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As the spread of coronavirus forces increasingly stringent restrictions on movement around the world, the door is slamming shut on outdoor cycling. At the time of writing, about half of the world’s population was in some degree of lockdown, including such cycling-mad countries as Italy, Spain and France. So when outdoors is out of bounds, where do cyclists go?
Indoors and online, of course.
The first of those was always an option. Indoor trainers have been a thing for decades, but rollers, wind trainers and mag trainers were justifiably maligned as a mind-numbingly tedious way of staying in shape. It’s only since the advent of smart trainers – which pair with training apps like Zwift, FulGaz and The Sufferfest, providing simulated resistance and competitive elements – that the tide has begun to shift.
Strava’s Year in Sport reports give some insight into the boom in indoor smart-training over the past few years. In January 2016, 5.5% of activities recorded on Strava were virtual. By January 2019, that had almost tripled to 15.2% of all rides.
Whilst this long-term shift was accelerated by growing concerns around rider safety outdoors and easier access to stimulating workouts indoors, the outbreak of coronavirus has been a major factor driving the latest spike.
Amid anecdotal reports of customers panic-buying smart trainers prior to lockdowns kicking in, I reached out to a few of the biggest players in the space for comment on the situation, and how they were placed to respond to demand. Most played their cards close to their chest, but a picture began to emerge.
Zwift, as the market leader in the virtual cycling space, has been at the forefront of many of the innovations in indoor training, and is well-placed to benefit from the growth in the space as the UCI’s partner for eRacing World Championships. CyclingTips understands that Zwift also wants to see esports in the Olympics by 2028.
Over the company’s history, over 1.5 million accounts have been created, but as to the number of current Zwift subscribers, I got a “no comment”. Due to a “no-commitment subscription model … our subscriber number changes a fair bit over the course of a calendar year.”
Despite Zwift’s reticence to comment, it’s actually pretty easy to see that the platform is smashing its historical traffic metrics. Zwift Insider – a site for the avid Zwifter – reports that peak traffic records have steadily been rising. In January 2019, the record for concurrent users was a touch over 10,000 people. In late January 2020, that mark was nudged up to 16,500. Last weekend, with lockdowns kicking in across the US, a new record of 19,720 users was set. Just days later, that was smashed again, with a peak of 24,341 users.
While Zwift is keeping respectfully modest about the current surge, the company did point to the growing interest in esports worldwide, and their initiatives in this space, including the Tour of Watopia and Mitchelton-Scott’s group rides and workouts.
“In terms of activity in the time of coronavirus, Zwift’s here to support the entire cycling community, from pros at the top of the sport all the way down to someone taking their first ride,” they said. “This is a stressful time for the global community, and the impacts are widespread. People have long turned to their bicycles as ways to stay healthy, relieve stress, and connect with larger communities. We hope people using Zwift are able to feel the support of a community that remains connected across the globe.”
FulGaz, a Zwift competitor that uses real-life footage to provide an immersive virtual cycling experience, also took a respectful tone given the global trauma that is currently underway, while providing some interesting insight into the market trends of the moment.
“Traditionally for the indoor market — and this goes for all indoor cycling apps — the European spring is the time when people pack away their trainer, give up their subscription and ride outdoors and we collectively drop 20% or so,” said Tom Reynolds, FulGaz’s global head of marketing . “Obviously, outdoors is not an option at present. Our existing customers have stayed and our new customers come on board at a rate that we’ve never seen before – we’re significantly up on new downloads compared to the same time in 2019.”
In light of the financial and emotional uncertainty globally, FulGaz has tried to cushion the blow for those stuck at home by increasing the duration of its 14-day free trial to 30 days; the company is also providing Australian National Road Series riders with free 12-month memberships and race events, “as we appreciate they can’t train and are not earning pro money.”
Due to the growth in demand, FulGaz has had to increase server and staff capacity. “We’ve all been pulling 12 to 14 hour days, but we don’t begrudge this. Success is nice, but giving people something to do during these difficult times is just as good,” Reynolds said.
Finally, Strava – the source of the annual Year in Sport reports that have given a multi-year baseline of the growth in virtual cycling – was adjusting to the new norm. All staff globally moved to working from home, where they were “focused on the health and safety of our members and … not doing any data analysis.”
Understandably, that meant that my request for stats on a spike in virtual activities globally over recent weeks, and the percentage decrease in cycling activities in certain territories under lockdown, couldn’t be provided.
The software side of the equation is, in a sense, easy to scale up – something that Zwift and FulGaz, and other platforms seeing a spike as a result of coronavirus, are doubtless thankful for. But if you’re a rider staring down the barrel of an indefinite period of time stuck at home, your more immediate concern is probably hardware.
As our Secret Industry Insider recently pointed out, the cycling supply chain can be a labyrinth of different vendors based around the world: it’s not just the trainer itself that needs to be manufactured, but the tiny parts that go into it and the box it’s shipped in, before we even get to the companies that transport that box to the distributor in your country, and from there to bike stores that may or may not even still be trading. That’s a lot of points where complications can occur.
From a scan of major online bike retailers, availability of stock seems to vary significantly from country to country. The US doesn’t seem to be experiencing a shortage – most models of the biggest brands are easily sourced online. Australia seems harder hit, with most of the major websites out of stock in most models from Wahoo, Tacx and Elite. It’s reasonable to speculate that the peak season for sales in this category would normally be a couple of months off, and the temperate conditions year-round probably lessen the size of the indoor-trainer pie here anyway, but regardless, it seems that there’s been a sudden spike in sales driven by coronavirus.
Several retailers contacted by CyclingTips in both Melbourne and Sydney verified this, with one jokingly saying that “indoor trainers have become our toilet paper”.
I reached out to some of the major brands in the indoor trainer market to see how they were weathering the situation, and whether they’d seen an impact on their sales and production.
Wahoo, rumoured to be backordered in Australia until at least April, offered little in the way of concrete facts or figures: “As a private business, we don’t share information on sales performance or other logistics. I can tell you that we’re looking at ways to support the cycling community and anyone struggling with their fitness through [the company’s training platform] The Sufferfest.” That company has just rolled out a suite of month-long indoor-focussed training plans – which along with cycling, also include yoga, strength-training and mental-training components, along with a free one-month membership.
Wahoo’s supply chain was arguably hit hardest earliest, with its manufacturing done in China and Vietnam. As lockdowns begin to ease in Asia, Wahoo is likely to have lost a couple of months of productivity, but should be able to begin to bounce back sooner than its European and US-based competitors.
Saris (CycleOps) is based and manufacturing in Wisconsin, so they’re subject to the social distancing guidelines of the state, the vagaries of President Trump, and what looks like a quickly deteriorating public health situation nationally.
Tacx is based in the Netherlands, where it also does all its manufacturing. They chose not to provide comment for this story.
Elite, based in northern Italy, has seen its homeland wracked by coronavirus, and will be mandated to shut its manufacturing facility until early April. In a statement to CyclingTips, Elite acknowledged that “indoor training is rapidly becoming a necessity more than an individual training choice”, but as of last week “feels fortunate that [its] current stock levels are good”.
A stirring Instagram post from Elite last weekend touched on the widespread impact of the virus on the company’s homeland: “The next weeks are really going to change the way we live our lives, our homes, the meaning of our place in the world.
“As these days are going by, we’ve come to the most honest understanding that containment means commitment, the immediate commitment of all citizens, all of us.”
Rising to meet the challenge
Cyclists around the world – indeed, everyone around the world – are faced with a crisis of historic proportions, and trying to figure out the best way to deal with the new norm. For many of us, cycling is an important outlet, ritual and social connection. The prospect of that being taken away is not a pleasant one.
Likewise, for those in the smart trainer supply chain and those producing the apps to run with those trainers, it’s an uncertain time. On the manufacturing side, companies are striving to meet demand, and the financial uncertainty of a market that has been upended. For the likes of Zwift and FulGaz, while this is likely a peak period, there are challenges to that too. That includes the not insignificant matter of retaining their new customers when this shitty situation finally resolves, and people giddily head back outside.
This time is without precedent, but it’s not without hope. To quote Elite: “we will rise up, we will replace high fives with fist pumps, and then we’ll come back to normal life. The faster we ride, the quicker we’ll be there.”
And if you don’t have a smart trainer? No worries – in a pinch, a rolling pin and a bit of imagination can work wonders too.