Hi, my name is Ben and I’m a Zwift addict.
It didn’t use to be this way. I used to be a regular kind of healthy. I could walk for miles, but that was the extent of my cardio work. I had some weights at home, but I never saw the inside of a gym. Then my life got flipped, turned upside-down, and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right ‘ere, I’ll tell you how I became a puncheur in a place called Watopia.
I was being literal about the flipped, turned upside-down thing. Five years ago (20 Nov 2017) I was hit by a car going over 50kph (I would give you the mph but you’ve already changed your Zwift setting to kph to maximize your XP so you should be used to this by now). It’s what is typically called a sideswipe injury. My left tibia and fibula were shattered. In my right knee, my LCL, PCL, Popliteus, and biceps tendon were ripped. My ACL was merely a bone avulsion. Oh, and I had complete fractures of my lumbar and cervical spine. To say I’ve had better days would be an understatement.
The day went by in a drug-induced blur. I had an 18-hour surgery the following morning, then had doctors sticking needles in my toes every morning to test if I’d been paralyzed. This period isn’t the point of the story, so to cut a long story short, the doctors told me it would take a year to be walking normally again. Three months bedridden, three more months in a wheelchair, a few dark days where my arms were paralyzed, and a lot of arduous work later; I was back on my feet without crutches in 9 months.
When faced with long-term rehab you need to find something you love. There are days you just don’t want to do any more, and those are the days you have to do something to prove to yourself you can. I am not a natural runner, and I didn’t fancy the impact nature of pounding the streets or treadmill. My spine is held together by a series of metal pins (see above), so rowing seemed to be out. I was spending more time in the gym, and increasingly I was gravitating toward the exercise bikes.
I was walking again, had returned to work, and got back to something resembling my new normal. Things were looking up. Then the pandemic hit. While others were getting into the shape of their lives, what progress I had made was quickly lost through lack of access to the gym, and easy access to my fridge. My mood and weight both spiraled, just in different directions.
Enter Zwift. I had plenty of time on my hands and did a lot of research into the best smart bike and training app combination for someone who hasn’t been on a real bike for years. I settled on the Wattbike Atom and Zwift.
Orange is the New Black
I remember my initial sessions. They were disastrous. I didn’t know what I was doing in Watopia, nor on the bike. My fitness levels had also taken a dive. My first ride was 20 minutes of struggling to do 6km on the rolling roads of Harrogate and I was done. It was demoralizing but if there is one thing the last five years have taught me it’s perseverance.
I dove into the structured training programs available on Zwift, starting with the Zwift 101 and moving on to a couple of runs through the FTP Builder. I was starting to get a handle on this new world and, much more importantly, I was starting to enjoy myself.
Outside of workouts I was doing free rides, exploring, and generally badge hunting. I remember seeing turning signs to the Epic climb and thinking, “one day but not now.” The Alpe could not have been further from my thoughts. My first attempt up Hilly KQOM took me 5:48. At my then ~110kg, I was not built for climbing.
I enjoyed some of the surface-level social aspects of Zwift. On every free ride I would hammer the multiple Ride On button as much as it would allow me, following Zwifters who gave me a Ride On and gaining followers of those who returned the favor. I tried some group rides, but the outcome was always the same. Either I wildly overestimated my ability, or the group did not stick to the advertised pace. Irrespective, I was often left riding by myself, so I kept on with my free rides.
As my strength and ability grew, I decided to try racing. Down to 92kg at this point, I created my ZwiftPower profile and signed up for Haute Route Watopia 2021 as a Cat D. Although there were riders ahead of me as I finished, according to ZwiftPower I won the stage. It’s difficult to describe the levels of elation I felt, but all signs point to my real addiction starting that day.
(Of course, unbeknownst to me, I had sort of sandbagged the race. I entered stage 2 as a Cat D and got a UPG. Stage 3 I entered as a Cat C and came 203rd. It didn’t matter, I had caught the racing bug.)
I also started to drop the free rides and embrace the group rides. If there was a Tour of Watopia, I was on it. Off the MAAP? I’m signed on! The Tour de Zwift was a particular highlight. As I found more fun groups on Zwift, my weekly time and distance on the bike steadily increased.
The Amazing Race
I was still keeping up with my racing. I would occasionally dabble in iTTs, but I preferred group races with shorter, punchier climbs. A Friday 3R race on Greater London 8 became a regular fixture, and I enjoyed seeing myself creep up the leaderboards as the weeks and months passed. It took me a year from that debut Cat D win to eventually get my first Cat C triumph. That was in February this year.
A couple of things happened at this point. Someone at TBR Racing spotted my results and approached me about joining the team, and Zwift introduced Category Enforcement racing. No sooner was I part of the TBR team, I was classified a Cat B rider and thrown into the bear bit of the Zwift Racing League (ZRL) EMEA West Div. B2. I was terrible and hopelessly outclassed, but I loved every minute of it. Despite my performances, the team got promoted and I just wanted to be better. I needed to be better.
Not long after, I joined a ZZRC Saturday Social Ride on Three Little Sisters. It’s the perfect route for me, with three short climbs of increasing length. More than the route, it was the group I fell in love with. The humor, encouragement, camaraderie; everyone immediately made me feel at home. The ZZRC Saturday and Sunday Social Club became a staple of my weekends and, before I knew it, I was sweeping the rides.
Band of Brothers
Several months removed from the height of the pandemic and it is fair to say that I am now in the shape of my life, even if my family insists I could do with gaining a few kilos. Don’t they know my scales are linked to Zwift?! What I didn’t expect, when I started this journey, is that it wasn’t about the fitness gains: the real treasure was the friends I made along the way…
I have raced with so many great and impressive people riding for TBR. They’re fiercely competitive, and yet know when to make light of the situations that arise in Zwift racing and just have fun. The highlight of my week is now ZRL Tuesday nights, when I try and push myself to my limits just to grab a few extra points for a team I feel honored to be part of.
(TBR also do excellent group rides you should check out!)
Every day I get to ride with amazing people. Can you imagine riding 750km in 24 hours? What about riding 450km just to support a friend doing 750km? Or climbing the height of Everest in 17 hours? How about doing 100km every day for over 30 days straight? Or someone who will drop everything with less than 24 hours’ notice when a friend’s team is a person short for a brutal ZRL TTT? And that’s just stuff that has happened in the past month, not to mention the countless people that give up their time to organize, lead, and sweep all those group rides and races that you love riding in every day.
The Good Place
So, where am I now, besides hopelessly addicted? I average 12+ hours a week on the bike, riding 450km with 4,500m climbing. I’m down to around 80kg and can do a sub-60-minute Alpe without thinking. I’ve finally won a Cat B race and TBR have promoted me to 48t in ZRL EMEAW Central Div. B1, where I can just about hold my own against B+ riders. I now view Hilly KQOM as a sprint, and I have shaved over four minutes off my first time up there. These are all things I scarcely thought possible when I started Zwifting in September 2020.
What can you take from all this? I know it’s a cliché but, if I can do this, with a bit of time and application, you can too. It took me taking an all-too-literal kick up the ass, but not only have I found something I love doing, I’ve also met some incredibly inspirational people.