Forgive me knees for I have sinned. It’s been one week since we Everested (in the virtual world) and I loaded you up pretty badly and you’re pretty cross with me right now.
But I’m looking at doing something really stupid and I need you again.
I’ll take a rest week: and other smart things I’ve said
After the virtual Everesting (plus bonus “climbing” to get to 10,000m) I was pretty fatigued, which to be honest was a very nice feeling, and was looking forward to taking a rest. Which ironically, was reinforced by karma as two days after I was in the back garden doing some yard work and stepped in a sneaky hole my dog dug for me and went right over on my ankle. Went down like a tonne of bricks, as my dad used to say, and landed pretty hard. Cue major swelling of the ankle, and me not being able to weight bear for a couple days.
Down time indeed.
Lucky for me it wasn’t anything serious, and I was back on my feet, albeit pretty tentatively, a few days later. Residual stiffness and some multi-coloured bruising, along with a very tender ankle lasted for a bit longer than I would have liked. Must be getting old. Er.
Not long after, and while I was still healing, I saw a post in my Strava feed from one of the groups I’m in:
And like almost all of dumb things I do, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I messaged Gavin, who runs the page, and we had a few chats back and forth and somehow we both decided we would ride this one (yes, somehow this happens to me a lot. Cue eye-rolling right?). A little more investigating (and trying to understand the websites) and it looked pretty straight forward.
Get ready for a first-hand experience of a unique event: the first virtual Giro d’Italia! All you need is your bike, a Tacx smart trainer and a compatible Garmin Edge device. Then just hop into the saddle for a virtual challenge among amateur cyclists from across the world. Will you be the next Maglia Rosa?http://www.giroditalia.it/eng/giro-virtual/
A little background
The Giro d’Italia is one of the three “Grand Tours” that the pros race each year, along with the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France. Well, the male pros that is. Don’t get me started. Each of the Grand Tours is a 21 stage race, with your time for each stage adding up to an aggregate time. The rider with the lowest aggregate time is the leader of the general classification and gets to wear the Maglia Rosa (the pink jersey). There are a lot of other classifications, jerseys, and stage wins, google it if you’re interested.
But in general, the Giro takes place in Italy, and is known for its steep and difficult climbs.
The Virtual Race
The Giro d’Italia Virtual would not include all 21 stages, nor would it cover the 3,546.8 km of racing that the 2019 World Tour did. Instead, they had selected particular segments of seven of the stages, and the longest stage would be 32.7km.
|Total Distance||Total Climbing|
The Garmin Virtual Ride website split up the race into different categories, including professionals, legends, professional teams (of two riders), under 26 riders, and amateurs. The amateur category was the category open to the public, and therefore the one I was allowed to enter.
Well, I’ve got a bike, a Tacx smart trainer, and a Garmin, so this should be “free and easy” just like the website says right?
I’ll spare you the long and laborious details of Gavin and my conversations trying to initially get the first stage (Stage 10 of the Giro d’Italia) set-up. But let’s just say that it wasn’t necessarily “free” or “easy.” There seemed to be multiple ways of setting up the virtual ride, none of which, at first go (or second, or third) made much sense. The “ideal” way, it seemed,” was to set up the Tacx Desktop app, which gave you a lovely view of what you were climbing, complete with colour changes for increasing gradients, and views of the terrain you were on. The resulting Strava file gave you elevation, segments, and broke down the ride into its… virtual components.
Sorry, Couldn’t help it.
However, after downloading all the software for it and logging it, it turned out that you had to subscribe to their premium package in order to access the features necessary to ride the Giro.
Back to the drawing board for me then.
The other option it seemed was to use the Garmin website, which according to the event was super easy:
Lies. All lies.
Eventually Gavin found a help file for how to import each stage into your Garmin, and after a lot of “lost in translation” errors I managed to get the file on my Garmin. Which meant that instead of the not bad looking Tacx desktop app, I was watching this:
I’ll say this: No wonder people use Zwift. The learning curve on trying to get this all connected just about had me at the end of my patience.
Locked and loaded (I thought?) it was time to race Stage 10.
- Stage 10 SAN SALVO > TORTORETO
- 480m elevation gain
- My time: 1:09:50
- Average heart rate: 160bpm
Aaaand I thought I was going to die. Or at least barf. Or perhaps have to lie down for a while. Let’s just say that Audax riding builds a lot of fatigue, but it’s over a long period of time. This short and sharp stuff was not in my repertoire of “things I’ve done for a long time” and it was an all mighty shock to the system.
It was stupid hard. Way harder than Zwift as you don’t get the “freewheeling” down the hill, just had to keep pedalling, No idea how to get this in the rankings though. Seems very confusing…My message to Gavin post Stage 10
Hours later and no results on the Garmin “Rankings” page. Many other people’s times were being uploaded, but I had nothing. Gavin didn’t have anything either, so he messaged Garmin support asking for help.
Much much later later… nothing. So I messaged Garmin support, giving them as many details as I could about how I set up my Garmin, the route, the connection. etc etc. Because quite frankly I had no idea if I’d done it right.
Which was handy as five hours later Garmin emailed me back letting me know the rankings were up and I was in fourth. Timing is everything…
The stages were staggered so that you had a few days in between to recover. Which was handy as I well and truely needed some recovery after that Stage 10 to prepare for the more hilly Stage 12.
- Stage 12 CESENATICO > CESENATICO (9 COLLI)
- 1070m elevation gain
- My time: 1:34:30
- Average heart rate: 169bpm
- Garmin recovery advisor says: 3 days
Okay. I’m officially hurting now. While the course “looks” relatively simple, it’s super deceptive, and I was finding it super difficult to adapt to. In real life, heck, even in Zwift, you can see the course changing in front of you. So if the road looks like it’s going to ramp up or down, you can anticipate and change gears/get out of the saddle. Not so with “the long green line.” It’s not the climbs you can see that hurt you. It’s the ones you can’t see. Even on a downhill (which you’d have to pedal, there’s no freewheeling with Garmin) if there was a small hill rise, the Tacx trainer would react by almost instantly increasing the resistance. Which meant for me a brutal surprise that would often have me up and out of the saddle barely able to turn the pedals over while I prayed the pinch would end soon.
Let’s just say that there were concerned faces at the noises coming out of me when this happened. And it wasn’t just the swearing.
My knees were taking an absolute pounding, and I felt like I escaped this stage by the skin of my teeth.
Stage Ranking: 7th
Stage 16: Let the penalties begin!
While Gavin and I geared up for Stage 16, there was some movement in the overall rankings for the first two stages. At first, I lost all my time for Stage 10 and was allocated the maximum time for that stage. Then it changed and I was given my time, plus 15 minutes. Then my time for Stage 12 disappeared all together. Then I was allocated the maximum time for the stage, along with hundreds of other women.
What the heck was going on?
I emailed Garmin asking for some support and understanding, and they must have been fielding a lot of other questions as they didn’t respond. FOR A WEEK. And once they did respond, they sent me this useful piece of information:
Needless to say sending me the regulations in Italian wasn’t helpful. Especially as I’d already gone through the regulations in English and they didn’t answer my question. Nailed it.
Nevermind, I’m sure it’ll work itself out. Meanwhile, I needed to get ready for another race.
- Stage 16 UDINE > SAN DANIELE DEL FRIULI
- 550m elevation gain
- My time: 1:04:41
- Average heart rate: 166bpm
- Garmin recovery advisor says: 72 hours and new VO2 max detected
I’m pretty sure I just repeated “please make it stop” a few times during this stage.
And then I got hit with another 15 minute penalty.
Stage Ranking: 7th –> 17th with penalty
Stage 17: lack of motivation and one-legged pedalling
It was starting to become a running joke for those watching my Instagram story. What penalty would I get this race?
Oh how we laughed.
But mentally I was struggling to find motivation to keep racing. Yes I know it didn’t mean anything, and it’s not like I’ve got sponsorships on the line or anything. And I know it’s just a “fun thing to do while in lockdown” because of COVID-19. And it was something different from what I always do.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it immensely frustrating and want to quit. Which didn’t really put me in a mentally strong frame of mind to ride the next stage.
Especially when Stage 17 looked like this:
- Stage 17 BASSANO DEL GRAPPA > MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO
- 1107m elevation gain
- My time: 1:25:18
- Average heart rate: 160bpm
- Garmin recovery advisor says: new VO2 max detected. We’re not giving you a recovery time as you aren’t listening anyways
Messages from Gavin indicated that we were both going to ride this stage around the same time, and he’d have a head start on me. “First 5km is good” he assured me. “Heading up a long valley – snow capped mountains in the distance – it’s beautiful!”
But let’s just say, virtual snow capped mountains or not, I was in a world of pain. My right knee decided it had had enough of this constant on/off intensity with surprise power drops, and had filled up with fluid in the back of my knee cap, making it… intense. It felt way WAY harder than the “max 9% gradient” that the stage suggested, and I actually thought a number of times that my Garmin/Tacx connection had decided that all bets were off and was broken. At one point I was pushing nearly 300watts (well above my FTP) with a cadence of 50 and was hardly turning the pedals over.
Having Gavin online and cheering me on was the ONLY thing that was keeping me going.
It was way harder than I expected it to be, and I sat on the floor staring in to space for quite a long time after that stage. Partly because my knee was screaming at me. Partly because I could not see straight.
And just for fun I got another 15 minute penalty.
Stage Ranking: 11th –> 21st with penalty
More investigation didn’t shed any light on my penalties either. I was using all the right equipment, there was a TON of speed variation, it wasn’t manual, and they most definitely were not completed with less than the time limit of each stage.
It was a mystery.
Even more mystery added when all of a sudden two of my four penalties were removed, leaving me with a General Classification Ranking: 9th
Riiiiiight. Okay let’s just keep this thing going and hit the fifth stage.
Stage 18 and 20: Here come the hills
Stage 18 was visually deceptive. It looked not too terrible, a huge long descent followed by a much shorter climb.
But somehow, in that 28km before you hit the “flat” finish there was 710m of climbing.
See what I mean about “it’s not the climbs you can see that kill you?”
- Stage 18 PINZOLO > LAGHI DI CANCANO (Parco Nazionale dello Stelvio)
- 710m elevation gain
- My time: 1:18:46
- Average heart rate: 157bpm
Didn’t really have the legs for that one so kept it pretty easy going in hopes that I would be okay for the next one.
Stage Ranking: 10th
Stage 20 was a nasty looking one though, and just looking at the numbers made me feel a bit ill:
- Stage 20 ALBA > SESTRIERE
- 1905m elevation gain (yes. 1905. Not a typo)
- My time: 1:36:10
- Average heart rate: 160bpm
Surprisingly I did pretty well on this stage, and was really happy with how I rode this one. Instead of staring at the Garmin trying to second guess where all the “surprise” climbs were, I just closed my eyes went on feel. The second I felt the Tacx trainer even hint at increasing the resistance and I was gearing down. Same as the moment it let up and let the resistance go. It still felt a lot of the time that I was riding through mud, but at least I wasn’t smashing my knees up on the power surges. It still hurt though, my normalised power for the entire stage was only 10w less than my FTP. For 90 minutes. Ouch.
But I managed to get in first place:
For all of 20 minutes before the next rider uploaded their time. But still. Live in the glory.
Stage Ranking: 6th
General Ranking (including 65 minutes of penalties): 8th
Stage 21: Let it be finished
Far out this thing needs to be over. After two and a half weeks of racing, I was very much over it. But I’d come this far already, so I figured I would finish the entire virtual Giro d’Italia, if only because… well… I don’t even know anymore. But it seemed like something that I’d started, so I might as well finish it.
The General Rankings suggested I had 8th place stitched up pretty well. The woman in 7th place had 20 minutes on me, and I had nearly 45 minutes over the woman behind me. With the last stage a 15.7km time trial, it was unlikely that this time gap would shift in either direction, so that was that.
Was I a tad annoyed that without that 65 minute time penalty I would be in third place. No, obviously not at all.
But I bet I wasn’t as annoyed as Natalia Rojas who had been served 90 minutes in penalties (and should be in first), or Erica Bottesin with 30 minutes of deductions.
As this stage was a flat stage I figured I would use it as my FTP test (functional threshold power) to see where I was at. Yes it would be a bit longer than 20 minutes, but I figured it would give me a rough estimate if my current FTP had changed with all this climbing and hard work. After a 20 minute warm up, I was off.
- Stage 21 CERNUSCO SUL NAVIGLIO > MILANO, CRONOMETRO TISSOT
- 30m elevation gain
- My time: 30.02
- Average heart rate: 171bpm
- Normalised power: 10w over my FTP
I assumed that because it was a flat stage I wouldn’t have to stare at the green line for the first time and could just ride this flat out. That assumption was incorrect.
Any small “climb” felt like quicksand as my trainer increased the resistance to account for those pinches, so I needed to be able to see them coming and anticipate.
Still, I made it through without my knees buckling or my heart exploding, and felt a huge sense of relief that it was over.
As did my husband and son, who ran in during the last kilometre to make sure that I wasn’t dying. Apparently there were noises…
Nothing. Nothing on the leaderboard, no file uploaded, nothing.
So I’ll make my own, based on the numbers:
Stage Ranking: 4th
But it’s okay that I didn’t get my time recorded for the last stage and will end up much lower down on the general leaderboard. It was a learning experience, and possibly a good three week training block with lots of strength work, climbing, and increased cardio. I’ll take it as that, and won’t worry about not being counted as 8th out of 422 women worldwide who took place in this event. Most of whom were allocated the maximum time for each stage, probably because they couldn’t figure out how the darn thing worked either.
As opposed to the 6799 men who signed up for this event, with only 1465 being able to log their time for at least one stage.
Conclusion: Garmin versus Zwift
So after seven stages of racing, will I be cancelling my Zwift subscription and switching to using just the Garmin?
No I won’t.
The Garmin is unbelievably harder. Not just to figure out (and upload) but also to ride on. It doesn’t care what your weight is (or the fake weight some have been said to put into Zwift to help their racing times). It doesn’t care if you’re drafting anyone to get those marginal gains (because there’s no one else with you). It’s just you and the green line. No freewheeling the downhills, and no coasting over the pinches. Pure power and resistance. So as a “downhill specialist” I appreciated not being disadvantaged because of the weight my avatar was dragging up the hill. Though I did miss the downhill advantages. A lot.
And it’s not that I mind staring at the green line. Lord knows I’ve done a lot of that on some of my longer Audax rides in the hillier sections so I can see what’s coming. I’m familiar with this screen (though it’s way easier in real life when you can also see the road ahead of you). The ‘road feel’ of the Garmin/Tacx combination is way stronger than on Zwift as well (even with Zwift set at 100%). But that’s also its downfall. It didn’t seem to account for momentum, and when you’d hit a pinch at 16% the trainer would near instantly resist at 16%. And that absolutely smashed my knees. With that much power being driven into the bike (all the power that I have. Which isn’t much but it’s enough) you don’t really want to change gears as it makes quite the racket. Assuming you don’t drop the chain as well.
Maybe it’s better with the Tacx integration, as the “real life” videos and backgrouns would be visually stunning, far more than the game-like Zwift screeens.
Still. I like my knees. So I think I’ll stick with Zwift for awhile. And riding outside where I can see the road.
My time for Stage 21 never did get recorded and I ended up being allocated the maximum time for that stage. This was 45 minutes… and as my time was only 30 minutes anyways it didn’t make that much of a difference.
So overall I ended up in 8th place for this event.
Not that it matters….