I’m riding the Richmond, Virginia, Road World Championships course, digging in deep and trying not to let the Italian Brambilla or Brandt of the USA get away. We hit an uphill section and my speed drops but I’m determined to stick with these guys.
Hang on, though! I’ve never actually been to Richmond, still less the World Champs. In fact, I’m just sitting here in the road.cc office, riding a turbo trainer harder than ever before.
This is Zwift and it’s a lot of fun.
What is Zwift?
Zwift is a way to ride your bike online in a virtual world. And it's booming: often we now see over 8,000 people riding at any one time. Its most compelling feature is the ability to ride with (or against) other people across the world. The app now notifies you of upcoming events, and top riders like legendary German hard man Jens "Shut up legs" Voigt and Tour de France top 10 finisher Laurens ten Dam.
To use Zwift, you put your bike on a turbo trainer, you link your setup to your computer, and you ride online courses – against other people if you like. That’s it in a nutshell. Think of Zwift as an online computer game with your legs controlling your performance.
“Zwift is the first company to use massive multiplayer gaming technology to bring the outdoor cycling experience indoors,” says Zwift – only you can leave the bad weather and dark conditions outside.
“Athletes from around the globe can ride with each other in rich 3D generated worlds simply by connecting their existing devices". And using Zwift is easier than you might think.
What equipment do I need?
Okay, so what do you need to get started?
First, you need a computer (or an iOS device) and an internet connection, and you obviously need your bike and a turbo trainer.
You can use any turbo trainer if you have a power meter on your bike. If you don’t have a power meter, you need a speed sensor on your bike.
"The lab is working hard to support as many classic trainers as we can with zPower – our special flavour of virtual power with acceleration,” says Zwift. “All you need is a speed sensor. Based on your speed and the trainer you’ve selected, Zwift will calculate your power output.”
Zwift offers zPower for a whole bunch of different turbo trainers. To take the CycleOps range as an example, the Mag (£150), Magneto (£225), Fluid 2 (£285), JetFluid Pro (£325) and SuperMagneto Pro (£335) trainers are all included.
If you have an electronically controlled smart trainer like the CycleOps Hammer pictured above, you can take things to the next level: Zwift can simulate changing conditions like the terrain, wind, and drafting behind other riders.
These smart trainers are more expensive than classic-type trainers: the Hammer is £999, but smart trainers such as the Elite Qubo Digital Smart B+ can be had for less than £300. Other turbo trainers from BKool, Wahoo, CompuTrainer, Technogym and Tacx will do a similar job.
Go to Zwift’s website for a full, up-to-date list of compatible power meters, and smart and conventional turbo trainers.
Zwift on the cheap: what do you need?
If you want to give Zwift a go, but don't want to spend a fortune, here's the least expensive gear we've found to get you started.
As mentioned above, if you’re not using use a power meter or one of the smart trainers, you need to have a speed sensor attached to your bike – working from the rear wheel, obviously, because your front wheel won’t be moving.
If you haven’t got one already, you can buy a speed sensor for a few pounds.
Some speed sensors also measure cadence (pedal revolutions per minute). If yours doesn’t and you want it, you can add a cadence sensor. You can also add a heart rate monitor if you like.
iOs devices and nearly all computers can talk natively to Bluetooth trainers and sensors. If your trainer or sensors use the ANT+ protocol, then you'll need a USB dongle for your computer.
Garmin’s ANT+ USB dongle is £32. Cheaper alternatives include the £23 Suunto Movestick and the Anself USB stick for just under a tenner. We've not tested the Movestick, but it's reported to work. We have tested the Anself stick and it works just fine; it's a big sticky-out thing, but if you can live with that it's a bargain. Zwift also recommends a USB extension cable in case you need to get the dongle closer to the transmitters on your bike.
Getting it set up
I got this little lot together:
• CycleOps SuperMagneto trainer
• BePro power meter pedals
• Garmin heart rate monitor
• Garmin USB ANT+ dongle
Okay, now what?
First, you need to go to Zwift’s website and sign up. It's a paid-for subscription service that’s non-contract. If you’re in the UK it costs you £13 per month to use Zwift. If you’re based elsewhere it’s US$15.
Once you’ve joined up you need to download and install the Zwift software on your computer. That’s simple; you just follow the instructions.
Then you launch Zwift on your computer, set up your profile, pair up your ANT+ devices with your computer (Zwift guides you through it), and you’re good to go.
If that all sounds easy, it is. Genuinely, it takes a matter of minutes. I don’t know if I was lucky, but everything worked first time for me.
If you don’t have a power meter and you are relying on a speed sensor and Zwift’s zPower virtual power to provide your on-screen performance, it’s just as simple.
Riding on Zwift
Once that’s done, you’re ready to roll.
Most times when you ride the turbo it’s pretty dull, right? Ride outside on the road and an hour sails by in an instant. Ride on the turbo, on the other hand, and time does something curious. An hour takes about a week. It does for me anyway, even though I always chuck intervals into the mix.
Zwift is like riding outside in that you get into it really quickly. The second another rider passes you on the screen or gets a bit of a gap, you want to jump on their wheel. Your power shoots up as you try to drag yourself back. You’re determined to drop other users on the climbs or at least not to get dropped yourself, and to bag yourself a good King of the Mountains time on one of the segments. Then, once you have your King of the Mountains time, you want to beat it.
Everyone says this when they ride Zwift. They get drawn into riding with other people so that turbo training isn’t just bearable, it’s fun.
Okay, it’s not exactly like going out on the club ride or tearing it up on the road with a bunch of mates, but you can wave at other riders, give an elbow flick when you want someone else to come through and do the work at the front, send real-time encouragement with audio clips, and communicate with the pack via group messages. You can also choose to see what’s going on from four different points of view. It really is immersive and a million miles from just sitting on the turbo and banging out the intervals on your own.
There’s plenty to explore in the Zwift universe, like workouts that offer lots of choice depending on how much time you have, FTP tests, customisation, and 12 week training plans. The pre-programmed workouts are designed to be social and inspiring, so that Zwift becomes a vital part of your training.
There's also a companion app for iOS and Android, called Zwift Mobile Link. This acts as an on-bike dashboard for Zwift sessions and also lets you see when friends are on line so you can join them for a virtual ride.
Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.