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Belfast man becomes virtual leader of the one sport on the rise in lockdown

Zwift racing helping riders stay connected to teams and friends


Chris McGlinchey on his way to winning the Cycling Ireland Zwift League event last Saturday, April 11

Chris McGlinchey on his way to winning the Cycling Ireland Zwift League event last Saturday, April 11

Chris McGlinchey on his way to winning the Cycling Ireland Zwift League event last Saturday, April 11

Each Saturday morning for the last three weeks Chris McGlinchey has been dishing out punishment from his garage.

The 26-year-old from Belfast has dominated what is surely the biggest sporting event of the lockdown which has seen over 1,000 living rooms and garages around the country, and a little bit beyond, brought together on the Zwift racing computer platform.

McGlinchey has previously excelled in mountain-biking, downhill racing, cyclocross and road racing, but his success on the virtual roads has been even more pronounced and on Saturday he made it three wins from three against an enormous field that included two-time Tour de France stage winner Thomas de Gendt.

In normal circumstances McGlinchey, who races for the Vitus Pro Cycling P/B Brother UK team, would be preparing for their main goal of the year, the Tour of Yorkshire, but with everything from the Rás to the Tour de France either delayed or cancelled, Cycling Ireland's 12-week Zwift League has helped filled the large gaps in the racing calendar.

Virtual racing is one of the few sports that is experiencing a boom during these isolation days but the amateur rider, who was second in the 2017 national road race championships and won silver at this year's cyclocross championships, is well ahead of the curve.

"When (Cycling Ireland) launched this it was music to my ears," says McGlinchey, who also works as a marketing manager for Vitus bikes.

"A lot of people on there don’t know the ins and outs of the racing yet and haven’t really got the knack for it, even though they would ordinarily be super, super strong."

McGlinchey has been Zwift racing for 18 months, after his team got invited to participate in some e-races, and says the fields have grown almost 10-fold in size in recent weeks.

He uses his regular Vitus training bike connected to a smart turbo trainer and positions himself about three feet from a large screen that displays a projection of himself in the simulated peloton.

Cycling Ireland have had almost 1,000 people register for these events and their open status means more can join in, like De Gendt, who finished eighth on Saturday.

"It's very different to training and racing on race bikes," he explains.

"For me, I struggle to put power out on the turbo trainer, I'd prefer to get out of the saddle, sprinting and force the bike and you can't really do that on the turbo trainer. So it takes a bit of time for your muscles and your legs to adjust to riding indoors."

The tactics are similar to road racings with drafting and positioning is key but it can just take a while to get a feel for how to implement them.

"It's like that glass pedal approach in the breakaway – do the same amount as the person doing the least. But for me it's all about being in that top 10 or 15 and not missing a move, because if you miss a split it’s way harder to get back on than in road racing."

And while the platform is virtual, the physical effort is very real. McGlinchey won the most recent event on a 40km simulated route around the streets of London in a time of 48mins 20secs with an average of 354 watts.

Belgium-based Irish rider Imogen Cotter won the women's classification.

Cycling Ireland have added some extra features, streaming the event on their Facebook page with regular Eurosport commentator Declan Quigley on hand to provide commentary.

The overall series results will be drawn from each rider's best eight finishes from the 12 events, to take account of the virtual mechanicals that can occur, like a computer crash or Wi-Fi dropping out.

And while a smart turbo trainer will set you back at least €800 – if you can actually find one with demand outstripping supply – a regular, more affordable, turbo and a power meter will be enough to give you freedom to ride on the virtual roads.

"For me, it's just about keeping a bit of a routine going during this period. It helps to keep the motivation going because we don't know how long this is going to last and we need to be ready when it starts again."

Cycling Ireland have also been running midweek training sessions while Nicolas Roche has led some group rides on the last two Sundays, but apart from the physical benefits the online riding has helped people stay connected to friends and regular cycling networks.

"It's as close as you're going to get at the moment to feeling like you're out cycling with your mates," McGlinchey says.

"And it's cool to see some of the Irish guys who wouldn't normally be on Zwift getting involved, just to do some racing."

His Vitus team have also launched a campaign called #rideforCALM for their charity partner Campaign Against Living Miserably, who help promote the positive impact cycling can have on your mental health.

And during these difficult days Zwift is helping McGlinchey stay fit and calm.

Belfast Telegraph