Our first attempt was laughable.
Think of what goes into coordinating a standard conference call with your colleagues. Then throw in a handful of people getting their Zwift accounts established for the first time, along with setting up their new indoor smart trainers. None of this is rocket science, but, well, you know how it goes.
Now sprinkle in high heart rates, different levels of fitness, and fans blowing in the background, and you have a comedy of errors. There was a lot of “Where are you now?” and “I can’t get my (fill in the blank) to work” crosstalk.
And yet, six weeks later, this how the US branch of the CyclingTips team is holding weekly calls, at least during the colder months of the year — on a Zoom conference call, riding together on Zwift, bikes attached to smart trainers in Chicago, Durango, and Boulder, Colorado.
Like many businesses these days, the US CyclingTips team is composed of remote employees. Working remotely has its advantages — cost savings, no commute, naps — but also disadvantages, such as lack of office culture, and the inability to workshop ideas in real time. As anyone who works in an office where lunch rides are the norm can tell you, it’s good for morale.
Enter the Zwift lunch ride.
Riding along with your colleagues on a virtual course in Watopia, London, or Richmond isn’t the same experience as braving the elements together, just as having a conference call isn’t the same as sitting in a conference room together, but most of the regular group ride dynamics still exist. If you’re running late, you get heckled. If you’re on the verge of getting dropped, you’re going to be less conversational, providing simple yes or no answers. (Nods of the head don’t work on conference calls.) And if you do get dropped, expect smack talk. Of course.
Still, it’s a fun and novel way to stay connected, get in a workout, and bond a little over a shared passion.
Here’s what you’ll need:
A bicycle: Yep. Gotta have one of those for a bike ride.
Zwift and Zwift Mobile Link: You’ll need an account, and a device to run the app. Zwift runs on iOS and Android mobile devices (it’s still in beta on Android) as well as Mac OS and Windows laptop and desktop computers — and, as of very recently, on fourth- and fifth-generation Apple TVs.
While it’s fine to run Zwift on a mobile device, for a virtual lunch ride, a preferable method is to run it on a dedicated computer — freeing up your mobile device for Zwift’s Mobile Link, as well as the conference call. Zwift Mobile Link is a separate app, a controller of sorts that makes the whole experience more interactive; it simply needs to connect to the same wifi network that you’re using to connect to Zwift.
If you have a newer Apple TV, that’s probably the most ideal setup, as it’s always connected and allows you to use your mobile device and laptop for other applications, but ultimately you should run Zwift on whichever device has the most powerful processor, and make sure to quit any and all apps that don’t need to be open.
A smart trainer: Zwift works with both smart trainers and “classic” trainers, but to get the full experience, you’ll want to use a smart trainer. Most smart trainers offer direct drive, meaning the trainer has a cassette attached to an axle, replacing your rear wheel. Direct-drive trainers are superior because they not only offer far smoother pedaling feel, they’re also quieter, and more stable and secure.
In addition to direct drive, smart trainers have two distinct advantages over classic trainers — data transfer, and power measurement, transmitted via Bluetooth. Data transfer allows programs like Zwift to set the resistance the virtual course delivers, while also receiving power data, which in turn tells the program the speed the user is virtually traveling, which is where the competitive side of Zwift kicks in.
Those using a classic trainer, or rollers, with an ANT+ power meter and/or ANT+ speed/cadence sensor can get most of those advantages, just without resistance. Without a power meter or speed/cadence sensor, Zwift calculates wattage based on the rear wheel speed and the virtual power curve of the classic trainer, but you don’t want that, unless you’re the type of person who is still content with a flip phone. It’s a workaround, but not really the intended user experience.
The right environment: Once you’ve got your trainer and Zwift account dialed, starting an indoor ride is pretty straightforward, and takes far less time than dressing for winter weather. Still, it’s important to have the right environment for riding a bicycle indoors, particularly if you’re riding in a group. You’ll need a fair bit of space for your bike and trainer — and your sweat — as well as whichever screen you’re using for Zwift.
The ideal setup would be to connect your laptop to a flat screen TV about six feet away from your saddle; most laptops utilize some sort of HDMI adaptor. As mentioned, in terms of space and ease of use, Apple TV is ideal. You’ll want a fan — two fans, blowing from different angles, is all the better. Clothing should be minimal. Even when there’s snow on the ground, riding indoors means you dress like it’s a hot summer day, which your basement or living room will feel like after about 20 minutes. A jersey with pockets is ideal for phone and food storage, and you’ll want at least one water bottle, if not two. For the purposes of our weekly conference call, microphone-equipped earbuds are a perfect way to keep the trainer sound out while capturing voices, hands free. And that way, once the call is over, you can switch over to music or a podcast without trying to blast it over the sound of the fans.
A conference call: It’s 2017, setting up conference calls should be easy, right? In theory, yes, but that’s rarely how it works out. There is no private conference-call functionality within Zwift, so you’ll need to figure out a way to connect with all the other riders in your group. The US CyclingTips crew uses Zoom, which works pretty well so long as everyone has a reliable wifi connection. The Australian CyclingTips crew uses the video calling feature within Facebook Messenger to manage the weekly CyclingTips Group Ride. Either way, microphone-equipped earbuds are essential.
Solid wifi: Attempting to do this with a spotty wifi connection is akin to showing up to a group ride with a slow leak. Don’t be that guy. A poor connection can wreak havoc with Zwift, Zwift Mobile Link, the conference call app, or all three. If you’ve got the bike, the smart trainer — the whole set up — don’t let poor wifi be the weak link in the chain.
Once you have all these pieces in place, your group will need to choose between a Group Ride, a Group Workout, or just freelancing it on an ordinary Zwift ride, pedaling along at whatever pace you prefer. Whichever you choose, you’ll all be virtually riding together, so it’s really a matter of what sort of effort you’re looking for.
Group Ride: In a Group Ride, the effort is determined beforehand, and there is a ride leader actively communicating about the pace, or just offering encouragement, via pop-up messages that appear on screen and via the Mobile Link chat feature. These rides are open to everyone, and like your local Saturday morning group ride, not everyone adheres to the same pace, which can make it difficult to stick together with your friends. That said, you can also make the group decision to pull the pin and just ride along on your own. There are many Group Rides offered on Zwift, including a weekly event hosted by CyclingTips Australia.
Group Workout: Just as the name implies, this is a dedicated workout, ridden together as a group. There are pre-planned intervals, and there may or may not be a leader providing direction via private group chats on Zwift Mobile Link. It’s a more tight-knit pack than a Group Ride, and everyone stays together through an invisible “elastic band.” All riders train to the same effort level (a percentage based on their individual Functional Threshold Power), so regardless of power output, the group is kept together As long as you’re pedaling, you’re with the pack for the entirety of the workout. The only real downside to this is that it can be hard, and a bit of a conversation killer.
Zwift Ride: The other method is to just do a basic ride, with everyone meeting at the starting point of any given route. The most important thing here is to make certain everyone selects the same route — there are many to choose from among each course, and they take different turns at different points. The second most important thing is that no one starts pedaling right away. All rides on the same course start at the same point, so it’s easy enough to find each other so long as no one starts pedaling; even with on-screen graphics and a conference call, once folks start rolling away, it’s harder to meet up than you might imagine. This option offers the greatest flexibility.
Once you’re all sorted, let the games begin. Attack. Sit in. Push pace. Get a virtual pace line going. Keep it civil. Regroup at the top. Go hard for the first half, talk shop for the second half — do whatever you’d ordinarily do on a lunch ride with your colleagues.
Best of all, once it’s over, there’s no line for the showers.