Zwifter Ventures Back Into the Wild To Find The Balance She Has in Virtual Racing

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Liz Van Houweling
Liz Van Houweling's life-changing formidable experience at the 2021 USA Cross Nats!

I raced in real life a lot. It was a massive part of my life. I met my husband on a group road ride, and we spent our first years as a couple traveling the region to participate in mountain, road, gravel, and cyclocross events.

Liz Van Houweling Gravel bike racing

We got married and had kids, and these days I’m primarily on the trainer, where I happily bury myself while racing against people across the world. This commitment and my history with real-life racing have enabled me to compete at a high level in virtual racing.

 

I now usually save the great outdoors for leisurely rides, either solo or with my kids and husband. During these relaxing rides, I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the simple joy of riding a bike.

The 2021 USA National Cyclocross Championships were held relatively close to my house (by US standards!), and it tempted me to dip my toe into the real world again to test my Zwift fitness.

 

I purchased another USA Cycling license ($100 now?!) and threw my hat in the ring for a mountain bike race and a few local cyclocross races. They were a blast, and the results confirmed my belief! Virtual cycling made me a better real-life racer.

Preparation

After months of vacillating over if I should race the Master’s category at CX Nationals in an attempt to earn my first coveted Stars and Stripes jersey, I made the last-minute decision to give it a go. I called my mom to plead for her assistance, booked a hotel, paid the $150 registration, packed up my two and 3-year-old kids, and ensured my bike was in perfect working order (or rather, my husband did because he’s the best personal mechanic!).

I drove 5.5 hours to Chicago the day before the race, only to get there and realize I needed physical evidence that I had a COVID-19 vaccination. After waiting a couple of hours for my husband to get home and text me a picture of my vaccination card, I could pick up everything I needed to race.

 

My mom met me at the hotel to help watch the kids. Race day came, and I got lost trying to figure out where to enter the park. It was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit as I pre-rode the course. I agonized over what clothes, gloves, shoes, and booties to wear. Decision made—heart in my throat.

bike on a rack on back of a car with man looking on
Packed up, with my mechanic (husband) sending me off!
children jumping on a bed
The kids thought the hotel was a real treat!

The Race

Finally, I was on the start line, ready to fly. I got the holeshot and steadily built up a 30+ second lead as the laps to go ticked down. I could feel my fingers and toes growing increasingly numb. The mistakes started accumulating as I had trouble braking and shifting, and my head was foggy. Eventually, second place reeled me in with one lap to go.

woman cycling on grass

I couldn’t get to the last corner in the first position as I wanted. When I tried to launch my sprint, my competitor cut across to the edge of the road, forcing me to brake and go around the other side (all fair in racing!).

 

I tried to sprint again, but the giant gloves I wore in a futile attempt to keep my hands from freezing prevented me from being able to shift correctly. I ended up losing by a tire width.

Liz Van Houweling sprinting with another woman cycling race finish

The Emotions

I sat down in the parking lot with my head in my hands. I was heartbroken. I was freezing. I was exhausted. I was beyond devastated.

 

My mom made fruitless attempts to help me feel better, telling me how proud she was. The words fell meaninglessly on deaf ears as my children loudly whined about how cold and bored they were.

 

I just wanted to be home. I had to drive back to Iowa, pick up my husband, and then immediately turn around the next day to go to a wedding in Indiana, 9 hours away. All with two small children in tow. It was too much to fathom at the moment.

 

My family sacrificed so much for me to be there, and I was SO close to achieving a huge goal, a dream. I didn’t know when I would get another opportunity to achieve something like that.

Virtual Racing

I had a big season of indoor racing coming up quickly, and I was unsure how I was going to handle it mentally. Little did I know, I had also gotten frostbite on a few of my toes from the CX race. The pain was excruciating, especially during standing high power efforts, and only seemed to get worse as time progressed.

The season’s first Premier Division race was a couple of weeks later, and I ended up taking away the individual win while my team took a solid second. I celebrated joyfully with my Saris NoPinz teammates over Discord.

 

The Saris men communicated their elation through the Discord text. Countless others I’ve raced with virtually and IRL sent messages. I could feel the strength of the community and the connections I’d built.

Zwift woman cycling Saris Nopinz

Then a month later, I was wearing my USA kit and racing for a chance to win a rainbow jersey. The experience is one I can’t even begin to articulate. I crossed the finish line and slumped over my handlebars, utterly exhausted.

 

I didn’t win, but the journey was enriching and made me proud of what I could accomplish. A flood of congratulatory messages filled my heart, and the sense of achievement was like nothing I’d experienced.

Conclusions

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the events at CX Nats and how it compares to virtual racing indoors. I sincerely miss real-life racing. You meet and interact with amazing people and travel to new places. You get to feel a sense of exhilaration as you speed through the open air.

 

But it’s also time-consuming, expensive, stressful, and a whole host of other things that indoor riding is not.

 

With virtual racing, I can still have incredible experiences and life-fulfilling emotions. Bike racing has a purpose and a direction that motivates me. Whether I’m satisfied with my performance or not, it’s not a far commute to a shower, some food, and loved ones.

 

It makes all the difference to me. I’m beyond grateful that virtual racing allows me to feel like a real bike racer, even if it’s not in the traditional sense.

Woman cyclist Liz Van Houweling with her children outside
The smiles did not last long in this weather!

There is no one correct answer for everyone, but for me, there has to be a balance of indoor and outdoor racing. Indoor specialists are a whole new breed of cyclists, and I’m proud to be part of this amazing class of athletes.

 

Until the next time you see me racing in real life (most likely, hopefully in much better weather!), Ride On!

Where’s your balance between cycling and life?

Comment below! Your fellow cyclists want to know.

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