Zwift has released a Yorkshire worlds course ahead of the UCI Road Race Championships next weekend, so I fired up the smart trainer and went for a spin to see what it’s all about.
Zwift has developed five routes based around the Harrogate finishing circuit. The official 2019 UCI Worlds Harrogate course is 13.8km long with 245m of climbing, which you’ll want to ride seven or three times to replicate the men and women’s races respectively. Ouch!
From this main course, it has spun off four more routes. Two are short circuits around the streets of Harrogate, these will be ideal for racing and short spins. Or you can skip town and just ride the country roads of the southern portion of the route with all the hills if you want to test your endurance and get the miles in.
The longest route is to ride the entire finishing circuit twice, in each direction, culminating in a 27.5km route called Royal Pump Room 8 with 490m of climbing. I plumped for this route, fired up the fan, turned up the music (Yorkshire folk, obviously) and got pedalling.
Rolling through the streets of Harrogate and my it’s busy, there are cyclists everywhere! I’ve been away from Zwift for the summer, but as the season heads into the darker months, cyclists are clearly heading back indoors. That and anticipation for the worlds and this newly released course leading to lots of activity. Whether you intend to watch the racing on the TV or by the roadside, being able to recon it before is pretty cool. Even if it won’t help with parking.
The attention to detail is up to Zwift’s usual high standard. There are advertising hoardings lining the road, spectators virtually cheering you on, tress in the background and a nicely rendered blue sky. Random floating squirrels.
The graphics have never been the most impressive aspect of Zwift’s virtual world. I mean they are good, but they’re a little clunky and lack definition to make it really immersive. It’s not a patch on the latest computer or console games, but then it is designed to work on everything from smartphones to laptops so that is perhaps forgivable.
Passing the official start/finish barrier the route heads through suburban Harrogate before houses are eventually replaced with sheep and tractors, and we’re in a smoothly rendered Yorkshire countryside.
Zwift says it has used GPX data to model the route, so it can accurately recreate the gradient changes. It certainly feels it on the gradual drag out of town along Otley road, a 1.6km incline at a steady 3% but peaking above 5%.
It also gathered up a lot of ride data and photographs from local cyclists to create its virtual Yorkshire. But as we’ve seen with previous worlds, it has used some artistic licence to bring in some local landmarks that might not be where you’d expect them, such as Tewit Well, a famous spa water well, being slightly relocated. I think we can forgive them that creative freedom; nobody is riding around the route expecting a 100% faithful recreation, we’re here to get sweaty and have a good workout when it’s raining or dark outside.
The route doesn’t look much on the map, but it’s a tough ride with typical punchy climbing that the UK is well known for. There are few places you can really rest and take in the view, or wonder what the hell the floating squirrels are all about.
One of the bigger climbs is Harlow, a 1.2km ascent with an average gradient of 6% making it a not unreasonable test for the legs. The Pot Bank climb is steeper at 8% average gradient but it’s all over after 700m. You can see how it compares to the real Pot Bank climb on Veloviewer. The descent affords quite the dramatic view.
For sure, using the finishing circuit does mean there are climbs not included that would have been brilliant to ride virtually. The men’s race follows the same route as the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart including the climbs of Cray, Buttertubs and Grinton, all to soften the legs before the finishing circuit. If there had been a way to shoehorn Buttertubs into Zwift it would have made for a truly challenging ride.
Zwift says "the main goal here was to try and make it distinct" and that much is certainly true. It might not be as good as riding the actual roads of Yorkshire, and it only scratches the surface of the many good roads and iconic climbs sadly missing, but it’s fun to be able to ride the route virtually before the racers do. I doubt it’ll have lasting appeal once the world championship jerseys have been handed out though, which is a shame.
There's certainly benefit to having new stuff to try in Zwift, and of course getting to ride the Worlds finishing lap in my spare room saves me a 5-hour drive to go and actually experience it, traffic and (probably) rain included. That said, like Richmond and Innsbruck before it, once you've completed the loop a few times the Yorkshire world feels pretty small.
It's nicely observed, and I'm sure it's fairly accurate to the actual road, but save from getting a warm glow looking at red phone boxes and traction engines there's not much in there that's going to have me choosing Yorkshire over Watopia when that's the choice on the calendar. There's plenty of people on it at the moment though.
The loop is more difficult than it might appear on paper, especially the final kick to the line which is going to make for a cracking finish in the actual races if there is still a decent group together. Probably the most interesting aspect of the map is the shorter town centre loops, which are relentlessly up and down and should work well for kermesse-style racing.
Have you ridden the Zwift Harrogate circuit yet? What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts below.
If you want to ride the same roads you can head over to Zwift to get involved.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.