For decades, cyclists hoping to stay fit through the winter have been presented with the same choice: bundle up and brave the elements or resign themselves to hours
of frustration on an indoor training device. Basically, a cyclist can suffer from frostbite or boredom.
No longer. We live in a marvelous age of technical innovation, where a robot will make tortillas for you or tell you dumb jokes. Cycling, too, has been disrupted by technology: There’s a new generation of “smart” bike trainers and software that merge gaming displays with resistance and rider input. To put it simply,
if you want to simulate riding up a Mt. Ventoux from your living room, you can.
Zwift isn’t the first company
to create digital training software—there are competitors like Peloton, TrainerRoad, and SufferFest—but it’s differentiated itself by adding layers of social gaming to the experience. The company has created a virtual universe in which riders from all over the world train together in digital harmony.
“I missed riding with my friends in Central Park,” said founder and Chief Executive Officer Eric Min. “I was really trying to re-create that experience in a virtual setting.” Though Zwift has been in business less than two years, about 250,000 people have taken the $10-a-month service for a spin. The company recently closed a series A round of $27 million, and has raised a total of $45 million over the last few years. The setup is fairly simple. Remove your bike’s rear wheel, and mount the frame onto the KICKR via the quick release mechanism. Then open the Wahoo Utility app and calibrate the KICKR. Finally, open the Zwift software on your computer, iPhone, or iPad (Android compatibility is coming soon) and pair the KICKR (along with any cadence or heart-rate sensors) to Zwift.
You’re required to enter some personal data such as your height and weight so the software can accurately calculate your speed in the Zwift universe. You’re represented in the Zwift world with a customizable avatar (choose your own bike, helmet, sunglasses, jersey, wheels, etc.). As riders spend more time on Zwift, they unlock more custom clothing and equipment options.
Once everything is paired, select the type of ride you’d like to do and set off. Zwift offers a multitude of options from casual group rides you can set up with friends to races and structured interval or power training. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can veer off the preset route and follow your avatar along any of the nearly 46 miles of roads around one of their three universes. There’s Watopia, a fictional volcanic island, London, and Richmond, Va., at the moment.
Because this is still cycling, there’s the issue of cheating. Your speed in Zwift all comes down to a single calculation: watts per kilogram. Watts are the amount of power you produce and “kilogram” is the fancy European term for how much you weigh. Some people lie about their weight to achieve ludicrous speeds, but the company flags any riders that suddenly display superhuman performance.
The first few minutes using the KICKR in the Zwift universe are shocking. Just like in real life, you can physically feel the resistance ramp up with the gradient as you turn onto a hill. It’s followed by a moment akin to weightlessness as you crest said hill, the resistance dissipates, and you begin to plummet down a descent.