Digital fitness: Virtual cycling with Zwift


It’s 7:30am on a Saturday, below freezing outside, starting to snow, and I have a 2-hour bike training session to get in. A few years ago, the options in this situation would have been limited to either coping with the cold, slick, roads or spinning inside on a stationary trainer for a mindless torture session, usually resulting in a sub-par workout.

Thankfully it’s 2018 and we have Zwift, an online multi-player fitness platform. At its core, Zwift takes input from a smart trainer, or a wide range of speed and power sensors connected to a bike. Each player has an avatar on the platform and Zwift takes the speed and power data to determine how fast the avatar goes in the game. Interesting but not exactly earth-shattering.

The power of Zwift is in the wrapper around this core functionality that creates a social experience that aims to replicate real world cycling in a number of ways:

  • Certain smart trainers can take input from Zwift to increase resistance on hills so you achieve the variety of an outdoor course. The new Kickr Climb can even adjust the overall tilt of the bike based on terrain
  • Zwift modifies the raw power output from a trainer with data points on rider weight, in-game bike type, and distance to other riders to determine speed. Zwift even accounts for drafting such that if you are closely behind another rider you go faster with less power due to less “wind resistance”
  • Races, group rides, and workouts allow riders from across the globe to compete or push each other to maintain a pace in a social environment
  • In game jerseys are awarded for Fastest Sprint, Fastest Lap, and King of the Mountain similar to pro cycling races.

Zwift also wins at the convenience factor:

  • Ability to access on iOS, Mac/PC, and now Apple TV
  • Companion App to view data, event schedules, and check in on who is currently riding
  • Data syncs with many other popular apps that cyclists use like Strava

Zwift has been so successful at recreating the cycling experience but without the cars, weather, and other obstacles that many professional cyclists and triathletes use Zwift as part of, if not the majority of, their training.  Lionel Sanders, who finished second this year at the Ironman World Championship, trains almost entirely on Zwift. Last year, I put in almost 2,500 miles on the platform myself.

Recently Zwift has also launched two academies, one for men and one for women, where all participants can compete in a series of workouts, rides, and races over the course of six weeks culminating in semi-finals and finals with the winner being awarded a contract on a pro cycling team.  Having pro cycling teams leverage the platform as a talent identification mechanism further validates the quality of the training and racing experience. Virtual cycling leagues with world rankings are also popping up with real world prize money involved.

Lessons we can learn from Zwift:

  1. Start with the experience and back into the technology you need to enable it.  None of the particular IoT devices that Zwift uses is particularly revolutionary, but it’s the integration that creates the value.
  2. Platform/software and hardware tend to move in an iterative cycle.  Don’t wait for the perfect IoT device, start with what is readily available (even if imperfect).  Once you create enough demand, hardware companies will often respond to fill the gap.  We are now seeing trainers with the ability to simulate riding on cobblestones come to the market in an effort to make the Zwift experience more real.  I anticipate once a critical mass of riders has this type of trainer, we’ll see the platform evolve to better leverage the full capabilities of these trainers.
  3. Known your audience – Zwifters are cyclists first, gamers second. New functionality has prioritized the value of the platform as a training tool over gaming technology. Recently they’ve added more customization to the avatars but not before they had multiple bike types and wheel sets to choose from.

Nicole Zenel headshotNicole Zenel is the Director of Global Deal Governance, Front Door, and the Sales Information Center for DXC.  In her spare time, she is an avid cyclist, triathlete, and mountain climber.  She enjoys learning and writing about how the latest IOT, Big Data, and other technology can be applied to these and other fitness pursuits.

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