Take your inside riding to the next level with this fun virtual training programme. – By Jason Sumner
By now you’ve probably heard of Zwift, the online gaming platform dedicated to indoor cycling. Think Mario Kart on bikes, but with more sweat, less blood, and fewer talking animals.
For R128 ($10) a month, Zwifters gain entry to a virtual cycling world with multiple courses, group rides, and even races, which can make (sometimes monotonous) indoor riding way more fun and interactive.
And this isn’t the domain of hardcore gamers who happen to ride bikes: Cyclists of all kinds can be found pedaling around Zwift Island, including top pros like American Tour de France hopeful Andrew Talansky (and even hopeful pros, through Zwift Academy).
“I always preferred to the avoid the trainer,” says Talansky, who rides for the Cannondale-Drapac team. “Then I broke my thumb at the end of December and had to ride inside for a while. I started using Zwift and was totally blown away. Pair it with a smart trainer, and it’s the most realistic indoor riding experience you can have. Riding up a 10 per cent grade feels like riding up a 10 per cent grade, and the graphics are really good. It’s truly a game changer.”
The gear you need for Zwift is similar to what you’d use in a standard indoor cycling setup, but with a bit more hi-tech hardware.
“Start with the basics,” recommends Virginia-based cycling coach Hunter Allen, who uses the platform both for himself and as a way to deliver workouts to his athletes. “You need a fan, a towel, some music, a water bottle, and something to blow your nose with. Then ideally you have some kind of power meter or smart trainer that measures power. That’s really critical.”
Indeed, a smart trainer is the only way to get the replicate that ‘road feel’ experience indoors, where resistance is adjusted automatically based on a virtual course’s elevation changes (you can train for hills indoors!). But Zwift also seamlessly interfaces with most standard power meters, and can even calculate estimated power output via data from speed and cadence sensors.
Whichever data delivery method you choose, you’ll need to connect to this virtual world via ANT+ and a USB ANT+ stick, or by downloading the Zwift Mobile Link app to your smartphone, which in turn connects to your laptop via Bluetooth Smart. There’s also an iOS app that can substitute for the laptop. All this may sound complicated, but the Zwift website is full of easy-to-follow information that’s backed up by a solid tech support team.
Talansky’s advice? Go big screen.
“You can ‘play’ through a laptop or even a phone,” he says. “But hooking it into your TV is really the way to go. It’s just like watching a football game. The bigger the screen, the more immersive the experience.”
Of course, a good graphics card will help, too—this is gaming after all.
Allen is a big proponent of using Zwift to determine your functional threshold power (FTP), a strong metric of fitness. You’ll need a power meter or a trainer that can estimate power, like Kinetic’s Smart Road Machine (pictured above, with the add-on Power Unit).
FTP tests are used to identify the likely max power you can reasonably hold for an hour-long time trial, usually calculated while you put out your highest sustainable power for 20 minutes.
After doing an FTP test—available through Zwift’s online menu of workouts—you can use your result to set up training zones that allow you to work toward specific cycling goals, such as riding faster, further, or both. With Zwift, if you want to increase your power in certain conditions, you can choose to ride hillier courses, longer distances, etc.
Once your set-up is dialed, it’s time to choose a course and get pedaling.
There are currently three course options: Watopia, aka Zwift Island; a true-to-life route around London, England; and an online version of the 2015 World Championships course in Richmond, Virginia.
“They’re all unique in terms of course demands,” says Allen. “And that’s part of the appeal. You’re not doing the same loop over and over.”
Watopia has one main climb, a few rollers, some downhills, and plenty of flats. There are various choices along the way: Turn one direction to practice climbing, head the other direction for more flats. This diversity means you have lots of opportunities to personalise your route, making it longer or harder in certain ways. (It’s listed as a 9.1km route for rider ranking purposes.)
The 14.9km London loop has 220m of climbing per lap, while the 16.3km Richmond circuit is mostly flat save for a pair of precipitous cobblestone climbs that require arduous out-of-the-saddle efforts (which can be great if you’re interval training.
Each day, one of the courses is available. You can find a monthly schedule on the Zwift blog.
Perhaps best of all, Zwifting means you never have to ride inside alone. Right now, interacting with other riders means riding alongside their avatars, and tapping out a quick message on your smartphone screen or laptop keyboard. (Increasingly, though, popular apps like Discord are now allowing riders to talk to each other in real time. “Eventually everyone will have a microphone,” predicts Guerra.)
And just as with outdoor group riding, Zwifting is governed by rules of etiquette. The most basic edict is simply, don’t be a jerk.
If a group ride has a pre-determined pace (typically indicated by a watts-per-kilogram number), don’t jump in and start smashing heads. Most group rides will have a leader, indicated by a beacon over his or her head. Follow this person’s lead and you’ll fit right in.
The same ethos applies to the myriad Zwift races available to users. Just like in the real world, nobody likes the Cat 1 rider who sandbags the Cat 3 race.
“That just ruins the race for everyone,” says Nathan Guerra, a Wisconsin-based pro mountain biker and frequent Zwifter, who has made a name for himself as the unofficial voice of Zwift; you can hear his live-caster play-by-play calls of various Zwift events on a Twitch.tv video stream. “If you know your FTP or at least an estimation, you’ll know what races make sense for you.” (For a list of upcoming Zwift races, check out the third-party website zwiftpower.com.)
Guerra also discourages outright cheating where, for instance, you lie about your weight in order to increase your watts per kilogram. Go above 5 w/kg and you’ll get flagged by ZADA (short for Zwift Anti-Doping Agency) and need to provide specific “in real life” ride data to get Zwift-approved. And no, this is not a joke. ZADA is a real thing managed by volunteers from the Zwift racing community.
Fortunately, the vast majority of Zwifters log on simply for fun and exercise. And the more you ride, the more chances you have to meet new people—and unlock equipment and jersey upgrades.