Cycling is one of those in-the-moment pursuits, when you’re outdoors, going nowhere, quite fast, for the hell of it, with a breeze in your hair, and you can’t imagine doing it any other way, least of all in a gym. (Except when it’s raining, and you do need a gym.) But in the absence of gyms, people went crazy for the turbo trainer. The one I borrowed for a week was the Zwift Tacx Neo 2T, which has its downsides (mainly cost) but also many qualities: principally, even the biggest idiot in the world can affix it to their bike – remove your back wheel, attach the trainer at the sprocket and you’re set.
And this is where modernity actually makes life more interesting, rather than just harder: riding indoors on your own is boring. Riding with Zwift – an app which has tailored programs, races with other users from all over the world, grand tours through CGI scenery – is not boring. I’ve actually done it before, but only at its London HQ, and it’s hard to get truly enthusiastic when you’re politely feigning immediate enthusiasm.
Zwift is quite cagey about its user numbers, though don’t ask me why. The spokesperson, Chris Snook, would only tell me concurrent users, the peak numbers of people on it at the same time, which surged (unsurprisingly) with the pandemic to 35,000. It is impossible, in other words, that you won’t find someone at your own level, however low that level is. And this is a recent thing: “Historically,” Snook said, “we really targeted enthusiasts, used a lot of professional cyclists, and that can be a bit daunting for beginners.” All that was upturned this year, when it added training programmes and competitions for novices.
But there’s still no cure for idleness, and I abandoned the idea of racing quite early on, because even people who claim to be useless are still quite plucky. I mainly did tours, at pathetic speeds, genuinely enjoying myself. The thing I loved above anything was that you can blast yourself with music, there being zero chance of getting run over. Sometimes I’ll try a podcast while I’m on the road, but listening to Hamilton from start to finish is just too dangerous, even for a high-risk personality.
The big draw, generally, is that you can create private groups and cycle as if you’re in a club, which accounts for the massive spike in sales this year. You do need a turbo trainer, and to have signed up, but they don’t have to be as expensive as mine: I saw one for £99 on wiggle.co.uk.
I’m not that interested in other people, because they’re all faster than me, and also: music. But the world of Zwift (along with other, smaller platforms such as BKOOL and sufferfest) has turned out to be the Zoom of fitness, probably the best single fix for the unbearable atomisation of 2020. And then, once you’ve got your set up, you can carry it through to other, less major calamities, like a bit of rain.
What I learned
The ramp test is a way of measuring your fitness, or FTP (functional threshold power). It’s basically a warmup then a steep climb.