If you’re on any kind of social media, then over the last 12 months it’s likely that the term ‘virtual’ coupled with ‘ride’ or ‘run’ will have popped up in your adverts at some point.
Some show images that include shiny medals, epic routes, and happy smiley faces. This is particularly the case for running challenges. Others show an athlete hunched over their indoor trainer riding a CGI route projecting onto their laptop or tv screen in front of them, surrounded by drinks bottles and empty energy gels packs.
But does a virtual challenge only mean riding an imaginary route, or racing others online?
Well, no not always. There are two very distinct type of virtual event. One is lived entirely in the online world, whilst the other can get you out in the sunshine on a real bike despite the virtual tag.
Virtual Indoor Rides
Since the pandemic struck, more and more of us have turned to online cycling apps, and apps like Zwift have become the social media platform for cyclists, particularly for cyclists that like to race. But there is more to these apps than just racing. Many have workouts and training plans built in, coaches might set up social rides, and even celebrities such as Mark Beaumont, Chris Froome, Freddie Flintoff, and Kirsty Gallacher have got in on the act.
There are other apps too on the scene, such as RGT, Rouvy and FulGaz, which all provide similar functionality, but with their own unique styles.
There are many virtual events set up on these platforms, and even some serious race series have been hosted this way. But this is not for everyone, and many, especially women, have no interest in racing.
Virtual Challenges differ from activities undertaken indoors in a gaming style. They are instead events in a more traditional sense, that can be ridden anywhere and sometimes in a variety of ways.
The term ‘virtual’ in this scenario, means that it is like you are virtually there, but you ride the event from wherever you are, and then submit your proof virtually to the event organiser. You might have come across brands such as Pedal for a Medal, or Race at your Pace. These allow you to choose a monthly mileage to aim for, and when you submit your mileage, they send you a medal. They are a great way to start building your mileage, especially if you are a beginner. And the medals are lovely.
But even in the world of virtual challenges there are still different types.
Virtual in lieu of physical events
The first is a virtual event run in lieu of a traditional race day. A good example here in 2020 was Ride London. Ordinarily thousands of riders would descent on the Olympic park in August ready to ride 100 miles around London and the Surrey Hills. It raises millions for charity and is considered one of the epic ‘must do’ events for novice riders. There is also an associated Pro Race. But, due to the Pandemic, the event itself was cancelled, and instead went virtual. The idea in this case was to still ride 100 miles on that same weekend, but to do so either locally, or indoors on a turbo trainer. Then, submit your evidence of completing the distance to the organisers so that you can receive your medal. This has become a popular way for race organiser to still being able to run events to keep people motivated and continue fundraising, but without the worry of the Covid restrictions.
Long duration challenges
Long duration virtual challenges are different again. They provide a longer term motivation to get out and keep on riding. Each challenge lasts for a specific length of time depending on the nature of the event. They are usually set up to follow iconic routes that might be difficult for people to ride ordinarily, due to their location or duration. They will have a timescale set that is achievable whilst still challenging for most people who decide to commit. There are often options to ride solo, or team up with friends and share the mileage between you.
The routes are set up as a map online, in most cases using standard mapping technology, and all riders move along the virtual map as they log their rides.
You then just ride all your normal rides, which can include indoor and outdoor rides, and log them in the challenge. Most will enable you auto upload from other activity logging apps.
Rides can be logged via Strava, Garmin, Wahoo and most other standard activity apps. Some also have the ability to log miles manually too, which is useful for those who know how far they ride, but just use technology to record it.
And that’s it.
Most challenges provide a medal or tee-shirt upon completion, and some provide milestones or virtual postcards along the way. Many are a charity fundraiser, so you know you are also riding to help great causes.
There is also often an online community set up around the event, which will support and encourage riders that are on the same journey.
My first virtual challenge
I first discovered virtual challenges in March 2020. After a winter of solid training for an endurance event I was due to ride in May, the rapid cancellation of all events around the world left me very demotivated. My heart couldn’t muster the enthusiasm for training, when we couldn’t even ride any distances outside and I had no idea what I was even training for. My coach spotted a virtual challenge, that a friend of his had decided to race, and he wondered if I might be interested. It was a Virtual Race across Europe. 2953 miles from Boulogne in France, to Gibralter, passing through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Spain. It was based on the route that would have been ridden by ultra-riders, had the event taken place, but was now open to any one and you had a year to complete it. I signed up, mostly as a way to persuade me to get back on my turbo trainer and have a reason to ride.
It didn’t take me long though to get very addicted. Riders on the challenge soon found their groups in much the same way as any other long distance tour or race. Those that were racing it steamed off ahead, and others found their pace along side other similar riders. I found myself wanting to be at the front on my own small pack and I would get out and ride a few extra miles if it looked like others in the group were moving ahead of me. Along the way on the map I could zoom into my location as the power of Google Street Maps was enabled. This meant that I could see the view of the Alps or the Pyrenees as I passed through. I decided to challenge myself to be the first woman to complete the ride, and in 80 days I completed the whole distance to finish 14th overall, and 1st woman back. It wasn’t a real race, and yet it gave me a huge sense of pride and achievement. I couldn’t wait to share my achievement. I had never been first at anything before.
I credit that virtual challenge for getting my head into a good place, and later in the year completed an epic Lands End to John O’Groats and back for real. Inspired by the virtual Race Across Europe I decided to host my own Virtual LEJOGLE challenge so that others could ride my route virtually and also raise more money for mental health charity MIND.
I would like to share a lovely piece that one of our riders wrote about her experience of the Virtual LEJOGLE which was her first virtual ride.
In an upside topsy turvy world what better idea could Marcia have had, than to set the World Record for a solo woman, cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats and….. then to turn about and ride all the way back again! Marcia was one of the most inspirational women in sport that year. She became my heroine and ‘invisible peloton’ outrider.
Shortly upon her return Marcia set to encourage us weekend warrior cyclists, the arm chair cyclist and others from all kinds of backgrounds, to give us a go at this cracking event and to ride the same route virtually. Every walk, run, and bicycle ride could be recorded and day by day we could each check our own progress. Now, I’m not a particularly competitive person, but this event did flick a switch in my belly. From the off I had the plan to cycle it and be the first solo woman back. Kind of emulating the fire that Marcia’s big event had originally stirred in me.
I’m an endurance cyclist by hobby all of which thanks to C19, was of course cancelled in 2020. But although I ride long distances I’m not fast. The pootling kinda gal. That’s me.
Anyways I started this event, daily commuting to and from work, adding longer distances before cycling home just so I could add a bit of distance on the Virtual LEJOGEL map. I inched my way upwards snaking along the very trodden path that Marcia rode. Through the streets of Glasgow right past our daughters flat on Clydeside. Ever onwards through the Trossachs and in the land of my birth and ancestors. I was keeping a close eye on a couple of riders. Their gender mattered most.
A few of the really competitive lads were way ahead and I had no chance of being the first person back….. but the first woman back, so long as I plugged along I could indeed do it. Hey….. Who’s this Donna woman who started way after me. She was only a couple of hundred kms behind me… Hum…. time to become the ‘stealth and strategy’ rider! The Facebook page set up by Marcia gave us all room to breath, banter, encourage, and swat one another about the chops with wet gloves on as the level of competition started to crank up. My commute was no longer enough. Enter this crazy always on a bike kinda woman.
I shared info to help encourage others and Donna and I shared Strava and Zwift info. If you don’t know about Zwift it’s a cartoon land world of super egos and landscapes. Where I could log my distances and not feel so pressured. Donna was gaining on me inch by inch. I was breaking out in a sweat every time Zwift pinged on my phone while I was at work and Donna was at home in her lunch break hammering down the distances. I started setting my alarm. 4am then 3am, I would get up make coffee and toast and pedal away to sneak in another 100km before going to work. At one point Donna was close on my heels on the A9 that runs up the east coast on route to John O’Groats. But by cycling at 3am, I was able to nip up to John o groats turn around and as the return journey was identical, I was able to flummox Donna as she saw me upon awaking very close indeed. This was the moment to overtake MJ. He, he, he, except I was actually a couple of hundred kms ahead. Oh the banter we had on Facebook!
The longest 24 hour journey won a yellow jersey. I got it a couple of times, before I actually knew what it was or what it meant. Donna and Martin knew exactly what it was and so a mini competition between us emerged. My husband was wondering what the heck was going on. His wife sporting dark circles under her eyes, a sort of blank mad stare and a slight twitch whenever Zwift pinged that Donna was back on her bike …. again! Does she ever give up! Er no. Not ever!
Eventually the event started to draw to a close for us. The final big effort through Devon and Cornwall and Donna managed to literally see me in her sights. The final couple of days saw her achieve a staggering 360 odd kms on one ride! This is on a turbo bike I’ll add. We were not outside now. Zwift was faster. Turbo cycling is much harder to do in my opinion than out on the roads. Turbo bikes don’t move the same. You end up with sores and knee pain caused by repetitive activity. But where I live is very hilly. Once I saw Donna was on the turbo my road bike was cleaned and put away. The final push home back to the start I managed to get there. Whoop so loud husband came to see if I was ok! Then of course Donna beat me time wise!
But what an adventure we had. I never would have thought to ‘meet’ new pals this way. But I have. I’m still in touch with Donna. If it runs, we have entered the Pan Celtic Race as a pair, that’s how committed we became. We have entered Marcia’s new challenge too, to cycle across Europe virtually again. Likely the only time I’m ever venturing outside Ireland and the British isles anyways. But bring it on. Bring in the competition, the encouragement and banter. Let’s ‘ride on!
Inspired again by the enthusiasm of my previous event riders I have set up a new event which is bigger and better again. This time riders have 6 months to complete the 2600 mile route from Nantes on the Atlantic Ocean to Burgas on the Black Sea. It is inspired by the long distance cycling route the Eurovelo 6, which passes through no less than 10 European countries and follows 6 major rivers. I continue to raise funds for mental health charity Solent Mind, with a significant donation for every entry.
Although some riders will inevitably race the route, most others are adopting a tourist approach. The real Eurovelo route is stunningly beautiful in its own ride, and some riders are looking forward to moving leisurely along the route, zooming in on their location to see the sights, and to theme their rides based on where they are in Europe. The Facebook community have already started to share what tasty treats they are going to look out for along the way and create food themes as they pass through countries. One avid beer drinker has already decided that he intends to find beers from each location he virtually visits.
And although I am the organiser, I have also decided to take part in the ride. It’s a ride I hope to undertake for real one day, and so I’m looking forward to following the route and see what I find along the way. It will also help keep me motivated to keep on training again. Although I am currently planning on completing the real event that was postponed from last year, there are still no guarantees yet that it will go ahead, or that I’ll be able to travel to it.
Virtual events and challenges certainly help keep you moving in uncertain times, and despite not actually meeting the riders in the flesh, you can still nurture great friendship and potential future riding partners.
So, if you’ve yet to try a virtual challenge, why not check out the Virtual Coast to Coast European Adventure and take yourself on a virtual trip across Europe and inspire yourself for future adventures.
You can find out more details, on our registration page here.
The fun starts on 1st March, although don’t worry if you are a little late, as you can back date your miles for a couple of weeks to avoid being disadvantages.