Zwift: Indoor Training, Made Bearable

Zwift: Indoor Training, Made Bearable

Zwift is a new company that is launching a video game for trainer-bound cyclists. Ever since the 1980s, there have been efforts made to make trainer time more bearable, if not actually enjoyable. I recall my local video rental store had VHS cassettes of a camera heading down roads through various National Parks. It was not a bad idea, but it did nothing to make you ride hard. In the early 1990s, Cyclops came out with some of the earliest trainer workouts, and they were truly punishing, but watching other people on a bunch of trainers, even if they were pros, didn’t offer much visual excitement, unless you go in for watching sweat drip off the nose of a rider of the opposite sex.

IMG_9240This rider’s avatar (on the screen in the upper left) has a Rapha kit to match her real one. Rather stylish, huh?

Tacx and Bkool have both created interfaces that sync your trainer effort to previously shot video. It’s a great idea, but they both suffer from a fundamental flaw. There’s nothing dynamic about what you see. It’s always the same riders, and you either pass them or get passed in the same location every single time. What changes is how quickly you pass or are passed.

Zwift takes the video game approach to the experience. Sure, it doesn’t look as rich as video of the Alps, but the game’s AI engine produces other riders for you to interact with out on the course; if you get close enough, you can draft off the rider in front of you. The course also features numerous sprint spots and KOMs. It’s surprisingly compelling.

IMG_9246Neil Shirley of Road Bike Action, Caley Fretz of Velo and Ben Delaney of Bike Radar went head-to-head on Zwift and were laying down north of 700 watts, in cotton.

Here’s the completely mind-bending feature: Thanks to the Interwebs, you can ride against other riders around the world, in real time. Imagine trying to crush your ex-teammate you haven’t ridden with in 10 years. Or how about doing a two-man time trial with someone you only know through the game?

2014-09-23_10510327An actual screenshot.

Other than the software for the game, you don’t need a lot of equipment. So long as you have a stationary trainer and an ANT+ wattage device, you can play. Now, if you have a killer trainer like the Wahoo Kickr, the game can vary the load to simulate the change in difficulty between pedaling on flat ground, going uphill and dropping down a descent.

IMG_9235It was SRO at the Rapha Cycle Club in San Francisco. The launch was happening simultaneously in their New York and London clubs as well.

I wasn’t planning to climb on a trainer and give it a try. My legs were (are) tired from two big days in rapid succession, and I didn’t really want to go cross-eyed while wearing jeans and a button-down shirt. But got on I did. And pretty soon I was dripping sweat as I worked to keep a triathlete (who was riding on the trainer next to me) at bay on a climb that only exists in code. She claimed the KOM just ahead of me, but I reeled her back in on the descent once the resistance eased up.

I’ve spent as long as four hours on a trainer. Even with hours and hours of Tour de France coverage on VHS tape, the experience was almost as fun having your iPod set to play a jackhammer during a a root canal. Zwift wasn’t just enjoyable, it was fun. Writing that last line seems beyond unlikely, but it’s true.

IMG_9245Ben Delaney gets a walk-through on the interface. It was surprisingly easy. If you can play Halo, you can handle Zwift.

The interface will require a $10/mo. subscription. The company is partnering with industry brands so that you can unlock virtual goods to make your avatar match your bike and apparel in the real world. (This strikes me as funny because many gamers go for avatars that look nothing like them as possible. Leave it to cyclists to want their virtual world match the real world.)

The system is in beta right now. I’m told 1000 people will be able to use it this winter when it goes live. Plans are to have 15 different maps in 2015. I’ve heard that Central Park is among them. And just think, no one will ever get hit.

This thing wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the fact that cyclists tend to be nerdly and tech-savvy. Present company included. Zwift’s co-founders include the co-founders of Sakonnet Technology, Eric Minn and Alarik Myrin, Jon Mayfield of Applied Minds and Scott Barger of SpringBox Ventures.

This is the video integration for indoor training you’ve wanted.

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7 comments

  1. Bikelink

    Looks great…filled out the survey to be a possible user. Could use an optional skype-type conference call interface added too so you could razz (ahem) talk to your co-riders (and plan coffee stops!)

  2. peter lin

    I read about this yesterday and it seems so obvious. I’m surprised that one no else has thought about doing this until now. It could be really interesting and could help make trainer sessions infinitely better. I absolutely hate the trainer, but I force myself to get on it during the cold months in new england.

  3. hamster wheel rider

    Bkool offers the ability to race other people from across the world too. Did you try that at Summer Press Camp?

  4. Bart

    I live in Minnesota and spend Nov-Mar on the trainer dreaming of living somewhere warmer. I’ve tried many combinations of ways to make trainer riding more enjoyable. My latest combination has been the Inside Ride rollers (http://www.insideride.com/) combined with Sufferfest (http://www.thesufferfest.com/) videos. But the idea of the multiplayer video game is fantastic!

    One question, I’ve never had a power meter of any sort. How critical is that to the Zwift experience? Can you participate with just a speed and cadence Ant+ device? If not, what sort of options exist for “ANT+ wattage device”?

  5. RSN

    “I’ve heard that Central Park is among them. And just think, no one will ever get hit.”

    Someone will slap together an alleycat course. For the thrill of speeding through rush-hour traffic, but not the part about getting hit by a car.

  6. AJ

    Indoor training is b…b…b…BORING! Even at the height of my training and racing in which I could easily lay down hours at a time of mind-numbing arduous training up and down hills, mountains, whatever. I could just not ever tolerate riding indoors whether that be a fixed trainer, or rollers, or whatever. I could do like two songs length of riding indoors and that’s it. It’s just not the same. Indoor riding, to me, isn’t even riding.

  7. peter lin

    There’s lots of possibilities, but one that comes to mind is virtual race against a pro. Many of the pros already record all of their data, so in theory one could do a virtual race against your favorite pro, but at a set %. Say I want to ride with Jens, but at 50% of his actual performance. You can get even more sophisticated and partner with google maps to get a realistic rendering of an actual course. Heck, you could even render virtual rain, fog and snow. Take it one step further, zwift could send a “google maps” like vehicle to take actual race footage. In theory, during a workout the game engine could change the video rate so that you’d be in the right place.

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