What it’s like to ride Zwift’s longest, toughest route

John Whitney gets in over his head by accepting a friend’s invitation to ride the 129km Über Pretzel – the longest, toughest route in Zwift’s wild world of Watopia

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The Tour de France might have been pushed back to late August, but we’ve not been left totally bereft this July. Tomorrow (Saturday 4 July), on what would have been the second Saturday of the race as originally planned, sees the launch of the Virtual Tour de France on the Zwift gaming platform. Like the actual race, this virtual reality Tour will have both men’s and women’s professional races and L’Etape du Tour, the mass participation event for amateurs that mimics the race. It runs over the next three weekends, in two new Zwift ‘worlds’ – Paris and France.

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Cycling Plus Features editor John Whitney will be there. He’s a big fan and user of Zwift, and used it extensively through lockdown as a stand-in for the outdoors rides that just weren’t possible. But it was in the first week of lockdown that he rode what was – by far – his longest-ever ride on the game, the 129km Über Pretzel. Here’s his account of it…

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Words: John Whitney

Illustration: Magictorch

It’s late March and at a time when much of the planet is confined to their homes in some variety of lockdown, it’s a desperate situation to see so many businesses struggling. There are exceptions, such as purveyors of loo roll, video communication apps, mail-order booze clubs and home-fitness gurus (welcome back, Mr Motivator).

One company also faring well is online cycling training game Zwift. In normal times, as the northern hemisphere enters spring and cyclists emerge from their winter cocoons to ride in the sunshine, riders log less time on the platform. Of course, these are anything but normal times and the game saw an unprecedented surge in numbers, with riders seeking a physical and social stand-in for the now outlawed outdoor group ride. Typically, you might find a few thousand riders in Watopia on a Sunday morning at this time of year. Today, there were over 20,000 and my mate Tim and I were two of them, diving headfirst, at his behest, into the Über Pretzel, a 129km loop of much of the tarmac in the, at times, mountainous, subterranean, volcanic and desert world of Watopia. It would finish atop Alpe du Zwift – a 21-hairpin, virtual Alpe d’Huez towering over all climbs – and a climb we’ve decided to race each other on.

Herein lies my account of that day of nigh-on 130km of riding and misadventure…

Sigh-lent alarm

It’s 8am. My alarm blares. I flail an arm in its direction to stop its racket only to take with it my copy of Adam Kay’s medic memoir This is Going to Hurt. Nothing foreboding about that whatsoever.

What chump sets their alarm for 8am on a Sunday when they can’t leave their house for any length of time? This chump.

Really, it’s 7am. British Summer Time started during the night and we’ve jumped forward an hour. Such is the state of the world, I’d have much preferred three months.

I go about my usual Sunday pre-ride routine – shower, breakfast, double espresso, don Lycra, top up water bottles – until it becomes anything but. I open all the windows, the food that usually gets stuffed into my jersey pocket is put onto a table in various bowls at arm’s length from my bike and I make sure the different mobile power packs, which I’ll need to charge my iPad and keep this show on the road, are fully loaded. A whole new level of pre-ride faff.

The five-minute countdown to mine and Tim’s virtual meet-up begins. We pedal away on our turbos and are transported, Inception-like, onto virtual turbos, in the long grass on the roadside, within Zwift’s dreamscape. Also like Inception, time will surely move slower down here.

Watopia today makes Richmond Park on a Sunday look like splendid isolation. It’ll work in our favour, too. Plenty of wheels to suck. One of the many ways Zwift apes real life is how drafting makes for easier, faster riding. Any moment where our noses are kept out of the wind will make this impending ordeal easier.

I send a photo of my predicament to the Cycling Plus WhatsApp group. “At least you don’t have to tackle the icy headwind in the real world today,” says one. That’s what they think – I’m staring straight out of a wide open window of my flat and it’s blowing a gale.

The European nations are well-represented on the road this morning: France, Germany, Spain and Italy… no doubt towards the end of this ride we’ll be fraternising with folk from America’s West Coast on their morning spin.

There’s not much of a warm-up today – we’re straight up the Radio Tower climb, gaining close to 700m in the opening 15km. It’s a climb I’ve ridden hundreds of times, I could do it with my eyes closed. Really, I could. I might. It’s still early.

It should have been the Gent-Wevelgem pro race today. If only. Instead, professional riders, past and present, are making full use of their unexpected free time on Zwift. The names of pro riders, at least. There’s D Cimolai. And D Van Baarle, T Scully and E Poli. In the manner they blasted by us, the odds are they are the real deal. Poli is, I imagine, hammering away in the big ring on his way to the summit, a la Mont Ventoux at the 1994 Tour de France. Van Baarle is, as ever, smooth as you like, 66km into his ride. Saying that, we all are. If art did mirror real life, I’d be a jumble of pixels wrestling my bike. As it is, you could lay a table on my back and just take a look at that lustrous head of hair…

To my right I pass M Hancock, and up the road is M Francois. Hancock I could see doing a job on the road, in an over-eager team role, forever dropping back and fetching bottles. Francois I just don’t want to picture in spandex, full stop.

“Stop for a photo at the top?” asks Tim, as we edge towards the summit at the Radio Tower. “Oh, you’ve shot off down the hill already!”

I didn’t think he was serious. Anyway, I’ve been here before and got the t-shirt too.

“I’m chasing but it’s futile,” he says, trying to reel me in on the descent. “This was meant to be the relaxing bit!”

In truth I’ve just tipped my avatar over the summit and let him do his thing. Staying ahead was more down to my superior bike (Tim’s pre-ride purchase of a set of ENVE wheels was no match for my ‘Tron’ bike – the best in the game). That, and my chunkier avatar’s affinity with gravity.

Inside the first hour and I’ve already popped my first caffeine electrolyte tab. Too early? We’ll see tonight. To take my attention away from the pre-watershed horror show everyone’s into at the moment, namely the BBC News at Six, I’ve been reading legendary The Rider cycling novel all week – Krabbé, the hero of the story, wouldn’t have even considered quaffing his first fig at this point.

At the 40km mark there is a flash on the screen. I’ve unlocked the 40km achievement. It’s the first time I’ve ever ridden 40km on Zwift, in two years and 3500km of travel. It says everything both about my tolerance for sitting on a turbo trainer and my chances of enduring the full 129km today.

Onto the volcano, where Tim gives it full beans for the first time today, heading out of sight quickly. He’ll have to give it some welly to make the leader board, but if he does he’s in good company – Belgian escape artist Thomas de Gendt is sixth overall today, no doubt achieved in some mad solo all-day ride.

At the summit, it’s time for a different kind of beans – our first cafe stop of the day. I pull up, half tempted to let my guy carry on over the summit while I brew up.

“Java beans?” I ask Tim.

“Sumatra.”

Just deserts

The first break, two hours in, brings with it the undeniable perks of an all-day ride in my living room – namely, a change in kit, a dry towel, a lie down, a freshly-chamois’d undercarriage and a splash of water on my face. I make a mental note to work on the ordering for next time – hygiene, of course, is paramount right now.

Onto the Fuego Flats, with its American Western vibe. It’s 15km and pancake flat and Tim admits to never having ridden here for that very reason. He’ll be glad of it today, for these are fast kilometres, eating up today’s designated distance at a time when the middle mileage often drags.

We move between the wheels, catching onto whatever train we can to pull us along. When we end up alone, we work together. Tim flicks an elbow, that classic racer’s signal for someone else to do the work. I wave my arms in the air, in that classic racer’s riposte and send the nearest emoji I can find to sum up my feelings.

“I was just showing my girlfriend what my guy can do,” he offers in apology.

At the halfway point, my iPad has 52 per cent charge left. A power outage, of body and battery, looms with the game sucking the life out of both. So I call lunch. My wife has cooked up a delicious cheesy beans on toast, just before she starts her shift of far more important work than mine, on the same table in the same living room as I’ve set up shop. Times dictate that we’re now office buddies. Our life, work and recreation are now confined to one 8x5m room.

Back on the bike and onto my third – and final – fresh towel of the day. I need to make this one last, though I worry it may be squandered fast, what with the restless beans in my stomach. My legs reside in their usual post-lunch slump, unresponsive to the pace Tim is setting, who got by with a handful of Haribo for lunch.

“You know I said at the start that we should race the final climb?” I said. “Forget it. There’s just no way. How about the final 3km?”

“Deal,” says Tim. “That’s how the pros do it anyway.”

At this point I wish I knew how the dethroned British eRacing champion Cameron Jeffers set a bot to automatically ride on Zwift. I’d wind it up and watch it go, while I sat back on my sofa and watched the boxset of The Sopranos that it’s taken a lockdown for me to finally get round to watching. Tim would still be pedalling away, with wonder – in both senses of the word – at where my second wind had come from.

No such luck, though, I’m still here, churning away, invidious pedal stroke after invidious pedal stroke.

The breaks off the bike become more frequent. To fill up a bottle. To stretch off a cramp-addled quad. To stare into the middle distance and gently weep. This is an endless ride. I’ve watched one neighbour head out on their third dog walk of the day in the time I’ve been on this bike.

I test Tim with a sudden, repeated burst of watts, just to change the rhythm.

“Where did that come from?!” he wonders. “You’re softening me up here.”

If only he could see how much that hurt.

Dutch courage

Somehow, five hours in, we’re onto the final climb. Just 12km of the 129 remain, but so does almost half of the 2335 metres of climbing.

“You know we said we’d race the last 3km?” I say. “Shall we just ride to the top together. It’s not happening otherwise.”

“Cool,” he says. “And let’s stop for a beer on Dutch Corner,” the seventh to last hairpin, turned orange by Dutch fans of the Tour de France.

I’m fairly sure he means it figuratively, even as I look at my fridge and weigh up its somewhat tempting contents.

I grind to a halt without even realising it, as Tim saunters up the road. I literally just forgot to pedal.

I’ve ridden this climb many times, even if I’m used to starting my rides at the bottom as opposed to 117km out. This is Tim’s first go up it. So if I’ve got the benefit of familiarity, he has the benefit of not being totally and completely wrecked. I know which one I’d take right now.

My iPad crashes just before Dutch Corner and I’m genuinely torn about being able to come back in. On the one hand, a day’s work, a whole magazine article up in smoke. On the other, bath time…

I do find my way back in, though I’ve been booted out of my meet-up with Tim and with it my hopes of earning the Über Pretzel achievement. I mentally write my strongly worded letter to Zwift’s top brass, pleading for its deserved reinstatement.

With almost seven hours up, we’re onto the final bend. I’ve been on this climb for some time, and this ride far longer. Civilisations have risen and fallen faster.

Tim suggests we sprint from the final bend and I’m willing to humour him. I go first, somehow holding 500 watts for half a minute. However, total and inevitable collapse soon follows and Tim charges on, zips up his jersey (if he’s still got one on, Zwift is sweaty work) and crosses the finish line. I follow shortly after, pausing for the most muted celebration before spinning my avatar around and heading back from where I came. I couldn’t let the chance to gobble up the XP points that come with a freewheeling 13km descent. And 142km is a far better brag than 129km.

It’s been some ride. My quads are tight with cramp, my body contorted by the position of an all-day ride. I can barely contemplate another second in the saddle.

The wind continues to billow and, now I’m at rest, it cools the sweat coating my body more than before.

I slump into the comfort of my sofa. It’s everything and nothing that I know cycling to be. I’ve got close to a century, felt many of the familiar sensations, socialised with a friend, yet not left the four walls of my living room.

Still, it’s more of a fun, rollercoaster day in the saddle than a near total lockdown has any right to be. What’s more, after seven hours, 142km and 3500 calories, we’re suddenly a day closer to the end of it.

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This feature first appeared in issue 367 of Cycling Plus. To subscribe to the magazine and receive a free Lusso Merino Jersey worth £65, head over here