In which I travel to an exotic cycling paradise (in my living room), sprint at 56 kilometres per hour (without wearing a shirt) and climb the steepest goddamn road on the planet (while my kid eats jelly beans and laughs at me). By Tom Vanderbilt
One day, not long ago, I logged onto Strava and noticed a single, glaring comment posted beneath a recent ride: “It’s a beautiful day outside. Why are you riding Zwift?”
I felt a twinge of shame. It had been a beautiful day. Instead of blue skies and the satisfying hum of rubber on tarmac, I was bathed in the pale light of my LCD monitor and the midfrequency whine of my Wahoo KICKR. Instead of chatting amiably with ride companions and sprinting for town line signs, I was harvesting “ride ons” (Zwift’s midride version of a “like”) and competing for virtual jerseys.
But here is the somewhat baleful truth about why I wasn’t riding outside: I just didn’t feel like it. (Note: If you’ve read this far without knowing what Zwift is, you need to get inside more.) This is a hard thing to say, one that I fear may see me exiled permanently from the cycling tribe, but there are times when I actually prefer Zwift – when I even hope for some Nor’easter to blow into town so I can maintain a shred of self-respect while crawling into my pain cave. Shame about the weather, heh, guess I’ll have to get on the trainer.
Like many of you, I used to dread riding indoors. I had too many memories of dark winter nights staring at the wall or the top tube, where my workout was taped. Sure, seasons of rollers helped me perfect a fluid pedal stroke, but it always felt like trudging to the salt mines (it didn’t help that my sweat-crusted floor looked like a salt mine).
When Zwift came along in 2014, it answered my longstanding desire to play a video game that could actually be good for you (sorry, Wii tennis, never broke a sweat). I got on Jarvis Island – the original beta-version Zwift Island, before Watopia – early, immediately bagging dozens of KOMs, thanks to my uncalibrated trainer (oops!), and cranking my way up the achievement chain to level 25 (where, with all the other hardcore Zwifters, I have been lodged since, waiting for the next update). I rode Zwift so much my sweat corroded my bike’s bottom bracket. Instead of targeting numbers, I was chasing wheels, and hitting threshold intervals without even thinking about it. I dove into Zwift racing, which felt like actual racing – the insanely fast starts, the last-lap strategising – charting my progress (and occasional podium finishes) on the Zwift Power website.
Not that hopping onto Zwift comes without ambivalence. There is the major FOMO twitch that occurs after a session as I scroll through social media feeds and see everyone else’s epic outdoor rides. I sometimes feel guilty, that I am not doing real riding, that I am even letting cycling itself down by not being out on the roads. For if we might imagine a Pyramid of Pure and Epic Awesomeness for road cycling, the pinnacle of which is something like riding up Mont Ventoux in a gale-force wind with an empty bottle and being passed by some mysterious old French guy on a steel bike with down-tube shifters, then somewhere at the bottom, amid the shouty spin classes and Citi Bike Chipotle runs, sits a Zwift ride. To a purist, Zwift would be like eating factory-farmed food compared with free-range organic; watching porn in a dark room rather than having transcendent sex on a secluded beach.
But I am beginning to shake these feelings. For one, I enjoy an epic ride as much as the next cyclist, when I have time. Living in Brooklyn, New York, means I have, basically, two major ride options. The best choice is through Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge, and up toward one of the Hudson River towns. But this is at least a four-hour ride, two hours of which are “junk kays” to get to and from the actual ride (a typically judgmental cyclist opinion – some might fail to see how riding through the world’s greatest city could be junk). This usually leaves laps around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park’s undulating oval. It is a beautiful ride, but one that I have done so many times I no longer actually see it. Since I’m already riding in a simulacrum, why not simply Zwift?
And while it may not be a “real” ride, it is a real effort. I have posted higher sustained power numbers on Zwift than I have during any Prospect Park outing (save a race or two), without the numerous hazards that plague any cyclist: getting doored or right-hooked by errant drivers, hitting potholes, suffering a flat, having to swerve around ear-budded pedestrians gazing into their iPhones, or – the supreme injustice – being taken down by another bike (as I write, a friend has just texted that he sustained a broken arm from a tourist who wobbled into him on the Manhattan Bridge). I am also well aware of the relationship between risk exposure and injury, so shifting some marginal kays indoors makes sense. Not to mention the inconveniences that pile up even before you leave home: finding the right base layer or matching socks, running through the checklist of jersey-pocket items.
Zwift expands time: You can ride whenever you want. Rides lost to parenting duty have been reclaimed; I have even hosted playdates while being on Zwift, much to the amusement of my 8-year-old daughter, as she has herded her friends into my Zwift dojo to gawp at this strange sweaty man powering his much more composed avatar up a hill. Being at the age where she wants to emulate everything her parents do, she even made me hook up her bike, with its 24-inch wheels, to the KICKR (in the end, she was more interested in customising her avatar than actually riding).
But it also opens new landscapes. Mountains! The Worlds course in Richmond, Virginia! A traffic-free London! Last spring, I was preparing for a ride in the Italian Alps. The prospect of tackling those iconic climbs with winter weight was daunting, and the 4 percent grade of Prospect Park was little help. But along came Watopia Mountain, which had long sections of low-cadence grinding and occasional out-of-the-saddle steeps (months later, chugging up the Passo dello Stelvio, I noticed with a start that certain parts of the climb looked like Watopia). On the ride, I felt somewhat prepared, both mentally and physically – which would not have been possible without Zwift.
I will never confuse Zwift with the experience of climbing the Stelvio. And when I Zwift, I miss those wonderful moments of serendipity, when my city shrinks from a megalopolis of 8.5 million to a small world of devoted riders, and you run across a friend at the top of a climb or some visiting pro doing an early morning spin. Zwift can’t recapture the mundane things I love about cycling: the gas-station Cokes, the texture and acoustics of gravel, sliding effortlessly through angry city gridlock, the pre-dawn banter at the meet spot.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to ride with a number of Zwift employees, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. There was the occasional joke about seeing Zwift jerseys in the wild, but my impression, as we bombed down sweeping descents and attacked vineyard-covered hillsides, was that they are as dedicated to cycling as anyone (they also dropped me on several climbs). At a rest stop halfway, a rider saw the orange Zwift van and approached us. He was, he explained, a former Apple employee, and he excitedly detailed his idea for a Zwift add-on that would incorporate braking. No longer would your avatar just mindlessly rocket around bends; now you’d have to think about your entry speed and how much to scrub it. The irony was rich: a bunch of cyclists sitting around on a green lawn under azure skies, talking about how to make indoor cycling better.
The lines between are blurring. Trainers are already beginning to more faithfully replicate real-world conditions (e.g., Wahoo’s KICKR Climb, which raises and lowers the front end of your bike to simulate an incline). With the Zwift Academy, pro race teams are scouting talent via virtual training programs. Zwift has acquired its own culture: It has its own blogs, podcasts, and insider terminology (such as “flyers,” electronic dopers who whiz past at impossible speeds). There’s even a “Shit Zwifters Say” YouTube video. People meet Zwift friends by joining regular group rides and clubs and give people they rode with kudos on Strava.
Zwift won’t ever replace “real” cycling (at least I hope it doesn’t). But it brings enough of the spirit and mechanics, and some major bonuses: You can find riding companions, even races, almost any time of day; you can occasionally train with pros; and you are spared the worst aspects of riding outside – crap drivers, weather, and routes. It’s helped me better maintain base fitness – making outdoor rides, when they do happen, more enjoyable. Zwift seems more than simply better indoor training; it is becoming a whole immersive world and activity unto itself, achieving the ultimate palmarés of the digital age: It has become a verb. Oh yes. I Zwift.