This is surreal.
If you’d said to me back in 2013 that we’d be in the grip of a global pandemic during the lifetime of this bike ride, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
If you’d said to me in 2016 that I’d be cycling across Australia, on my own, albeit with the big man driving the beer wagon, within two years, I probably wouldn’t have believed you back then.
And if you’d said to be just twelve months ago that I’d find a new direction for this journey, in the form of virtual racing, I probably wouldn’t have believed that either.
But life is what it is, and all of the above came true.
I’m writing this just a few hours ahead of a virtual event that I’ve branded the Adelaide Draftbuster. If you’ve been following this journey for a while, you’ll know all about the Adelaide connection. But the Draftbuster brings a whole different perspective to the party.
RGT Cycling is the virtual platform that I’m using to promote the event. It’s a bit like Peleton and Zwift, but it allows users to create their own ‘magic’ roads. I’m using a magic road around the city centre of Adelaide that was created by another (unknown) RGT user. It’s Adelaide but it just doesn’t look like it, or maybe it does from about 500 years ago, but with tarmac roads. For the locals, this is the route: the start is outside the Legal Services Commission of South Australia on Flinders Street. The route then heads west for a couple of hundred metres before hanging a left along the side of Victoria Square. There’s another left onto Angas Street before a sharp left/right up Chancery Lane then onto Wakefield Street. The lap finishes with a quick blast up Pulteney Street before emerging back onto Flinders Street. One mile, with just seven feet of climbing. Fast and furious.
Every time I think R2CN is reaching end of life, something comes along that breathes new life into it. Brisbane to Adelaide was that thing back in 2018, and virtual cycling in lockdown has absolutely been that thing in 2020.
Although tonight’s event is billed as a race, it’s really anything but. There are proper riders entered from Sweden and Slovenia, and some camera bots from the USA, but the vast majority of the field is made up with bot avatars. As an event organiser, you get to select as many bots as you want, from none to a maximum of 99. From memory, I think I configured thirty for the Draftbuster: but having selected them, you then get to give them custom power. I’ve configured these guys n gals with a range between 160 watts and 260 watts of power. Translated into watts per kilo of weight, which is what powers the bike, that range spans the mad guys at the front of the field in every virtual race I do – the guys I generally wave goodbye to round the first corner – to the sedate crew who, like myself, race every bit as hard, but without the same result. I know my place: I ply my trade in central midfield. However let me at a pensioners only field and it might be a different outcome. C’est la vie.
What matters (to me) about this race tonight, is the bot called Vanessa. She races in purple kit. Vanessa is a special bot because she represents the early days of my journey supporting Solving Kids Cancer. Tonight, I will not trying to win the race. I’ll be trying to engineer Vanessa into winning it. However in a fast and furious event, that’s unlikely to happen for two reasons: (1) I’m not going to be strong enough for long enough to dictate the strategy in the leading group (2) I won’t know until the race gets under way what power Vanessa has been given.
My task tonight is very straightforward, but in a complex way: to get Vanessa as high a finishing place as I can. In a sense it makes my job slightly easier, so long as she’s not in that lead group, because it’ll be easier to manage her race, and thereby, my own. Getting Vanessa into a group, just like her dad Chris did with me back in 2014 when I did Cycling Santas from the Edinburgh Sick Kids Hospital, to Yorkhill in Glasgow, will be my primary ongoing focus. And every time she drops off the back, it will be my job to return her to the safety of the group. It sounds simple, but it rarely is: when the bot’s knackered, you’ve got a real job on your hands…
And so to the Draftbuster: no, not the race, the software…
Because I’m new to short circuit racing – they’re called crits (short for criteriums) – I’ve got an awful lot to learn. Primarily, I’m not very good at staying on the wheel of the rider in front and taking a draft. You can save heaps of effort in your legs once you’ve mastered it. If I may paint the picture of drafting in crit racing, the trick is to stay in the fastest traffic for longest amount of time. Once I realised that that was the optimum strategy, I wrote some software to guide me in the art.
The Draftbuster isn’t just a race, it’s also a spreadsheet. As the designer of what I hope supplies the perfect race plan, I supply the Draftbuster with the number of laps, the length of each lap, the expected average speed of the leaders, the expected undrafted average speed of moi, the expected pace drop off per lap, in percentage terms, of both the leaders and myself (independently): and finally, I tell it how many laps, or parts of laps, I plan to draft a faster group of riders each time they come round. I should say at this point that drafting a faster group after being lapped is acceptable in crit racing, just so long as you don’t get in the way of the leaders at the front. Of course that’s not normally a problem because you’re trying desperately to hang on to the back of a faster crew anyway.
Tonight will present a real challenge: I can comfortably lap the Adelaide circuit in a fraction over three minutes, unassisted, but in practice this morning, hanging on to the back of the leading bots, I clocked 2m 32s. That tells me just how hot the pace is going to be from the off. The bots won’t slow down much, unlike me, and if I get burned off on the first lap, then I can expect to get lapped for the first time six laps later. It’s crucially important to (a) find the Vanessa bot early on that first lap (b) get her in a group. If Vanessa misses the cut when the leaders take off, then it’s goodbye Vienna to the win and I’ll nurse her as high up the field as I can until they come round again. On the other hand, if she does make the cut, then I need to hang on too, for as long as I’m able, in order to influence the race. But at some point, one or both of us is going to get dropped and then I need to resort to plan B. Plan B involves hijacking the second fastest group on the road.
As if all of this wasn’t enough fun on its own, the event is being live streamed by ZMS Live Streams, a streaming partner for RGT. What I’m hoping is that friends, family and other non-competing RGT cyclists will tune in. ZMS will be using some R2CN graphics to promote the neuroblastoma journey, and the Ride2CureNeuroblastoma.com website will be rolling round the bottom of the screen. That’s the theory anyway. How it will turn out in reality I’ll have to wait and see.
It’s now four hours to kick off and I’m nervous. I’m nervous because I want (and need) the software to work flawlessly. Last night in practice I only had 50% power, for reasons unknown, and the bots just rode away from me. If that happens again tonight, it would be acutely embarrassing. I’m nervous because I don’t know how this will actually turn out. And I’m really, really nervous because this latest instalment of my Ride2Cure Neuroblastoma journey is riding on it. This is a big awareness opportunity and I don’t want to screw it up. I also hope that when people visit the website, they’ll also jump on the fundraising links and donate to Solving Kids Cancer and/or Neuroblastoma Australia.
Let’s do this…