of the winter season.  If you are currently following a training plan from a coach, or platform like Trainer Road, TrainingPeaks, The Sufferfest, Today’s Plan, almost all the virtual cycling platforms allow you to migrate your sessions, to make it more interactive. There are workout builders and set training plans that you can follow as part of their monthly subscription.  There is also a constant stream of community events and races that take place.

The amount of indoor cycling naturally peaks as the nights get darker earlier and weather gets worse. The safety and convenience of getting on a turbo is appealing, and the technology of indoor smart trainers is getting better.  If you have a dumb trainer that doesn’t measure your power in watts, I would highly recommend upgrading to a smart trainer.

Even a basic wheel-on smart trainer will give you value for money and pay you back with improved fitness. Going to the next level with a direct-drive smart trainer, you’ll get improved accuracy and higher levels of simulated resistance/elevation gradient. I now use a Wahoo KICKR and absolutely love it.  If you have a power meter on your bike (crank, spider, pedals, hubs), connecting to the virtual platforms is simple too to provide the watts and cadence.

Thinking of your next birthday or Christmas present? Get a bigger fan or an additional fan!

I’m hugely thankful that virtual cycling has positively contributed to my fitness and well-being when coronavirus has impacted so much of our normal lives. It has connected me to more like-minded individuals who enjoy cycling, given me opportunities to ride with professionals from the comfort of my pain cave, and race against athletes based in different countries. I also qualified for the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships 2021 in Utah, as a result of virtual races on Rouvy in the summer.  This will be my lockdown highlight and it certainly wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done all the rides and races on virtual platforms.

 IRONMAN Virtual Club – Proving every day that ANYWHERE IS POSSIBLE™.

If you’ve not given indoor cycling or virtual racing a go, or want to experience some other platforms, check out the links below for the free trials and more information.

Ride On!

Jim Haysom

Find me on Strava and Instagram if you have any questions.

Links and prices of popular virtual cycling platforms at time of writing.

  • Zwift (7 days free trial - £12.99 pm)
  • Rouvy (14 days free trial - €12.00 pm / €120.00 pa)
  • FulGaz (£9.99 pm / £85.99 pa)
  • Road Grand Tours (RGT Cycling) - (Free membership + 14 day free trial - £6.99 pm)
  • BKool (30 days free trial - €9.99 pm)