This article is produced in association with Zwift
So your friends have persuaded you: you’ve signed up to Zwift, and you’re about to enter the virtual world of training gains, online races and, most importantly, the social hub of group rides.
You’ve probably heard all about group rides, the ones where hundreds of strangers unite to ride around one of Zwift’s online maps, or where clubs meet together in a private ride.
Many thousands of Zwifters have developed new connections, reignited old friendships and gotten closer with existing ride buddies thanks to Zwift, and a common reason is that users typically join the same ride on a regular basis, allowing them to frequently see the same familiar faces - and avatars.
Getting started on a Zwift group ride couldn’t be any easier, and in no time you’ll regularly be heading to your spare room or garage, getting kitted up, logging onto Zwift and partaking in the countless amount of daily group rides.
Richard Rollinson has been a cycle trainer for 15 years and coaches athletes around the world. “The benefits of group rides are enormous, above all because you get that mental stimulation from riding with other people,” he says. “Due to work and family reasons, some people can’t get out on longer weekend rides, but Zwift group rides provide that social element which is really important.”
So how’s it done? There are a variety of ways. Thanks to the hundreds and hundreds of daily group rides - head to the Zwift calendar to see what’s happening when - there are so many random rides you can join, and within seconds you can be riding with people from very different corners of the globe.
Alternatively, as soon as the game loads up and the devices are all successfully paired, the in-game screen will give you an option of ‘joining another Zwifter’. By clicking on it, you can see which of your friends (you need to connect with them first) are online, and which ones are riding in social events.
It’s then simply a case of clicking to ride alongside them, and providing you join within 30 minutes of the group ride’s start, you are virtually parachuted straight into the action and the digital version of yourself will be seen pedalling alongside your friend(s).
For something more casual, you can join random rides thanks to the ‘Ride With’ option, where there is a variety of pace and difficulty options. But, for many, riding on Zwift means riding with a friend - even if they live on the opposite side of the globe, or just a different part of the country. Whereas before you might have assumed that your riding days together were either limited or over, thanks to Zwift you can connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time of the day.
Congregate to motivate
Rollinson has noticed how many of his athletes will focus on group riding to better line-up with their training targets. “If riders are focusing on crit racing or a Gran Fondo, they’ll practise group rides on Zwift as it correlates with their forthcoming events,” he says.
Virtual social rides can be a great way to form bonds with fellow riders and keep your motivation up (Credit: Zwift)
Chatting away while pedalling creates bonds. “Everyone is motivated differently,” Rollinson says. “Personally, I like the occasional social group ride, but some riders I coach live for social outings, and they put their energy into group riding and making friends.”
But a note on any group ride you join - be ready to start pedalling straight away, because as soon as your avatar goes, you’re off; there’s no such thing as clipping into your pedals and gently wheeling away!
“If I have an athlete who is using group rides for training, I always start them off with a high intensity warm-up, as the start of group rides are like the beginning of a cyclocross race,” Rollinson explains. “I want the athlete to be prepared for intense efforts at the start, before it settles into a rhythm.”
That said, the intensity of the rides can be as difficult as you want. Indeed, there is even the option in private group rides of keeping everyone together, meaning that regardless of each rider’s power output and exertion, each avatar is kept in the same group. It’s a great tool that is handy for groups of differing abilities, but above all places the emphasis on socialising.
Creating a private ride is called a Meetup, and it allows clubs or select groups to organise rides for up to 100 chosen people. Set-up via Zwift Companion, a mobile-based app that sits somewhere between an event planner and a Zwift head unit. The rides can take place in a variety of virtual locations - from the World Championships courses of Innsbruck and Yorkshire, to the famous city streets of London and New York.
The Companion app also permits an in-ride discussion, via your mobile’s speech-to-text option and typed out messages. Better still, many riders often create a joint video call on Discord, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger and chat freely while the riding is going on - just like they would on any other social spin.
No mud, all glory: riding indoors can be just as rewarding as your usual group rides without the grime of winter (Credit: Alessandra Bucci)
That also extends to riding with professionals: it’s a dream of many, if not all, to pedal alongside a Tour de France rider, but rarely do any of us mere mortals get the opportunity. It’s not uncommon, however, for pros and teams to create open events that allow us to virtually ride the same course as a pro, while chatting to them at the same time.
The beauty of these Zwift group rides is that you get the same benefits of a typical ride out with a friend or a bunch of clubmates, but without the hassle of getting ready, cleaning the bike or dealing with adverse weather conditions. You can ride, chat, shower and have a post-ride meal quicker than you would if you headed out into the lanes or the hills.
In a world where many couples now first meet via dating apps, and even more people join events via social apps, the idea of making cycling friends through a virtual platform isn’t as strange as it once would have seemed.
Cover image by Alessandra Bucci