The time had come to emerge from the Zwift pain cave. Like Neanderthal man, we’d been carving our primitive power readings on Strava walls for weeks.
Shielding my under-used eyes from the daylight, pallid skin and faded cycling tan lines soaking up some much-needed Vitamin D, the point had arrived when this computer nerd needed to take a break from the virtual world and step into the real one, with the Evans Cycles RIDE IT London Road Sportive.
Zwift to jump to conclusions
I’d always been extremely sceptical of both Zwift and its users, holding my nose and pulling the sort of face you did as a kid upon entering the toilet and realising your dad had recently used it.
‘It’s not proper cycling’. ‘Nothing can compare with getting out on your bike’. ‘It’s unrealistic’. ‘It shouldn’t be put on Strava’. ‘It can’t mirror a headwind or a proper climb’. ‘Zwift is fake news’.
I was soooooo wrong. And it’s soooooo addictive. After buying a three-month subscription for the other brother as a Christmas present, I decided to sign up as well. I wasn’t going to leave him hanging out there in Watopia with a bunch of strangers for company. That’s not how we roll.
But, despite my doubts, from the first nibble at the bait of competitive Zwift cycling, we were both hooked.
In many ways, Zwift is like cycling in real life. You get wheel-sucking riders who aren’t willing to do their turn on the front, happy to draft away while you turn ever redder - both literally in your complexion and figuratively in your mood. The young daughteur had to shield her ears from the expletives pouring forth from her fatheur’s mouth.
You can also get left for dead on climbs by your more lightweight competitors (although having checked out some profiles, there might be quite a few who don’t tell the God’s honest truth on that score). Then there are the riders who you just can’t live with, full stop. As we learnt early doors after taking up cycling seriously, there’s always someone stronger than you, and Zwift is no different.
All right, admittedly you might not reach 90kph on a downhill section IRL (see, I even picked up some internet jargon from the other brother), but doing the Alpe d’Huez on Zwift was in the same painful realm to the real deal, where you look at the screen and shout, ‘Oh come on, I’ve only done 100m! You’ve got to be kidding me!’
But, like in any sportive, after the initial starting-line surge, you usually end up where you belong, amongst riders of a similar talent, and you inevitably get dragged into a personal battle with Belgium's Dirk Mestdag or the USA’s Seth Riddle. Not that I’m taking names and building up grudges or anything like that...
An icy January had encouraged our Zwift usage. Gawd bless her, even London had about a centimetre of snow. Having had a couple of dancing-on-ice moments in the past and bearing both the physical and mental scars from them, I wasn’t overly keen on experiencing another Gemma Collins-esque moment.
But while the torrents of sweat I produced could have replenished the Dead Sea and while my average power readings were on the up and up, the only place to really test my standing was out on the road, in the real world.
With the start line in Osterley Park in west London, I did consider riding over there from my Streatham base camp to get some extra miles in the legs, but the Wiggle Kent Classic had taught me an important and simple lesson about that: don’t be stupid.
Instead, it was a short ride to Clapham Junction, train to Hounslow, then an even shorter ride to Osterley Park. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy, and no excuses for another poor show.
Osterley House and the park itself is absolutely stunning, especially when it’s wreathed in mist, as it was on this February morning. I’m struggling to think of a more impressive setting for a start line.
It proved to be a diamond in the rough, though. This sportive goes from very beautiful to very ugly, very quickly. The first 10k of the London Road Sportive seems to be a tour of west London’s worst fly-tipping spots. A sore sight for eyes, giving an uneasy feeling you could be witness to/victim of a mugging round every corner. There’s also a dangerous roundabout to negotiate (which, to be fair, we had been warned about in the pre-ride briefing). Get it wrong and you could end up on the M4, a very real possibility if you’re as short-sighted as I am.
But it did mean that you drop the hammer from the off. Like whipping off a plaster, you want the pain to be over ASAP. I got on the wheel of ‘Yellow Jacket’, who was particularly quick out of the blocks. I hoped we might work together, especially in the absence of the other brother, taking turns on the front. But then I tried to strike up a conversation at a set of traffic lights:
“Great pace, mate. Are you doing the long or medium route? My name’s Andy by the way...”
That put a swift end to our banter.
Luckily, another couple of very strong riders then came along who were a bit more chatty and graciously allowed Yellow Jacket and myself to draft to our hearts’ content.
Nearly an hour in and almost 30k down. Out of the grimness of Hounslow’s estates and into some lovely countryside. Happy days.
But then I got distracted looking at my speed on the Garmin, hit a pothole and there was a dreaded pfffffffffffft sound... SBD fart from the pizza I had the night before or a flat? Sadly (although not for those directly behind me), it was the latter. Gutting.
Twenty sweary and sweaty minutes later, I was underway again on a rear tyre pumped up to roughly the same pressure as blancmange. ‘Don’t hit another pothole! Don’t hit another pothole! Don’t hit another pothole!’ I duly hit another pothole and pfffffffffffft! I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were that neither of us got a single puncture on Paris-Roubaix.
Another twenty sweary and sweaty minutes later and I was struggling to fix it, nearing the end of my tether and considering a DNF. So thank you, thank you, thank you to the Good Samaritan who lent a hand (and a spare inner tube) to get me up and cycling again.
Refusing monetary reward for his heroic efforts, he asked only that I “pay it forward”. Although with my diabolical bike maintenance skills, I’m not sure anyone would want me to. I’m more suited to smugly directing operations without actually getting my hands dirty. Cycling’s equivalent of Harry Enfield’s ‘You don’t wanna do it like that’ character...
Feeling pumped up
Unfortunately, the double delay meant I missed the 11am cut-off for the long route, thereby consigning me to the 85km medium one. But it’s hard to feel too deflated when you’re riding through the beautiful woods of East Burnham Common and on to the outskirts of the Chilterns, with clear blue skies above and the sun on your back. Simply delightful.
After the second feed station near Dorney, there’s also a gloriously pan-flat, straight stretch to Eton and Windsor, where you can really crank up the speed. In fact, the entire parcours is very genteel, especially when compared to the Hell of the Ashdown, which was on the same day. I can recall only one hill of any note and even that wasn’t too devilishly difficult.
You should appreciate your surroundings during this 15k blast while you can though, because, before you know it, you’re passing Heathrow and are back in among the horrid industrial estates of Hounslow. At least the last kilometre is through the magnificent Osterley Park, although you do have to take your foot off the gas - unless you fancy steamrolling joggers or families out for an afternoon stroll.
Is Zwift the real deal?
Did Zwifting help? It’s hard to say for sure, given the benign parcours and the fact I only recently got a power meter so can’t compare my performance to previous sportives.
What I would say is that I felt strong throughout and still had plenty of gas left in the tank at the finish - and I think Zwift played a major role in that. Maybe part of it is mental and part physical but I’m feeling bolstered, rather than broken, before our more testing challenges this year. And that's exactly what the London Road Sportive provides - a nice confidence-booster, a comforting hug rather than a stern rebuke for your Christmas excesses.
Zwift isn’t as good as the real thing - then again, nothing is - but it comes pretty damn close. And I know where I’d rather be on a rainy and cold day... I'll take Watopia over West Wickham.
The other brother
What self-respecting amateur cyclist wouldn't want their very own pain cave? Not of the Fifty Shades variety. Christian Grey's cycling pain cave would probably look like something from a Peloton Ad (do yourself a favour and read @ClueHeywood's Peloton takedown when you get a minute). I'd settle for a corner of a drafty garage, wedged between a discarded dolls' house and a broken tumble dryer.
Jumping on an indoor trainer to knock off a 50 minute work-out should be simple. An easy shortcut to training harder, faster. The reality is oh so different. It goes something like this...
Get changed into cycling gear.
Go downstairs and put the mat out, place the turbo trainer and position the fan.
Plug the fan in.
Fill the water bottle.
Bring the bike indoors and position in turbo.
Go upstairs for laptop. Place in front of bike.
Return upstairs for Garmin. Place on bike.
Repeat for phone, heart rate monitor strap and heart rate monitor (separate trips).
Retrieve cycling shoes from hall and put them on.
Get on bike and clip in.
Switch on Garmin and computer, leaning dangerously out of saddle.
Turn Zwift on and connect.
Ready to go!
Start pedalling, realise rear tyre isn't touching turbo.
Dismount and correct.
Get on and clip in.
Dismount, get water bottle from kitchen and put in cage.
Get on and clip in.
Dismount and get sweat towel from upstairs bathroom.
Get on and clip in.
Dismount and turn fan on.
Go upstairs for computer cable.
Return, plug in, mount, turn on, connect, mount, clip in, pedal.
Yes, Zwift is an incredibly efficient way to train. The stats speak for themselves.
Elapsed time: 0:34:17. Moving time: 0:00:00. Distance covered: 0.1 km. Elevation gain: 12m (climbing stairs). Average speed: 5 kph. Average power: 23W. Average HR: 74 bpm. Maximum HR: 96 bpm (when the computer died). Calories: 18 cal.
And that's before I've even started.