A Zwift Kick

Jan 5th, 2021

This story originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. Click here to join and receive a year subscription.

Are you a Zwifter? Have you ever Zwifted? If your answer is, “Huh?” then you know how I felt when I began writing this story. Now, thanks to Chris Snook, senior public relations manager for Zwift, who spoke to me by telephone from London, I know that Zwift is a virtual training platform for cyclists that can be downloaded and run on a range of both Apple and Android devices, including tablets, phones, and laptops. You can also use it on your television.

In short, it’s an app designed to make your indoor training less loathsome by turning you into an avatar and submerging you in a virtual world that includes destinations ranging from Innsbruck, Austria, to Zwift’s own Watopia, an imaginary land of mountain peaks and island breezes.

You’ll need to pair Zwift wirelessly with a smart trainer, like those available from Wahoo, Tacx, and CycleOps. When you do, the reality factors will include wind, grades, and, for some trainers, even cobblestones.

“When you go up a hill, the trainer will simulate the grade of the hill,” Snook said. “When you sit behind another rider, you get the drafting effect. Some trainer manufacturers have taken it to the next level and can simulate the vibrations you get when you ride over cobblestones, or wooden slats on a bridge.”

There are even trainers that lift your front wheel when you’re climbing and drop it when you’re descending (such as the Wahoo KICKR CLIMB pictured at left). The faster you ride, the faster your headwind will blow.

“There’s this whole new world of accessories and experiences being unlocked by Zwift,” Snook said.

You can imagine what COVID-19 has done for Zwifting. As of September 2020, more than 2.5 million people had taken a ride, or run, according to Kristin Butcher of True Communications, Zwift’s PR firm.

Before the pandemic, Butcher said, the peak number of people Zwifting simultaneously was 16,000. Now that’s the average, and the new peak is 35,000 Zwifters riding in their virtual worlds simultaneously.

“Similarly, in 2019, Zwifters were logging around 800,000 miles every day,” Butcher said. “In April 2020, we saw 5.9 million miles logged in a single day.”

That’s about a seven-fold increase.

“I needed motivation to keep training and keep my fitness up,” she said. “No one knows how long this (pandemic) will last.”

There is a decided bias toward racers and racing on Zwift, with racing teams and events.

“The Saris + Pro’s Closet team is currently the number one Zwift racing team and is comprised of dads, former triathletes, data nerds, and just about everything else,” Butcher said.

Christie Tracy of Austin, Texas, is another of those racers. She has a full-time job working in finance for an environmental resources management consulting firm based in the UK. She has also had an illustrious career in endurance racing in the real world, which unfortunately has included breaking her hip twice.

“I’m 41,” Tracy said. “I did the whole crit racing for a while. I’m not a sprinter. I have a big engine and love nothing more than time-trialing.”

Tracy won the U.S. Cycling national championship masters time trial in 2017, averaging about 24 mph over the course.

“That was my realization I was good at this time-trialing thing,” she said.

Since then, Tracy has gotten into ultra-distance racing, including the Texas Chainring Massacre, advertised as the fastest 100 miles on gravel. It was in that race that she broke her hip for the second time. The first time was in a criterium when she went down hard. This time her fall felt like sliding into home plate in a softball game. Tracy thought she was okay. She wasn’t.

“I was in a break with the guys,” Tracy said. “We took a turn hot five miles from the finish in a 70-mile race. Four of us went down. I wasn’t even thinking at the time, ‘This is going to hurt.’ I was thinking, ‘How quickly can I get back on the bike?’ I went to get up and couldn’t.”

When the coronavirus hit last spring, Tracy started looking for an outlet.

“I needed motivation to keep training and keep my fitness up,” she said. “No one knows how long this (pandemic) will last.”

Zwift filled the void, not only for training but also for the camaraderie of fellow cyclists. Tracy had Zwifted occasionally before the pandemic, but now it became her go-to platform.

“It’s very realistic,” Tracy said. “You see the full peloton, everybody around you. When somebody attacks, you can see how many watts per kilogram they’re putting out. If it goes from four to six, I know they’re attacking. It’s very dynamic and realistic. There’s drafting, same as real life. There are no crashes, no breaking hips.”

Actually, Tracy did crash once while Zwifting, embarrassingly so. She was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a big criterium and was training with Zwift on the porch of her host home.

“It was super hot,” Tracy remembered. “I rode myself to falling off the bike. I had to call 911. I had heat stroke. It was so bad. I was so embarrassed.”

Erik Binggeser

But it’s not all racing on Zwift. On any given day, there are more than 200 events taking place on the platform, according to Snook, ranging from club rides and social rides to Fondo rides, timed mass-participation events that take place over challenging routes usually including mountains.

“What makes it social is people are able to talk to one another in game messaging and text chats,” Snook said.

Remember Watopia? It’s Zwift’s most popular virtual world, a volcanic island that includes a replica of Alp d’Huez, the infamous climb from the Tour de France.

“It’s our flagship, the most popular, the most miles of road, the most amount of variation,” Snook said. “Within this island you can ride up snowy mountains, through jungle landscapes, through rolling grassy hills. There’s a desert in there. That’s what people love, the escapism. Ride through the middle of a volcano. You’ve got all this fantasy stuff and the real world as well — Paris, London, New York, Bologna, destinations from around the world.”

I could have ridden past Big Ben this morning, Snook said, or down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Sounds good to me.

There’s also an entire virtual world of mountain biking on Zwift, if that’s what you’re into. The off-road images include wild mountain peaks and singletrack trails through the forest. There are wooden bridges with only one safe way across, and roads lined with sunflowers.

Snook, a cyclist himself, can go riding with five mates on a Saturday at 9:00 am on Zwift, but not for real, given the renewed lockdown brought on by the worldwide surge of COVID-19. Snook said there has been an eight-fold increase in the number of people hosting their own events on Zwift as a result of the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, Zwift has its origins in the gaming world. Cofounder and chief executive officer Eric Min was a successful amateur racer, even attending Olympic camp before giving up on a pro career.

“When he got to camp, he realized he didn’t have what it took to become a pro and refocused,” Snook said. “He left his cycling career behind and founded his own business on Wall Street.”

In 2012, Min and his partner, Alarik Myrin, were ready to move on from their Wall Street business, a cloud-based trading platform. In a Q&A posted on the Zwift website, Min said he got some good advice from his brother at that critical juncture.

“The turning point was when my older brother Ji, a private equity professional, advised me to stick to what I know best,” he said. “Alarik had been encouraging me to take a hard look at cycling since I was so passionate about the sport.”

At the time, Min was doing the bulk of his riding indoors because of family commitments and work, he said.

“It dawned on me that the indoor cyclist was being underserved and that the indoor experience hadn’t really changed all these years,” Min said. “It still wasn’t fun or social! Then I had a moment of eureka. What if we could take something that was historically mind numbing and turn it into entertainment?”

Enter Jon Mayfield, a video game developer who also wanted a better indoor cycling experience and decided to create it for himself using the skills he had learned making video games. At this point Min didn’t know Mayfield existed, but that would change.

Starting in 2010, Mayfield began writing the first lines of code in his spare bedroom for what would eventually become Zwift. He created the initial art as well, and for a few years he was the only one to use what he called “VRBike Coach.”

“Just for kicks, every once in a while I’d post about my software on various internet forums, with differing levels of positive reception,” Mayfield said in a post on the Zwift website.

Mayfield was hoping for someone with money to take his idea and turn it into something big. When that didn’t happen, he began thinking about Kickstarter to crowdfund his idea.

“In the nick of time, late in 2013, Eric Min with similar ambitions saw my forum post and came knocking,” Mayfield said. “Hands were shook, partnerships formed, and at the end of January 2014, I quit my job. The future of indoor cycling was underway.”

Indeed it was. And seven years later, Zwift has transformed indoor training for millions of people.

“It wasn’t long ago that indoor cycling was something everybody wanted to avoid,” Snook said. “You did it because you had to. Now indoor cycling is something people want to do, and they spend a lot of money doing it.”

Zwift requires a subscription service at a modest monthly fee, but that smart trainer, Snook pointed out, is a “significant investment.” People are happy to spend the money, he said, not only because of the training experience Zwift offers, but also because of the social experience.

“That social experience is what’s making the difference,” Snook said. “Even now, with COVID, it gives people the ability to meet up and organize their own rides.” 

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