Dodgy adventures in the virtual world

A skier and his dog head up the Teton Canyon Road on Saturday east of Driggs. There was just enough snow for groomers to set tracks and smooth it out for skate skiers. In the background, Mount Owen, the Grand, Table Mountain and the Middle Teton can be seen. (Jerry Painter photo)

Last week, sweat was dripping off my face as if a tiny sprinkler was perched on my crown.

I’d been spinning hard on my stationary bike for the past mile when I finally caught up and passed some dude from Switzerland. Or was it Australia? Either way, I was representing my country and I had to make a good showing — even though I was in 8th place in the lowest of the slow groups on Zwift.

I was grinding away in my virtual reality world when real life disaster struck.

Zwift is an online computer program that pits you against other people on stationary training bikes around the world. The stationary bikes have a sensor that broadcasts, via Bluetooth or other means, the bike’s speed, a rider’s effort, and other data to your computer. The information is uploaded to the online “virtual world” where you can see how other riders are doing.

At 6:15 a.m., I had taken off on a 17-mile race through the streets of London with 50 other virtual bike riders. It was my second race in the virtual world and I was trying to tell myself it is only for conditioning. But then this guy from China was catching up to me (a tiny country flag sits proudly next to each person’s name) and I couldn’t let him pass me. If he’s in China, he must be spinning in the middle of the night, so I have no excuse after a good night’s sleep.

I picked up my speed until I saw his image fade back. It was then I saw the Swiss/Aussie biker dude up in the distance. My competitive juices kicked in and I slowly reeled him in and passed. That’s when the real life fan sitting next to my bike fell over. The temperature in my man cave went from tolerable midsummer to a scorching Death Valley in July. “Julie HELP!” I shouted to my wife. Still wearing pajamas, Julie burst into the room detecting a bit of panic in my voice. She looked around, expecting to see blood or an incapacitated husband crumpled on the floor. I was still pedaling for all I was worth.

“WHAT?!” “Could you fix my fan, it fell over?” I said. I couldn’t get the hint of panic out of my voice.

She looked at me puzzled. “Why can’t you just get off your bike and fix it yourself?” Like the angel she is, she stood up the fan so it was blowing back on my face.

“If I stop now that dude from Australia will catch up and pass me,” I said seriously.

She left the room shaking her head. “You’re taking this thing way too seriously.”

I looked at my position of 8th place on the race list and thought, “I’m not taking this seriously enough.”

Some things I’ve learned about Zwift and online racing.

One is that not all bicycle trainers are created equal. Some trainers are called “smart trainers.” The “game” or course you ride controls the trainer and simulates hills by making the pedaling harder or easier. It even simulates drafting behind other cyclists. The fancier (more expensive) trainers are more accurate and represent effort more precisely. “Dumb” trainers, like the one I have, are less precise and measure only one level of effort — and not too precisely. Effort is calculated by using a person’s weight to measure speed and effort. Of course, that gives riders a way to cheat (something some cyclists can’t seem to resist). They can fudge on their weight to make their output look more impressive. They can also sign up for races or rides in groups that are beneath their level. Eventually, Zwift kicks them out or disqualifies them, but perhaps it offers them a temporary ego boost.

With my less intelligent trainer (and operator), I figure I’m doomed to a certain level no mater how hard I pedal. I guess I really need to take it less seriously and look at it as a means of staying in shape — unless I see some dude coming up behind me from Australia or Switzerland or China.

• • •

I was reminded Saturday of how snow turns giant beasts into stealthy ghost-like creatures.

I was skiing down the Teton Canyon Road (there was just enough snow at the time). I told myself to keep my eye out for moose and deer since I was probably the first one down the road in the morning. Often the first person down the trail has a good chance of seeing critters before the extra activity spooks the animals away. I was there a little after 7 a.m.

After skiing about as far as I wanted to go for the day, I turned around and headed back. After about 50 yards or less, I came across two sets of fresh moose tracks passing over mine that weren’t there only minutes before. The pair — one was smaller than the other, perhaps a calf — must have been waiting in the trees or bushes for me to pass, then rushed across the road and disappeared again in the trees. It’s amazing how a half-ton animal can move in complete silence. I later wondered if it was a game this cow and calf played with passing skiers — moosey hide-and-seek.