In the New Zealand summer, I ride my bike a lot: To work, on the weekends. It’s warm and it’s sunny. I can wear short sleeves.
Winter is a different beast: It’s cold, it rains, there’s often frost in the mornings when I have to head to work, it’s dark when I have to head home (and darkness + motorists = not a fun time), meaning I get lazy and the bike tends to stay in the garage a bit more during the working week.
I’ve also noticed that the older I get, the more of a “fair weather cyclist” I’ve become. Yes, yes, it’s not thinking of the planet when I take my car to work on a cold winter morning – but I have got used to its heated seats!
Winter, and all that comes with it, is where a training platform like Zwift fits in. Zwift is an indoor virtual training system that has “gameified” fitness training, providing a fair bit more motivation than the old traditional magnetic wind trainers that I used when I was younger (and probably fitter).
The easiest way to describe Zwift is, I guess, to think of it as a MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game where cyclists and runner can interact and train with each other in virtual locations.
Currently, Zwift has virtual approximations of New York, London, Paris, the world of Watopia and the recently released Makuri Islands, that has a distinctly Japanese feel to it. The routes are pre-determined meaning you can’t go off the beaten path and ride where you want but a certain points during a ride you’ll have the option to change the route and go another direction for a bit of variety.
Zwift costs a monthly subscription to use and full disclosure here: Zwift provided me with a year subscription to the service for review purposes. While I was using it, there were thousands of cyclists and runner using the service from around the world.
I’ll say this from the outset: I have never been a huge fan of indoor training. I’d much rather be riding my bike, on the trails, than confined to a garage riding a stationery trainer but sometimes needs must, especially during winter when it’s, frankly, miserable outside.
As I write this, I have so many thoughts running through my head about indoor training: “You need to be motivated to train indoors as it’s a very different beast to riding outside where you have the breeze in your face & changing scenery”, “Just feels weird sometimes with no back wheel and I’m not controlling where I’m going”, “Man, I’m sweating heaps. I should have set up a fan.”
I’d heard about Zwift and have some cycling friends that use it but I’d never used it myself, nor a smart trainer like the Tacx Neo 2 smart trainer that the kind PR folk sent over as well. You don’t need a smart trainer for Zwift – the old magnetic style will work just fine – but the current generation of smart trainers add quite a little bit of realism to your workout, which makes sense.
Talking of smart trainers, let’s segway a bit and talk about the trainer that was provided for this Zwift test as this review is as much about the technology as it is the program.
Tacx’s Neo 2 trainer is quite amazing and it replicated the feel of being on a road much more realistically than any other trainer I’ve used. Don’t get me wrong, you still know you’re on a trainer but it does a good job of making things feel as real as possible.
With the Neo 2, you remove your bike’s rear wheel and fit it to the trainer using the supplied quick release skewer. The Neo 2 has two fold out legs – it reminds me of the shuttle Tydirium from Return of the Jedi with its fold down wings – which lock into place, providing a stable base. It connects to Zwift via bluetooth and measure power output, distance and speed. It also has a substantial inertia flywheel and can simulate slopes up to 25% gradient and can simulate descents, also. It supports Shimano and Sram cassettes (8 to 11 tooth) but you can apparently fit a wider ratio mountain cassette.
It was unlike any indoor trainer I’ve used before and when I “rode” over a wooden bridge I could feel the vibration from the wooden planks as I went over them. It was quite surreal but kind of cool at the same time.
I used my iPad to connect to Zwift (attaching it to my bike using a supplied mount) but you can use something like Apple TV (if it’s an recent enough generation) that will connect to TV. Set up was easy: I downloaded the app, logged in, entered a few personal stats and I was off pedaling in a matter of minutes.
The app automatically connected to the smart trainer the moment I turned a pedal, with nice big icons showing me that the two were connected and everything was doing what it was supposed to.
There’s also a companion app for your smart phone which lets you see a lot of the data on your bigger screen and lets you interact with other riders or runner by doing things like sending messages or giving them a “wave” for a good effort.
Once you’ve selected your ride, be it a training ride with riders of the same fitness level, one of the many races that are scheduled or just a tour around your selected world, you start pedaling around the virtual world, with the app showing you your speed, cadence and watts (of power) per kilo (of body weight). It’s all very scientific.
I made the conscious decision that while I had the trainer and Zwift that I would train indoors every second day, and I generally stuck to that. It helped that the weather was pretty average a couple of weekends, too: That made the decision to ride in the garage even more appealing.
For me, when I used to race and use a wind trainer, the hardest thing was remaining motivated and I did find that with Zwift sometimes.
Some sessions I would push hard, sweat dripping off my face, trying to catch the Zwifter in front, other times I would lack energy and motivation and every pedal stroke felt laboured and I’ll give up after about 20 minutes. Like riding on the road or trails, I find I have to be in the right mood.
Most of the time, though, I was committed and pushed my 52-year-old body as hard as I could, doing a mix of training and free ride sessions to just get familiar and see how things were. It wasn’t unusual to walk of the garage dripping with sweat.
One of the big differences with using the Tacx Neo 2 to being on a real bicycle is you can’t stop pedaling and freewheel down a hill like you can on the real thing, using it to rest your aching legs: If you stop pedaling, your virtual avatar stops pedaling.
You can make a Zwift session as hard or as easy as you like: One particularly tough 30 minute workout had two 20 second sprints and a climb that got to 18% gradient in some places. I was hurting by the time I created the summit but I stayed ahead of the rider shadowing me all the way up and pipped – I think – a rider ahead of me with a final burst of what little energy I had left!
While I much prefer actually getting out on my bike on weekends and I couldn’t see myself using an indoor training platform much during the warmer months, Zwift is surprisingly motivating and has seriously changed my perception of what indoor training can be.
When it’s cold and wet like in winter, I can see a smart trainer like the Tacx Neo 2 and the online roads and worlds in Zwift as the perfect training partners for when it’s too cold and too dark to hit the trails or tarmac on two-wheels.
A huge thanks to the team at Sling & Stone in Auckland, New Zealand (especially Mikaela and Sam), for organising the Tacx Neo 2 trainer and providing a subscription for Zwift. Thanks, team!