The Zwift Paradigm- what it is and what it’s not

IMG_0772Back in the days before cycling melded with modern technology and electronics, riding a bike was a more austere endeavor.  Riders would head out in the elements, either alone or with teammates or friends and ride, probably on a steel frame bike.  Back in the early 1990s, you either followed someone who knew the route, or you carried a paper map. There were no smartphones; there were no cell phones period.  We probably kept a few quarters in our seat pack to use a payphone.  The limit of my technology back then was an Avocet 40 bike computer, which was hardwired to a sensor mounted on the front fork. At the time this technology was used by the TDF riders.  With the Avocet 40, you knew your speed, time and distance. On a good day it would tell you your average speed. On a bad day, I’d seen riders throw their Avocet into a lake.

Despite the seemingly luddite existence and lack of technology, we managed to ride a lot of miles and climb a lot of hills. We did this with downtube shifters, 42 tooth chainrings and 6 or 7 speed freewheels.  Winter training had particular challenges. Not so much in San Diego where a “cold winter day” is more like a warm spring day in Boston but on the east coast from October through March. I remember the first winter back in New Jersey, where I joined in a Somerset Wheelmen ride and was chatting with Joe Saling, the club leader.  “So there will be a few 60 degree days, right?” I asked.  “Not until the spring” he replied.  Sure enough, Joe was correct, the winter of 2002/2003 was one of the coldest, snowiest winters in NJ of that decade. It literally did not go above 40 much of the winter, and I spent more time on cross country skis than I did on my bike.  Still, we did get out for winter rides, though the pace was 16 mph and many riders were still on fixed gears.  I did a lot of winter rides back then and enjoyed the bright sunny days.  But in the past 5 years I noticed with each successive winter it became harder to get motivated to ride in the cold, particularly when many of the group rides dissolved.

I’d always had a love-hate relationship with my trainer. I hated getting on it, in the cold dark pain cave of a basement- but I loved having ridden it.  Beat music and electronica made it bearable. Riding  in a studio with others made it motivating. Despite the knowledge that the indoor workouts were better interval training for me, I still preferred going outside.  But with the Boston winter beating me into submission, I decided to investigate the Zwift phenomena that had been infiltrating my Strava feed.

So, what is Zwift?  Simply put, Zwift is an interactive cycling game that lets you ride your stationary trainer, and it translates your power, cadence and speed into an Avatar that moves along a simulated course, along with other riders.  Zwift is at its heart a video game and will appeal to gamers who relish reaching the next level, which affords more options in team kit, bikes and wheels.  The better equipment (for example Zipp wheels) may translate into more speed versus other riders on the course.IMG_0768-1

Unlike most video games, Zwift requires you to exercise and sweat. A lot. This is definitely not flappy bird, as you go anaerobic at the sprint points and KOMs.  At any given time, dozens or hundreds of riders may be connected to Zwift and on the course.  I’ve ridden with friends 300 miles away.  Using TeamSpeak, an iPhone app that lets you talk to other riders, makes it more like a real ride.  Like a real ride, stronger and weaker riders can ride together, as Zwift accommodates drafting.  The common link to all riders is a power source, either a power meter at the rear wheel, crank or a power capable trainer.  Riders who don’t have a power meter can still play, using Z-power, which estimates power based on rear wheel speed and the type of trainer being used. While Z-power seemingly violates the code of the Velominati, it at least lets those users in the club.   A more expensive smart trainer such as the Wahoo KickR will adjust the effort level according to the course profile and whether or not you’re at the front or drafting.  This is an extra expense, but it provides a more realistic experience.

So, that in a nutshell is what Zwift is, so what is it NOT? Well put bluntly, Zwift is not a real bike ride. It’s easy to forget that, as you fixate on the TV screen that  you are on a stationary trainer going nowhere. The miles you rode are virtual miles. According to Einstein, have you done any work?  While the Avatar based cyclists on Zwift all appear like calorie counting Pros in terms of their pedaling and form, who is behind them?  My svelte, Norwegian looking rider might be Thor Hushovd or some other cycling overlord, but behind the Avatar I could be a beer swilling, fast food junkie with a belly the size of a medicine ball.  There are many real cyclists on Zwift, including some very high level riders. But I’ve also encountered people who’ve never ridden a bike outside, who have no idea how to draft, or ride in an actual pace line. There are racers on Zwift and there are people who found Zwift to be the next step up from spin class.  When the Zwift ride ends, you’re not sitting at Rojo’s or Factory Fuel enjoying a cappuccino with y our buddies.  You’re alone in your living room and your next interaction will likely be checking your ride on Strava.

At the end of the day, does Zwift work? For me it does. I rode close to 1,000 (virtual) miles in January and February and Zwift says I burned the equivalent of 78 slices of new Jersey cheese pizza.  Given the cold and darkness of a New England winter and my full-time job, there is no way I could have ridden 1000 miles outside since New Year’s day.   With Zwift, I can ride any time of day, and there will be someone else or a group to ride with. I’ve definitely seen my power increase and when I did finally get outside, I felt some zip in my legs.  The biggest challenge you may face with Zwift, is that it becomes easier to ride inside than go out in the real world.



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