'What do you get when two worlds collide? Scientifically, a pretty catastrophic event. But in this case, something very unique and appealing. Sport meets gaming in Zwifts virtual world of cycling. We were privileged to be invited to a media afternoon to see how Zwift has infiltrated the fitness market and are looking to expand their brand into other areas which may benefit those whose inner child longs for the game where they can run as fast as Sonic can!
Held at Digme Fitness in Richmond, a spin studio which looks like they hijacked a truck load of spin bikes, was some of the team from Zwift to explain what it can do and its plans for the future. We have seen from many social media posts many new age cyclists have already immersed themselves into this new virtual world but someone who was brought up as a gamer and still indulges in the odd mission on GTA or attempt to take Fulham back to the Prem' on FIFA, we were quite intrigued what the USP of this software was. Straight away with the bikes hooked up to some Wahoo smart turbo trainers and a high def TV with a character looking like Andre Greipel waiting to go, it felt like walking into my brothers dream (he longs to be a pro' gamer!).
The marketing techie on hand gave me the lowdown on what the screen was full of. A list of riders on the right was everyone who was online riding at that precise moment. If it was a free world mode, there was 800 odd riders. I was being hooked up to a charity event (turned out to be a training ride!) and that had 60 odd participants. Getting a few of your mates on a group ride is hard enough so I was taken back the scale of riders already loyal to Zwift and this was in the middle of the day. According to the team, they regularly have near the 1000 mark on some events. These events are scheduled so you can fit them around your lifestyle or negotiate with a mate when to pop online to smash each other virtually!
For the scientific geeks in the room, your power, speed and cadence are all on the top bar. Your elevation and distance figures in the top right corner. But before you're off on your way, you have to sync up the software to a power and cadence sensor which obviously monitors your speed and essentially makes your avatar move. Even before then, you can design your avatar to either look like yourself or if like us have a face for radio, model your guy or girl on a cycling version of Ryan Gosling! Bored of your bike? Choose a Cervelo P5. Got a team kit? Speak to the Zwift guys and they will upload it to the game for you to wear. It felt like a throwback to Sims!
Step away from the avatar creating and you will find a depth of training options. If you're trained by a coach or know your own power outputs, you can set up a ride focusing on those precise things. Paris Roubaix winner Matthew Hayman won the spring classic by using Zwift after breaking his arm. His coach had uploaded the power outputs needed at different points of the race and he trained using the software without having a proper recon ride. Thats pretty impressive, I'm wondering if I could upload my commute figures so I can get to work quicker?!
I'm signed up to a scheduled event and I am at the back of a large group all dressed in the same jersey promoting a charity. This turns out to be a slight misinterpretation as it turns out to be a specific training ride. Already a pace is set by a host rider, someone who calls the shots on pace, power requirements and sometimes group instructions. This can be done via the keyboard if you're set up to access it while riding. I threw the idea at the Zwift team of a small microphone attached to your handlebar so you can properly interact. Good to hear this was already in the making and trialling it out with some TT riders. Handy if you all can't make a training session and need to work on team tactics. Obviously nothing can fully replicate the real thing but damn, this thing comes close.
Already I am notinthepeloton (cheap plug!) and the Zwift guys tell me to up it to close the gap to the main bunch. You virtually feel the affects of drafting as you start to spin a lighter cadence once you follow the guy in front. Think the Zwift guys were slightly impressed by some stats I was showing maintaining 500w to bridge the gap. I did raise the point of this all being a dream speed as I realised the pace was being set at 50kph as this point. We are a fan of the imperial system so after some short maths, a 30mph figure is something I very rarely hold on the road. I raised the differences from road to computer, you experience the wind, rolling resistance of the different types of road surface (would help if our roads were decent!). You also don't get the mental awareness of identifying hazards and avoiding road furniture and other traffic. You can't crash in Zwift and there's no need for brakes or a helmet unless you're that accident prone so maybe for those who are not confident on the road this could be a great substitute.
We were told that the paceman can get annoyed if you don't try to follow the training criteria. He would often message the riders with a rise in wattage or for riders to bunch up to keep everyone together. I was coming to the end of ,my little trial so thought I'd breakway (not called notinthepeloton for nothing!). It did feel a little naughty doing your own thing but like with any virtual world, it's a bit lawless. That's the negative side to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook with trolling is that people feel they can get away with anything. Zwift is very much community focused, building a network for riders to interact with others from around the world. Once that is cemented into Zwift, I wouldn't mind eaves dropping into some group rides to see what the chat would be like!
So Zwift has decided to open it up the running and triathlon market by introducing their software to those who like their parkruns and treadmills. The joke of the day was how they would open it up the swimmers?! Now compatible with tablets and phones, just plant it onto to your treadmill, sync it up to a compatible pacemaker or step monitor and you could be running next to the cyclists in Zwift's Wattopia (their own world where the designers at Zwift have been let loose!) or join them on the Ride 100. Just as we thought that would conclude the afternoon, the guys introduce me to their new jewel in the their crown. Set up in the reception area was another bike but with a VR Ocoulus attached to it. This was our first time using any form of VR and naively I had stated my doubts that the lifespan of VR would be similar to 3D TVs and that the novelty would eventually die off.
As soon as that headset went on, we were sold! The scope for this thing is unbelievable. It is a true 360 degrees experience. Look anywhere and everywhere and you'll spot a landmark or a detail which is there in the real world. First pedal stroke though made the virtual bike start to shunt and jump a ;little which brought on a brief felling of motion sickness. This feeling quickly drifted away as my eyes were darting from the London Eye to spotting a huge blimp hovering above me. It was a night ride and I noticed the bum of the guy in front was lit up, my virtual bike had a light! The techie told me to look down. I was riding a black Canyon and you could see your virtual feet turning the pedals. Did I dare to look round? Hell yeah! One glance and there were riders all over the road drafting me or trying to get the jump on me. This piece of tech has taken the Zwift world and blown it up. The scope for what you can do with a VR headset with a software like Zwift is endless. I assume in the near future, you'll be riding up Ventoux trying to spot your virtual fans on the side cheering you on. That's right, your ears get a workout too with the sound of the wheels spinning or birds chirping. Now can you imagine with a microphone what it would be like barking out orders on a virtual group ride or calling a sprint?! On the outside to your partner or friend, you would look like a nutter I suppose!
So some slight issues or challenges that were discussed. We do believe a bike is to be ridden outside, it was made for the world so ride the world. But the society we live in doesn't allow everyone to have that amount of freedom in their lives. So for those cold Winter nights, its an ideal piece of training gear. Come Summer though, nights are lighter and people are more inclined to take advantage of this. So it becomes a lifestyle implementation. If you don't have time to fit in a ride, this will. Social media feedback already raised the issue of sweating when wearing the headset and the weight of it. It's actually quite a light device considering and you will be looking around everywhere so your neck would get a good workout. The sweating would be an issue. If the headset can be designed in a way where sweat is wickered or a venting system installed (aired visor underneath eyes possibly?) this may help with perspiration.
Overall, if we had the room and the money, we would buy one tomorrow. For everything the outside gives you, this will appeal to the new age cyclist, the one who would knows the different between Ezio Altidore and Nathan Drake. If you don't know who these are, you're probably in the boat where you feel the bike belongs on the road. Its a tech world, we either embrace it and strive to better ourselves in performance and socialising with the world through the community platform Zwift has created or fulfil our possessions potential, ride your bike, run in your trainers. We would like both please!