Cycling over mountains from the lounge room

Cyclist Vicki Whitelaw… riding “the hardest computer game in the world”. Photo by Danielle Nohra

AS a professional cyclist, Vicki Whitelaw rode all over the world. Despite retiring in 2011, the now mother-of-two still climbs over snow-capped mountains and rides through London with three-year-old Isaac by her side.

Her rides start early in the morning or during Isaac’s naps, but once he wakes he sits next to her, points to the computer and asks: “Which avatar are you, mum?”

He’s referring to Zwift, an online virtual computer game that uses a real-life rider and bike.

Some call it the “future of cycling” but Vicki, 41, of Dunlop, describes it as “probably, physically, the hardest computer game in the world”.

After riding in the Delhi Commonwealth Games and representing Australia at four UCI World Championships, Vicki wasn’t sure if she’d be sold on E-Sports but a year in and she says it ticks all the boxes.

“When you’re a stay-at-home mum you’re confined to the house,” she says.

“Now I can be in the lounge room while the kids are having a nap and get an effective workout.

“For a lot of people, they can’t get out on their bikes because of weather, traffic or pollution.

“With Zwift, you just need a mountain bike, a smart trainer device and a subscription. Then the resistance is governed by the course.”

Vicki has just finished an eight-week season and is eligible to compete in the CVR World Cup in Vancouver on June 22.

She’s one of 10 women chosen as part of the “Elite Women’s” category, who will line up in the middle of a velodrome in Canada and, rather than cycle around it, will race in front of large, flat screens.

There’s prizemoney to be won, too; about $US10,000, which Vicki says pays a lot more than cycling (outdoors) professionally.

And, when you compare it to famous races, such as the women’s “Tour of Flanders” in Belgium, which pays about $1000, it seems she’s right.

Vicki made a career out of cycling overseas for seven years before she decided to start a family six years ago.

“I turned down a really good contract but decided children were on the cards,” she says.

“I retired when I wanted to, which was a blessing, I wasn’t forced out through injury.

“It was a tough decision because I was at the peak of my career and I had more to give.”

Even though Vicki now has Isaac and a daughter, Jessica, 5, she says the competitive juices still exist.

But this time she gets to high five her family while she makes it to the top of the mountain first.

“When you’re retired, there’s a lot of talk of struggle for elite athletes,” she says.

“This has enabled me to cope with it, [retirement]. Just because I’ve had two kids, doesn’t mean I’m not competitive. It’s an outlet for me to still feel fit and competitive.”

There are three courses, or maps, in Zwift: Watopia, which is a fantasy world based on a real-life island, as well as the more realistic London and Richmond courses.  

Does the experience come close to the real thing? It’s certainly better than looking at a blank wall or watching a TV show, says Vicki.

“It’s incredibly motivating, which surprised me – I would ride every day on it,” she says.

“With outdoor riding you miss out on the social aspects but the social aspects are accommodated for with Zwift because you can text and chat as you do a group workout.

“You can be listening to that guy in Brazil and that person in the UK, which is amazing.

“[And], it’s accessible to anyone. The last CVR World Cup was won by a 42-year-old gardener from Britain.”

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