37 hours and 1,000km on Zwift: Willie Smit’s mindblowing lockdown ride
At 12.01am last Wednesday, Burgos-BH’s Willie Smit got on his bike and started pedalling. Thirty-seven hours and 999 km later, he rose from the saddle, pushed a big gear for longer than seemed plausible, sat down, smiled a little smile, and raised his hands over his head as 1,000 km ticked over.
In that eternity on the bike, spinning digital circles of Zwift’s Watopia, Smit had climbed about 8,000 metres, averaged 31.8 km/h, and livestreamed it to the world. As his avatar clocked up the milestone, Smit was thronged by fans on Zwift, and pedalling alongside his friend Pieter Seyffert, riding half a world away in Johannesburg.
Finally, Smit let his legs and the trainer wind down to a stop, concluding one of the most unbelievable Zwift feats in a month full of them.
One of cycling’s toughest riders
Willie Smit is no stranger to suffering. The South African rider has had a career – a life – marked by tragedy and transcendence, flipping between devastating lows and redemption.
Born into poverty and neglect in South Africa, Smit was in gangs as a child, witnessed domestic abuse, was removed from the care of his mother at the age of 12, discovered cycling as a teen, and signed a contract with Vini-Fantini-Nippo in 2014. After a season plagued with illness, his contract was not renewed, and Smit spent an anonymous few years on the African and European continental circuits.
In 2018, after years in the wilderness, Smit jumped from Continental-level racing in Spain to the WorldTour, where he made a name for himself as a tough, dependable team player riding for Katusha-Alpecin.
Amid growing uncertainty surrounding the team’s future, Smit got a call-up to his first Grand Tour, the 2019 Vuelta a España. The race was something like his life in microcosm. He suffered, crashing hard on stage 7, and again on stage 14. After riding for the last week with 16 stitches in his knee, Smit crossed the finish line in Madrid, chalking up an emotional milestone that was much more significant than his 118th spot on GC. As we wrote at the time, in light of his broken childhood and journey to reach that point, it’s hard to contextualise resilience like that.
The high didn’t last long. That turned out to be Smit’s last race in a WorldTour team; his off-season began early, with complications from his Vuelta crashes, three teeth extractions, infections and rounds of antibiotics, and an acute fascia tear in his right leg.
While Smit was dealing with rehabilitation from chronic injury, his contract was up in the air. After months of speculation, Katusha-Alpecin was folded into Israel Start-Up Nation, and Smit didn’t go along for the ride, left hovering in contract purgatory. Finally, in mid-November, it was announced that he’d signed for the Spanish ProTeam Burgos-BH – a squad of plucky purple-and-red-clad underdogs – and preparations for the 2020 season began.
And then, a few months later in a world grappling with pandemic, the season stopped.
Which brings us to 12.01am last Wednesday, when Smit rolled off on a thousand-kilometre virtual ride, fundraising for South African Cycling to allow them to support a worthy rider to the Olympics.
Smit and his wife Mandé had been forced into self-isolation in Andorra by COVID-19 a month earlier, and in the time since he’d put in several 500 km+ weeks on the indoor trainer and started to settle into a groove. In a post on his website, Smit wrote: “with lockdown in full force and stringent measures in place, life is confined to our apartment, with only occasional forays out to the local supermarket to buy basic living essentials.
“Like everybody else, my training has been limited to indoor sessions. With no racing on the immediate horizon, staying focussed is challenging. Nevertheless, a daily routine is critical, as is maintaining a base-level of form and fitness.”
Smit, whose previous longest ride was a mere 500 km (!) in the real world, found himself pondering the career of Muhammad Ali on that month of indoor rides, finding parallels in his journey and Ali’s.
Like the boxing legend, Smit had suffered through adversity, and overcome numerous obstacles in his sporting career. And like the boxing legend, Smit has a connection to Parkinson’s disease – his grandmother, who raised him from his teens onwards, also suffered from the affliction.
“Then there was Muhammad’s disdain for being held back,” Smit wrote. “No, he wasn’t afraid of exploring his limits, case in point his iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and ‘Thrilla in Manila’ bouts. It was as if something clicked inside my head, inspiring me to do something special.”
The circumstances of that ‘special’ ride weren’t ideal: Smit’s Andorra apartment was hardly the ideal set-up for ultra-endurance pandemic-times indoor cycling. His 1,000 km odyssey on the trainer was conducted 2,000 m above sea level, adding a significant degree of difficulty to an already mind-boggling challenge.
Due to the circumstances of the lockdown, Smit had no fan to keep him cool on the trainer – meaning that his fluid intake was greatly increased, necessitating more regular bathroom breaks. Smit was caught out by the lockdowns, and was short on gear – in the apartment in Andorra he had only two pairs of cycling shorts, which he rotated between showers and generous bastings of Vaseline to minimise saddle sores.
He also had no electrolyte or energy drinks on hand, with his wife keeping him supplied with water mixed with salt and sugar, homemade food and Coca-Cola diluted with water. “Mandé even helped me up the stairs to our bedroom for a short nap after three-quarters of the way through the ride and made sure I stayed awake during the inevitable dark periods,” Smit wrote.
After an hour’s nap, Smit says “the final 230 km passed almost effortlessly”, and when he finally stepped off the bike he was able to reflect on what he’d achieved. “Thinking back, the journey seems both blurry and crystal clear. Things like each and every coffee consumed after 500 km having no effect at all, or my duct-taping my shoe to a broken pedal along the way; these are just a couple of things that are highlighted in the memory bank,” Smit wrote.
A new perspective
You’d think that a thousand-kilometre outing on Zwift would be enough to swear any rider off the bike for a while, but Willie Smit is not just any rider. Two days later, he was back at it, finishing third in a Zwift race where he averaged 312 watts for 35 minutes.
Smit is a professional cyclist in a world where professional cycling has been put on hold, but he seems to have approached that obstacle with a surprisingly clear-eyed perspective.
He’s also got a new target to work towards that makes his 1,000 km ride look tiny in comparison: “If the professional cycling season ends up being cancelled, I would like to attempt a 2,000 km ride in less than 70 hours. That is the idea for now and if it sounds a little crazy, that is because it is. These kinds of challenges change a person’s perspective in ways that I’m not sure how to describe.”