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Thursday, 1 March 2018

Zwift Review – Virtual Indoor Cycling

zwift screenshotIndoor cycling is boring, right? Mind numbing. A hamster on a wheel. In a cage. Wearing Lycra. Joy. Yet turbo training is undergoing a makeover with the arrival of smart trainers and virtual training websites such as Zwift, Bkool, Tour de Giro and TrainerRoad. The roads may be pixels but your sweat is real.
Virtual turbo rides have been invading my Strava feed for some time and given I’m a relative newbie to indoor cycling I was keen to log some indoor miles in Zwift’s virtual world. Could Zwift make turbo training enjoyable?
The future of indoor cycling is, er, here. Almost. Zwift is a virtual cycling world with much potential. Indoor rides with your friends, strangers or pro riders. Ride fantasy courses or famous real world courses. With virtual equipment, I can also ride fantasy bikes and pretend I’m rich or ride with no socks and pretend I’m cool.
Want structured training? Zwift also gives you proper intervals and custom workouts bringing serious competition to the likes of TrainerRoad.
The game is still in Beta which means the features are limited but evolving by the month. For example you can only ride two courses at the moment and you can’t choose which course to ride.
Yet you can see the future. New courses mimicking famous climbs, fantasy rides through alien landscapes (you can already cycle underwater!), global and local races. It’s all a question of how real the game becomes. Virtual road rash? Virtual piss in the bushes after x miles? I can imagine a Grand Theft Auto version of Zwift where your avatar pukes after a hard interval or gets into road rage fights with angry drivers.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Just how good is Zwift now? Let’s begin with the basics for those who are new to the virtual indoor cycling world.

What is Zwift?

I drink only when my avatar drinks
I drink only when my avatar drinks
Zwift is a new spin on indoor training with virtual courses and structured workouts. Billed as ‘social indoor riding’ you can meet other riders, race and join group rides. Check out the promo video at the end of the blog.

Why should I care?

If the marketing is to be believed you’ll make indoor cycling more fun, or at least some fun, meet new people, and ultimately become a better rider. You can also ride famous roads without leaving your man shed and you may even see a pro like Simon Yates speeding past you.

Ok, I’m in. What equipment do I need?

A turbo trainer supported by Zwift, this doesn’t have to be a smart trainer. A laptop with a half decent spec and a reasonable internet connection. A speed sensor on your bike that supports ANT+, like those that come with Garmin bike computers. Oh and a bike.

Is that it?

Not quite. Don’t forget your ANT+ dongle, a USB stick that will link your bike sensors to your laptop. I recommend the Suunto speed stick which is the cheapest small ANT+ dongle for Zwift. I picked mine up for less than £20 and being small it can be left in your laptop. Tip: the dongle is plug and play, you don’t need to download the Suunto software as per their instructions. Bluetooth connections are coming to Zwift soon which will help those with bluetooth devices.

Zwift technical problems

My introduction to Zwift didn’t go smoothly. I was disappointed to learn the free 14 day trial is also limited to 50km which isn’t mentioned upfront. Fortunately this was somewhat academic given I later learned Strava Premium members get an additional two month free trial. Bonus.
So, after downloading the software I waited another 30 minutes to download updates. Snooze. This was only the beginning of my problems. Despite having a laptop that easily met Zwift’s minimum requirements, I needed to update the drivers for my graphics. Long story short, it was over three hours before I was Zwifting. Sheesh.


Technical issues aside, the in-game set-up and pairing of devices was very easy. The USB ANT+ dongle in my laptop, the Zwift app on my phone, HR monitor and speed sensor all quickly synced. Tip: get your bike on the turbo and turn your pedals to sync cadence and speed sensor. The game is then very simple, choose your turbo trainer and either choose to ‘just ride’ or workout.

Right, I’m ready. How do I begin?

Get your wallet out. Zwift costs £8 a month, so £96 a year. You can cancel at any time.

Can I get a Zwift free trial?

zwift free trial
Finally, some value from Strava Premium!
Yes, Zwift currently offer a 14 day free trial. Bare in mind this trial only allows up to 50km of riding within those 14 days, which won’t er, go far.
On the plus side you don’t need to enter your credit card details in advance unlike the sneaky tactic used by Strava. If you’re a Strava Premium member, you’ll get an additional two months free at the end of the two-week free trial.

I’ve signed up, what now?

Don’t forget to download the software ahead of your first session so you don’t get caught out waiting 30 minutes for software updates like I did! Oh and download the app to your phone so you can control certain things from your bike when riding.

Anything else?

Nope, off you go! Just remember Zwift is not long out of Beta testing and is limited in terms of in-game options, more of which below, so keep your expectations in check and enjoy.

My first Zwift ride

My avatar needs wind tunnel sessions
My avatar needs wind tunnel sessions
There’s two modes to choose from, either the freestyle “Just Ride” or “Workout” which is interval mode.

Just Ride mode

Pedal and away you go. There’s no potholes, pedestrians or angry drivers in Zwift (yet!) so you’ve just got to keep your legs moving. Easier said than done. You can now steer using the phone app, simply press a button to choose which route to follow when you approach the occasional fork in the road.
At first there’s a lot going on. Data overlays, riders rolling past you, group messages, numbers counting this and that, the landscape changing. You soon learn what to focus on. Which for the most part is just the virtual scenery, which is either ‘Yawn’ or ‘Wow’ depending on which of the two courses you are riding.
My first ride was on the barren roads of the Richmond World Championship course, the virtual equivalent of laps of your local council estate. A poor choice by the developers given Zwift currently only has two courses available. Added to this is the fact you can’t actually choose which course to ride. This is decided by a course calendar. Bah.
Tip: use the biggest screen you have so you can see more of the graphics. I ride in my hallway staring at an average sized laptop whilst my dedicated cycling room complete with espresso machine and wet room is being built. I dream of course.
The moments of excitement come in the sprints and KOMs. For me this wasn’t really any different to a good old interval where you focus on numbers and little else. Given I don’t have a smart trainer, my resistance didn’t change to the terrain. My virtual speed simply dipped on the hills meaning you have to pedal harder to beat the algorithm. Ha, cycling to beat an algorithm. What have I become?
I also found it difficult to judge the length of the sprints and hill climbs using the virtual scenery, which I guess mimics real life the first time you ride new roads.

Virtual power

Zwift virtual power
Number heaven
Zwift uses your turbo trainer’s power curve to give you virtual power which is fascinating to a man who has only trained using heart rate. Training with power is a big deal, making training more measurable and reliable.
I spent the majority of my first ride staring at the power score on either my laptop or phone app. This becomes ever more addictive once you begin trying to improve your FTP. At the end of the ride my virtual FTP was automatically updated, another great feature which will appeal to folk who like their numbers.
Whether virtual power is the equivalent of actual power is neither here nor there, the numbers will give you a consistent benchmark from which to measure your progress.
There are also lots of PBs on-screen as you ride and the data all syncs to Strava seamlessly at the end of the game. Having now trained with power I can actually see some value in my Strava Premium membership too.


Zwift graphics
Sunset on Zwift Island
Some of the scenery, particularly on the Watopia course on Zwift Island, is beautiful and will only improve. The experience can at times be immersive and I did find myself occasionally leaning into virtual corners, not a great move on the turbo! Some animation is still clumsy, especially the other riders who you literally, sorry, virtually, bump into.

A social ride

I’m not much of a social rider in the real world let alone the virtual world. Bah humbug. The fact others were riding was almost incidental on my first ride except when somebody tried keeping pace with me. Then, just like out on the road, inner chimp took over and did its best to drop or stay with them. The game also lets you draft which makes it a little easier to maintain speed, just like the real world. Minus the farts.
I could see lots of messages from other riders on-screen, presumably from those in group rides. Voice chat is not currently supported so this just looks tiresome to someone who wants to go for a nice quiet cycle ride in his hallway!

Just ride – conclusion

Despite being bored by the scenery of the Richmond course and craving some structure in Just Ride mode, I was sucked into the competitive side of Zwift. I climbed off the bike dripping in sweat and my legs had that positive tingly feeling of tiredness from the KOM attempts which certainly put me through my paces.
Yet free riding was a little too unstructured for me. I don’t want to pootle along waiting for the odd interval or chase after people with no plan. Ultimately I’m a numbers man. If I want scenery I’ll ride outside and if I want to race I’ll… well you get where I’m going with this. So how about Zwift’s recently added workouts?

Zwift Workouts

Zwift workout
Bringing new meaning to the golden arches
The game changer. There’s two reasons to cycle indoors. One, is bad weather, in which case a virtual ride on Zwift will help the indoor miles pass quickly. Two, and the best reason, is structured training.
Zwift offers a small selection of pre-defined workouts ranging from FTP tests to full 12 week winter training programmes. The number of workouts is also set to grow rapidly, a plus given the workout library is currently a long way short of the number offered by TrainerRoad, a dedicated turbo training website.
You can also create your own custom workouts, which is great for control freaks like me. The system is drag and drop and fairly intuitive, if a little fiddly. I had difficulty getting my interval numbers rounded to the exact minute using the drag and slide method. This should be an easy future fix but for now puts me off creating my own intervals as it takes too long.
The biggest flaw of custom workouts is the inability to create new workouts without actually having the game synced to your bike sensors. This means you can’t create workouts on the fly from the comfort of your couch – a big disappointment. I like to create workouts in bulk so this is really lacking for me. Ideally you will be able to do this via the phone app.
The workout itself was great. You are plonked on a virtual course and given on-screen instructions. There’s still a lot of improvement to come here such as audio cues and better display of data on-screen but, these quibbles aside, it’s amazing how quickly Zwift makes a painful 20 minute FTP test fly by.
At the end of the ride your data is synced to Strava although you do not get lap data, which means you cannot analyse the individual segments of your workout, something I love to do so I can pretend I know what I’m looking at!

So, is Zwift worth the subscription?

Zwift sunset
A ride into the apocalyptic sunset
Maybe. I’m torn. There is little doubt Zwift is going to be huge and will appeal to most indoor cyclists. Even with limited options Zwift makes indoor riding more bearable and I defy you not to get sucked into the competitive side of the game. Zwift gamifies indoor riding the same way Strava has gamified outdoor riding. For some that may be a bad thing.
Sign up for a free trial and give Zwift a go while it’s still icy outside. You will enjoy the virtual world, just as I have. It’s a lot of fun however be warned, you will get sucked into riding harder than you like competing with others or going for a KOM.
The social side of group rides and races may well appeal to you as you’re probably less of a loner than I! Time triallists will love Zwift too. Turbo riding in the virtual world has to be more exciting than riding down dual carriageways.
Zwift’s functionality will only improve too given the wealth of investment in this company. Imagine competing in a year-long season of events, or riding stages of the Tour de France over the winter. An exciting proposition. Update: Zwift’s new mountain routes review
Yet this is now and my needs are focussed on structured workouts. Zwift workouts are a work in progress, lacking a wide choice of pre-set workouts, an easy custom workout editor, post-ride stats and an in-depth training log. More courses in Just Ride mode would be nice too.
Zwift beta is currently competitively priced, cheaper than TrainerRoad in fact, but not once you have added in your Strava Premium subscription, without which you have very little data.
With the myriad of cycling software now on the market, there seems to be an opportunity for a single piece of software to do everything rather than me having to use Strava, Garmin Connect and Zwift for different functionality. That’s not to mention all of the other options like TrainerRoad, PerfPro, Sufferfest, TrainingPeaks and the free option of Golden Cheetah. Sheesh. I foresee a future of many mergers.
My next trial may be either TrainerRoad or TrainingPeaks, which are more workout focussed. Neither has a virtual or social world but they do have lots of workouts and, from what I can see, better post-ride stats. Sounds like I’ll be seeing a lot more of my hallway and laptop over the winter!

Zwift video introduction | Zwift Website

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