My Cycling Virtual Life in Zwift

Mar 23 · 6 min read

It started in January. I asked a cycling buddy of mine if he wanted to join me for a weekend ride. “I can’t”, he said. “I have already signed up for a Tour de Zwift stage”. For the first time, I began to notice virtual rides posted on my Strava friends feed noting their accomplishments. Not one to pass on the chance to look at new technologies I did some fast research.

Zwift is an online social game for cyclist and runners to ride and run together. Zwift also hosts special events, aka the Tour de Zwift, and even races. The real game changer for me was the game’s physics. Zwift models what real riding outside is like minus the wind and sun. Meaning, if I do a climb of 5 miles, I am getting the equivalent of that workout in my own home.

This was a real game changer.

While balancing work and family, I am also preparing for a 100-mile gravel race at Southland, Texas this May. Zwift provides a virtual world to get the training I need on my schedule. Also, not many hills in the Lubbock, Texas region, so getting climbing workouts is an important bonus.

I started out with the basic setup. I already owned a wheel-on-trainer and an Apple TV to run the game. The only additional items I needed were Bluetooth compatible speed and cadence sensors for under 60 dollars to monitor my RPMs and estimate my power output.

Even with the basic Zwift setup, I could immediately see that Zwift was going to change my cycling life. My actions on my pedals had a direct correlation with my avatar. I could now ride with other people around the world on climbs, through a jungle, and on courses modeled after actual places in the world like the famous Alpe d’Huez climb in France.

Riding in London

The basic Zwift setup had a major drawback, however, my trainer resistance did not change when going up or down hills. To feel the impact of climbing, I would need to get a smart trainer which automatically changes my pedaling resistance and accurately estimates my power output.

I invited my cycling buddy for a coffee to ask him about his smart trainer — a CyclingOps H2. I wanted to know how well smart trainers actually worked in the game. He said that his trainer worked great and made the Zwift experience a lot more realistic. I had noticed with the basic Zwift setup that on climbs I would have to pedal really fast to get any speed on a climb and people were passing me right and left. I would need the changing resistance of a smart trainer to get the full Zwift experience. My friend said that he purchased his smart trainer through Zwift directly and that they had 0% financing. I was sold.

Before diving into a smart trainer, I scoured the internet looking for other cyclist’s Zwift setups and I needed to discuss this with my partner — of course. In doing this research, I discovered a new world. I fell deep into the rabbit hole of YouTube videos of cyclists showing off their setups referred to as pain caves. I think on Shane Miller’s GP Llama channel he has managed to test every conceivable Zwift setup. I settled on purchasing a Wahoo Kickr from Zwift — 50 dollars per month through a financial agreement with Affirm which provided the 0% financing credit. I also needed to get a Zwift monthly membership — adding another 15 dollars per month to my expense. My total cost per month with Zwift was now 75 dollars. I justified it to my partner as the cost of a gym membership fee.

My smart trainer arrived within a week and I set it up that evening for a test run. Everything worked perfectly, but I was eager to try it in a Zwift event. Using the Zwift Companion Mobile App, I found that Stage 4 of the Tour de Zwift had events scheduled approximately every 2 to 3 hours the next day. To fit in this event the only time slot that would work for me was 4:00 am. I am an early riser, but definitely earlier than normal. But I was excited and eager to try the full Zwift experience.

At 3:55 am with coffee in hand and an egg cheese sausage English muffin, I quickly nuked in the microwave, I was ready to ride with the over 500 participants that had signed up for Stage 4: Watopia Volcano Climb After Party — a 25 mi stage with under 1,000 ft of climbing. I felt excitement, at any time of the day, I could ride with other people from around the world.

When starting a Zwift event the game shows all the participants warming up on their trainers prior to the event. I thought it was a nice touch. Like a typical bike ride, I was expecting the ride would start out slow while I finished scarfing down my breakfast in warmup. As the final seconds before the event ticked off I thought I was ready. How wrong I was.

At the start most of the cyclists were going all out 100%. I quickly fell behind. I would later realize that in Zwift races the riders ramp up on their trainers before the start so that they are at full speed. In most Zwift events the top racers go fast at the beginning in an attempt to drop as many riders as possible. In this first event, I learned this and also quickly learned the importance of drafting and the effect of my weight in the game.

During this first race, I had managed to find a group of riders with a pace I could hang on too. That is until we reached the volcano climb. At that point my avatar started falling behind.

In Zwift your speed is mainly determined by your ratio of weight/power. I am a big guy. I am 6 ft 7” (200.66 cm) and weigh 253 lbs (114.75 kg). On the higher climb gradients your ratio of weight/power is the critical factor in determining your speed. On flats your weight is not a hindrance. Just like in real cycling outdoors.

After my first Zwift event ride, I was totally exhausted and motivated. This was a place that I could ride with other people day or night.

Over the course of three months, I have made it to Level 15. I have ridden a total of 896 miles, climbed 11 miles, and burned 35,431 calories by spending over 49 hours on my trainer. I have lost a total of 10 pounds without any significant dietary changes.

I managed to complete all 9 stages of the Tour de Zwift thanks to three makeup days at the end of January. I just completed the 797 mi Ride California Challenge and unlocked the Specialized Tarmac Pro bike. I am now onto the Climb Mt. Everest challenge with a goal of climbing 50,000 m (164,042 ft) to unlock the Tron Concept bike.

Glorious Completion of Ride California Challenge and Unlocking the Sweet Specialized Tarmac Bike.

Since my time on Zwift they have introduced both a Men’s and Women’s professional league with live broadcasts. This past month they introduced the Drop Shop. As you ride you now accumulate sweat drops that you can then use to purchase bikes and other equipment in the Drop Shop. Definitely a motivator. I am currently riding a Specialized bike setup since that is my bike in real life.

Specialized Tarmac Pro is Now in My Virtual Garage.

The point is that Zwift provides plenty of carrots and motivation while riding alongside other cyclists from around the world, even professionals, at any time. Riding in Zwift is still exciting and fun, there are five virtual worlds to explore: Watopia, Richmond, London, Innsbruck, and New York. This allows a person like myself with limited time to get up early every morning to get a workout in to achieve health and fitness goals and to prepare for a bike racing event.

Stance Hurst, PhD

Written by

I am an archaeologist at the Lubbock Lake Landmark and Graduate Faculty at Texas Tech University. Passionate about archaeology, cycling, and Apple technology.

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