Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Zwift - Making the Turbo Trainer Less Dull

Just over a month ago I finally bit the bullet and purchased a turbo trainer. I didn't really want to as I much prefer riding outside, but I did have a few good reasons:

  • I've spent the summer building up good cycling fitness and gradually improving my power output and I don't want to loose that completely over the winter and have to start from scratch again in April/May
  • We are entering the winter and while I don't mind riding in the cold and wet I really don't want to be risking icy roads - where a crash on the bike could ruin my spring marathon training
  • Riding indoors has the advantage that I can train and keep an eye on the kids and my wife can use the same time to go out for a run

I've therefore set myself an objective of maintaining at least one ride of between 60 and 90 minutes each week (usually on the turbo) throughout the winter as well as regular rides to work (only a couple of miles each way).

Turbo Trainer Purchase

With this in mind I purchased a barely used CycleOps Fluid 2 trainer off of eBay. I couldn't justify going for anything much more expensive given the relatively limited amount of use it's going to get. However I did spend enough to get a fluid model as these have significant advantages of smoothness and quietness over cheaper magnetic or fan based systems.

Level of noise was a big consideration as I'm usually cycling early in the morning and need to avoid waking the kids! I'm very pleased with the Fluid 2: it rides nicely and doesn't really generate any more noise than the washing machine.

First Sessions

The first two sessions I undertook on the turbo were mind-numbing! I opted to do a couple of structured workouts from a training plan, each of 60 minutes duration. For entertainment I went with trying to catch up with my backlog of running and triathlon podcasts.

I pulled off each of the sessions successfully, but the time just seemed to go so slowly. A 5-minute interval seemed like an age. Twenty minutes seemed never ending. I knew that if I was going to make it through the winter riding the turbo then I had to find something to make the whole experience less tedious.

My first thought was watching movies or TV series on the iPad while riding, but I wasn't really sure that would be much different to listening to a podcast. Then I saw an article (or mayby email) about Strava offering two months free access (for premium members) to something called Zwift...

Virtual Riding

The main premise behind Zwift is that it allows you to ride in a virtual environment with other riders from around the world. The data collected from sensors attached to your bike/trainer (see later) controls how quickly your rider travels through the virtual environment. Imagine a computer game where you are riding a bike and the speed is based on the cycling effort you put in on a real bike – that's pretty much it.

You have the option of just riding the course on your own, picking up other riders or a group and riding with them or even completing a specific structured workout. During general riding there are sprint and hill climbing challenges where you compete for the fastest time against the other riders in the game, plus the option to go for the fastest course lap.

Equipment and Sensors

So, how does all this magic work? First off you need a computer (PC or Mac) that runs the Zwift game. This needs to have a pretty good Internet connection so that you can see your position in the virtual environment along with all the other riders from around the world. I've found that the game is pretty processor intensive, so having the laptop plugged in seems to be essential.

Next off you need a turbo trainer and of course a bike! Zwift works best with a smart trainer where the game can control the trainer resistance to match the virtual hills on the course. However, it works just fine with a classic trainer and there are pre-calibrated profiles for most of the main manufacturers (Tacx, CycleOps etc.)

Finally you need some sensors to measure what you are doing on the bike. Ideally you should have a power meter as the game is largely built around power: so you will get the most accurate behaviour by using a real power meter. However if, like me, a power meter is beyond your budget then it also works just fine with a standard speed sensor – in which case Zwift use an algorithm to estimate your power. So far, the estimation seems to be pretty accurate as far as I can tell. You can also pair a heart rate monitor and cadence sensor for additional metrics.

By default Zwift works with Ant+ devices, and you will need an Ant+ USB dongle in your laptop. However, it's also possible to run the Zwift App on your mobile device, which allows pairing with BLE devices as well. The App and the computer must be on the same network so that the App can transmit the readings from the BLE sensors to the game. Additionally, the App also works as a cycle computer display and controller for the game, so it's pretty useful even if you aren't using any BLE devices, and it stops you dripping sweat all over the laptop!

This all ends up being quite a complex configuration of kit with lots of interconnecting parts (Internet, computer, phone App, bike sensors, hrm, trainer). There's quite a lot that could go wrong here, but surprisingly it works incredibly well. I had one small problem getting the phone App and the game on the laptop to communicate properly resulting in no reading from my BLE speed/cadence sensor, but once everything is communicating fine it seems really stable throughout the ride.

Riding Experience

The riding experience is really good, even with a classic trainer. As you ride, Zwift uses your power output (either measured or calculated) and translates this into a relative speed within the game. As the virtual course goes uphill, your virtual speed at the same power output goes down and visa-versa as the course goes downhill again.

I thought initially that it would seem strange going from flat to uphill without any change of resistance from my basic trainer, but the visual perspective of the course is good enough to trick your mind into thinking it's climbing a harder hill even though nothing in the real-world environment has actually changed. I have however taken to switching up a gear or two on the hill climbs just to make it feel tougher!

The virtual sprints and hill climbs are a great incentive to push a little harder, and seeing yourself on a leader-board against other riders from around the world is great. There's an inherently social element to riding with other people, seeing where they are from, what kit they've selected, how their performance relates to yours and so on. You can even chat and give a virtual 'Ride On!' along the way.

I've certainly found the experience immersive enough that even a 70 minute turbo trainer session seems to fly by much more quickly than before I started using Zwift. It really feels like you are out for an actual bike ride.

Workout Mode

For those who don't want to just ride round a virtual course, there's also a workout mode. You start by picking a workout from the list (I think a workout designer has just been released or is coming soon). You then ride the workout, with the game prompting you what your current interval power output should be and how long to maintain it before the next interval. There's also a virtual FTP test you can do as well.

In workout mode, you don't get to compete in the sprint or hill climb segments and you also don't get any benefit from drafting. You are however riding around the same course as everyone else so the full virtual experience and social element is still there.

Stats and Metrics

As you ride you can see your current power output, cadence, heart rate, virtual distance and speed. You also collect experience points that unlock new clothing, bikes and wheels that you can use in-game.

Once you stop riding there's a nice little summary screen with a couple of graphs and some power statistics. What's even better is that if you've linked your Strava account to Zwift then the ride is uploaded to Strava as a virtual ride along with all the data, virtual segments and Strava analysis. What a great idea!

Ride On!

I'm currently enjoying my 2-month free Zwift usage that now comes with my premium Strava account. However, I'm getting enough value from the Zwift experience that when this runs out I think I'll be paying my monthly subscription in order to see me through to the end of my winter bike training.

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