Zwift – Cycling Meets Gaming
05 Mar 2016

Zwift – Cycling Meets Gaming

I spent two months “road testing” the new game that’s revolutionised indoor cycling.

Many years prior to Zwift, during my first year at University, Call of Duty came out on the Xbox and it wasn’t long before the time that should have been spent polishing off our Harvard referencing system, was instead invested racking up kills behind enemy lines.

I don’t think it really hit home, how much time I spent playing the game, until I inadvertently came across a summary screen that informed me that I had spent 200 hours of my life, shooting, stabbing and blowing up people from around the world.

200 hours, I thought, that’s a long time. That’s enough time to learn to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Instead, I had just further contributed the national desensitisation of violence. I didn’t play much Call of Duty after that, and in fact tried to avoid any “time sinks” of a similar nature. That was until I discovered Zwift, a game that actually makes you a better, stronger cyclist, whilst also contributing to your general fitness.


 

Index

What is Zwift?
Courses
Power Ups
Smart vs Dumb trainers
Group Rides & Racing
Cheating on Zwift
200k ride
On the go (3g)
Multi Screening
3D Mode on Zwift (3DTV) and VR
Pro Riders
Zwift Workout Mode
Levels, Achievements and Jerseys
Don’t ride naked
Community Resources
Improvements
Conclusion

What is Zwift?

Quite simply, it’s a cycling game that it controlled by pedal power, using a regular bike attached to a turbo trainer. You can cycle at your own pace, in a group or even race and the harder you pedal, the faster you go. The courses are undulating and the speed at which you travel is greatly affected by drafting, that is to say that if you ride directly behind someone, or in a group, the speed at will you travel will be much faster than if you were applying the same power whilst riding alone, much like cycling in the real world. It’s this fact, along with a few other key features of the game, that give Zwift the potential to be very strategical.

Zwift setup

Courses

Currently there are two locations on Zwift. The real life UCI World Championship course and the fictional island of Watopia. By linking your Zwift account to Strava, a map of your ride is created on the real life streets of Richmond for the former and on a virtual route on the real life island of Te Anu for the latter, although I expect that the natives of the sparsely populated island have no idea about the sudden boom in virtual cycle tourism! Like many features in Zwift, there are plans for expansion planned in the coming months. Although the UCI route is based on a real course, there are some sections of Watopia which are more akin to a map from Mario Cart, the most notable of which is an underwater glass tube that runs beneath the sea. Although not universally popular, I rather like these more flamboyant roads, as they offer something that cycling in the real world cannot.

zwift-ride-california

Power Ups

Another feature that divides people is power-ups. Checkpoints are located at the end of sprint sections, King of the Mountain sections (KOM) and at the end/beginning of the course. When you pass one of these checkpoints you get a power-up. Power-ups give small temporary boosts to things like weight, speed and drafting. Power-ups can be activated either on your keyboard or on your phone, using the companion app, which also provides other essential functions at your fingertips.

Some people think that the power-ups detract from the realism of the game, which they do, but Zwift’s primary goal doesn’t appear to be realism and I find that the power-ups have the potential to stir-up a stale group or give you the edge you need for an attack.

Zwift setup

Smart vs Dumb trainers

Zwift are not the first to the party with a concept like this, but unlike some existing/previous facsimiles, you don’t necessarily need to break the bank to get going, in fact, you may already have everything you need. A basic turbo trainer lifts your back wheel off the ground and provides a similar resistance to that of a flat road. You can pick a second-hand one up on eBay for about £15. This sort of basic trainer is commonly referred to as a “dumb” trainer and to use one with Zwift, you’ll need a speed/cadence sensor on your bike. If you use a bike computer when riding outdoors, then there’s a good chance that you’ll have one of these already. I did, which meant that I just needed to pick up a cheap Ant+ dongle from eBay for £14. This, and maybe a USB extension cable (about £5) are all that you’ll need to get started on Zwift.

If you’ve got a bit more cash to splash, then you may want to get a “smart” trainer. There are three fundamental differences between a “smart” and a dumb “trainer”. Firstly, a smart trainer measures power, which if you don’t know already, you’ll soon discover is a quite an important metric, for a number of reasons. Secondly, and perhaps most crucial to the Zwift experience, a smart trainer will accurately increase the resistance when going up hills, and decrease it when going down hills.

I was fortunate enough to be gifted a smart trainer a couple of weeks into my trialling of Zwift. One of the massive advantages I found, is that the Tacx Vortex Smart trainer is significantly quitter than my previous trainer, which is good news for my downstairs neighbour.

Zwift smart trainer

Group Rides & Racing

There are numerous group rides organised on a daily basis at various times and for a range of abilities. Group rides are my favourite part of Zwift and I generally prefer them to just riding around on my own fruition. The goal of a group ride is to keep the designated pace, however more often than not, the speed will creep up if not kept in check by the group leader. This took me by surprise on a couple of occasions when I found myself unable to keep up with a group because the average power began to exceed its pre-arranged figure. Some groups have a really strong onus on keeping the group together and stronger riders will circle back to try and pick of stragglers. I tried to do this once, failed to pick up any stragglers and then couldn’t catch back up with the group!

In some ways, racing is a bit weird on Zwift, as I imagine it is in the real world. To have the best chance of doing well, you need to ride in groups, using the draft effect means that the pelican moves much faster than if you were applying the same effort on your own. If you want to break away, this is best done in small groups, as trying to go solo will usually mean getting caught up by the group somewhere down the road. So you need to work together and use strategy, which I really enjoy.

Zwift group rides

Cheating on Zwift

This is something of a problem. All of methods of cheating associated with real professional cycling, could easily be applied to Zwift, and furthermore the are also innumerable ways that someone could make adjustments to their bike, the turbo trainer or the settings on Zwift to improve their performance in game. As an experiment, I live streamed myself being weighed, checking my tyre pressure and calibrating my turbo trainer before riding 200km (see below) as way of seeing how much faffing about would be necessary in order to make sure everyone was on the straight and narrow.

Deliberate cheaters can often be easy to spot, as Zwift allows you to view other riders to see their cadence, speed, power and heartrate, and there will always will be the odd few people who don’t play fair. But the real problem in the game is not the deliberate cheaters, but in fact the inadvertent cheaters, which I myself have been guilty of on two occasions. On the first occasion I was participating in a race and accidentally set off four minutes before my group (C) was due to start and found myself riding around with the B group instead, thus “winning” my group. On the second occasion my partner had her first go on Zwift, changing the gender, weight and height of my avatar. When I hopped back on for a group ride, I changed all of the stats back to my own and then participated in the 100km ride, securing three green jerseys and setting the sixth fastest sprint time of the course, ever! It turned out that although my name and settings had changed back on my screen, on everyone else’s I still had the name and stats of my partner.

200k ride

In January I spent six hours cycling 200km on Zwift in order to practice for next year’s 180km Ironman ride and to raise money for the Mind mental health charity and the James Hopkins Trust. I live streamed the whole event on Twitch, which you can see below in a sped up form

It felt a bit like that part from Forrest Gump, where he runs and various people join him throughout his journey. Sometimes people would log on a join me for a couple of laps and other times I would find myself riding along with much larger groups that happened to be on the island that day. The level of encouragement that I got on Twitch, social media and in the game was amazing and I had great fun doing it.

 

On the go (3g)

Zwift is best served with a steady wi-fi connection, but in a pinch it can be somewhat portable too. Around Christmas I was able to squeeze out a few laps in Miss Womble’s dad’s shed, using a patchy 3G connection on my phone.

Zwift in the shed

Multi Screening

One of the fun things I tried out, was playing Zwift on a 4K screen on one account and then using another trial account to login and spectate myself, thus meaning that I could view my own avatar from two different angles, which can be quite the advantage when group riding or racing.

Zwift 4K Multi-screen

3D Mode on Zwift (3DTV) and VR

Virtual reality (VR) was trialled in the early days of Zwift but is ultimately unlikely to become a fixture of the game, if for no other reason that the impracticalities of the VR headsets, combined with the inevitable perspiration from a ride. Zwift have released a stereoscopic 3D mode, which happens to be my field of expertise, so I gave a day in court.

Zwift 3D Glasses

Although it’s a bit rough around the edges, the 3D mode on Zwift does add an extra level of immersion. More importantly tough, the added stereoscopic depth allows you to clearly determine the distance between yourself and other riders. Zwift does have a heads up display which shows you when your approaching or falling out of the draft from another rider, however this only applies to one rider in front of you, so being able to accurately gauge this distance of all riders in the group is certainly advantageous.

Although wearing 3D glasses is a lot better (seat-wise) than a VR headset, after a while my glasses did become covered in moisture and needed to be wiped. The only people who will be able to avoid this issue entirely are the handful who have a glasses free (auto-stereoscopic) television.

Zwift 3D

It’s worth noting that at the time of writing Zwift does not double down on the graphics output when switching to 3DTV mode (Ctrl-shit+3), so you’ll need a 4K 3D screen in order to get for 1080p HD graphics.

Pro Riders

From time to time, you will get the opportunity to ride along on Zwift, with real life professional riders. The most prolific big name is former pro cyclist Jens Voigt and other names include Laurens Ten Dam, Ted King, Evelyn Stevens, and Lawson Craddock.

There is a theory that former pro cyclist and famous cheater Lance Armstrong secretly uses Zwift to participate in group rides and races, in a way that he will probably never be able to do again in real life; anonymously.

wift Jens Voigt

Zwift Workout Mode

The workout mode on Zwift allows you to complete various programs involving speed, power and intervals in order to achieve a specific goal, such as riding faster or raising your FTP (Functional Threshold Power).

You can also create your own workouts and share them online, as well as downloading other peoples. I haven’t done a great deal with the workout mode on Zwift but I understand how useful it is to people who have specific training programs.

Levels, Achievements and Jerseys

No game would be complete without a collection of arbitrary goals to reach. Zwift has a level system based on the amount of miles/kilometres that you clock up. As you level up, you will unlock new bikes, some of which are faster and lighter in than others. There are 24 standard achievements, most of which are fairly easy to obtain. Unfortunately, if you have a static-trainer with no power meter, you will not be able to get all of the achievements, as the power on dumb trainers is limited to 400W for some reason.

Zwift Daredevil

There is also a collection of ‘Extra Credit’ achievements, separate from the main achievements as most of them are significantly harder to obtain. So far I have been able to get all of the main achievements and most the extra credit ones too. I’m still missing the trophies for generating 1100 and 1200 watts of powers, which I’m quite glad about as it gives me something to aim for as I become a stronger cyclist. There is also an extra credit called ‘Bigger than Jensie’ which you get for being given 100 Ride Ons (Zwift’s equivalent of a Facebook ‘Like’) in one ride. I got 57 Ride Ons when I did my 200km ride, so I predict that were I to ride 300km, I could get this achievement too. Again, something to aim towards. Gotta catchem’ all!

Zwift extra cresit

You can also be awarded temporary jerseys for achieving the fastest sprint, fastest hill climb (KOM) and fastest lap, all of which only last for one hour. When I began playing, I thought I would never be fast enough to be awarded any of these jerseys, but by using the draft effect from a fast group in conjunction with a power-up and a heavy dose of pedal powers, I was able to obtain the green jersey on a number of occasions, although the lap jersey still eludes me!

Zwift green jersey

Don’t ride naked

When loading up, the game will prompt you with some sensible/comedic advice, which includes the phrase “Don’t ride naked”. It might as well say “have fun riding naked” as after the idea was planted in my head, I had to give it a go. I can’t say that I recommend it, however I can recommend riding in just your pants, if you use Zwift regularly, it will save on a lot laundry!

 

Community Resources

One of the most remarkable things about Zwift is the community that has sprung up around it. If you’re looking for advice, guides, workouts, events, results and news, there is a community resource to satisfy your needs. I have compiled a list of some of the most useful links, that will allow you to get more from Zwift

Facebook Group

With over 11,000 members of all abilities, this a great place to ask questions and share opinions.

Zwift Manual

Strictly speaking, there isn’t an official manual for Zwift, so this unofficial guide by James Gill can be quite handy.

Ride/Race Calendar

There after often 10 or more group rides and races on Zwift each and every day and this community calendar is the best place to find events and see event specific information.

Race Results

If you’ve linked Zwift to your Strava account, the results of some Zwift races can be found here on Zwift Nation.

Live race commentary

Pro mountain biker Nathan Guerra often streams live race commentary on Twitch.

Zwift Podcast

Simon Schofield puts a lot of effort into producing these great Zwiftcasts, which feature news and interviews.

Improvements

Zwift is a very well rounded product, but at the same time it is still very much evolving. Over the past few weeks I have been making notes about possible improvements that could be made to the game, but as time has gone on, many of these improvements have already been made, or are in the pipeline, so it seems pointless for me to even mention the small things which are currently missing or wrong with Zwift. What I will say is this; although a lot of effort has gone into the design and animation of the bikes and riders, the same level of detail and attention has not been applied to the environment, which by game standards looks very crude and dated. This might be deliberate in order to allow Zwift to run on slower computers and I can’t see it being improved upon any time soon.

Zwift glitch

Conclusion

I really cannot recommend Zwift enough. It has made me a stronger and faster cyclist and for the first time since I began cycling in October of last year, I’m actually really enjoying getting on the bike. This being said, I have yet to participate in a real life group ride or race and I’m looking forward to seeing how well my Zwift training has prepared me for such real worlds events when the weather outside gets a little warmer!


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