New York — For decades, cyclists hoping to stay fit through the winter have been presented with the same choice: bundle up and brave the elements or resign themselves to hours of frustration on an indoor training device. Basically, a cyclist can suffer from frostbite or boredom.
No longer. We live in a marvelous age of technical innovation, where a robot will make tortillas for you or tell you dumb jokes. Cycling, too, has been disrupted by technology: There’s a new generation of "smart" bike trainers and software that merge gaming displays with resistance and rider input. To put it simply, if you want to simulate riding up a Mt Ventoux from your living room, you can.
Zwift isn’t the first company to create digital training software — there are competitors like Peloton, TrainerRoad, and SufferFest — but it’s differentiated itself by adding layers of social gaming to the experience. The company has created a virtual universe in which riders from all over the world train together in digital harmony.
"I missed riding with my friends in Central Park," says founder and CEO Eric Min. "I was really trying to recreate that experience in a virtual setting."
Though Zwift has been in business less than two years, more than a million people have taken the $10-a-month service for a spin. The company recently closed a series A round of $27m, and has raised a total of $45m over the last few years.
How to begin
For this test, I paired the Zwift software with the $1,200 Wahoo KICKR smart trainer. The setup is fairly simple. Remove your bike’s rear wheel, and mount the frame onto the KICKR via the quick release mechanism. Then open the Wahoo Utility app and calibrate the KICKR. Finally, open the Zwift software on your computer, iPhone, or iPad (Android compatibility is coming soon) and pair the KICKR (along with any cadence or heart-rate sensors) to Zwift.
You’re required to enter some personal data such as your height and weight so the software can accurately calculate your speed in the Zwift universe. You’re represented in the Zwift world with a customisable avatar (choose your own bike, helmet, sunglasses, jersey, wheels, etc.). I went with the most fashionable choices available, but as an avid fan of absurd socks, I was disappointed by the options immediately available.
As riders spend more time on Zwift, they unlock more custom clothing and equipment options. I’m saving up for some sweet new socks.
I found the optimal setup to be running Zwift on my computer while using my TV as a monitor. Then I used the Zwift Mobile Link app on my phone as a remote control to manipulate the software on my computer. This allowed me to respond to messages from other riders or chart a new course without moving my hands too far from the handlebars.
If that sounds complicated, you can always just run the software on your phone or tablet, but it’s a shame to experience Zwift’s graphics on such a small screen. No matter what device you use, make sure you plug it in. Zwift is pretty effective at draining your battery.
The Zwift world
Once everything is paired, select the type of ride you’d like to do and set off. Zwift offers a multitude of options from casual group rides you can set up with friends to races and structured interval or power training. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can veer off the preset route and follow your avatar along any of the 75km of roads around one of their three universes. There’s Watopia, a fictional volcanic island, London, and Richmond, Virginia at the moment.
Because this is still cycling, there’s the issue of cheating. Your speed in Zwift all comes down to a single calculation: watts per kilogram. Watts are the amount of power you produce and "kilogram" is the fancy European term for how much you weigh. Some people lie about their weight to achieve ludicrous speeds, but the company flags any riders that suddenly display superhuman performance.
The first few minutes using the KICKR in the Zwift universe are shocking. Just like in real life, you can physically feel the resistance ramp up with the gradient as you turn onto a hill. It’s followed by a moment akin to weightlessness as you crest said hill, the resistance dissipates, and you begin to plummet down a descent. The software encourages you to "close the gap" to nearby riders and take advantage of their draft.
If you catch up to another rider, you can feel the resistance fade as you take advantage of the virtual shelter behind the other avatar. Basically, what your eyes see on the screen, your legs feel through the pedals.
The scenery varies depending on which Zwift course you choose to ride. The graphics are visually impressive, even if your avatar is sometimes clumsy. It will occasionally ride directly through other avatars instead of going around them.
I mostly used Zwift and the KICKR for power-based interval training. Zwift and other indoor programs like TrainerRoad and SufferFest excel at making the most of your limited workout time. If I wanted to go do intervals, I could just start them right away. The software automatically adjusted the resistance on the Wahoo KICKR so that I was always forced to produce the correct amount of power. And unlike real life, there are no "garbage miles"; you don’t have to soft-pedal through city traffic or wait at a red light or worry about getting run off the road by a car. Just put out your watts and get the pain over with.
When you’re done riding, Zwift makes it simple to share your results with automatic uploads of data to other services like Strava (where most cyclists keep track of their rides).
Zwift isn’t just for data-obsessed racing nerds. It’s also a social experience. In real life, riders meet at coffee shops and banter with each other as they tick off miles. It’s the same on Zwift. In fact, this is where the technology really shines.
Riders can send messages of encouragement (or trash talk each other) via voice-to-text messages inside the software. Zwift is working on adding a video chat feature as well, so you can see your friends suffer in the actual world as well as the digital.
In the meantime, people are finding ways to hack the live experience, most notably by sharing their rides on Facebook Live.
The community is obsessive, to say the least. During my testing, there were always at least 1,000 other riders logged in and putting in miles alongside me. Zwift even offers users the option to "just watch" the action if they want to watch friends or top-level pros race each other. Everyone seems to find their niche. "I just found a Zwift group for people who are depressed," Min says. There’s even a podcast for Zwift devotees.
"We don’t have to hire instructors," Min boasted. "There are armies of people volunteering to lead rides."
I found the social aspects of Zwift to be more exhausting than the workouts. It was hard to shake the feeling that I was always violating some unknown social norm. Messages are constantly flashing at the top right corner of the display from complete strangers. They can come from a rider sitting on your wheel or someone miles away, so it’s hard to tell what’s happening on occasion. Should I say hi to that guy? Was that message from a stranger directed at me? Should I just start talking? Do I have to?
I just wanted to suffer in anonymity.
For the verbally stingy, Zwift allows you to respond to messages with preset answers like "Ride on". I decided to just randomly hit the "Ride on" button every few minutes to cover myself, socially speaking. If you’d rather not deal with it at all, Zwift allows you to mute chats in your game settings.
"It’s always good to respond to folks," says Greg Fisher, a spokesman for the company. "Be nice — everyone’s working hard and sweating, and could use a kind word."
Luckily, I don’t think I made any mortal enemies during my test. One morning I set off on a ride around Zwift Island on my own. As I explored, I settled in with a group of riders going roughly the same pace. We started exchanging pulls, and they welcomed me to their group. I thanked them for having me and just sort of kept living my life. After the ride, one of the other cyclists even gave me kudos for my effort on Strava.
If you’re doing a structured workout, a sort of heads-up display appears in front of your avatar’s face to let other riders know that you are Being Very Serious Right Now and should probably be left alone.
There’s no denying the software alleviates the boredom of traditional indoor training, but it isn’t perfect. If you want to get the fullest possible experience, you’ll be attempting to pair about three devices at once. At least one is bound to decide to be difficult each time, which is frustrating when you’re trying to cram a workout into a narrow time window. Things get better after the initial setup, but it’s by no means as simple as just hopping on the bike and pedaling off.
At the moment, Zwift is geared towards the competitive cyclist, but Min wants to broaden the software’s appeal. "Within the next year you’ll see a fourth experience that’s more applicable to a spin class," he says. "It will be a group event, it will be instructor-led, and it will be real-time."
Min envisions a future of workouts powered by Zwift. "We’re launching with running this summer," he said. (I spotted a few runners during my test, which came as a surprise to Fisher. "Running is not live yet, not even in beta, but there are a very few folks out testing it," he says.)
Min would eventually like to see Zwift built into cardio equipment like treadmills and rowing machines.
"Row on," I guess.