No matter how much sweat I leave on the den floor, I can’t ride with D. Smith. A hard-charging, road-cycling avatar on Zwift, the realistic, graphics-driven cycling workout app that’s running on my laptop, Smith isn’t real. (I also changed his name.) Neither are the computer-generated hills, descents, palm trees, fellow cyclists, and, of course, long stretches of smooth pavement. Neither is my own road-riding avatar. But my hard work is no lie.
I’m pedaling a bike on a stationary trainer and generating genuine watts and a lot of heartbeats, which collectively is the common denominator in an increasing number of ways nowadays to pedal indoors. The question, particularly as winter looms, is whether Zwift and the other companies betting on emerging indoor-cycling technologies have the legs to keep us pedaling inside our homes.
Home-indoor bike training 2.0, it’s fair to say, has reached critical mass. Schwinn Airdynes, bicycle rollers (once made of wood), and Robbie Ventura workout DVDs have given way to a recent wave of indoor options informed by social networking, gaming, and elevated technology. In the past several years, compelling home training options have appeared from companies including Peloton, TrainerRoad, CycleOps, and Bkool. Zwift, the most imaginative new option, is only a year old.
Zwift was born of a familiar complaint among cyclists forced indoors: Riding inside and alone, on a clunky trainer with maybe some music thumping through earbuds, sucks. Cyclist and Zwift co-founder Jon Mayfield, a computer programmer who specializes in 3D graphics, quickly concluded that the bevy of performance data produced on rides—including heart rate, power, and vertical feet climbed—could, along with the right graphics, help create a Web-based training system that connects fitness and gaming.
“Video games have reward systems based on numbers,” says Mayfield. “Cycling has them, too. If you take ten seconds off a climb? You want to do it again.”
My experience with Zwift endorses Mayfield’s thinking. Each time I ride the app’s nine-kilometer loop on “Watopia”—a Zwift-created island route where “Zwifters” from around the globe consistently establish and challenge their personal PRs—I lose myself in the competition. While trying to better my times during sprints, climbs, or circuits of the course, or in trying to keep up with the likes of D. Smith (let alone Zwift “ambassador” riders like ex-pro Jens Voigt), I’m so absorbed in the endeavor that an hour of hard riding goes by quickly. Zwift and Europe-based Bkool, which offers an expanded set of sophisticated riding experiences, are far more fun than gutting out self-imposed intervals while staring out at dark skies.
There are, however, genuine barriers to entry. A new generation of smart trainers, which communicate with your computer and the app via the likes of ANT+ wireless technology to provide resistance feedback and data, cost from $500 to more than $1,000 (old “dumb” trainers will work, albeit less effectively). In a perfect world, you’ll also dedicate a bike to the cause, since a full indoor setup—which includes details like hitching up bike to trainer, arranging towels to mop up sweat, powering up a fan to keep you cool, and sorting out wires to beam the screen image from your laptop to a much more watchable TV—is a time-consuming undertaking.
Then there are the subscription fees. Bkool and TrainerRoad charge $12 per month for their full-featured apps; Zwift charges $10 per month; and CycleOps, which allows riders to choose from thousands of real routes captured on video, costs between $6 and $15 per month.
Add up the investments and logistics, and you start to wonder how many potential Zwifters, TrainerRoaders, and Bkoolers might instead decide to brave the wintry weather or seek human interaction at a gym.
That said, plenty of folks so far have anted up: Bkool claims to have 100,000 members, Zwift has logged over 300,000 rides, and TrainerRoad hosts athletes from more than 100 countries.
Mayfield argues that the audiences will only grow. For Zwift, rides of varying nature and over different terrain are apparently in development. In October, the company introduced the option to ride structured workouts. Mayfield believes that hardcore cyclists will also come to share their trainers and subscriptions with the perpetually time challenged and the video-game obsessed.
There’s in-between ground for riders not yet ready to buy the full Bkool setup or immerse themselves in the virtual world of Zwift. Take TrainerRoad, an indoor-training app solely focused on the goal-oriented cyclist. None of Zwift’s cartoonish fellow cyclists from Brazil or the Netherlands to pass or be passed by here—only ride profiles on your screen that can look as spiky as the Chicago skyline. After performing a heart-pounding threshold test to determine your fitness level, you and your quads are often told to trace a workout’s tall demands, and you pedal hard for fear of falling off the pace. TrainerRoad offers dozens of semitailored training plans, whether you’re aspiring to race in a local cyclocross event or travel far for an Ironman.
I often found TrainerRoad sessions, which are designed by a top-notch cycling coach, to be well-conceived, demanding, and, as long as my concentration levels could rise above the pain, informative. Text offering solid advice—like how to improve your posture and to breathe from your belly—often appears on your screen. Still, as I’d pedal deeper into a TrainerRoad interval ride like “Avalanche Spire,” the messaging would feel increasingly canned. I have to imagine that, at some level, the 2.5 million completed TrainerRoad workouts have been, at times, lonely and dutiful affairs. The company unapologetically insists that its mission is training, not entertainment or bike-bro bonding.
Race organizers and charity ride outfits are embracing the new technology, which could also help grow its audience. Bkool has been employed for publicly held virtual races in England and Norway. Zwift partnered with Southern California’s Tour de Pier to make fundraising against cancer possible for any cyclist around the world.
Of course, some riders think that no matter how compelling the avatars become or how well the precision training plans work, the virtual challenges will still leave riders wanting. “There are no handshakes or patting each other on the back,” says Adnan Kadir, a Level 1 USA Cycling coach who encourages riders to hit the roads together despite offering VeloPro, his own coaching app. “This kind of riding is analogous to bringing people together via text messaging.”
That’s not to say indoor riding can’t be as social as FaceTime. Peloton, a Manhattan-based startup that brings lively cycling classes to your living room, sells its own trainer—a deluxe machine with belt drive, a supercomputer’s worth of provided performance data, and a 21.5-inch Wi-Fi-equipped HD display. Jump onto the saddle and you have a glistening window into a dozen daily classes streamed live from Peloton’s Chelsea studio. Another 1,500 prerecorded offerings are available on demand. You can even video chat with other participants during class.
Yes, there’s a price to pay for enjoying a limitless feed of highly entertaining classes led by the likes of live DJs, veteran New York City instructors, and, occasionally, members of pro cycling’s Team Cannondale-Garmin. At $1,995, the company’s bike costs twice that of a premium smart trainer, plus there’s a one-time $250 delivery and setup charge and a monthly $39 subscription fee. (You might be better off cycling with the poor man’s Peloton: Download the free app to your iPad. While the view and data output aren’t the same, the classes, and something resembling human interaction, are still yours for just $12.99 a month.)
So whether you pony up the almost $2,300 for Peloton or stick with a “dumb” trainer and an app, you can approach the dark days of winter knowing that the menu of indoor training options is beautifully huge. “You can see how the proliferation of technology has followed the proliferation of what was already a growing indoor-cycling environment, with all of those classes in spin studios and bike shop basements,” says Jay Townley, a longtime cycling industry consultant and analyst. “It’s no surprise that now you can just make a phone call from home and say, 'Let’s ride in an hour. See if you can beat me.'”