What is happening in this photo?

Any guesses about what’s happening here?

How about from this angle?

Discarded, soggy towels and cycling jerseys. And a sports bra. Two fancy dyson fans that don’t normally live there. Empty water bottles. A bandana. An advil bottle. An emergency thermos of coffee. Soggy tissues. Power cords. Mini speaker. Banana peels. Ginger cookies.

And of course, the bowflex C6 spin bike.

(You can overlook the other fitness equipment, the cosy socks, the cat bed and the catnip fish, all of which usually live in that corner).

Last week, I wrote about my new preoccupation: “badge hunting” on Zwift, the simulated cycling platform. On Saturday, I took up the challenge of doing the second longest route on Zwift, the “Uber Pretzel.”

The Uber Pretzel covers all of the “watopia” routes, for 128 km of riding and nearly 2400 metres of climbing. The most memorable feature of this route is that you start climbing the Alpe du Zwift — 12 km and more than 1000 m of ascent — at km 115.

Well, I did it. More than 5 hours on a spin bike, three changes of kit, two bananas and a full pack of molasses ginger cookies.

As you can see from the mess around me, it’s just as intense an experience as riding 130 km outside — except without the cunning little coffee or snack stops or — in an organized event — cheering bystanders. Just me, the cats, my living room, increasingly unpleasant contact between my butt and the imperfect bike seat — and my invisible friends in the app.

More than 4000 people showed up at the start line for this event, which means I had a LOT of company of people who thought “what the heck else should I do on a February Saturday during a pandemic?” Which was kind of low key thrill — I Have People! — but also caused some anxiety — “EEK an event!” And ultimately was too much for the platform, which crashed for me almost immediately.

At the start line, as I pedalled forward, my avatar seemed to vanish, then float, then pedal in a choppy, pixelated, wobbly way. I started to accumulate distance slowly, but my watts were reading at about half the actual output and I seemed to be alone on the overcrowded simulated roads. Then I saw a bunch of virtual crashes, and my helmet kept flying off. So I realized — this will not do. So after accumulating about 8 minutes and 2.5 km of pixelated riding, I bailed from the game, reset everything and went back in to ride the route solo.

Turned out, I had pals — the chat was full of people for whom the game had crashed. I made friends, and settled in. For a looooong ride, sometimes with others, sometimes on my own.

There aren’t that many people who would happily embrace a 130km + (counting my false start) ride at all, let alone on a spin bike, inside my house. One of my friends who actually has a trainer in her living room said “after 20 km I’m bored out of my skull.”

I don’t actually exactly know what appeals to me about this. I like a good Feat — to throw myself at something just inside the edge of doable and to tap into my grit. I like a good Story — “I did a 5 hour ride on Saturday on my spin bike!” generates a frisson of interest in the unrelenting march of zoom calls. I need to believe that I’ll be fit enough at some point In the Aftertimes to do the rides I long to do, to travel and see new parts of the world from my bike seat. And there is something in doing this with others — even the much smaller crew of those who got booted out of the platform so were behind the “official” group — that emulates a shared, real life event to a remarkable degree.

I had a hiccup with the companion app around the three hour mark, and couldn’t chat with anyone for about 15 minutes. And I felt… lonely. And that was the only point during which it even crossed my mind to stop. But I didn’t, and I found my people again. And I literally squealed with relief.

The fictionalized world of watopia has everything — hills, mountains, dessert, a volcano, lava fields, a lovely sequoia forest, an ocean. We rode all of it. And as we rode, we told jokes, we cheered each other one, we formed small blobs to ride together. We drafted, we encouraged each other, we reminded each other to eat and drink. We exchanged Ride Ons (thumbs ups), so I finally got the “100 Ride Ons in one ride” badge. And in that last, agonizing 12 km of the Alpe — a 64 minute climb for me — we floated through the same narrowing of focus, intensity of exertion, purity of presence that comes at the end of any endurance event.

Somewhere in the Alpe, Sam and Sarah showed up in the app, “viewing” me to cheer me on. It was as good as cowbell on the side of a course.

“I’m feeling all the feels right now,” said one rider. “I love you guys!” A cis-guy in his 30s, according to his profile. Shared appreciation for shared effort. Hive fives as people wound through the last switchbacks, encouragement to those who were struggling but determined. “You’re passing me, Cate,” said one guy I’d been riding with. “Go go go!”

All the feels indeed.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who knows she’s weird. She didn’t take any selfies of her actual physical being during this ride, it turns out.