The cycling route was virtual, but the pedalling was as real as it gets for University of Guelph PhD student Heather Petrick.
In March, she pedalled 933 stationary kilometres in 24 hours. The ride was among the longest 24-hour virtual (Zwift) cycling feats by a woman. Upon completing it, she got off her bike, ate an entire pizza and had a well-deserved sleep.
“I was prepared for it to be a very challenging ride,” said Petrick, 25, speaking of the event’s degree of difficulty. “I had to be on the bike for 24 hours. I couldn’t sleep for 24 hours. During the ride, it was tough – but overall, I felt really good.”
Another cyclist stayed with her in-person throughout the ride, and others called and virtually rode with her for encouragement. “It was a big team effort.”
Petrick knows a lot about the bodies of athletes and how they burn energy. A PhD candidate in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS), under the supervision of Dr. Graham Holloway, she studies skeletal muscle metabolism related to exercise and physical inactivity, focusing on mitochondria. Stationary bikes are often involved in her research.
A former top varsity cross-country runner for the Gryphons, Petrick took up recreational cycling after recurring injuries made her give up competitive running. But her athletic drive, and her high aerobic capacity, couldn’t be kept down.
Members of Dr. Jamie Burr’s Human Performance and Health Research Laboratory in HHNS, where she did her master’s degree, included several cycling enthusiasts. She started riding with them, initially for fun. But casual cycling soon became serious.
“I slowly got into cycling with my lab group, but then I became a little more competitive and started training more,” she said. “I got that competitive drive and ambition back that I had as a runner. This was going to be my new sport.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put in-person cycling competition on hold, but numerous online events involve cyclists from around the world. She’s been racking up the kilometres on her bike hooked up to the popular Zwift cycling community. A multiplayer online physical training program, Zwift enables users to interact, train and compete in virtual events.
With years of athletic training behind her, and the muscle memory of a champion athlete, Petrick quickly became a Zwift powerhouse, chasing one feat of long-distance cycling after another.
At the beginning of 2021, she completed a virtual “Everesting” challenge on her stationary bike, climbing to the 8,848-metre height of Mount Everest — and then kept going to reach a total of 10,104 metres. Then in February, she climbed to an elevation of 10,050 metres over a distance of 400 km in a virtual Hells500 Roam challenge. It took 14 ½ hours.
Petrick said the “endurance mindset” she developed as a runner has transferred to cycling.
“The big difference between running and cycling is a matter of loading,” she said. “Running has a big impact on the joints, feet and legs. I always wanted to do more as a runner — higher mileage, more volume, more training for faster times. I wanted to do more than my body would let me.”
That kind of athletic ambition can be fulfilled on a bike, she said, because long-distance cycling is less destructive on the body than long-distance running.
Petrick ran for the Gryphons from 2013 to 2018. She was the Canadian Interuniversity Sport and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) cross-country rookie of the year in ’13 and the OUA cross-country champ in ’14. She was part of five national and six provincial cross-country and track and field titles with the Gryphons. As a junior, she held both the Canadian indoor and outdoor records for the 5,000m on the track.
“For me, it’s the challenge of attempting something that might not be possible to do,” she said, explaining what drives her. “It’s having a goal, training for it and chasing it. That’s the fun of it.”
Petrick’s PhD is a joint degree between U of G and Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Beginning in May, she will spend just over a year abroad.
She hopes to join the European cycling scene and try her hand at in-person cycling races, if they are allowed.
“My PhD research and cycling complement each other well. I definitely want to see where I can take myself as a competitive cyclist.”