Every once in a while something really innovative and useful really does come along – sometimes as an evolution of many other ideas which are ingeniously innovated into one cohesive concept. And like a good percentage of these really good new ideas that come along you may sometimes say to yourself – hey, I should have thought of that!
Zwift is one of those things.
Okay, so most of us who bike have Winters or at least off-seasons, or maybe just bad weather days, or injuries. And we pretty much all have fast Internet and fairly fast computers and capable mobile devices, right? And we can do some pretty awesome gaming with very little effort with all of this tech. And a lot of bike enthusiasts have some sort of bike sensors (cadence, speed, power, etc) already on their bikes as well as bike trainers or rollers for those days when we can’t go outside for whatever reason.
So why not combine all of those things into an immersive and graphically outstanding massively multiplayer online game (MMOG or MMO) that lets us train with our bikes and bike trainers against and with other people in a social environment?
There are some apps and sites and hardware and software that let you ride in virtual places when connected (like BKool), but none have anything quite like the options, abilities, graphics, and social interaction as Zwift.
How did someone not come up with this before when it is such a logical but simple evolution of biking, bike technology, the Internet, gaming, training, and general computer technology?
Well, for one thing it really isn’t simple. The concept might be, but bringing all of these technologies together – especially making hundreds of different pieces of equipment work and drivers work well with each other (as well as the people using them) – is a massive undertaking in itself.
I first heard of Zwift quite some time ago. At the time I was fascinated and followed its progress peripherally, via reviews, through the Beta versions. It sounded pretty good, amazing even, yet I thought that it wouldn’t be for someone like me – a regular joe bicycle rider. Sure, I like to train hard sometimes; both in biking as well as other fitness and sports. But I supposed that the equipment needed as well as the price would be well beyond what I could justify. And that perhaps maybe it would be more geared toward the professional and/or ‘serious’ bicyclist.
But it turns out I was wrong.
So recently I decided to take a closer look at what was required equipment-wise. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had the bare minimum needed to at least give the trial period of Zwift a spin – pun intended.
To REALLY get the full experience (and accuracy) I would have needed some better equipment like a smart trainer. But a bike, basic bike trainer (see my review of the Magnet Steel Bike Trainer here – this has no sensors on the trainer itself, which are important for more accuracy), heart rate strap (in my case the ANT+ HRM strap from my Garmin equipment), Garmin dongle, and speed/cadence sensors (see my review of the Scosche RHYTHM Bluetooth speed/cadence sensor here) were good enough to get me started. There are a ton of smart as well as non-smart bike trainers Zwift supports but if you don’t have one on their list you can just pick ‘other’ and use whatever bike sensors you have on your cycle.
The first thing you do is download the software for your computer, PC or Mac. I wanted to use my ANT+ HRM strap but also my Bluetooth cadence/speed sensors, and since Bluetooth on Zwift is still in Beta the Zwift app (get the Android version here, or the IOS version here) must be used as a sort of bridge between the mobile device. The Bluetooth sensor(s) connects to the mobile device which in turn connects to the Zwift software running on the computer. I believe that it was mentioned in the Zwift help that maybe someday they would support bluetooth connections directly through the computer software.
The first thing I’d want to say about the software is that you can’t expect to run it on an old computer, nor on a slow Internet connection. There’s a lot of graphics going on and possibly a good amount of bandwidth used. So if you have a decrepit old computer you’re probably out of luck.
Even my laptop, which isn’t that old, was not able to run the software without crashing. Unfortunately the Sony Vaio model I have has never worked out to be a very good laptop for me in the first place and hasn’t been particular speedy even when new, so I didn’t really expect it to do that well, especially since there have been no updated drivers for the video for a several years. So I was out of luck on the laptop and thus displaying it on our big screen TV.
But on my desktop the software ran fine, though not without a few crashes when setting it up (and one uninstall and reinstall). The desktop isn’t new either but it’s recent enough and powerful enough to run the Swift software fine after the few mis-starts.
It’s easy to download and install the software, set up an account, optionally install the IOS or Android app, and connect your equipment. The app recognizes when you have the software running on the computer.
Since I was doing the trial I didn’t worry too much about the accuracy of speed and such, as much as just plain giving it a fun try. I didn’t have exactly the correct equipment – my trainer was not listed, being an el cheapo model with no sensors on the trainer itself. Again – I have just the bare minimum needed to give this a test.
You can set up a profile and then under the profile (which you can edit any time, even in the middle of a ride after pausing the ride) you can customize various things about your rider (like skin tone, sex, glasses, hair, and so on), bike, wheels, kit, and such. As you gain achievements and level-ups you can do more customizing, and of course you can do more things with the full paid version versus the trial that I was using. You can even unlock different kits with promo codes and things like that. There are many options and additions, and probably many more to be added in the future.
Once the sensors were working I could continue to the screen that allowed me to pick my ride – either a training ride or more of a free time ride.
The trial period gives you a full 14 days and 50 kilometers (31 miles) to give Zwift a try (which ever comes first).
Is it enough to give it a good evaluation? The 50 kilometers seemed a bit low to me but it turned out to be at least enough to get a good idea of how to use it and how well I might like it, especially when I worked as hard as I did at hills, speed, and just trying to keep up with others. Sure, a bit more distance would have been nice but what could I expect – it was a trial period and I was happy to try it. For some 50k is nothing, for others it’s a few good rides.
For my first ride I picked the Watopia course, a fictional course on a small island that in real life is part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, east of Papua, New Guinea and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The island itself is real, but there is no elaborate biking course there, nor much of anything else.
If there were a course there anything like this in real life; it would be the biking mecca of the world, I have no doubt.
The virtual course is a beautifully done 3D immersive graphic biking paradise. The animation is smooth, the scenery is almost breath-taking in places and amazing throughout the rest. You’ll find hills and descents and channels under water, cobblestone and gravel and boardwalks and lots of scenery to take in, and lots of other rides of course! Many nearby you will be chatting.
And as you ride you will have a full range of your current stats always displayed as you read – heads-up style. You can also see where you are in the course complete with elevation and indicators of other riders. Heck, when you switch views where you can see yourself from the side you’ll even see the HUD display floating in front of you. Switching views gives you a different perspective as you ride; you can ride with your avatar shown at the front of your display, from the side, from the front, a low (bike level?) perspective from the rear, or just a front view with no avatar shown as if you had just jumped on your bike and started riding in real life. This latter view is my preference.
If you are watching your avatar you may see him or her get up off the seat for hill climbs if you are putting some real effort into it, or drop onto the drop bars if you are speeding downhill. You can draft with others, ride with them or let them pass by you. Occasionally you’ll see someone pulled over to the side, resting or waiting for friends.
With the proper trainer the resistance would be adjusted automatically to conform to the hill climbs and descents as you ride – of course with my ‘dumb’ trainer (even though it’s not a connected trainer I still like it – The Magnet Steel Bike Trainer; see my blog review here) I had to adjust the resistance either manually or via the bike’s gearing.
My power output on the display was obviously lower than it should have been but nonetheless it was a bundle of fun to do anyway! So even if you don’t have QUITE the right equipment it’s still going to be enjoyable, I believe.
One thing you will notice right away is that the real-time stats on the screen will be different than what your bike sensors or trainer might normally display on your bike computer or biking app. Zwift calculates your stats based on course variables like incline, your personal stats, whether you are drafting, and many other things. I think a few times it showed me only going about 6 miles an hour up a hill – as I mentioned; this is because I don’t have the ideal equipment for best use on Zwift.
Occasionally you may even see a ‘ghost’ rider’ (I saw only one or two) – a blue-outlined cyclist, who is an artificial intelligence construct originally probably meant to flesh out the number of riders. But from what I have been told they are rarer than when Zwift started as there is little need for them any more as there are so many human ones already riding the courses.
Did I mention sound? You’ll hear a bike and rider as they come up behind you and pass you, you’ll also hear incidentals like maybe a bird or the pitch of your tire sounds changing as you ride across a boardwalk, or maybe the ding of a bike horn as someone nearby rings you. This of course rounds out your full immersive experience when riding.
Set up a fan with a rotating base and you can almost imagine yourself outside with the wind blowing through your hair – and the fan will keep you cool too.
Okay, so it’s still not anything like being outside but it’s the next best thing.
Another great aspect is the ability to chat with others, and you can even use the mobile app on your phone or mobile device’s voice recognition (for both IOS and Android) to do it fairly hands-free. I saw someone training a group of people and their chats as they passed by me. It’s a great feature, but as with anything like this you’ll find a certain share of idiots and pretentiousness. I gave it a quick try but at one point I brought the conversation to a short halt when I made a bad joke – as always there is a certain segment of people using any site on the Internet who just take things a bit too seriously; or maybe my jokes just suck. Which is a strong possibility. Nonetheless, the chat is an excellent feature.
In some places in the courses you can decide which fork to take. And the mobile app lets you make u-turns, take screenshots, ring your bike bell, flag people if you see them doing something unfavorable, and a number of other things including stopping or pausing, etc.
Pausing gives you access to your stats, customizations, achievements.
If you are familiar with KOM’s/QOM’s and segments on sites like Strava you’ll find similar on Zwift, and you can also unlock various items with them. You can also get points for things like drafting, course jerseys for wins, power-ups, etc.
For my second ride I gave the Richmond course a try. This is a virtual simulation of the UCI 2015 Road World Championships race. And while I don’t know Richmond personally a few comparisons with Google Images seemed to show a very good representation of the real course. Quant houses mixed with modern structures, closed off roads for the course, and lots more people riding.
If you’re not ready to give it a try or just want to see what it is all about you can spectate and watch and follow your friends or random people, and cheer them on, etc. It’s good if you are not sure about it as yet.
There’s plenty of somewhat real training modes in Zwift and races but if you just want to get used to it, or free ride – you can do that too. As you would expect the Zwift website has tons of help and support, and Youtube has lots more too.
As you ride Zwift saves standard ‘.fit’ files to your computer’s hard drive, periodically saving them if you have a computer or Internet crash or lock-up or something. The ‘.fit’ files can be used with Garmin Connect and other fitness tracking sites, but as I mentioned above you can connect Zwift directly to Strava for automatic upload.
I want to mention, on a side note – like the Watopia course the Richmond one will show up as a GPS track if you are connected to sites like Strava; just as if you had actually biked there in real life.
I am also noticing that people will ride outside and then later come inside and ride on Zwift, or vice versa. Indoor training needn’t be just during crappy times of the year, and when you can ride with your acquaintances from all over the world; well, that’s very inviting. But I still prefer the outside. Much, much prefer the outside – no matter how nice Zwift is. But to each his own.
As a bicyclist and person interested in training for biking (and other things) I really like Zwift and the concept. But a little niggling at the back of my mind sometimes puts me on the fence about the fact that my virtual ride is actually showing up the same as a ‘real’ ride outdoors and at the course’s real-world location, as if I had actually rode at that physical place. Of course, anyone who looks at your ride on Strava can plainly see that it is a Zwift ride.
But still; you’ll find some riders complaining a bit about this. This and Swift’s validity for training as well as the possibility of cheating (on Zwift you can flag those you think might be cheating – like if someone blows by you as if they are motorized or something). I’m not losing sleep over it (as some people maybe do) but I still feel slightly weird about those rides showing up for physical locations where I have never ridden. But not enough to affect my enjoyment of using Zwift.
All in all, I really like Zwift a lot. And you don’t HAVE to train, you don’t have to ride like a bat out of hell, you can hop on your virtual cruiser with the wicker basket and go for a leisurely ride with your friends from anywhere in the world. Or ride at whatever pace and training mode you wish, or even join a Zwift race.
Zwift is an interesting training/entertainment tool for both bicyclists to use as well as a concept come to life that tech enthusiasts will appreciate – of which I am both. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite my equipment/sensor handicaps.
Some may even be inclined to consider the whole concept, in a small way, something like Second Life or any other VR-style game but taking place on a bike. But unlike Second Life and unlike many shoot-em-up games there is structure here but not too much, there is no anarchy, yet freedom to train as hard or as easy as you wish or just enjoy the ride – a parallel to riding on the road win real life.
I believe the Zwift guys have lots of ideas for the future.
What will be the future? Both in Zwift as well as this concept in general? Expanding the number of compatible devices is likely for one.
But perhaps borrowing the idea of real motion-feedback is another idea – for example; when I land my plane in Flight Simulator 2004 I feel the feedback in the joystick from the tires hitting the landing strip and bouncing, and the roughness of the surface of a dirt runway, or a gust of crosswind against the fuselage.
Perhaps someday bike trainers can allow us to feel the cobblestones or gravel track when riding across it in Zwift. Or the bump when we get too close to someone we are drafting or the pressure of a crosswind against our bike.
Or maybe an idea would be to borrow the multiple-monitor set up idea from flight simulators and space simulators so we can look physically to our left and right and see those who are trying to pass us or who we are racing/training against, or maybe just for a more immersive experience.
Maybe those with injuries can connect directly up with a sports medicine professional or therapist to use this to better recover from injuries with targeted training and therapy and direct feedback to the professional from the equipment. Or maybe it could be used by the blind with some sort of screen reader or accessible version, or with those who have other disabilities.
Perhaps it can even be carried over into a running version using new ANT+/Bluetooth enabled treadmills. Or body sensors for doing other kinds of virtual workouts – maybe the next P90x series will have us working out with others from all over the world and a virtual Tony Horton.
I don’t think there is any limit to the ideas and the potential can be just staggering.
I find myself at that age where my contemporaries (or younger!) sometimes utter the stereotypical “Things Are Too Complicated” and “I Wish I Lived In Simpler Times” – yet they all enjoy and reap the benefits of modern technologies.
We live in truly amazing times, I embrace it. And Zwift is just one more example of the amazing times we live in. I say bring it on.
I want to thank Greg Fisher from Zwift for permissions and great press release stuff, including screenshots and logos. The Zwift people seem truly like a bunch of guys who legitimately want people to enjoy this software and training and using it.
I want to close here with a mention of a point that is important about this particular blog review – a lot of what I covered here was very cursory because of the limitations of my trial period as well as the disadvantage of minimal equipment. I am sure that I missed a number of things, and it’s possible I may have made a few inaccuracies. Keep that in mind.
If I did made any mistakes or you have any comments of any kind please leave them in the comments section.
Don’t forget to check out the many screenshots from my own rides as well as promo shots from Zwift below, and a short video too.
If you love biking, and it’s not very nice outside, and you have at least the minimum required equipment for trying Zwift then do give it a try. You will not be disappointed as it is an amazing training, anti-boredom, biking-specific social platform, and just all around fun experience for those days that you can’t or don’t want to bike outside.