Jason Timmons knew that cycling on the pancake-flat, sea-level roads around Miami couldn’t truly prepare him for the 32,000 feet of climbing he and his son would encounter on their tandem bike during Ride the Rockies.
So nearly two years ago, he joined the growing community of cyclists on Zwift, an app that allows participants riding on connected indoor trainers to pedal through 3-D virtual courses and race, work out and ride in real-time with others anywhere in the world. In short, the London-based startup aims to make the mundane chore of riding stationary indoors far more exciting.
“This is how I keep in shape, this is how I’m getting ready to ride long hills,” Timmons said. “It’s my motivator to get the job done.”
It also makes sense for a serious cyclist with a young family in Florida.
“It rains during the summers, three kids, wife likes to go to the gym — so the time to train is early in the morning, before they get ready for school,” Timmons said. “And I don’t have the confidence riding at night anymore.”
Ask any cyclist facing the choice of a frozen forehead, iced toes and frigid fingers during a typical Colorado winter day or training indoors — and most will begrudgingly opt for the trainer.
Your speed through Zwift’s virtual courses is determined by the power (watts) you produce, adjusted for height, weight and the gradient of the road. The services’s more than 120,000 members have collectively pedaled 120 million Zwift miles. While the experience to pedaling outdoors isn’t the same, the company says pedaling a mile in the game is “comparable” to pedaling a mile in real life.
“We’ve always known that riding indoors is the most efficient way to train for a bike race; it was just never fun,” said Zwift CEO and co-founder Eric Min. “Zwift has made indoor riding fun, social, and global, without losing the elements that make up serious training — power metrics, structured workouts, competitive races, group rides, and general time in the saddle. It’s more relevant than ever as we face time constraints, safety concerns and weather restrictions but crave the timeless joy of a bike ride with friends.”
Timmons used Zwift’s multi-week functional threshold training program — four or five workouts per week — to train for Ride the Rockies.
“Some days when I have more time to ride, I’ll do two workouts back-to-back,” Timmons said.
Riders need a few things: a bike, the trainer with sensors, a PC or Mac or a compatible iOS device (i.e., an iPhone or iPad). Finally, depending on your sensors, a USB2 ANT+ dongle or a Mobile Link compatible smartphone. A subscription to the app runs $10 per month.
Timmons’ setup is the bike, a Wahoo Kickr trainer (which retails for $1,200 new, but he got a used one for much less on eBay), the iPad with Zwift set on a TV dinner tray he got from his mother-in-law, the iPhone for a mobile link — allowing him to message other riders, if he wants to — a fan, and the TV, where he plays “junky reality shows” that he can keep on in the background.
He put on 3,000 Zwift miles of training so far this year and roughly 500-600 miles outdoors to prepare for Ride the Rockies.
Zwift-compatible trainers are connected to the program via Bluetooth, which allows the Zwift app to tell the trainer to increase or loosen the tension to reflect going up or down hills or pedaling on flats, reflecting the virtual course. Drafting behind other riders in the game actually allows you to pedal more easily — just as in the real world.
As you might expect, because the app involves competing or “riding” with other people in the game, a fast internet connection is a must. You can follow the Zwift course on an iPad or iPhone, or you can connect a laptop computer to a TV. Zwift currently has a beta test for using the app natively on 4th generation Apple TV.
The company offers three courses to choose: One made up course called Watopia and two real-life courses in London and Richmond, Va. — the latter of which is the loop from the 2015 UCI World Cycling Championships. The company continues to expand the existing courses.
When you log in, you have the option of riding in a group with other cyclists, racing against them or doing your own training programs. Each day, everyone rides the same course. In a group ride or a race, you’re surrounded by avatars of other cyclists — who look like players in a video game, but who are moving through the virtual course because a real human is pedaling on a trainer somewhere else in the world. Using a microphone connection or a phone, it’s possible to text and message your competitors.
Soon, Zwift is expected to include running. Already, a handful of beta testers are trying the running service, and they appear in the virtual environment with cyclists.
“It actually gets me the ability to ride when otherwise I might sleep in or blow it off,” Timmons said. “I do it because it’s the best option.”