In the world of Virtual Training Apps, Zwift is one of the biggest and most widely used platforms. Their graphics and user interfaces may be a bit clunky and lagging behind the state-of-the-art, but just like a great Nintendo game, you’re eventually sold on the gameplay, caring little about lack of detail and simple textures. It’s function over form, not unlike Asteroids or Pacman versus Dragon’s Lair.
After you navigate a complex array of equipment options, setup an account, and connect to your favorite 3rd party tracking service, Zwift drops you into one of 6 virtual worlds with over 80 different routes. Your avatar in the virtual world displays in 3rd person mode allowing you to navigate through the throngs of riders likely joining you on the virtual route at almost any time of day or night.
The screen is littered with information, some of which you can turn off to make it a bit less cluttered. On the Apple TV application in its default configuration, the raw input from your equipment displays in the top left, showing you how much power you’re generating. In the top middle, you see the actual speed on the course along with other information like gradient and distance. To the top right is a a map showing the position of other riders along with the current grade. Below that is the list of nearby riders along with information on their current power generation and distance. To the left, you can find information on segments within your route and your splits for the full ride. To the bottom are controls for navigating different options within the application.
As if that wasn’t enough information, Zwift also offers the Zwift Companion App that I can only assume tons of other Zwifters use during their rides. If they’re all on Apple TV and somehow managing to give Ride Ons (the Zwift equivalent of a thumbs up) then they’re not getting nearly as sweaty as I am. And even if I was completely dry, I would still have trouble navigating the in-app menus on Apple TV.
As I mentioned in my previous post, my cycling setup is less than ideal for Zwift. I’m riding my Triathlon Bike, a Kestrel Talon, with a dumb trainer using a Wahoo speed and cadence sensor connected to Zwift over bluetooth on the Apple TV.
So why is my setup bad? * It’s bad because Zwift appears to convert any input it receives to Power, and then from that Power, it uses some basic assumptions along with the setting in the game (gradient, wind, drafting) to arrive at a final speed. With a smart trainer or power meter, my assumption is that your speed in the application would more closely approximate your effort. With my setup, the speed in the application is extremely low when I’m climbing and too high on descent. On level pavement, it’s relatively close to what I’ve experienced on real roads but still a bit on the fast side.
Even with the limitations of my equipment, I have to admit Zwift sucked me in. While I’ve always been able to run on the treadmill as long as there was something decent on the television in front of me, indoor cycling was different. I could never force myself to ride extensively indoors until I tried Zwift. The real hook of Zwift is riding with other people, no matter how low poly their avatars might be, and being able to draft behind them or pass on a difficult climb. Zwift succeeded at gamifying indoor cycling in a way that I didn’t think was possible for me.
Needless to say, I’m a fan of Zwift Cycling, but there are definitely some drawbacks:
- Inaccurate Competition: The Zwift community appears to be huge and has groups rides and races all of the time, but how would you feel riding on a $1,200 smart trainer and being beaten by an oaf like me riding on a dumb trainer without proper resistance? I’m sure it would be frustrating, but it’s a fact of life in Zwift that I think you have to accept. On the running side of Zwift, I’ve seen runners with pace spinning from 6:30/mile up to 9:30/mile all within the span of a second. Obviously there’s a hardware issue there, and I’m not sure if the error is in my favor or not. So far, I’ve never caught one of those runners, but if I do, I’ll report back as to how their avatar is actually behaving when I pass.
- High Subscription Price: $15.99/month honestly isn’t all that much considering what Zwift Cycling offers, but it’s just high enough that I am forced to consider whether I’m willing to train indoors enough to subscribe. It’s not low enough to trigger an impulse purchase, at least for me, but when you’re competing against the likes of Peloton (albeit for a slightly different market), $15 isn’t that much.
- Expensive Equipment: Needless to say, you will eventually want better equipment, and it’s not cheap. My dumb trainer cost around $50, but the least expensive smart trainer at Zwift’s shop is $369.99. Do you want a Wahoo KICKR with all of the bells and whistles? You’re over $2,000 without the bike, easily. Do you want an easily adjustable virtual training bike option for the entire family? The KICKR Bike will only set you back $3,500.
- Low Quality Graphics: I know I said it didn’t matter, but it kind of does matter, a little. I would love to see Zwift modernize the graphics to make the experience more immersive, but I’m sure there are technical issues involved likely related to limitations of platforms they’re continuing to support. I would also enjoy a first-person view option, but I completely understand the decision to use 3rd person.
So have I subscribed? No, I haven’t subscribed yet, and I’m honestly not sure if I will. First, I’m more runner than cyclist, and Zwift Running is free for now (to be reviewed soon). Secondly, I am experimenting with and reviewing other Virtual Training Applications for this series of blog posts. I don’t want to pay for Zwift during a time I won’t actively use it. Most importantly, though, if I commit to $15/month, I want a better ride experience. As I explained, that ride experience isn’t inexpensive so I’ll spend some time considering how committed I am to Zwifting before I make decide to subscribe.
* I know there are couple of Settings in Zwift that could potentially improve the accuracy of the virtual speed to my perceived effort.