On a recent afternoon I found myself hurtling past St. James’s Park in London in a whizzing peloton of 45 bicycle riders, from countries ranging from Canada to Russia. It was early in the ride and the speed was a bit much. This prompted Laurens Ten Dam, a Dutch pro and Tour de France hard man, to call out, “Hey boys, the race starts at Box Hill!” By the time we reached the climb in the Surrey Hills, Ten Dam himself had slipped back – he was in training and was there to burn fat, not to compete. I managed to eke out a 10th place finish, pipped at the line by a few aggressive sprinters.
A few minutes later, I was back at my desk in New York City, Ten Dam was starting his morning in Santa Cruz, California, and all the other riders had shuffled off to their corners of the globe.
Welcome to the world of Zwift, which takes the lonely winter ardour of the indoor training ride and reboots it online in a massive multiplayer environment. Zwift is a bit like Nintendo Wii for grownups: you put your bike on a “smart” trainer (a treadmill for a bike with a Bluetooth connection), which can automatically change resistance levels to give a realistic experience (eg, on hills). That links via WiFi to a computer or smartphone. Then you log on to Zwift, create your rider avatar, choose his or her outfit from a range of clothing and accessories, hop on your bike and start pedalling, watching the ride on your monitor or phone screen. You can join a group ride, do a structured workout or simply cruise, listening to ambient beats and enjoying the passing scenery. A supply of towels and an electric fan will help. So will a partner willing to tolerate the whine of the flywheel in a cramped apartment.
Zwift was invented by John Mayfield, a video-game engineer, and launched in 2014 after it caught the eye of Eric Min, a tech entrepreneur and longtime cyclist. Min was intrigued by the idea of making indoor cycling – a necessary evil in cold climes and for time-pressed people more generally – a more tolerable experience. Since then it has grown into a flourishing ecosystem, with cyclists riding around the clock and a range of courses, from London to “Watopia”, a fantasy environment that blends ocean-side panoramas with tortuous climbs through Alpine villages. As of October 2016, some 2.6m rides (an hour long on average) had been taken on Zwift, spanning some 47m miles. That’s enough for 196 trips to the moon. More recently, Zwift has been experimenting with adding runners to its courses, linked by smart treadmills. They are still rare – I was so startled by a runner on the roads of Watopia the other day I almost yelled out, “On your left!”
As someone who had spent long winter evenings riding a bike on rollers, staring at the wall and listening to whatever strand of Scandinavian metal would lift me out of the gloom, I fell pretty hard for Zwift. Certainly, there are rival technologies that will put the solitary rider in simulations of famous cycling landscapes or allow them to join a spin class remotely. But nothing felt as real to me as Zwift did. Some of this had to do with the impressive game mechanics. You can sit in the slipstream of a fellow rider to conserve energy; you can sprint for the line; or, in flat Brooklyn, you can climb 3,500 feet in a single leg-busting session. Afterwards, just like a real ride, you can check your results on Strava, a cycling and running website which links to the game.
Even more important to me was the social element. Sports-science studies have found that people will make more effort in the presence of others who are trying hard. While I often struggled, during a solitary training session, to maintain a certain heart rate, on Zwift I would, without thinking, try to “grab the wheel” of a faster rider as they passed. (Sometimes I recognised them from down the block.)
Would I trade it for a ride on a warm day with friends, smelling wildflowers as my open jersey flaps in the breeze? Or the time I rode with the real Laurens Ten Dam in the hills of Chianti? Of course not. But there are those days when you just don’t have time, or when you have grown tired of your usual local route or of fishing for every last bit of wind-resistant clothing in the bottom of your closet. Zwift is a particular boon to parents: on nights when I was looking after my seven-year-old daughter, even going to the gym was out of the question. But I could put in a decent effort on the bike in the time it took her to get through a clutch of “Big Nate” books.
And while this may sound heretical, Zwift, in some ways, was better than many of my rides. It’s like a Platonic ideal of cycling: gone were traffic lights, angry and distracted drivers, slippery leaves and distracted pedestrians blithely striding into my path. Zwift’s real-world locations are like places where a neutron bomb has gone off, leaving the city to a tribe of jolly marauders in digital Lycra.
Lately, I have become almost addicted to an evolving feature of the Zwift world: racing. Each day, the “events” section of Zwift.com bristles with a variety of challenges (often led by pros like Ten Dam). You simply log on at the right time, join the race or ride, choosing a category based on ability, and you are whisked to the start line, where dozens, sometimes hundreds, of cyclist-avatars sit spinning in anticipation. Like a real-world race, they start hard. The key to hanging on, to “making the selection”, is to begin at full pelt. At just about the time you feel like you’re on the verge of an embolism, the pace typically settles – at least until the final sprint. Results are tracked and posted online. Seven races in, I am slowly climbing the ranks, moving from the “c” to “b” category, even claiming a podium finish in one event (which thankfully finished just before I had to take a conference call).
Recently I plunged even deeper into Watopia, riding a prototype virtual-reality version of Zwift. Looking down, I was startled not to see my denim-clad legs but smoothly shaven thighs in cycling shorts. Passing a rider, I felt so close I could reach out and touch the simulacrum. So immersed was I that I did not notice how energetic my effort had become; until, that is, the VR goggles began to fog up from my own steam.