–By Aric Dershem, Team OAM NOW cyclist
Let’s get this out of the way, I am a fair weather cyclist. I know that the heartiest cyclists love to suffer on their fat bikes in the cold or grind across muddy gravel roads when the thermometer hasn’t yet reached 40-degrees. Even though our Michigan winter wasn’t as cold or snowy as it has been in past years, more often than not, I just could not convince myself to bundle up and head outside to ride. In past years, the alternative was equally uninspiring – enduring mind numbing hours of sweaty boredom spinning away on a stationary trainer. But this year instead of logging on hours and hours of Netflix viewing to keep me sane on the trainer, I found myself actually looking forward to 5 a.m. trainer rides – even during a snow storm. What was different this year? One word, Zwift.
For those of us without fat bikes or the desire to ride in the snow, the proliferation of “smart trainers” and virtual cycling apps has transformed winter training. For me the combination of a Wahoo Kickr (a smart trainer) and the Zwift app made my indoor training not only tolerable, but something to look forward to.
Zwift is a program the runs on my computer and communicates with my trainer through a wireless Bluetooth connection. The Zwift program provides a virtual environment (the island of “Watopia”) with varied terrain for riding. As the terrain changes, the resistance on my trainer changes automatically. When I have to climb a hill on Zwift, the resistance on my trainer increases to simulate the effort. As I ride, my trainer and the app work together to track my cycling vital statistics (heart rate, watts of power, cadence, speed, etc.) and display them on the screen as I watch a virtual version of myself riding on the island. While this certainly makes the trainer rides more realistic and enjoyable, the experience is enhanced by the fact that when I ride on Zwift, I’m riding with (or against) everyone else in the world who is also riding on Zwift. The application not only displays my statistics, but also tells me how my ride stacks up against my fellow riders. With KOMs (King of the Mountain) and sprints at stake, I find myself motivated to push just the little bit harder than I normally would in an effort to climb up the live rankings. Essentially, Zwift has been able to turn the drudgery of my trainer ride into a video game powered by my legs and lungs.
The Zwift experience became so realistic that Netflix was no longer necessary to occupy my mind while spinning for hours in my basement. Instead, I would find myself logging my winter miles by “Zwifting” and using the companion app on my iPhone to wave at other virtual riders, flick my elbow when it was time for someone else to take a pull, and even message with other riders.
The popularity of these virtual worlds inspires the creators to continue expanding the terrain. This summer, Zwift introduced a virtual version of the Richmond, Virginia UCI World Championship course and they recently opened up a new mountain to climb on Watopia with some 13% grade sections (see video link below). Expansions like these will definitely keep people like me coming back for more.
While cycling provides us with the opportunity to be outdoors, experience fresh air and propel ourselves for miles under our own power, Zwift has become a favorite training tool for me to prepare for the spring and make the hours of winter training many times more enjoyable. There is one potential downside to Zwift. With so much data and so many riders, riding on Zwift can be so motivating that every once in a while I push just a little harder than my training plan tells me to. I guess it could be worse (like riding outside in the freezing cold).