The 2020 Tour de France provided an incredible spectacle with Slovenian Tadej Pogačar outclimbing fellow compatriot Primoz Roglic to win on the final stage. And it was another Slovenian, Mitja Kovacic, who provided me with yet another amazing cycling memory.
On Sunday 31st January 10am CET, Mitja successfully completed his 24 hour cycling challenge on Zwift, raising awareness for Motor Neuron Disease and the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. He also raised funds for the charity via his Just Giving page.
Mitja did not just cycle for 24 hours, he cycled for a net 24 hours, meaning that when he stopped to change jerseys and shorts, so did the clock! This means he was actually undertaking the monumental task for 26 hours. Mitja did not just achieve his goal but inspired others to reach new personal targets along the way. An inspirational ride by an inspirational person!
To kick off the epic event, Mitja led an 8:30am (CET) Race3R group ride on the Tempus Fugit course which consisted of nearly 400 riders. It was here that I joined him for the start of his challenge. Mitja took the opportunity to raise awareness of the disease and his 24-hour challenge to the group, which led to instant applause. The event was well attended, but sadly I could not stay for the duration. I checked back in with Mitja after he had just finished the event, his first 5 hours and 200km, and he was feeling strong. He explained that out of the 373 riders that had started, 40 had stayed with him to complete the 200km. In the first 5 hours he had raised £419, a little short of £100 an hour, which was fantastic.
Mitja had just changed into fresh cycling kit and had taken on some food in the form of rice, and was back into his rhythm after his short pit stop.
We discussed how the first quarter of the challenge had gone and he explained that during his group ride, he did have a “small technical issue” but it did not slow him down. The “small technical” issue which Mitja referred to was actually a power outage, but fortunately Mitja was using his laptop and his battery-powered Tacx Neo 2, and was able to continue uninterrupted. The only issue was that he lost sight of the group due to his router disconnecting and when connectivity was restored, he was 1 minute behind the group. Fortunately, the “Sweepers” were on hand to help pull him back.
It’s at this point that Mitja, selfless as ever, praised the excellent work of the “Sweepers” on his ride. He explained that it’s an extremely difficult role because they basically are doing intervals for the entire group ride. They slow to wait for the dropped riders, then have to put usually double the power of the group to pull the dropped rider(s) back into the main pack. This could be anything up to 6 watts per kilo depending on the speed of the bunch!
Mitja was impressed with the support provided during the group ride especially as the group stayed together throughout, with Mitja fully aware of the need to pace himself. At the 5 hour point, Mitja explained he was averaging around 2.5 watts per kilo, but was anticipating this would decline to around 2.2-2.3 watts, with the critical time being around 16-18 hours into the challenge.
Talking of challenges, one Zwifter got more than he bargained for on the group ride as Mitja explained. “One rider was going to leave after 100km, but we were talking about the 100 mile badge. So, we convinced him to ride with us and get the badge, but at 159km, he decided to stay on and finish the ride, completing his longest ride on Zwift at 200km.” He would not be the only person to reach new personal heights alongside Mitja over the weekend.
Although we have focused on Mitja, he highlighted that he wasn’t doing this alone. He was joined by fellow Race3R rider Ross Duncan, and as Mitja explains, the two of them “just want to cycle” – something which I think we can all relate to.
Discussing the upcoming few hours, Mitja explained he had a detailed fueling strategy to help him reach his target, broken down into what is required hour by hour. The first 3 hours were all about fluid intake in terms of smoothies, with pasta later in the day and even toast during the evening, with the ever-important energy drink being consumed every hour. He admitted, “I am on course with the fluid, but am struggling to eat, but know I need to eat. I will rely on energy bars and gels at the end.”
Mitja admitted he needed to “listen to his body and will not overdo it” and had scheduled stops to stretch and refresh himself.
A quarter of the way in, Mitja was looking the embodiment of a man in control. I only wish I looked as composed after 5 hours of cycling. Talking of being composed, one of the key things Mitja explained was cooling and that key to his Zwift setup was having good fans to prevent overheating.
10 hours in
Later that evening, I rejoined Mitja to assist him in his ride. At 8 hours he had his first change of clothing and refreshed himself and after 9 hours and 20 minutes, he had clocked up an impressive 370km and was on his 9th or 10th bottle of energy drink supplied by High Five. His fueling strategy was working, although he admitted that he was still struggling to eat.
He explained that many riders had been cycling with him and supporting him. He was in a good rhythm, averaging 200 watts with his heart rate around 125 beats per minute, a drop from 150 earlier whilst conducting the group ride. I’ll admit, I had to concentrate and work to keep up with Mitja because his tempo was very consistent and steady and I will agree that he was well-supported, I had never seen so many Slovenian cyclists as they formed a tight group around their star man. After 40kms I left Mitja, promising I would rejoin early in the morning.
23 hours in
Before jumping back on the bike at 7:30am, I logged on to his live streaming channel to see how he had survived through the night. I was relieved to see him still sat on his bike, although a bit sleepy. He had cycled an amazing 793km but the clock only read 21.23hrs. It was at this point I realised that Mitja’s 24 hour challenge was actually 24 hours net. This meant despite being 24 hours physically awake, he still had a bit more time to go on the bike!
This was incredible to say the least.
I called Mitja, anxious to see how he was and to encourage him. I wanted to tell him “grab my wheel and well we’ll just cycle the last bit nice and steady.” To my surprise, as soon as I started talking, Mitja was back to life. He started telling me in great detail the events of the last few hours, and I scribbled notes as fast as I could whilst pedaling away. What he told me was epic and a sheer test of endurance.
Mitja explained that he started struggling from around 14 hours into the challenge. He became really ill. Despite his detailed fueling plan, it was evident to him that he had not eaten enough and by around 2am, he was literally “dead to the world”. At 2:30am, he explained that he listened to his body and took time to try and eat and rest a little. He drank some water, which made him vomit. His body started shaking. He took a bit of bread and went back down to the “Pain Cave” and started riding at 1.2 wkg.
His darkest moment was in the screenshot showing him joking, “I could eat chicken wings right now” – it’s a joke as he is a strict vegetarian!
He admitted that this was the only time during the entire ride that he was on his own, his total kilometres up to that point was 690 and his only goal was to get to 700km “the whole 24 hour thing was forgotten about and I just ate my toast, slowly spinning my legs.” Then a fellow SloZL team member, Darja Vavpetic, a strong rider who is Captain of TTT Team SloZL Pink, popped up and said “Hello.” Mitja explained, “My goal here was to get to 700km and then call it a fail. Darja then joined me, 17h and 55 minutes into the ride, after she woke up in the middle of the night, to see me with my head down and suffering. At approximately 3.30 am, after a few minutes of chatting with her, I could see the light and get myself to at least 700km. It was a game-changer but still nowhere close to getting out of the woods.”
Then his fellow Slovenian friend Uros Huzjak came online at 699km and then things got better. “Uros joined us at 699km. At that moment I wrote to Darja “1 more km” (to get to 700km) then Uros said “Good morning.” Perfect timing. My mind was clear again and I wasn’t sleepy anymore. Then I explained the situation to him and he proposed to go for another hour and later to 750km. Without a doubt, Darja and Uros were crucial at that moment to keep me going and my body had time to recover. Not that it was easy from there on but at least I could see myself doing 24 hours”.
Mitja explained further that the whole day he had amazing support and so “I would not quit” with even Darja threatening to “kick me if I stopped before 24 hours.” He describes the few hours being the “darkest and hardest hours ever on a bike” explaining how he went from pedaling 2.3 watts per kilo to 1.6.
We talked about that period around 2am when Mitja was fighting his body’s natural rhythm to rest. The body produces a chemical called melatonin, which helps us ‘switch off’ at night. Melatonin usually starts to be produced at around 8-9pm and peaks at 2-3am, which is when Mitja was extremely tired. Fortunately, he had fought through the most difficult period.
Uros stayed with his friend Mitja just when Mitja needed that extra bit of support and was with him until the end of the challenge, resulting in Uros’ longest ride on Zwift at 185km and 5:30hrs. Uros explained that he and Mitja had become friends whilst creating the Slovenian Racing League and have never actually got round to meeting, despite riding every week together on Zwift.
Mitja went on to say that from hour 14 onwards and before things got really difficult, “it was a bit of a roller coaster. Some hours good, some not so good but my family have been really supportive”.
The final hour
To keep Mitja engaged and not thinking about the last hour of his challenge, I asked about the bike selection he had chosen. He had opted for the Specialized S-Works Venge with Zipp disc wheels. It was during this conversation that we crossed the 24 hour time. It was 8.30am (CET) and Mitja had done approximately 827km and the net time he had been on the bike was 22 hours, 22 minutes and 20 seconds.
For the final hour, Mitja was joined by more and more friends and soon a small peloton was around him. The Discord chat channel was full of voices chatting to Mitja in English and Slovenian, with one person asking “How much pain are you in?” – Mitja’s response “I eat pain for breakfast.” Even after his self-described darkest hours on a bike, he was still able to crack a joke. A testament to the character of the man.
After a net 24 hours of cycling, Mitja approached the final minutes and we counted every minute with him. At exactly net 24 hours, he had cycled 885km. Mission accomplished. But Mitja didn’t stop there, he wanted to make it an even number so pedaled on for an extra 7 minutes totaling 888.8km.
His stats for the ride are epic, 173 watts average, 888.8km, 24 hours and 7 minutes, 849 Ride Ons and most importantly raising £817 for charity.
I’ll leave the last words to Mitja, “This was epic. I had an amazing support from SloZL riders, 3R riders, random Watopia riders joining me, YouTube chat, Facebook chat, Discord, Messenger, it was mind blowing.”