Old Dog, New Tricks – II

Zwift is an indoor cycling training tool, disguised as a video game which uses a bike trainer as the controller. In recent months, it has reached critical mass, with word of mouth generating an acceleration in new users. I’m one of them.

Zwift represents a coalescence of several technologies which have matured during the second decade of the 21st century: social media; massive multi-player online gaming; “smart” bicycle trainers with attendant metrics such as power, cadence, speed. A couple of years ago, several cycling junkies with tech backgrounds had a vision to turn the drudgery of indoor training into a group activity, a la spin classes, without having to leave one’s home.

They designed an island called “Watopia”, a car-less paradise mixing terrain from tropical beaches, charming Euro-style mountain villages along cobbled roads, treeless snow-swept alpine crags, an active volcano with lava pools, and Mayan ruins amidst jungle foliage. Soon, rides appeared as well through downtown London (site of the 2012 Olympic Games), and Richmond, Virginia (home to the cycling World Championships in 2015). These options have the same pseudo-realism as Los Angeles or New York City in the Grand Theft Auto series; major sites such as the Ferris Wheel, Westminster Abbey, Box Hill, and the Thames River can be seen, with a lot of detail missing in between.

Riders adopt an on-line avatar, along with cycling kit and national flags. A key feature is the ability to ride “with” others, complete with drafting, races, and group workouts. Speed and distance are displayed, along with cycling-specific stats such as cadence, heart rate, and power. Riders are bound by the honor system to input their weight, and the resulting power metric of “Watts per Kilogram” is used to sort out relative speeds. “Smart” trainers, which allow software to control the resistance on the fly, combined with built in “hills” provide a realistic feel and the need to shift up or down depending on the steepness and direction of the gradient.

The process of getting this all synced up and running can be a bit daunting, especially since the constant upgrades and video game background of the system mean there is little in the way of a stable users’ manual. The basic set-up requires a bike trainer (smart or dumb), a method for measuring speed (built into the smart trainer, otherwise, an external sensor is required), a means to communicate data into a computer or phone/tablet (via Bluetooth or ANT+), an internet connection, and the Zwift app.

Once all the tech is linked up, and an avatar with profile (gender, age, weight, cycling ability) is created, the day’s locale appears on-screen. Most days, it’s Watopia; once or twice a week, London, and 1-2 times a month, Richmond. I find myself at the side of the road, the sound of cyclists whizzing by. I start pedaling, with a distinct “click” indicating I am clipped into my pedals. I can choose one of eight views, 3rd person, first-person, overhead, side view, helicopter, etc. My on-screen feet move realistically in circles, in time with my own pedaling on the bike, and down the road I go, scenery flowing past, cyclists rushing by or being over-taken.

There are many roads and intersections, and I can travel in either direction, any time, with a “U-turn” feature. At the start of my ride, I can chose a specific course, and don’t need to worry about when to turn, but I can always over-ride that at any intersection. At any time there are 100’s to 1,000’s of cyclists out there with me. At intersections, with people going in all directions, my avatar will sometimes flow ghost-like right through another rider. But usually the program directs the images around each other, and verisimilitude is maintained.

Depending on the time of day, I might see others from Europe, Asia, the Antipodes, and the Americas. Probably also from Africa, but since nationality is indicated by flag, it’s hard for me to tell. As this is a global phenomenon, and thus never closed, the weather and daylight seem to change randomly. I might ride in rain, snow, sun, moonlight, whatever, changing seemingly by the minute.

Zwifters quickly created a community, and real-life groups re-formed online. Races, with series, championships, and ability groupings quickly appeared. Group rides were announced, and Zwift contracted with coaches to create workouts, which can be done either individually, or with scores of others. A real motivator; if “C.Said” from Dubai is still in here sweating away, then, surely, I should be able to finish too, right?

My own triathlon team, Endurance Nation, has started doing Saturday and Sunday rides. 5-20 of us will agree to meet at the starting line at a given time. Then, using another video game app, Discord, we can actually talk with each other in real time while we ride together. One of the harder parts of training is finding sufficient motivation to work out when the weather is cold, wet, snowy, or dark during the winter months. Zwift, at least for this year, offers a solution to that dilemma.

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