Guest Blog: A Winter Using Zwift
A graphic of a woman riding indoors in front of her TV

This guest blog post is written by Steve Fox, a member of the B.I.K.E.S. Club of Snohomish County, and is re-printed with permission from the Chainwheel Chatter Newsletter. Though Zwift won't work for every rider, whether due to cost, pace, or space in a home, Cascade wanted to share this as an example of new technology that can keep bicyclists riding indoors.

By Steve Fox, B.I.K.E.S. Club of Snohomish County

I’ve always considered myself an outdoors person. No video games and no gym. Why “ride” inside like a hamster in a cage? But weather can dampen enthusiasm. Last year, a buddy sold me his old “dumb” bike trainer, and I started riding while watching movies. Movies were a distraction though, and I was barely moving. Were movies just as good from the couch?

On Tuesday BIKES rides, Rick Poffenroth would rave about the increasingly popular bike riding game Zwift. So was my friend who sold me the trainer, who invited me to try it. I really felt the additional effort on hills, and the ease of drafting. It approached riding outside, being on my own bike, shifting my gears. Last fall I bought the “smart” attachment and signed up for Zwift, and used it all winter. Uh oh, I felt like I was slipping to the Dark Side.

I started the week before the Yorkshire pro World Championship race. Zwift has a course that replicates it, and I rode it every day that week. I rode it as a solo ride, seeing other riders’ avatars on the course but not involved with them. It was fun to see the pros race the same course on TV that weekend. But by then I was done with Yorkshire.

I then rode workouts in Yorkshire, similar to a gym experience but on my comfy bike. Zwift has dozens of workouts. One was a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test where you ride all out for 20 minutes – interesting I suppose. Maybe I’ll do another FTP test to compare someday but riding that hard isn’t my kind of fun. Workouts don’t excite me too much, but many club members would probably enjoy them.

Next I tried another “world”, Watopia – quite fun! It has a surprising environment that I won’t give away. After a few weeks I tried New York’s Central Park. It was fun riding in the park that I’ve walked some years ago, until it strangely went up a big glass ramp where you could see the park below. There are eight worlds in Zwift, including the imaginary and entertaining Watopia. Watopia has “Alpe du Zwift” with all 21 of the famous Tour de France Alpe d'Huez switchbacks. “Riding” back downhill (while it “snowed”) at 50-60 mph around sharp corners was more entertaining than I should admit.

I needed more motivation than just scenery, so I tried races. They are too fast for recreational riders. I generally get dropped, then join other riders going my pace, but it’s motivating and fun. There’s a comradery with the other avatars, driven by real hamsters in their own garages. We have a vocabulary of 5 phrases, like “Ride On!” and “Nice”. This sounds a bit silly, but it works.

I prefer group rides to races. Moderate and brisk riders would enjoy them. I haven’t found many at a steady or social pace though. A moving fence keeps the over-ambitious from forcing the pace. People chat during the ride (I find it hard to type while pedaling). Today I rode with a slower group that might be approaching a faster steady pace. It’s important to draft in the group, to save a lot of energy.

The major problems:

  1. Nobody stops for chocolate eclairs!
  2. I should be exercising my upper body.
  3. Zwift has a reputation that it’s for competitive riders, but it can work for the more casual rider.

I’m surprised that I enjoyed it this winter and my engine is revved up for summer. It’s nice not worrying about safety in the rain. But I can’t wait to ride outside in good weather, when I will suspend my account. Unfortunately, the coronavirus may keep me on Zwift for a bit longer this spring. 

More about Zwift: 

Zwift is a combination of indoor bike riding, social media, computer game, and winter motivator. All you need is your own bike and some additional gear costing between about $50 and $1500, depending on what experience you want. This is the apparent minimum equipment you need. I’ve not tried this simple setup, so don’t have opinions, except the lack of resistance feedback probably isn’t nearly as realistic and fun. 

What you need to get started:

• A “dumb” trainer that has some resistance and holds your bike in a vertical position. Typically your rear tire is on a metal roller with some resistance. Rollers can also work. 

• Cell phone with Zwift app (and a Zwift monthly subscription). 

• Speed sensor and an adaptor for your phone. Some sensors are Bluetooth and don’t need an adaptor. Others need an Ant+ to USB adaptor. My setup is more capable, especially with the “smart” trainer. This type of trainer talks to your phone, tablet or computer so that Zwift can change the resistance. This makes climbing hills and drafting feel quite realistic. You’ll be changing gears on those hills!

Here’s what Steve Fox uses: 

• Smart trainer that is controllable and measures power. I use an old bike with an old rear tire. 

• Heart rate monitor. Not required, but helps gage your efforts. After a bunch of heart tests, it seemed a good idea to monitor during exercise. 

• Cadence sensor. This is a “vanity” feature, so my avatar is pedaling at my rate. You don’t need it! It attaches to my shoe, so it’s easy to use outside too. 

• A fan. You really need a fan, and a towel draped over your handlebars. I ride in an unheated cellar, many ride in garages, and some in heated rooms. 

• Laptop computer. Zwift is power hungry, so I plug into a charger. I’ve tried an iPad also which works, but the larger screen is nice. My laptop is 6 years old and pretty low end, but runs the game ok. I put it on a home-made stand in front of my bike.

Of course, you could upgrade:

• A higher end smart trainer that replaces your rear wheel. Mine runs the tire on a roller, which can slip in low gears or high pedal forces. Also you avoid wearing your rear tire. 

• A large TV monitor. 

• Apparently Zwift will come out with “steering” by putting your phone on your handlebars. 

Thanks for reading, and let us know if Zwift works for you!

Sara Kiesler's picture
Sara Kiesler