Yesterday evening, I finished work, had dinner with my family and then cycled up Alpe d'Huez.
Not the real, physical one, but a simulacra of one in Zwift, the virtual cycling app / game / training tool. I wasn't on my own, there were thousands of other cyclists on the mountain. Well not on the mountain - in their garages, sheds and living rooms.
Over the last few months there's been a lot written / spoken / tweeted about the Metaverse. Especially since the company that makes Facebook (previously also called Facebook) changed it's name to Meta. Of course nobody who regularly uses the Metaverse is calling it "the Metaverse". They are spending time in Roblox. Or playing Minecraft. Or even Second Life (for the retronauts).
This concept of a virtual world where people can interact in a 3D way has been around for some time. I remember working on virtual cafe for Nescafe, as a graduate at a small web agency all the way back in 1999. It was slow. People still had dial-up. Nobody was really interested in a branded cafe experience. Especially one sponsored by an instant coffee company.
The other day someone asked me if TodayTix Group had a Metaverse strategy. I can imagine the company selling tickets for virtual events. But so much of what the company does is about getting people together at live events. It sounded odd even verbalising it. For me the hours spend in Zwift are a means to an end. An attempt to do some exercise and get a bit less unfit in a fun and convenient way.
So what's next for the Metaverse? Maybe people will spend even more time in these places - the price of hardware will fall and faster internet connections become more ubiquitous.
Will people choose the Meta over reality? With better 3D googles? And more painfully realistic recreations of alpine climbs? I'm not so sure. I can't see people choosing the Meta in-place of reality. If you offered me a week cycling in France or 7-days on a virtual trainer I know which one I'd choose. But as a facilitator of convenience or entertainment there's a place in our connected world for these virtual spaces.
A late autumn day, and despite the bright sun, the temperature is only a few degrees above freezing. A day for full winter cycling kit. Belgian style merino hat, long bib tights, windstopper jacket. It's a Monday and I've got a few hours free. Plodding along the quiet back roads that zig-zag across this part of Northamptonshire. Single track in places. Almost car free, except for some farm traffic.
I'm not going far, just looping through local villages. They are places I know well, but usually by car and as always you see a different place on the bike. The hills seem steeper (of course) and the red-brown fields on the other side of the hedgerows look heavy. Waterlogged and uninviting.
The rain gets heavier. It's time to head for home, luckily I'm not more than a few miles away from a warm shower and hot drink. I get my head down, peddling in the small ring, almost home.
That moment when you let go of the saddle and instead of swerving off to the left or right they glide forwards, feet whirring almost in a blur.
When our eldest Vi learned to ride her bike, it was a slow and painful process. I’d bought a heavy old bike off eBay. At that the time we lived at the end of a cul-de-sac. On a Sunday morning we’d go out and try to get her riding on her own, but it usually ended up in both of us getting frustrated. Bike on the floor. Tears. Shouting. She can ride her bike now. We soon got rid of that clunky old bike for something more lightweight and easy to manoeuvre.
A few years on and it’s Hazel’s turn. Full of gung-ho enthusiasm to emulate her sister. We don’t live on the ‘banjo’ anymore, instead there’s a few quiet village roads which have served as good training. Hazel wobbling along with me running alongside. Grabbing the saddle as she veers towards the curb. Almost there, but not quite.
Easter time and we are away on holiday, staying on the old Stanegate. There’s some traffic during the day to the Roman fort of Vindolanda, but after closing time there’s no traffic at all. After a few test runs she’s racing up and down the Roman road.
Over the next few days we find a few different routes. A disused railway in Kielder Forest and a dedicated trail at Wallington. But it's the deserted Roman Road each evening that's the favourite.
I’ve ridden lots of different bikes, in lots of different places. But this is the first time I’ve ridden fixed gear. With no brakes. On a wooden track that slopes to over 40 degrees in the banking.
But this isn’t just any wooden track - this is the Olympic Velodrome. It’s immediately familiar. I’ve spent hours watching Hoy, Wiggins, Pendleton, Trott and many more speed round. Only a few days before my ride, the world championships were filling the place to the rafters.
It’s a different feel today. No crowd and instead of sitting in the gods cheering I’m stood in the middle of the track. Watching the big screen, waiting for my turn to record a flying lap time.
We’ve already had an hour or so of coaching. Learning how to move across the blue boards of the ‘Côte d'Azur’ and speed round the track. Taking just enough speed to hold an improbably high line near the top of the vertiginous banking. I adjust my seat again. In my mind channelling the great Eddy Merckx, though in reality it’s just nerves.
Then I’m off. Slowly at first. Building up speed so I can take the bend as high as possible and then swoop down to the start line. Legs pumping, gripping too tight to the bars.
Down over the line and into the first bend. I’m trying to hold the black line and ride the shortest distance. In my excitement and enthusiasm I’m way above the line. Up near the red, riding too far as I catapult into the back straight. Then round the final bend and I’m already facing the finish line, one last effort and I’m done. I’m breathing so hard that I’m not able to look up and see my time. I slow down and drift back into the middle of the track, as the next rider starts their charge.
My time is pretty terrible, but that’s ok. I’ve ridden the Olympic velodrome and I’ve got a few pointers about where I went wrong. I’ll be back to take some laps soon.
Yorkshire. Huge crowds. Good weather. Great riding. Good company and a long ride.
For the many British pro-riders who didn’t make the tour (or those that did and then didn’tget past the first week), the 2014 Tour de France is probably one to forget. But for British based cycling fans the 101st edition will stay long in the memory.
A dash for the train. Greens and brown blurred as the pedals spin and breathing hurries. The fields have a haze of green, early shoots of growth, wet with a misty rain. A pheasant fails to hide against this baize, an obvious shot, ready to be potted.
Into the effort now. Traffic grows; plumber, Golf, Audi, school bus. Past the two small woodlands, then down and over the little bridge, and up the bailey to skirt the embankment and into a village now fortified by roads and starter homes.
Down into the town, that welcomes careful drivers, though it does a poor job of attracting them, to make the train. Now I’m the one glistening with a morning dew.
The train pulls away, South. From the carriage window a kestrel hovers, already at work.
Our latest bike is a very different machine to my usual rides. The Kona MinUte, a small load carrying bike, is no XtraCycle, but it’s certainly capable of lugging a fair amount of gear around. Our aim isn’t to try and move large loads, but to get the girls out on the back of the bike. With a good sized platform (and some careful drilling for the Yepp Maxi bike seat mount), we should be able to get 2 passengers on the back, but for now it’s set up for just one.
But it’s not the technical specs, gearing or comfortable position that makes this bike my favourite ride, it’s getting out on the road with Violet. Who knew load carrying could be so much fun.
Photo: Violet and I heading home from Hoggeston Fête, taken by Emma.
An update to a post I made this time last year adding Froome to the list of British cyclists who have worn yellow at Le Tour. As I mentioned when I posted about this before, nationalism and sport are tricky areas, especially when we start talking about British sports people. Of the people on the list only 3 were born in the UK (by birth Millar, Wiggins and Froome are Maltese, Belgian and Kenyan respectively), which throws into relief what British might mean in this context.
From my perspective I’d hope to cheer anyone who rides with panache in the pro peloton, but as a British cyclist myself I take some pride in the performances of people representing British cycling. So to these six I say Chapeau.