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by James Huang
November 15, 2019
Photography by James Huang
Zwift is the undisputed market leader when it comes to indoor cycling software, and thanks to some clever sleuthing by heralded fitness gadget guru Ray Maker of DC Rainmaker, it seems the company will now be expanding into indoor cycling hardware as well.
If Zwift’s existing hardware partners aren’t already gravely concerned over this news, maybe they should be. Or then again, maybe not.
Currently, Zwift and its partners enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship: Zwift provides the software infrastructure, or online “world”, while companies such as Wahoo Fitness, Saris, Tacx, Elite, and numerous others produce the connected hardware that allow users to participate in that environment.
As such, Zwift and those partners share information on future software and hardware developments so as to jointly advance the state of indoor cycling, and, therefore, hopefully enjoy the economic benefits of growing that segment of the sport.
But now that Zwift is planning to develop its own hardware, what does that mean for everyone else?
Zwift CEO Eric Min has always made it clear that the company’s aspirations lie far beyond just the enthusiast cycling market. For example, its recent push into e-sports may seem like just another avenue to pull current diehard cyclists into the fold, but Min is thinking far bigger than the participants, instead thinking of the potential spectators that might actually pay to watch.
Think that’s nuts? Maybe, but then again, it’s also hard for outsiders to comprehend just how massive the e-sports world has become in general. Min, for his part, envisions a packed Madison Square Garden watching cyclists furiously pedaling on a central stage, not unlike a prize heavyweight boxing match.
Get used to seeing more stuff like this.
On the surface, Zwift’s hardware partners should be seriously alarmed by this move. After all, no one knows Zwift’s future plans better than Zwift, and since Zwift essentially holds the keys to the indoor cycling castle, its hardware partners are more or less beholden to whatever direction the company decides to move.
Zwift could easily incorporate a wealth of exclusive features into its own hardware, and could also include new features into its equipment that other hardware makers only find out about later. Zwift could also make it harder for other companies to get their trainers certified for use with Zwift.
The list of insider advantages is undoubtedly long. And Zwift could clearly make things difficult for other hardware companies to keep up.
But I also doubt that’s where Zwift is going to go here.
Extra buttons are popping up all over the new crop of indoor bikes, such as the ones shown here in Stages’ new setup. But could a Zwift indoor bike include buttons for functions that other brands don’t even know about yet? Maybe. But probably not.
Zwift is one of few companies in the cycling industry that seems to always have the bigger picture in mind. Zwift is obviously competing against other indoor cycling software brands, such as TrainerRoad and Sufferfest, but you could also easily argue that that game is already over, and Zwift has won. Other packages have their own advantages, of course, but in terms of mainstream appeal, Zwift is it.
As such, it’s in Zwift’s best interest to continue to work closely with other companies to produce compatible hardware that is fully compatible with whatever features might be getting developed, be it steering, Mario Kart-style banana peels, or Spy Hunter-style rockets and oil slicks. Software is still Zwift’s bread-and-butter, and while its own hardware might be a nice addition to the corporate portfolio, it seems more likely that the company is more likely to pursue the mainstream fitness market, not its longstanding partner brands.
That position is confirmed by at least one current hardware partner, too.
“Zwift has been pretty open with us about their goals,” said Saris director of consumer products Jesse Bartholomew. “Zwift hardware is a logical next step for them, and we support any effort that gets more people riding. Regardless of where they choose to focus, our own plans for future development remain the same.”
Might a Zwift bike look something like the new Wahoo Fitness KICKR Bike? However it looks, industrial design will play a key role.
My bet is on Zwift going head-to-head with Peloton, but instead of bundling live-action videos of real-world instructors, Zwift bikes will continue to champion the idea of gamifying the sport of cycling.
Notice, too, that I’ve specifically called out “bikes”, not trainers.
Zwift may be well-placed to make its own stationary trainers to go against the likes of the Wahoo KICKR, Saris H3, Tacx Neo, and others, but given its apparent bent toward the mainstream, a complete bike seems more likely — and one that competes directly price-wise with current mainstream darling Peloton.
What Peloton currently offers is the idea of getting fitter in the comfort of your own home, on your schedule, at your convenience. What a Zwift bike potentially offers is something similar, but with more entertainment value.
Zwift’s upcoming indoor bike will certainly be designed to satisfy the needs of hardcore cyclists, much like the Tacx Neo Bike shown here. But it’ll assuredly be made to appeal to the masses, too.
What would such a thing look like, you wonder? It’d almost certainly have a heavy dose of appealing industrial design so buyers would happily set up their Zwift bikes in a publicly visible spot in the house. In the interest of offering as much of a gaming experience as possible, it seems likely that some sort of tilt mechanism — like Wahoo’s KICKR Climb unit — might be incorporated, and a steering function is a given. Some type of built-in chassis vibration like what Tacx offers on the Neo isn’t out of the question, either, nor is the ability to rock the entire bike side-to-side like what Kurt Kinetic offers on its R1 trainer.
Going further down the speculative rabbit hole, Zwift would likely integrate some social functionality directly into the bike, so that users could interact with other Zwifters without having to reach for their phone, tablet, or computer. Speaking of which, just like Peloton does, it seems almost expected that a Zwift bike would directly incorporate a larger-format screen and a built-in computer so that you can run the program without any other additional equipment at all.
This is obviously all quite speculative, and it remains to be seen where Zwift will ultimately go with all of this. However, a drastic change in overall direction seems unlikely, and that Zwift will continue to go after the mainstream market seems almost guaranteed.
What exactly does Zwift have cooking? Only time will tell at this point, but it’s certainly going to be big.