Zwift Takes Indoor Cycling To A Whole New Level
The race, after ticking along for an hour at the same tempo pace — punctuated by a few attacks — was getting down to the last few miles. The initial field of 25 was largely intact. It was looking, like most races at this level, like a “bunch sprint” for the line. I was trying to remember tactics from my time (ages ago, it seems) racing bikes in New York City. Don’t burn all your matches. Don’t be in front, taking all the wind, but don’t be too far back either. Don’t get boxed out. And a line I always remember from Tim Krabbe’s bike-racing novel, The Rider: “Always attack as late as you can, but before the others do.”
As palm trees whooshed past, the road kicked up a bit. The handful of riders ahead of me, led by a Canadian, put the hammer down and began to pull away. I tried to grab the wheel of an Angolan rider just in front. The finish loomed, the sprint was on. I held fast for a moment, but my heart was in the red zone. Dropped by the first few sprinters, but ahead of the pack that had been dropped on the rise, I hung on in no man’s land for a fifth-place finish. I dismounted my bike, walked the 30 feet from the garage to the house, took a shower, and settled in for an afternoon’s work.
It was just another day in the world of racing on Zwift, the massively multiplayer global online platform for virtual cycling (and running, but mostly cycling). For the uninitiated, Zwift, which launched in 2014, allows users, connected to some form of indoor trainer, to ride in any of its ever-growing inventory of “worlds,” ranging from towering Alpine peaks to the (car-free) streets of London. You can “free ride,” alone, at your own pace. Or you can join one of the dozens of group rides scheduled in an average day, many of which are quite established, with regular participants and on-screen banter (a mixture of dad jokes and chat about cycling gear). You can even join a sort of perpetual group ride, led by a variety of “robopacers” who endlessly chug along at a predetermined pace.
Or you can race. Cycling’s competitive side has been part of Zwift nearly since its inception, but in the last few years, it has made massive strides. In 2020, the first Esports World Championships, sanctioned by the UCI — cycling’s governing body — took place on Zwift (Jason Osborne, a German Olympic rower, won the men’s division, while Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, a South African professional cyclist, won the women’s event). That same year, Zwift paired with WTRL to create the Zwift Racing League, which has since grown into the world’s largest virtual racing competition (WTRL even offers run-cycle duathalons).
Zwift Racing Membership
Racing is where the virtuous video game aspect of Zwift — you don’t burn 1000 calories an hour playing Call of Duty — is most fully realized. I’d been eyeing the ZRL events for a while, and finally made it a resolution this year to join. You first need to join a team, which is an invite-only affair. Through some Googling, I found a mention that a team called “CRYO-GEN” was looking to add riders. I got an email back from a team member walking me through the onboarding process, which mostly involved linking my various profiles at websites like Strava or Zwift Power (a Zwift-managed site that automatically tracks your race results), and joining the team channel at Discord (like any online multiplayer game, Discord chat is a key element).
A request came in: Would I like to join a team time trial, at 7:30 p.m. the following Tuesday? Yes, I impetuously replied. Then panic set in: Was I actually race-ready? In the hopes of a quick ramp-up I tried to tackle a race per day, no easy task during the slothfully indulgent holiday season. My first race, a 23-mile affair, with 1000 feet of climbing, was hardly promising; as a larger rider, hills are not my forte, and I got dropped on the first big climb, finishing 22nd out of 25 “c category” riders (you can join any category — which is based on an average wattage level during the ride — you like, but in many races, you will be disqualified if you ride above the threshold). Despite my trouble with hills, the next race, a flat “sprinter’s paradise” through Zwift’s version of Tokyo, was hardly better: I landed 12th out of 15.
A quick word on my setup. I use an old BMC road bike frame, attached to a Zwift Hub Classic (since discontinued) and a Kickr climb simulator in the front. I run Zwift on Apple TV, connected to a basic Samsung flatscreen, which sits atop a Wahoo Kickr Indoor Cycling Desk. There are any number of variations available here (e.g., you could ride a Peloton bike and run Zwift on an iPad). I use this lower-cost heart-rate monitor (most races require the device as an anti-cheating measure). Crucially, I have two Kickr Headwind fans angled in at either side of the desk (which you can set to blow harder as your speed or heart rate goes up). Because you will sweat, even in a cold garage. I also keep a large towel wrapped around the handlebars and top tube, and even this doesn’t prevent the rubber mat below my bike, encrusted with residual sodium crystals, from occasionally looking like the Bonneville salt flats.
The night of the time trial, I began warming up in “the pen” and joined the Discord channel. Larry, the team’s captain, had given up his spot in the six-man time trial to me and would oversee events in the “team car.” As I chatted with the other riders, I had a sudden thought: Given that this was a time trial, should I have a time trial bike? (i.e., an aero bike specifically designed for these races). Yes, came the universal reply. “You will get dropped with a regular bike,” someone told me. I hastened to my Zwift “garage” — where you store the frames, wheels, and other merch you accumulate through time and points. I fumbled with the lamentable Apple TV remote as the countdown to the start hit single digits, but my sweaty digits just couldn’t perform the clickthroughs.
We were off, the six of us, lined up in a single file, powering down a flat desert highway at 26 miles an hour. We would each take “pulls” at the front, then retreat to the safety of the rear. I took a few strong turns at the front — we passed two teams that had started before us — but I could sense myself struggling to stay with the group. As we neared the fourth mile out of nine, another rider drifted off the back, apologizing. We were now five, but I knew I was cooked. At around the halfway mark of the time trial, I pulled the plug.
I resolved to bounce back from my DNF. I “bought” a CADEX aero frame and wheels from the garage, using some of the millions of “drops” I’d gained on Zwift. And I investigated a more real-world upgrade: A Wahoo Kickr Bike Shift, which the company sent me for testing. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my previous setup was underreporting the number of watts I was putting out, as I often seemed unable to keep up in group rides in which I normally could. Stripped down, easy to adjust, and purpose built for indoor training, the Kickr Bike has a number of virtues. First, instead of my chain, no-doubt stretched and always on the verge of turning rusty (thanks to all that sweat), the Wahoo has an enclosed belt drive. As a result, it is whisper quiet — unlike many smart trainers, you can ride this without neighborly complaint in an apartment. The pedaling action seemed smoother, as well; the handlebar-mounted buttons, which one could use to turn around, or activate in-game “power-ups” were also a revelation (saving me from fumbling with the Apple TV remote).
Thus equipped, I returned to Zwift, and found a 9.6 mile individual time trial that seemed a perfect benchmark. As I set out, all seemed good, with one problem: Instead of the advertised length, the race was 21 miles and change. I put on an adrenaline-fueling playlist and got down to work. Nearly an hour later, it was over. I opened Zwift Power, and saw a little gold trophy next to the race in my profile — meaning I’d won it. My average wattage was 250, versus the 231 I’d managed in the previous race.
The next team time trial series begins later this month. Me and my avatar will be ready.