Once upon a time, these were the kinds of photos I took while riding my bike:
Finding the sea on bike trips in Australia, Newfoundland and Lithuania.
Temples and mountains in Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Laos.
I’ve been privileged to ride my bike in about 25 countries — one day jaunts in Bangkok, Singapore, Beijing, St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos, Madrid, Prague, Chicago, Brooklyn. Multi-day organized trips in Newfoundland, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. A wandering-with-tents trip with friends in Germany. Solo trips in Australia, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, all my gear piled on my frame, with hotels at the end of every day. I love seeing the world from my bike, and it’s the thing I yearn most to do when the pandemic is over. I have my eye on an epic 1800 km Eurovelo trip from the Baltic sea in northern Poland to the Adriatic, in Croatia.
But right now? I ride in zwift. A simulated world. FakeLondon, FakeFrance, FakeVolcanos. Now I ride in my living room, office fan turned on me, imagining travel. Getting excited by an invitation like this:
Navigating zwift doesn’t generate the same excitement I get when I think about riding my bike across the former Yugoslavia, wondering what kind of weird beet soups and sour bread and cheese sandwiches I’ll discover along the way. But it IS diverting, and the physical experience is surprisingly gratifying for me.
Sam and I have both written about Zwift a fair bit, but in case it’s not clear, fundamentally, zwift is a simulation game. You create an avatar with your sex, weight and height, equip your avatar with a bike, wheels, gear (you get access to better gear the more you ride), and connect your trainer or spin bike to the game. I have a bowflex C6 spin bike, which connects to zwift via bluetooth, which sends signals to my bike for increased pressure on hills, different terrain.
Zwift has one totally made up world — watopia — with a volcano, alps, a mayan jungle and desert flats. Over time, it’s added another 7 “guest worlds,” based on global racing circuits (London, France, New York, Innsbruck, etc.). The simulation is surprisingly effective from a pure watt perspective — sweat literally pours off me — though of course there are no confounding factors of weather, heat, altitude, traffic, bumps in the road, wind or worry that if you crash into the person in front of you it will all end in bedlam. (The joy of zwift is you can just pass through other people’s avatars, like speedy ghosts).
Most people — like Sam — love zwift for the community aspect, for group rides and races and camaraderie. I like it for the opposite reasons — I fly solo. Right now, it’s the closest thing to exploring the world by myself, relying on my own strength, my own grit, taking on unnecessarily challenging quests because it keeps me grounded, keeps me feeling alive and balanced.
At first, I just sort of wandered, structuring my rides with a gran fondo (long ride) training plan. But because I don’t race, and I don’t really care for organized events, I didn’t have a goal. I’m not a gamer in general, so I didn’t even really understand how zwift works. But I started to notice that sometimes I got a little banner at the end of a ride that said “you’ve completed the Tempus Fugit Route!” or something similar. I liked that. I find badges and check list accomplishments deeply satisfying.
Understanding how all of this works is a little byzantine. First, there are now 90 different routes across the 8 worlds. Watopia plus two “guest worlds” are available every day. Routes range from about 7 flat kilometres to 173 km with 2500 m of climbing. (And with an ERG setting on your trainer or spinbike, the climbing actually feels like climbing, and you slow down from a regular 35 km/hour pace to 10, like regular life). A quick spin down the Champs d’Elysées is a very different experience than a 1.5 hr grind up the Alpe du Zwift — and both have their own satisfactions. But I had to dig a little to understand how to get the badges. I’m spelling it out here for anyone interested — everyone else, skip it, lol.
- Most routes have a “spawn point” that is not actually the start of the route, ranging from less than 200 m to more than 10km. For example, the Serpentine 8 has a 7.3 km lead in on a 19 km route — so you have to ride more than 26 km to actually get the badge.
- You only get a “badge” if you haven’t done the route before.
- You only get a “badge” if you don’t touch the navigation within the route. During most routes, you get options at turns — I thought for the first month of zwifting that I had to do selection within those options to ride “the route” — but in fact, you only get the route badge if you strictly follow what the game tells you. (The options are useful if you’re choosing the route to get somewhere else, or to add some flatter time or a hill repeat once you’ve completed the badge-getting route).
- You can pause while riding the route (go change your shirt, refill water bottle, change the simulated bike you are riding from road bike to mountain, get a snack, let your dishwasher installer in, have a quick zoom meeting). But the elapsed time is counted, if that matters to you.
Once I figured out all of these rules (Thanks Sarah!), I started to choose new routes each time. Then I found this checklist. And was hooked. I have to do. them. all.
The first two categories (1 – 2 “bidons”) are routes that are about an hour or under; the longest I’ve done so far is the PRL half, which took about 2.25 hours. (I’ve also done 25 laps of the volcano/ 104 km, which took 3 hours but isn’t technically a “route” — it IS a different kind of badge, though).
This is keeping me going, right now. Once a week, I look ahead at the guest world calendar, and select a couple of routes to do that week. At the end of a long day of zooming, I make myself get on the bike. I disappear into my avatar, music in my ears, sometimes just pure sweaty slog as winter dark descends on the room around me (and sometimes even in the game), sometimes the exhilaration of speeding down a mountain with a couple of people who happen to be around. I always — always! — feel better afterwards. Physically spent, emotionally balanced, spiritually triumphant. I rode up a fake mountain. I can do anything.
Right now, I have 19 routes left — most in the green and red category, though I’m saving a couple of the short fast ones for celebratory moments. Part of this “badge hunting” endeavour is to give some shape to days that otherwise feel completely “lather rinse repeat.” Like so many people, I’m sagging a bit right now. Drawing an orange line through “Muir and the Mountain” gives me a little jolt of accomplishment, a sense that I can keep this grit alive. And it’s a promise to myself. All of this FakeRiding? That’s keeping me strong in a very real way. So I can actually, someday, maybe, take my beautiful Bombtrack apart, put it in a box, ship it to another country, put it back together and ride. Breathe new air.
Sigh. New air. It will happen.
And until then, riding with Emmylou sleeping beside me, a little glowing heart in the window? It’s not the worst thing in the world.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is carbo-loading for the UberPretzel ride she is aiming for on Saturday.