The countdown timer for the race to start ticked over on the screen. I sat mounted on my bike, warmed up and ready to go, completely focused. I was genuinely in race mode and, after almost a month in lockdown, that was a welcome feeling. But the unfamiliarity of e-racing was making my heart beat a little faster.
I had been invited to race the Zwift Classic Trofeo Bologna but initially I was hesitant. I’ve made a big effort to embrace Zwift since lockdown but I had been watching some of the other pro races and the power stats were intimidating. I had never done an e-race before so I also wasn’t sure how to strategize or use the power-ups. Even though I had actually raced the course in real life, this really was racing in a different world, but the newly addicted Zwift athlete in me couldn’t say no.
In the comfort of my own home, I waited for the start absolutely tingling with nerves. I hadn’t been this nervous for a race in years! When the race officially began, I over-powered the start and shot right out in front. In the peloton I was like a yo-yo. As a first-time e-racer, I didn’t have a sense of the delay between pedal power and on-screen position. I would be leading the race and then almost out the back, off the front and then instantly back to 30th.
Eventually, I got the balance right and as we approached the first ascent up the Madonna di San Luca, I moved to the front and set the pace. I crested with only one other rider but we were caught at the bottom of the descent by a chase group of eight riders. By then, however, I had the hang of things.
I sat in the wheels, taking my turn on the front but also saving my legs as much as I could. In the one-day Giro dell'Emilia, we race up the Madonna di San Luca so, even though I was an avatar in a computer-generated representation, I knew exactly what to do. When the gradient screamed up on a sharp hairpin around 1 kilometer to go, I attacked. In the 2016 Giro dell'Emilia, I had come up short and finished second to Elisa Longo Borghini but that wasn’t happening today. As my family stood right next to me in the grips of excitement, cheering me on, I put down the watts and claimed the victory.
My family swarmed around to congratulate me, as did the virtual community. I knew the London Dynamo Club I often rode with on Zwift were watching from England and their messages began to pour in. I had tons of messages from riders I knew in real life and riders I had only ever “met" in Watopia. A lot of people were reaching out and, maybe it’s because of lockdown and the current situation, but the response seemed bigger than some of my real-life race wins.
The race was only 41 minutes so, even though it was around 21:00, I rode on for a long time after. The house settled back to quiet but I could feel there was lift in the atmosphere, a buzz from the race. I never imagined that Zwift would be such a big part of my life and I definitely never imagined I would be the winner of an e-race!
I also never imagined that physical distancing would bring the cycling community so close together or that our sport would continue on in such a new way. Change brings uncertainty, as my racing nerves reminded me, but it also brings the hope and excitement of new opportunities and that makes my heart beat a little faster too.
Ashleigh-Moolman-Pasio is a world-class climber and a member of the UCI Women's WorldTeam CCC-Liv. She has written a regular blog for Cyclingnews since 2016, touching on topics of gender equality in women’s and men’s professional cycling. She is also the owner of Rocacorba Cycling, a cycling retreat operating from an authentic 17th century estate located in Girona, Spain.