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Words by Matt de Neef
It’s been two and half years now since Zwift first launched into beta, and 18 months since we first logged in to see what all the fuss was about. We dove back in in March 2016 to spend some time with Zwift’s workouts but much has changed in the year and a bit since then.
The Zwift community continues to grow at an impressive rate — the company claims its userbase is growing three-fold year-on-year, with 250,000 people now having been for a virtual ride — and, equally, Zwift itself continues to go from strength to strength, with new features being rolled out at regular intervals.
So what’s changed on Zwift since the last time we saddled up and went for a spin?
Long gone are the days of Zwift having just one short course of 9.1km. That Watopia course has now expanded significantly and there are many route variations available, culminating in the full “Pretzel” course, which is a very solid 72.2km ride with more than 1,300m of climbing.
In all, there are now nine route variations of the Watopia course, although riders can customise their effort further by choosing a direction at any of the route’s many intersections.
“With three different locations, and plenty of route variations available, there’s plenty to keep you interested as you ride your way through Zwift’s virtual world.”
The 2015 Road World Championships course in Richmond, Virginia continues to feature, providing riders with four route options to choose from. And then there’s a virtual adaptation of the Prudential RideLondon course, itself a nod to the course used for the 2012 London Olympics road race.
The London setting, added in July 2016, features eight route variations and includes the Box Hill climb, which has been digitally transplanted from Surrey into the heart of London, to make it more accessible.
While there are three courses available, only one course is officially available at a time, with courses rotating after a few days. You can see which course will be available at what time over at the Zwift community page.
If you’re trying to find your way around a course, but you’re not familiar with the various twists and turns, you might find it a little tricky to navigate at the various intersections. This is particularly true on the sprawling Watopia map. Other than trial and error through time spent in-game, your best bet is to check out the maps in the route selector at the start of the game. Note that if you select a route at startup, the correct turns will be pre-selected for you.
With three different locations, and plenty of route variations available, there’s plenty to keep you interested as you ride your way through Zwift’s virtual world.
To begin with, Zwift was only available on PC and Mac computers but as of September 2016, the game platform is now available on iOS devices — specifically iPhones and iPads. (Note: it’s not currently available on Android devices)
The Zwift iOS app is largely identical to the Mac/PC version, albeit with a few notable differences. For a start, in-game commands that you might normally use the Zwift Mobile Link app for — such as posting messages, turning at intersections etc. — can now be done using the touchscreen interface on your iOS device.
More significantly, the iOS version of Zwift doesn’t work natively with ANT+ sensors — instead you’ll have to rely on Bluetooth sensors, or pickup a Wahoo ANT+ Key (and probably an Apple Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter, if your phone is new). How much of an issue this is really depends on the gear you’re using, but many devices transmit data via both ANT+ and Bluetooth protocols. Note that, at the time of writing, the Wahoo ANT+ dongle does not yet allow Zwift to control smart trainers.
Having Zwift available on iOS devices gives users more options when it comes to virtual rides. For a start, an iPad or iPhone takes up much less space than a laptop and can even be mounted to your bars or stem, rather than relying on a large flat surface in front of your bike.
One thing to note about the Zwift iOS app — being so graphically intensive, the game chews through a lot of power. Be sure to plug your phone or tablet in before you start.
Along with an iOS version of Zwift comes the ability to use Zwift for running. Being a cycling site, those features are beyond the scope of this review, but in short, by combining the Zwift app with a Bluetooth-compatible foot pod and a compatible treadmill, runners can enjoy pounding the pavement in the same virtual environment as those of us on two wheels.
Note that, at the time of running, running on Zwift is only available as a beta and only then if you know where to look.
On the subject of mobile apps, the Zwift Mobile Link has had a significant facelift in the past year or so. More of your rider data is available at a glance, there are more ways to interact with the game world, you can set yourself riding goals, and there’s a dedicated page for upcoming Zwift events. Indeed, the growth of events is perhaps the biggest and most important change to Zwift in the past year.
In the early days of Zwift it was possible to ride in a bunch with others from around the world, enjoying the benefits of drafting and a quasi-social experience while riding on your own, indoors. But as time has gone on, and the team at Zwift has developed the events side of the platform, group rides have improved out of sight.
Log in to Zwift on your computer and you’ll see, in the top right corner of the staging screen, a list of the group rides that are starting soon. Select the ride you want to take part in and when the time comes, Zwift will prompt you to join. You can also do this through the Zwift Mobile Link app, which features a long list of the events for the rest of the day and beyond. It’s on this Events page that you start to get a sense of just how many group rides are available to you.
There’s a ride starting roughly every half an hour or so, around the clock, although it varies throughout the day, and from day to day. Some rides are no-drop virtual club rides where you’re just rolling around in a group, some are group rides focused on doing particular efforts, and others are genuine races. The events vary in length, meaning you’ll often find something to your liking even if you don’t have long to ride. You can always join then leave a ride, too.
Thankfully, each ride has a grade assigned to it, to give you an idea of whether you’ll be able to hold on or not. Running from A through to D, these grades are based on a rider’s functional threshold power (FTP).
Once you join a ride, your avatar will be transported to the startline where it will appear to be riding on a trainer as a timer counts down to the start of the ride. When the time reaches zero the ride will begin.
If the event you’re doing is a group ride, as opposed to a race, there’ll be a designated ride leader who will have a yellow badge hovering above their avatar. While anyone in a group ride can post message to the group (these pop-up on the right-hand side of the screen near the rider’s name), the ride leader’s messages appear prominently in the middle of the screen.
This makes it easy for the ride leader to give instructions to the group, such as calling for an increase in the pace, declaring a sprint point, and so on.
The rider leader’s prominent messages can also make for some entertaining mid-ride banter. On one particularly memorable group ride, a World Bicycle Relief bunch ride around the London course, one rider told the group he had to leave the ride in order to get to work on time. The ride leader made a point of heckling the departing rider, questioning his priorities.
It’s a small thing, but features like this help translate the real-world bunch ride experience into the virtual world in an engaging and realistic way.
The group rides as a whole are surprisingly compelling. Just like out on the road there’s always a wheel you need to follow, and the software plus smart trainer combination provides a real benefit for being well placed in the bunch (a reduction in the amount of power required for a given effort, to represent the benefits of drafting).
Zwift was already a compelling way to make time on the indoor trainer more bearable, but group rides really take this to the next level. Riders can now take part in a hard bunch ride, or race, with real social connection to others around the world, all from the safety, warmth and dryness of their indoor pain cave.
A logical extension of Zwift’s group rides feature are the eFondos that have sprung up in the past few months. It all started with the Maratona dles Dolomites eFondo in March, which saw more than 1,300 riders take on the full Watopia Pretzel course. The premise has since expanded into the CyclingTips eFondo Series, a five-ride series that’s running from May through to September.
While essentially the same as regular group rides, these eFondos also offer something more — a course that’s longer than many group rides, prizes, and a real sense of occasion that riders can work towards and look forward to.
Beyond the features mentioned above, there have been a number of other, smaller changes to the Zwift landscape in the past year or so. One of those is the landscape itself — the virtual environments seem more detailed and more interesting than in the early days.
There are “Challenges” you can take part in, including climbing the height of Mt. Everest, riding around Italy, and riding the length of the Tour of California. Completing these challenges unlocks new bikes for your in-game avatar. There are also limited-time “Missions” which allow you to raise money for charity or enter the draw for real-life prizes.
Beyond improvements to the game itself, we’ve also seen changes in other aspects of the Zwift community. The growth of the the game’s group rides functionality has naturally led to championship events, contested by the strongest riders in the Zwift community. Such third-party events have been streamed live online, with full commentary, creating an engaging spectator experience. See from 50:00 in the video below from the CVR World Cup Launch Las Vegas, for an example.
There’s little doubt Zwift is leading the way when it comes to the world of virtual cycling, and the platform only continues to evolve as the years go by. The mostly dull act of riding a bike indoors has been improved considerably by Zwift, and the introduction of group rides takes the experience to another level entirely.
There’s now a real social element to riding indoors and with the Zwift community growing all the time, that’s only going to continue.
Where to from here for Zwift?