This articles was produced in association with Zwift
There was once a time when the idea of playing a video game alone in the house would have negative connotations: the user would be at risk of being described as bored, lonely and wasting their time.
The evolution of indoor cycle training, however, is anything but those three adjectives. Now, spending hours watching a digital avatar on screen while simultaneously pedalling away on a static bike is seen as a fundamental training tool for hundreds of thousands of cyclists, and also forms a significant part of many people’s social lives and racing calendars.
“In the beginning, it would take some effort to convince people to use Zwift. Now, it’s the other way round - it’s often hard to get them outdoors riding,” says international cycling coach Richard Rollinson, referencing the training plans, social elements and racing offered by market leader Zwift.
Today, cycling clubs have been created specifically for Zwift meet-ups and races, while entire communities have spawned from the online platform. They include, but are not limited to, the ever-growing number of virtual racing leagues that have originated from the platform since its launch in 2014; there is even the Zwift Games starting in February, giving you the opportunity to compete with or against the best in the world.
It’s not unheard of nowadays for amateur athletes to race multiple days a week, thanks to the plethora of individual races and leagues offered by the platform. “Zwift is simply entertainment on the turbo trainer,” says Gavin Dempster, one of the platform’s best riders. “It allows you to stay on the trainer longer, gives you plenty of motivation, and you get the same buzz as being in an outside race or social ride. I am as social on Zwift as I would be on a ride out in the lanes with friends.”
Racing can add another dimension to your training (Credit: Zwift)
For some, Zwift provides a competitive outlet when traditional avenues are no longer possible. “I have quite a few athletes now whose main goals are the Zwift races, in particular the Zwift Racing League series,” adds Rollinson. “I have one rider who finds it hard to travel all of the time because he owns a business, so since 2021 he only races on Zwift, and he gets the same, if not more, out of it.”
The quality of the racing fields are getting deeper and stronger every time, with more people realising the benefits - and occasionally prize money - to be earned from indoor racing. It’s little wonder that there’s even talk about the Olympics adding e-racing to their portfolio in due course.
Support of a strong community
During the Covid-19 years, indoor cycling’s popularity exploded, and many cycling communities moved online to continue their activities. The fact that most retain a significant presence is testament to the routines that people developed, becoming accustomed to riding from the comfort of their own home and still feeling part of a shared collective and group of friends.
They know, for example, that every Tuesday and Sunday evening they have the same group ride with the same regular faces, while the recurring Thursday night TT gives them a fun and enjoyable competition to work towards - with plenty of ribbing and jesting afterwards with other competing riders. Again, it’s that community spirit that keeps people engaged and dedicated (giving one another encouragement via a virtual Ride On, a notification that is akin to a kudos on Strava, also helps).
Riding the same events throughout the year can forge a strong community (Credit: Alessandra Bucci)
Rollinson chimes back in: “Sometimes people ask me whether you get more physically out of a group ride outdoors than indoors, and I always say that it really depends on the person. On Zwift, you can deliberately target things easier, and it’s perfect for managing more variables. You can certainly gain as much from Zwift - physically, mentally and socially - as you can from any road ride.”
There is no doubt that Zwift is a phenomenal training tool whatever the month, and any cyclist who invests energy into the platform will develop into a stronger and faster bike rider. But for the upwards of one million subscribers, Zwift acts just as much a social and racing platform, emboldened by its strong communities, as it does a training one. And it’s easy to see why.