The gamification of cycling: how Zwift has revolutionised indoor training
How Zwift has transformed indoor training from insufferable boredom to online gaming
There was a time when indoor training meant pedaling furiously while staring at a blank wall - but virtual cycling has given a shot in the arm (no TUE required) to the tedious business of cycling indoors.
A trend described as the ‘gamification’ of cycling at a conference held recently at Bloomberg’s London HQ is transforming the landscape of indoor riding.
Online platforms like Zwift allow the rider/player to compete against others around the world, while a new generation of ‘smart’ turbo trainers respond to inputs from the game, increasing or decreasing resistance for climbs, descents and drafting.
The technology opens up a debate about the very nature of cycling. For many, especially in this ‘digital age’, the greater part of cycling’s appeal lies in the opportunity to exercise outdoors and to escape the ubiquitous screen. Riding can be a gloriously bio-mechanical experience; no digital interface required.
For subscribers to gaming platforms like Zwift, however, the online environment provides motivation, structure, and distraction from the painful business of indoor training. Crucially, it offers an effective training solution for cyclists with little free time by placing an emphasis on the quality of training, rather than the quantity.
The Zwift revolution
Zwift has rapidly become a byword for indoor cycling, revitalising a concept until recently considered deeply unappealing by almost all by the most dedicated athlete.
That Zwift is road cycling’s new rock ’n’ roll is testament in large part to the quality of the product; marketing has been low key and its success has spread mostly by word of mouth.
Zwift allows subscribers (membership costs £8 per month) to ride in its virtual world, Watopia, as well as on online recreations of the RideLondon and 2015 Richmond World Championship courses. Riders can join group rides with - and compete against - other cyclists from more than 150 countries, with former pro Dean Downing joining a bunch sprint on one recent Zwift ride. Users can also create their own training sessions and plans.
However, community is at the heart of Zwift: a sense of shared experience promoted by the game’s functionality and propagated through any number of social channels, notably Facebook (there are more than 100 Zwift-centred groups on Mr Zuckerberg’s platform, apparently).
Steve Beckett, formerly head of cycling at Sky (the broadcaster) and now Zwift’s VP of sales and marketing, is disarmingly frank, describing community as simultaneously the brand’s biggest threat and opportunity as it grows.
The threat lies in becoming isolated from the audience. Nothing would be worse, Beckett says, than for Zwift to “walk off into the sunset" and forget the community that made it a success. The “generosity" and “goodwill" of its users must remain part of Zwift’s identity, he insists as its astonishing growth continues seemingly unabated (200,000 accounts in 155 countries, though not all are paid-up subscribers).
“Community has always got to be front and centre as we grow," says Beckett. “It’s the DNA of our brand. We’re super conscious that the community has helped us in a number of ways. We have users in so many different countries, and everyone gets on fantastically well.
“It’s a friendly and welcoming platform. We have over 100 Facebook groups. Virtually every country has a Zwift Facebook group and that’s really helpful. From our point of view, if anyone’s after advice there’s a whole lot of self-service."
It is not only a case of users helping each other, he maintains. Much of Zwift’s functionality is a result of feedback, Beckett says, and particularly the ‘game’s’ the group rides and racing aspects.
Why the fuss about community? It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the social aspect to cycling or how keenly its absence is felt in the realm of indoor training. Advice, banter, competition…its advantages might fill an alphabet. Compare and contrast a Sunday morning club ride with a pre-work interval session in the garage. Zwift’s ability not only to distract its users from the suffering of a hard workout, but also to allow them to interact, is its magic bullet.
Beckett says the community ethos guides all of Zwift’s activities: its interaction with brands, as well as users. Take the recent launch of Cervélo’s P5x time-trial bike; a radical machine and defiantly non-compliant with UCI regulations.
“All the bike manufacturers are conscious that our users like bikes. We don’t go to bike manufacturers and say, ‘If you want to be on Zwift, it will cost you money’. We say it would be fantastic if you were on Zwift and we will promote you. It’s a huge value exchange."
This ‘value exchange’ with Cervélo was played out via a digital rendering of the P5x (and the S3 Disc) and a chance to compete against other users on virtual time-trial courses of 40km or 180km for entry(s) into a competition to win an S3 Disc. Zwift users can also customisation their online self by selecting anything from the jersey they wear to their skin tone.
Friend or foe
Zwift, of course, is not a bike manufacturer, and so such a mutually advantageous relationship is easy to conceive. It’s not so immediately obvious whether the likes of Tacx, a company producing trainers and accompanying software since 2001, would welcome the arrival of the Zwift juggernaut on its lawn.
"Tacx is a really good example," Beckett says. “They had their own software. When we first came into the game, we didn’t know if we were ‘friend’ or ‘foe’, but they’ve come to realise that by building a global community, it makes indoor training more appealing. Our software solution fits over the top and drives sales of hardware."
Even hardware manufacturers like Tacx might be described as one-step removed from Zwift. Competitors directly in the same software space, such as TrainerRoad, and, to a large degree, Sufferfest, might take a less welcoming view?
Becket says, not unreasonably, he cannot answer for those who share Zwift’s market. He is, however, at pains to emphasise that Zwift is not outwardly competitive. It does not measure success by market share, he insists; rather by customer feedback. “It’s not about being the biggest; it’s about being the best loved."
Outdoors…the new indoors
We return to competitors, and Zwift’s refusal to regard alternatives to its product as such, later in the conversation when we turn to the elephant in Zwift’s room: the road. With the best will in the world, and with the best functionality, the biggest community, the most love, cycling on a static trainer simply can’t compare to the road, can it?
“We don’t want to compete with road,’ Beckett says. “All Zwift staff ride on the road. We don’t say that riding on the road is dangerous, or go on about bad weather. We’re a complementary tool for cyclists.
“I agree that cycling outside, in a social environment in the great outdoors, around nature, experiencing the elements, is really invigorating and creates lots of new friendships and is healthy. One hundred per cent we love riding outdoors. The way we’ve come at this is how do we become problem solvers? There are many reasons people can’t cycle.
“If you look at cycling as a pie chart, people want to ride 100 per cent of time, but can only do 60 per cent. So how can we help with that other 40 per cent? It’s about how we complement outdoor cycling.
“As a company, we champion outdoors. Next year, in Australia, the US, UK and Japan, we’re going to have Zwift get-togethers where we all get out and ride on the road: Zwift staff and customers all riding outside. If we’re an inclusive brand, oriented around cyclists, we need to have a holistic view."
Zwift has captured the imagination not just of time-crunched amateur cyclists, but professionals and the stars of the UCI WorldTour, notably this year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Matthew Hayman.
The Australian heard about Zwift on social media and used it while recovering from a broken arm before riding to glory at the Hell of the North. Hayman credits the competitive community element of Zwift and the ability to do high-quality, time-efficient training sessions, without the mind-numbing boredom of a conventional turbo session, as key to his recovery and subsequent victory.
Beckett admits that Zwift’s relationship with such illustrious clientele is not as straight forward as the traditional pro cyclist endorsement. Zwift does not sponsor any pro riders, for example.
“We’ve got to be respectful that it’s just a customer using Zwift," he says. “The reality is that people talk about it, and that gives us a lot of coolness and integrity as a brand."
He is keen to emphasise that Zwift played only a small part of Hayman’s success in northern France, but also to talk up a less frequently acknowledged aspect of the game’s appeal to pro cyclists: that it allows riders to engage directly with the wider cycling community.
“Michael Matthews rode Zwift on the second rest day of the Tour. We didn’t ask him to. He just wanted to connect with his fans. By complete coincidence, he won the following day’s stage of the Tour."
Beckett chuckles at the memory. Fortuitous barely describes such a turn of events, but such is the lot of Zwift these days.
The rise of Zwift has come hand-in-hand with the growth in popularity of smart turbo trainers, which offer the connectivity to communicate with third-party software.
Wahoo is the comparative new kid on the block of the trainer market but has helped drive the popularity of smart trainers and an association with Team Sky quickly gained Wahoo a foothold in a competitive market.
More significantly, perhaps, has been Wahoo’s willingness to adopt a so-called ‘open API’ approach; essentially, allowing developers at the likes of Zwift and TrainerRoad, an app designed specifically to help time-poor cyclists train more efficiently, to build software which is able to control the resistance on a Wahoo trainer.
“Zwift and TrainerRoad are working on software and doing an excellent job," says Kevin Abt, sales and marketing director for Wahoo’s European operation. “It’s a really great two-way street where they provide fresh, compelling ways to use software, which completes the eco system for indoor training. Everyone is adding a further dimension."
Abt, now in his mid-30s, admits to being a member of the video game generation; one with memories of becoming so absorbed in a game that he would often look at his clock in surprise to discover the time was 3am. He believes the compelling nature of video games brings a much-needed dose of enjoyment to the typically ‘all work, no play’ environment of indoor training.
“Indoor cycling is a very isolated experience," says Abt. “You can joke and call it a ‘pain cave’… but that’s not a name that gets people excited about riding indoors. With Zwift, you can jump into a virtual world, but more importantly you’re there with other people; there’s some gamification and you can chat with them."
Abt is not proposing indoor cycling as a replacement for the real thing. Rather, time on the turbo trainer - ideally, paired with a gaming experience, - is a complement to outdoor cycling: an option for when time commitments or weather prevents time on the road.
“Although Zwift is a video game, it’s one of the best video games you can imagine for building cardiovascular endurance," he says.
Wahoo have noted a growth in sales in what Abt describes as ‘mega cities’ - colossal urban environments which provide a barrier to serious training by sheer density of population and the concomitant of roads congested by traffic.
“One of [Wahoo’s] biggest markets is the ‘mega city’: London, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai," says Abt.. They’re mega cities for several reasons, but it’s challenging to get outside the city and find terrain that’s appropriate for a challenging ride. It might take you an hour to get out of these mega cities. That’s ok on the weekend, but how about in the week when your schedule is tight?"
The time crunched cyclist is fast becoming the gaming cyclist. Wahoo’s willingness to interact with games manufacturers like Zwift and TrainerRoad, up to and including opening their trainer’s ‘genetic code’ to developers, has helped hardware and software developers to grow hand-in-hand.
Tacx occupies an interesting position in the centre of a rapidly dividing market. Back in 2001, the Dutch manufacturer was first to market with an integrated system of training hardware and software: a turbo trainer with an accompanying graphical world in which to ‘ride’. It continues today with this integrated model, despite the emergence of hardware specialists like Wahoo and software providers like Zwift and TrainerRoad (though Tacx’s smart trainers can also be used with third-party software).
“The playing field is changing, but that’s good," says Simon Tacx, sales manager at the Netherlands company, supplier to a host of WorldTour teams, including world champion Peter Sagan’s new Bora-Hansgrohe outfit.
“Our skills and focus are more in the hardware side, but software has been a very important part of the company for many years. We see now that Zwift and TrainerRoad are specialists. They have more focus on software and greater resources in that area, but as a company we want always to offer software in addition to our hardware."
Simon Tacx concedes that Zwift has stolen a march on its competitors in developing a community, and has done “a really great job" in developing a virtual reality system. Tacx, however, has the lead on Zwift in creating a software solution accessible from a tablet or smartphone, without the need for a powerful gaming computer, dongle, or other miscellaneous hardware. As of writing, Zwift has not yet released its long-anticipated iOS solution but its arrival will open up Zwift to a significantly bigger audience who do not currently have a high-powered Apple or Windows computer currently required to support the software.
“We have a different focus," says Tacx. “Zwift are creating virtual reality worlds. In our app, we are focusing on videos, GPS courses and creating workouts. It’s a little bit of a different angle. We don’t believe in creating two communities. One community for Zwift is perfect and we don’t want to split that world. There’s still lots of potential in the videos."
Despite a focus on the new, Tacx is fast approaching its 60th anniversary and the 120 employees at its facility close to The Hague have been busy on what might be described as a turbo trainer to rule them all: a rolling road for running or cycling that Tacx calls Magnum.
Immersion in the virtual world has not come at the expense of their association with the sport, either. Astana, Cannondale-Drapac, Etixx-QuickStep, LottoNL-Jumbo and Peter Sagan’s new Bora-Hansgrohe team are all supplied by Tacx, which its sales manager insists is crucial for product development, notably the Magnum.
Simon Tacx says he and his business have witnessed first hand a shift in the perception of indoor training, driven by a host of factors, including the growth of Abt’s ‘mega cities’ bad winters, and (whisper it) enjoyment from turbo training now Zwift, Trainer Road et al have offered an alternative to staring at the garage wall.
“People’s attitude and mindset is changing from ‘boring necessity’ into something that could be fun and allow you to train more efficiently," Tacx says. “People train for many different reasons. Some people prefer to stay inside, because of conditions, the weather, or perhaps because they’re living in a city, they have to cycle for half-an-hour before they have a clear road to workout. It can be a lot of fun to train on a trainer with Zwift or with our software."
Virtual reality, new reality
There’s little doubt that online applications - virtual worlds, cycling video games, call them what you will - have changed the landscape of indoor cycling. What remains to be seen is whether it will change the nature of outdoor cycling too.
The video games industry is always keen to brand its players “athletes", a spurious notion, but who could deny the epithet to those who use platforms like Zwift and TrainerRoad to increase their fitness and generate serious wattage on the road?
It seems unlikely that the ‘gaming’ cyclist will ever replace the man on the road, and, in fairness to the subjects for this article, all described cycling in a virtual world as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, ‘real’ cycling.
Significantly, the companies involved are more closely aligned with cycling than the video games industry. Minn developed Zwift as a frustrated cyclist; Beckett governed Sky's relationship with Team Sky and British Cycling before joining Zwift. Tacx’s involvement in cycling remains closely aligned with the sport’s top tier. And many of the sport’s top athletes - the likes of Giant-Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin and Dimension Data’s Edvald Boasson Hagen - are fully paid-up members of Zwift.
The growth of the mega city is unquestionably fueling the rise of online cycling platforms, but for the UK cyclist at least, its greatest advantage must be an escape from the weather: an opportunity to train effectively in the warm and dry without the penalty of insufferable boredom. For this reason alone, Zwift, TrainerRoad and the ‘smart’ trainers that the likes of Tacx and Wahoo have developed, represent a significant - and growing - part of cycling’s landscape.