The turbo trainer is a fantastic training tool. However, one of the biggest drawbacks I mentioned in my review of the CycleOps Jet Fluid Pro was that it can get slightly mundane to engage in stationary cycling on your own. I recently came across a software program called Zwift. To briefly summarise, Zwift can be installed onto your personal computer (mac/windows) and allows you to virtually cycle in some great locations, with other real riders, and track your performance. In this blog post I will be exploring what Zwift is, how to get set-up, and my thoughts based on my first ride.
WHAT IS ZWIFT?
Zwift is labelled as “social cycling for the solo cyclist”. This seems like an apt-description. Zwift essentially allows you to use a turbo trainer in a more immersive way, cycling with other riders in a virtual environment in some scenic places from around the globe. It is no substitute for getting out on a real bike ride, but is the best experience you can get whilst on a turbo trainer.
To get started with Zwift you need the following:
-A road bike(!)
-Compatible turbo trainer
-Speed sensor (and optional cadence sensor)
A full list of compatible equipment can be found here: http://zwift.com/getting-started/
To get started, download the software from Zwift.com and create an account. I highly recommend linking your Strava account, and if you’re not already on Strava, you really should be! Premium members also get a free 2 months of Zwift membership per calendar year (which is ordinarily priced at £8/month). Signing up was quick and straight forward, entering some basic details such as age, height and weight to help provide an accurate analysis of cycling parameters. My Strava account also connect without any issues.
Connect a ANT+ USB dongle to your computer and log-in to Zwift by signing in with your user name and password. You will need the ANT+ dongle so that your computer can detect the wireless speed/cadence sensors. I picked one up from Amazon for ~£28. From there you need to follow the on screen instructions. Select your turbo trainer and what sensors you are using. They only need to be paired once and will be remembered when you subsequently sign-in. For information purposes, I am using the Garmin speed and cadence sensors, which were recognised without any issues. You can use a range of turbo trainers, including magnetic resistance, fluid jet and the more sophisticated direct drives. Ideally, a power meter would also be an advantage, but is not necessary, as the Zwift software can provide a reliable estimate based on pedalling speed and dynamics of the individual rider.
Once you get spinning on your bike, everything works well. The ANT+ sensor picked up all the sensors, there were no dropouts, and the software was generally smooth and stable on my 12” retina MacBook. You are immediately sucked into a world of cycling, and can see other cyclists passing you (and vice-versa), as well as having more data on the screen than you can possible hope to analyse. A typical screen shows the following data; speed, cadence, heart rate, power as well as other riders around you.
It is quick to jump straight into a ride, or engage in one of the many training programs available. My first ride was in Richmond, VA! Starting off my ride was very comfortable and released. It is very easy to get into the software and pedal away. I was using my MacBook as my screen, but there is nothing to stop you from placing you turbo trainer in front of a large screen and connecting your computer to take advantage of the extra screen real estate for a more immersive experience.
The terrain changes as you pedal through the course, co you tackle both inclines, descents and flats. Speed will change as soon as you hit an incline and be substantially slower, creating a more realistic feel. You can then pedal up hard to increase speed/power (watts). As I own a basic trainer, resistance physical does not automatically change, although I did get myself in an appropriate gear for the climb! I believe that the Wahoo KICKR does offer resistance control, but it is not a big deal if your turbo trainer does not. Engaging the imagination and being slightly proactive with gear changes proved to be quite fun for me!
As you engage in an incline, a time pops up which I think was for the current record or “King of the Mountain” (KOM) so you can attempt to beat/PR it. An overall table is also displayed at the end, showing you your rank; This is very similar to Starva segments, and a nice touch to make the experience more exciting, particularly for competitive cyclists.
Whilst pedalling, I could see that power (watts) and speed were clearly dependent on the intensity I was cycling at, what gear I was in and reflected in my cadence. This was reassuring as it gave a high level of experimental conformation that the numbers and data were accurate, and could take reasonable confidence in the distance and power I had cycled at in a given session. At the end of your workout you get the option to see a summary of your workout, as well as upload directly to Strava. It even works with Strava Flybys!
Another feature I really liked was the iOS integration. You can connect your iPhone to the Zwift software, allowing you to see all your cycling dynamics, other riders as well as communicate/interact with them! Furthermore, you can also take screenshots at the press of a button. All of the in-screen shots on this blog post were taken this way. This is a very cool feature, if say you reached a very high wattage, speed or achieved anything else you wanted to capture a memory of.
ZWIFT VS THE ROAD
Okay, so although Zwift is fantastic and immersive, it is no substitute for real world riding. In all honesty, there is no alternative. However, it is a great deal of fun, and that is it’s biggest merit! Clearly there are times when it is impractical to get out for a ride; either before or after work, when the weather is dire, or when you simply don’t have the time for an outdoor ride. Sometimes I keep my bike on my turbo trainer, and it if is waiting and ready, is much more motivational to get a quick session done, rather than having to get changed and head out. This may not suit everyone, but for me personally, works very well. Although I have only done a single ride, I am already hooked. The biggest plus points for me were the flawless integration with Strava, focus on power, realistic inclines and overall simplicity. I actually managed to hit over 60km/hr at one point during a slight decline, which was quite satisfying!
Would I recommend Zwift? Hell, yes! As you may have gathered, I truly enjoyed my first ride with Zwift, and am really excited about using it some more. I currently have 2 months to try it out (a Starva Premium benefit), and will see if I wish to continue after, but am pretty sure that I will. Even using it twice a week would mean less than £1 for a session. The main thing to consider with Zwift is the cost of a turbo trainer and sensors. If you already own a turbo trainer, there really is no reason not to try out Zwift. If however you are buying a turbo trainer purely for Zwift, that could be an expensive affair, so you would really need to weigh out your own training needs to make an informed decision based on the overall cost. Conclusively, I am really happy that I found out about Zwift. It is still early days and I am sure there must have been many great features I still don’t know about, and will update accordingly with how I get on.
For more information, head on over to www.zwift.com