Editor’s note: this is part 3 in a 3-part series on Tim’s Arena Games – London experience. If you’re unfamiliar with how the Arena Games work, read part 1 here. You may also want to read part 2 for a firsthand description of the actual races.
It had been 3 years since I had last ventured into London (the global pandemic saw to that) so I was markedly excited about catching the train to the capital. What was once considered “normal” was now a novelty and something not to be taken for granted.
Back in the day, traveling across London always felt like a mission, one to be endured and not enjoyed, the destination being all important. This time, however, for the first time since I can remember I took pleasure in navigating London’s vast underground train network as I headed out to Stratford and the Olympic Park.
I was heading to the Arena Games, which is a new triathlon event based solely indoors and conceived during the dark days of “lockdown” in 2020.
The Aquatic Centre
Despite now being 10 years old, the Olympic Park still retains its grandeur. As I exited the train and began my walk to the Aquatic Centre, the memories of that special summer returned.
I knew I was heading in the right direction when I saw event branding promoting the event.
Although I was fortunate to attend many of the 2012 Olympic events, I was sadly not able to get tickets for any of the swimming races. I remember those tickets being “hot property” and at the time I would have had a better chance of finding gold in my garden than getting Olympic Swimming tickets! This was therefore the first time I had attended the Aquatic Centre and I wasn’t disappointed.
I had arrived early, and as I searched for the entrance, I bumped into the Zwift Social Media Team, who like me, were on hand to report on this unique and special event.
After getting my much-coveted press pass which gave me “all access” around the venue (other than the athlete’s area, which I wouldn’t have ventured into even if I could have), I was good to go.
I was shown where the “Media” area was, where I could set up my laptop and write about the event, but it was too far away from the action for my liking, situated high up where the fans would be. I wanted to be in the heart of things, so I kept the laptop in the bag and opted for my trusted notepad and pen, giving me the freedom to move around and capture the action. With my Canon camera slung around my neck, I was all kitted up.
I am glad I had attended the event early to witness the qualifying heats. This is because it gave me an opportunity to understand the intricacies of the event and identify small details that potentially could impact the event. In a race with such intensity and high levels of competition, the margins for winning and losing are slight. Every second counts!
For example, I noted that immediately from the swim transition to the bike, many athletes started pedaling, getting their avatar up to speed, before pausing to slip their feet into their shoes, which were kept in the upright position, usually by elastic bands. In one case, an athlete could not get their foot into their shoe and it was several minutes before they eventually did.
The heats also gave me chance to get a good feel for what to expect and helped me understand the race format, which was a new concept for me and one which I liked. I liked it because despite this being a race between athletes, with the bike being a “no-draft” event and swimming being in your individual lanes, it really was an individual time trial and a true test of your speed and power. Furthermore, with it being indoors, the variables were as controlled as possible. (The only possible advantage would be if you were an athlete who lived or trained in a hot environment, because the hot and humid conditions did add a level of difficulty that was an influencing factor. And I am speaking from first-hand experience, having Zwifted in temperatures of more than 35C!)
As well as scribbling useful details in my notepad, I had my camera on hand to capture shots. Then as soon as heats finished, I was switching again as out came the Dictaphone in the form of my iPhone as I recorded my interviews with the athletes.
Being this close to the action, it was easy to see how coordinated and organised everything was. Everyone has a job, a purpose, everyone working together to ensure the event worked. This was impressive. This was teamwork in action.
Break in Play
Like the athletes, I was relieved when the heats were over and I had a chance to catch my own breath. Working hard to record all the details of the event in temperatures over 25C was a challenge and it was difficult to know where to focus my attention.
It was during this interlude that I was able to catch up with the Zwift Social Media team who were busy capturing the action in much the same as I was.
Then I decided to get some lunch, realising I could feel my energy waning after being literally on the go since 5am with little more than a slice of toast. At this point I had to navigate around a lady who was sat in the hallway, ironing a shirt. As I passed her, I turned and offered her help, it was the least I could do. As we started chatting, I recognised the face and her voice was surprising familiar, I was having one of those moments where I was sure I knew this person, but couldn’t place it. Then I realised it was television presenter Orla Chennaoui! Orla is front and centre in the cycling world, covering all the major events and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see her here.
Orla was absolute fun, and we joked about her glamourous position of ironing her clothes on the floor. This was truly behind-the-scenes access.
Like the athletes I had time for a brief recovery before the start of the Women’s Final and as the spectators took their seats, I decided to position myself in the dedicated space reserved for the media. The media section was right with the spectators, so I was able to soak in the atmosphere.
After taking photos and watching the first few transitions, I moved down to the side of the swimming pool so I could capture the action from close up.
As I entered the arena floor, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer noise from the crowd. This was intense and I wasn’t even racing! I realised this would be the closest I would get to experiencing anything like this and it was exhilarating.
Being this close to the athletes, you could see the suffering they were going through as they pushed themselves beyond their limits to come out victorious. I made sure that I kept out of the ways of the cameramen who were getting up close and personal to capture the important action shots.
At the end of the race, knowing how pumped on adrenalin I am after a Zwift race, I was conscious to give the athletes space and waited patiently to see who I could talk too. Fortunately Beth Potter, who I had spoken to earlier, was gracious enough to talk to me about her second place. You could see she was visibly disappointed, so I regaled her with her stats, which did little to lift her spirits, which I could understand and appreciate.
I decided to repeat the same process for the Men’s final, and I headed to the media section, camera at the ready. The Men’s race was equally as explosive, and at the end one athlete was left on his treadmill, gasping for air. Again, something I could identify with and is often the case after a Zwift bike race.
I didn’t get a chance to speak to any of the athletes that got medals. Instead I had a good conversation with Canadian Jeremy Briand who had set the highest power output of the day, and the fastest bike split, at 5:08 and 6.2w/kg.
No sooner had I finished speaking to the athletes, then the very surrounding where I had conducted the interview was dismantled. Fearing I was only in the way, I decided I’d better collect my personal belongings and head to the hotel.
I was lost in my own thoughts about the day as I navigated the busy London streets to my hotel. As I entered my room and the door closed to silence and serenity, I sat on the edge of the bed to gather my thoughts. That quite literally had been an unforgettable day!