Virtual cycling program Zwift is changing the game

In May, former domestic pro-cyclist Stuart Cameron took a tumble in a bike race at Warrnambool. Asphalt is rarely forgiving and when the medics scraped him off the road they found that he had seven broken ribs - two of which were displaced - a collar bone broken in multiple places, a punctured lung and a raft of cuts and bruises.

The accident could have turned him off cycling but as a true hard man of the peloton, almost as soon as he was out of intensive care Cameron was looking for a way to get back on the bike.

And so he stumbled into a new world that's fast revolutionising the sport: virtual cycling. It's not being too dramatic to suggest that virtual cycling programs - Zwift is one of the best examples - could be to the sport what the mobile phone and/or the internet has been to communication.

"A few mates had used Zwift and raved about it," Cameron says, "but I was a cynic. Had it not been for the accident I probably still would not have tried it today. (But) it's aiding my recovery a lot … I can see myself using Zwift long-term now as part of my regular riding week."

Connected community

He's not alone; tens of thousands of keen cyclists around the world have quickly become hooked on Zwift. Its social rides attract hundreds of riders at a time; races are held multiple times a day, every day, day and night; so you never 'ride' alone. It's friendly, interactive, competitive, and motivating. It is both inclusive and non-gender exclusive: men and women, pro and amateur alike, ride and compete together.

It's simply a matter of when, not if, Zwift uncovers an eventual World Tour rider.

Nick Squillari

Zwift involves setting a real-life bike up on an indoor trainer – turning it into a stationary bike – and then using power metrics to simulate riding through elaborately designed 3D courses. It's a game setting where the effort is all too real. The figures and the graphics are not real but the force applied and the way it is represented is. When you hit a virtual hill in Zwift, you slow dramatically, and it becomes appropriately harder to get anywhere; just like in real life. It is a completely accurate representation of where a rider's ability and training is at. If someone beats you up a hill or in a race on Zwift, they will likely beat you in a race in real life.

The real deal

Sometimes Zwift feels more real than the real world. The effort is generally harder. There's no coasting along, no stopping at lights, no waiting for slow coaches, no rain, no wind, no flat tyres, no cold, no angry motorists, and definitely no excuses. You get on, you work hard, you get off.

It's so effective that cycling pros are increasingly using it as a training device. A dozen or more of the biggest names in world cycling are semi-regular users; the Trek-Segafredo Tour de France team held social rides on Zwift in the lead-up to this year's Tour de France; any day when you ride around Zwift there's a chance you'll ride alongside a real-life pro. This perhaps is where things get most interesting of all.

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The most prestigious one-day event in world cycling is arguably the cobblestone French classic known as Paris-Roubaix. It's the hardest of races for the toughest of cyclists. In April this year Australian Mathew Hayman became only the second Australian in history to win the event – on his 15th attempt. It was a remarkable feat in itself, made all the more so by the fact he'd badly broken an arm only six weeks prior to the race. The break should have ruled him out of the race entirely.

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Training wheels

It didn't because of Zwift. Or because Hayman turned to stationary training in his garage, aided by the virtual world of Zwift. "Without Zwift as a training tool and motivator, I am not sure I would have been able to get the quantity and quality of work done to hold my form during my injury," he says. "I was using it twice daily for many weeks, even when my arm was feeling good enough to try a road ride I stayed on the trainer as I knew I was getting some good work done."

Just like Stuart Cameron, Zwift may well have passed Hayman by had it not been for the injury. "I used to be the last guy who would get on a home trainer. I would prefer to ride in the rain! I am very goal-orientated and if I was to go on the trainer, nine times out of 10 I would not complete my training as planned as it was so hard mentally. So, if it's good enough to get enough work done to win one of the longest, hardest races in the world then I think with the right sessions you can prepare for anything physically on Zwift."

Breaking boredom

The thing about cycling on indoor trainers – as nerdy as it seems – is that a) it's renowned for being excruciatingly boring (as Stuart Cameron notes: "Over the years whenever I have been in the best riding form or at my peak it's been when I've incorporated indoor sessions into my training. The battle is that for me, like most people, you really need to be super motivated to do these properly") but b) it's also acknowledged as being an incredibly beneficial training aid. There's a well-established saying in cycling: an hour on the indoor trainer is worth two out on the road.

The problem is that no one wants to do an hour on an indoor trainer. Which is where Zwift comes into its own. Nick Squillari is a gun of amateur Australian cycling, having won multiple state and national road race titles. He's in no doubt of Zwift's merit. "Zwift's true lure is it ticks the boxes of social interaction and bike riding in an interactive manner. Most people know that stationary training is super efficient and an effective training method, but finding the mental stamina to get through a session, without something like Zwift, is where a lot fall down.

"It's no gimmick. It's a game-changer. Suddenly a one hour ergo session is standard. Only a few years ago plenty of people were impressed if you clocked up 45 minutes. It's like nothing I've ever seen in cycling before. I've never suffered from motivation to get on the ergo (indoor trainer), but with Zwift time passes so quickly I actually have to take food and an extra bottle of water to the garage. The rides can get that long you need a feed zone.

"For the time-crunched rider it's one less excuse for not staying in shape during winter. With Zwift now offering workouts as well as free riding, I get the impression a lot more people will be hitting summer (and crit racing season) with better legs than in years gone by."

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Shock of the new

Shane Miller – who's been there and done that as an amateur cyclist, clocking up 15 national and 29 state age group titles – is clear on the benefit of Zwift. "You just have to look at sports institutes such as the AIS and how long they've been using ergo (indoor interval) work to prepare their athletes for top performance. They've done this for decades. Gone are the days where we stare at the wall or the clock while we make the best use of our time indoors. Products such as Zwift have brought indoor training to life. It's now social, it's now competitive, and it's now fun. Match this with the recent developments in trainer technology where the resistance changes based on the terrain and you've got yourself a totally immersive and social experience."

As with the advent of the mobile phone, the default response of most cycling traditionalists is to distrust the benefit of virtual cycling – right up to the point where they try it. One of the first things Stuart Cameron noticed when he was forced into indoor training, was how many of the people he saw in the Zwift virtual world were names he recognised, or had raced against. "One of the great things about riding with your mates or training buddies is pushing yourself against them and at times trying to lay a bit of hurt on each other. Until Zwift this has never been possible with an indoor trainer but riding along with mates on board in real-time adds to the engagement and enjoyment a lot."

Says Squillari on the Oz Zwift Facebook page: "It's simply a matter of when, not if, Zwift uncovers an eventual World Tour rider."