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Zwift’s online multiplayer game brings the group ride inside

An online multiplayer game called Zwift spices up those boring, indoor trainer rides by creating a virtual riding experience

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Sprint for the town line. Win a polka dot jersey, or a green one. Draft your buddy through your living room, while he rides in his.

Adding competition and camaraderie to a mind-numbing and mundane endeavor, the dreaded trainer ride, is the goal of Zwift, a new multiplayer, online, indoor training game developed by veterans of the video game industry.

With just a stationary trainer and ANT+ speed and cadence sensors, users can race their buddies from across the country. Add an ANT+ enabled power meter, or a smart trainer like the Wahoo Kickr, which allows resistance to be controlled externally, and the platform’s capabilities expand into a highly realistic virtual riding experience.

Despite the Zwift staff’s gaming and software heritage, and the very video-game-like graphics, Grand Theft Bicycle this is not. There are no guns, no running down of pedestrians or zombies to blow up. There aren’t any cars, either, or flats, or crashes. Zwift Island, the first of many virtual worlds Zwift will be adding to the system, is a cyclist’s utopia, bursting with evening light and flitting fireflies, smooth roads and stiff climbs.

Zwift is focused on the interaction between players and allowing that contact to mimic a real group ride. Users can chat with each other, draft each other, sprint against each other, and try to drop each other as they cruise around Zwift Island. Later on, as the community grows, the company will add more courses, including real-world options.

The system is built around a massive, multiplayer video game platform designed to host tens of thousands of users at a single time. The initial beta test will include 1,000 users, all of whom will cruise (or race) around Zwift Island together.

There are rewards to be gained, of course, and the founders noted that Strava was a major source of inspiration. Sprint points on course award a green jersey, while the fastest climbers can compete for polka dots. The jerseys swap shoulders in real time, allowing other riders to immediately see who is at the top of each competition.

Like Strava, different sections of the course will have leaderboards, and the fastest riders on those sectors will also be virtually awarded.

Zwift is not the only brand to offer online racing and training, but its modest $10 per month fee and compatibility with any trainer, or even rollers, lower the barrier of entry considerably relative to other systems. CompuTrainer offers similar capabilities, but with high hardware costs. Tacx, Elite, and others require specific hardware as well.

“We wanted an open, accessible platform,” said Scott Barger, one of Zwift’s co-founders and its VP of business development. “We are trainer agnostic. All you need is an ANT+ speed and cadence sensor to get started.”

Jumping into Zwift is simple, and will feel quite familiar to anyone who has played a video game in the last decade. Download the game to any computer (Zwift says anything less than three years old will work) and sign up with an e-mail address. You then set up a character, adjusting sex, hair, and even clothing, and then set up a bike, changing frame type, rim depth, and more. Inputting weight allows the system to make its calculations, then you’re ready to set off.

If you’re using a “dumb” trainer and no power meter, Zwift will provide a power curve so that power can be estimated using cadence and speed. A smart trainer improves the experience, allowing Zwift to control resistance for changing environmental conditions — wind, hills, and drafting.

Yes, riding does get easier when you ride behind another player, or when you head downhill. Zwift engineers made this sort of accuracy a priority, using both speed and acceleration to calculate power requirements.

Soon, riders will be able to interact verbally via their smartphones. There is already an app that shows current speed, power, and more, and also uses the device’s gyroscope to provide steering input to the system. Combining the two, communication and virtual steering, would allow users to ride up to groups inside the Zwift world and interact just as they would on the road.

First ride

On first glance, Zwift appears to be an excellent solution to the indoor riding problem. It plays on the reasons we ride outside — camaraderie, challenge, and competition — and does so in a simple, easy to use, neatly packaged platform.

A few minutes lined up next to BikeRadar’s Ben Delaney (who I ride with at home anyway) and Road Bike Action’s Neil Shirley, watching our little avatars roll around Zwift Island in hot pursuit of one another, was enough to prove the concept. It was enjoyable. Ben beat me, and though clearly his rubber soles simply offered superior grip to my dress shoes, he was so proud he texted me the screenshot minutes later.

If that doesn’t prove that Zwift has successfully brought the friendly competition of the lunch ride inside, nothing does.

Though the system does work with a “dumb” trainer, anyone who will spend serious time living on Zwift Island will want to invest in a smart trainer. The ability to add real-world factors like drafting dramatically improves the experience.

Are there enough people staring at their walls all winter — or even all year, in places with poor riding — who are willing to swallow $10 per month and the startup costs associated with ANT+ speed/cadence sensors and an ANT+ dongle (less than $100)? That’s still the question. But if you’re one of those people, Zwift might be right up your alley. It’s the neatest, most socially intriguing platform I’ve seen yet.