Zwift introduces steering — but it won’t let you crash

by James Huang


Popular online indoor training platform Zwift will add a long-awaited feature to its software: steering.

Currently, Zwift works solely through a single channel input based on your power output. In other words, if you pedal harder, you go faster, and if you pedal softer, you go slower — the software automatically takes care of everything else. Therefore, the addition of steering effectively now doubles the level of interactivity users will have with the system, which Zwift hopes will enhance the system’s overall entertainment value.

Steering inputs are sourced from accelerometers built into your smartphone.

Zwift will determine steering inputs using the Zwift companion app and accelerometers that are built into all iOS and Android smartphones, which is a rather elegant solution given that it doesn’t require you to purchase any additional equipment. However, that also means that you’ll want to securely mount the phone to your handlebar or stem using a Quad Lock case, iOMount Convert adapter, or something similar.

Zwift will debut the steering function on a single new 2.1mi-long course that will be released later this week called Repack Ridge. As the name suggests, Repack Ridge is Zwift’s first simulated off-road course (the avatar rides a mountain bike), and it’s intentionally circuitous with a number of obstacles, such as wooden bridges, boulders, and berms. However, there are limits to how much freedom you have when steering. The system won’t let you truly bushwhack your way through the middle of uncharted Zwift lands, for example, and no matter how insistent you seemingly are to do some bona fide exploring, you’re never all that far off the designated track. You can’t crash into things, either, nor will the system allow any bad behavior like taking out other riders on course.

Steering “sensitivity” is user-adjustable, although none of the settings make the experience feel remotely realistic.

Other courses (including existing road courses) will also incorporate steering moving forward, but all on an optional basis, so you’re certainly not required to steer if you don’t want to.

Digital steering is kind of fun, but also pretty weird

I had an opportunity to try the new steering function at Zwift’s Eurobike booth, and it was… interesting. For sure, there’s now another level of attention required to keep your avatar on the straight-and-narrow, and yes, steering does make Zwift more like a game. That said, while steering does add another layer of interactivity to the system, as intended, one might argue that it also distracts you to the point of potentially degrading the quality of a workout (if that’s your goal for the session, that is).

The phone will need to be securely mounted to your stem or handlebar in order to generate a consistent steering input.

Users can choose the sensitivity of the steering in terms of how much your avatar changes direction on screen relative to handlebar movement, but since there’s no physical feedback, the sensation is not at all realistic. However, keep in mind that this is obviously very early days for all of this, and it isn’t hard to imagine indoor cycling hardware companies eventually offering a standalone steering platform for your front wheel that incorporates some level of artificial resistance for a bit more realistic feel.

Either way, Zwift is clearly motivated to increase the level of interactivity with the software to boost rider engagement and interest, and the only real limit to what comes next is not only what the company deems to be appropriate (don’t expect to be able to jam frame pumps into rivals’ wheels, for example), but how those commands will be executed. All of these experimental features will be launched under a new FutureWorks banner moving forward.

Will the future of Zwift include a litany of smartphone and/or keyboard commands? Maybe a dedicated handlebar remote?

Your guess is as good as mine.

www.zwift.com

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