Could Zwift spell the end of cycling as we know it?

The Zwift NYC KoM climb soars up among the skyscrapers in the virtual world

The Zwift NYC KoM climb soars up among the skyscrapers in the virtual world

I’m riding along a glass slipway, the green canopy of trees in Central Park slipping away below me, hazy in the smog of New York City. My path loops me between the upper floors of skyscrapers, and all around me are other cyclists, passing me, soaring down in the opposite direction, stopping for a breather on the side of the path.

The air up here is, well, it smells like my shed. That’s because in reality, it is. I’m riding a static bike in the virtual world that is Zwift NYC, my laptop acting as a portal to this cycling nirvana, where you ride in a world blissfully absent of motor vehicles or anything that could cause you to have a crappy ride.

Herein lies the key to the phenomenal success of what has become the cycling (and increasingly, running) equivalent to Fortnite. A fully-fledged, interactive video game. In Zwift no one dies, and no one’s going to run you off the road, either.

Could we soon reach the point where cycling outside becomes a treat?

Anyone who thought Zwift would be a passing fad when it launched in 2015 has been quite comprehensively proven wrong. I numbered among those people, right up to a few months ago, looking on in despair as I logged onto my Strava profile and found increasing numbers of my friends logging Zwift rides instead of riding in the real world.

There’s no denying that exercising in a virtual world does have a whiff of Ready Player One about it; could we soon reach the point where cycling outside becomes a treat reserved for the odd bank holiday, weather permitting? Where our group rides take place in one of Zwift’s virtual worlds rather than our local lanes, while we hammer it out on a static bike or a treadmill?

Brace yourselves, because it’s already happening. Some might make a connection with the popularity of Zwift and the estimated 355,000 drop in monthly leisure cyclists on our roads over the past 12 months (according to Sport England), although the evidence on the ground from where I am sitting is that Zwift is being used as a training aid to supplement real-world riding, rather than a replacement. However if I were manufacturing wet weather gear, I might have cause for concern.

Zwift Mountain does a good job at mimicking the challenge of a real-world climb

Zwift Mountain does a good job at mimicking the challenge of a real-world climb

It’s worth noting here that it does rain in Zwift, virtually. It also gets dark, and can get incredibly tough, if you’re connected to a smart trainer and select a mountain to ride up. There are plenty of them, including Alpe d’Huez, (Alpe du Zwift - unlocked when you pass a certain level) and Zwift Mountain, which is a perfect example of the kind of sick things developers will put you through, given the opportunity. As it grows, so do the worlds. What started as the entirely make believe (but inspired by the real world) Watopia has since been supplemented by another four worlds: New York City; London; Innsbruck (launched after the 2018 World Championships); and Richmond Virginia. In May Zwift launched its version of the Giro d’Italia prologue course timed to coincide with the Grand Tour itself.

The worlds offer around 140 miles of immaculately rendered scenery and roads smoother than a race track. But the real attraction of this platform and the reason why Zwift has now passed 1 million subscribers over 190 countries globally, all paying around £12.99 per month, is not in the big, obvious challenges, such as the mountains. It is in the finer details that mimic real life to the extent that you begin to demonstrate the same emotions as when on the road. Such as that competitive spike when you are passed making you chase onto a wheel, which then rewards you as the tension eases because you are drafting.

Zwift has capitalised on our individuality as well as our competitive streaks. As you progress through the platform you unlock access to new areas and kit to personalise your avatar in the platform. Group rides and races take place regularly, attended by hundreds from across the world. Challenges that rival grand tours run over weeks, encouraging a deeper emotional connection to the platform.

If you’re thinking this all sounds like a lonely way to exercise, you can always hook up a headset and have a real-time chat to your fellow riders. You might be surprised who you connect with, because this is like the biggest, most inclusive group ride you’ve ever experienced and pro-riders are well known to use the platform as a training aid. Matthew Hayman from Orica-GreenEdge used it to win Paris-Roubaix, training on Zwift for 20 hours a week as he recovered from a broken arm sustained in a crash just six weeks before the big race. The world of Zwift might be virtual, but the gains are real.

In fact there’s not much that you can’t do in Zwift, and what’s more, you don’t even need to steer. But there are aspects of technology that still need some fine tuning before they can be used. Take virtual reality, for instance, a seemingly obvious progression.

We tried virtual reality but the goggles kept steaming up

“We tried that,” said Zwift spokesman Chris Snook, “But the goggles kept steaming up, and people would become so disoriented that they would fall off their bikes.”

The appearance of the Zwift virtual universe is also unlikely to develop beyond the rendered world as it exists at present. Augmented reality or video overlay is a totally different beast.

Developments are instead focusing on improving what is already there and integrating with real world cycling. The Zwift Academy is a prime example of this, where wannabe pro cyclists train in the platform and compete for a place in the real-life pro team. So far Canyon//Sram and Team Dimension Data each have riders who have graduated from the Zwift Academy and there’s a Specialized Tri course running now.

Thanks to Zwift, e-racing has also become a thing and pro teams are seriously putting together squads for the sole purpose of competing on the platform.

Training plans are available for any goal you are working towards

Training plans are available for any goal you are working towards

This takes us to Zwift’s new frontiers, because while it might be difficult to swim in Zwiftland, you can certainly run, along the same roads used by the riders, using treadmills to clock up your miles. And in this perfect world, there’s nothing to stop you improving those splits.

Zwift founder Eric Min might not necessarily want to make you give up your real world exercise regime, but he has made Zwift a place to hone it to perfection and even train like a pro. It’s no surprise that he would be happy to see a virtual Tour de France or Giro d’Italia, or for runners, virtual marathons.

It is raining in stair rods outside as I write this. That virtual world of Zwift NYC seems a really good idea right now.

FANCY A GO?

The people at Zwift have made the process of signing up to the platform vastly more streamlined than when it launched, but there are some requirements that are unavoidable, and prohibitively expensive.

The good news is that you don’t need a special bike or anything silly like a spin bike, but you will need a turbo trainer, and a computer (PC or Mac), at least. For those who don’t know, a turbo is a contraption that will allow you to ride your outdoor bike indoors, by removing the rear wheel and slotting the bike into the turbo (see below).

To really experience everything Zwift has to offer, your turbo needs to be ‘smart’. This means it has bluetooth connectivity and can sync to your laptop via a tiny ‘Ant+’ dongle that connects to your USB port. This connectivity exchanges information between the Zwift software and the turbo, which adjusts resistance to mimic riding up a hill, freewheeling down one, drafting other riders and similar real-life cycling experiences. If you connect your heart rate monitor and your turbo measures your power output, these will be displayed on the screen.

It is possible to ride without a smart trainer, on rollers for instance, but you will really need a power meter / speed sensor that can connect via Ant+.

This might seem like a lot, but if you have the computer, you can pick up a Tacx Vortex smart trainer for under £200 these days, and then you have a two-week trial period to get hooked on Zwift.

If, however, you want to go to town on your setup, you always have the option of a 50” widescreen TV, a Wahoo Kickr Smart (£999), a Wahoo Headwind Bluetooth fan (£200), and a Kickr Climb gradient simulator (£500). And don’t forget the drip mat. (£70)

Sign up to Zwift here

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