My name is Linda and I am a recovering hill hater.
As a cyclist, you sometimes don’t get much of a choice. But as a lifelong cyclist, and now being an almost 65-year-old senior citizen, I can confirm that the feeling is still valid.
I raced for 5 years between the years of 1975 and 1980. I use the term “raced” very loosely. My nickname back then was The Gap because every race I was in, I would get dropped. If there was a hill, I would live up to my nickname much quicker.
Fast forward 30 years. I was gifted my dream bike, a Specialized Dolce, in 2010. I have well over 14,000 miles on that bike. As the years have passed by, the aches and pains have increased. Last year I was almost immobilized by arthritis pain. I have a wheelchair and a walker in my garage that I used when things got bad. The only time I felt better was after I rode my bike.
This past winter I was in so much pain that I knew I had to take my cycling to the next level. I had heard about Zwift and knew several people who loved it. In November 2019, I got myself a smart trainer and attached my trusty Dolce to it. I started setting my alarm for 5 AM and rode before work.
I remember my first ride. I’m a pretty slow rider and not very strong. I wasn’t familiar with the layout of Zwift at all, and of course the route that I picked had a big hill in it. Nooooo! Then I discovered Tempus Fugit. At the time I remember saying to myself, “Hey I thought this route was flat! There’s a 2% hill in it!” That became my go-to route and I started pushing up that 2%. My strength improved as my aching knees allowed.
I kept at it. This past January I rode over 600 miles and my mobility drastically increased. I immersed myself in the Zwift culture. In the evenings I would search YouTube for videos of anything having to do with Zwift to learn the courses and tips, and to pick up any pointers that would help me get better and stronger. I started following some top riders like Phil Lovett, Adam Zimmerman, Ash Beech, Jan Pryds, and Matt Looker, watching their form and seeing how they spun with power up hills. I started looking at hills as things not to be avoided, but literal mountains to be overcome that would in turn make me a stronger rider.
The Tour de Zwift was what turned things around. The Innsbruck course with the leg snapper and the main hill, as well as the London course with Box Hill, gave me a lot of practice spinning on hills. In the back of my mind, I started thinking about doing the Alpe du Zwift someday. Initially I had thought, no way, I’m staying away from that one. But now it started to become something I thought I could tackle. I decided even if I failed at completing it the first try, I could start it and aim to do more and more each attempt.
One Sunday morning after doing the Innsbruck course with the hill from hell, I didn’t feel horrible and I had nothing urgent to do. The thought came to me that this would be quite an accomplishment if I could do this today after riding Innsbruck.
I decided to try to go for it and ride the Alpe.
I remember as I scrolled down the courses and clicked on Road to Sky, I felt a feeling of total determination. I didn’t care how long it was going to take me. I didn’t even care if I had to take breaks and walk around from time to time. I was doing this, and I was finishing it. Today.
As I made that right turn for the first time through that green field of light, I felt as though I was one of “the big kids”. As I began spinning around the first turn, people were passing me, which was expected. But I started noticing that every one of them gave me a ride on. Of course, I gave them ride ons back.
The chat was lively. People were joking and saying where they were on the course. There was such a different feeling as I continued climbing. Everyone was giving everyone else ride ons. On the other courses on Zwift, yes, there’s a certain camaraderie. But this was different. There was an air of “we are all in this together and we are going to encourage each other up this hill.” I joined in the chat where I could, mentioning this was my first attempt. Several people told me you can do this, you got this, etc.
Someone was joking about needing a motor. I typed in “yeah, granny here could sure use a motor.” I guess the other riders clicked on my name and profile… and that’s when everything changed.
Suddenly the chat was filled with encouragement directed toward me. “Linda, you can do this.” “You got this Linda!” “Go Linda!” “Keep it up Linda!” It continued for quite a while. People were asking me what turn I was on. One person asked if we have a triathlete in the making. Someone told me it’s okay to take breaks. I responded that I don’t care how long this takes and how many breaks I have to take. I am doing this, and I am finishing this today. I am getting to the top of this hill. The words of encouragement continued. I was suddenly overcome with emotion and fighting back tears because I was so moved that so many people were pushing me on.
These were people I had never met. They were people who were fighting their own battles up that hill. But we were united in one effort to achieve this goal. This is the soul of Zwift, and I felt as though I was privileged to see and be a part of everyone’s journey up the Alpe.
As I turned each corner and the numbers counted down one by one, I made sure I took a picture at every marker because every one of them was an accomplishment. There was one guy whose name was Mike. He kept checking with me to see where I was and how I was feeling. He was way ahead of me, but he took the time to do that. I was floored by that. At the same time, I had two local friends who ride Zwift regularly, texting me and cheering me on. It was just an incredible feeling. Although I was getting very tired, I almost didn’t want it to end.
It turned into almost a spiritual journey. My focus was intense. Nothing else in the world mattered during those moments except turning the pedals. Nothing else was as important as rounding corners 11, 10, 9…
As I finally approached turn one, I was very tired but something inside me at that point had changed. I felt more confident about my riding. I knew I had achieved something that not everyone had done on Zwift. But I had not done it alone, by any means.
I finally approached that big beautiful wheel. One friend of mine said that he hoped I got the set of wheels. Sure, that would have been great but at that point it didn’t matter what I got. As I crossed the line of completion, I threw my hands up as if I had won a race. And I had. The race was within me.
I texted that I had made it and thanked everyone for their encouragement. I flew back down that hill with the most wonderful feeling of accomplishment that I had felt in a very long time. I had completed over 5,000 feet of climbing that Sunday morning. I felt like such an integral part of the Zwift community, and I was filled with gratitude toward all the other riders.
As the ride came to an end and I clicked to close it out, I almost didn’t want to. I wanted to stay in that moment. I wanted to stay on that mountain and be with those people and encourage them on as well.
I got off my bike and felt like I was floating through my house. I knew I had been a part of something that none of my friends outside of cycling could even understand.
The old lady had conquered the Alpe.
The spirit and soul of Zwift is an amazing thing. I am so grateful to be a part of it.
And yes… I am riding up the Alpe once again very soon.