Zwift: The unexpected path to friendship in a pandemic

How the revolutionary virtual platform became far more than just a training tool

The clock ticks slowly. You twiddle your thumbs and start to feel restless. Out of the window, the outdoors looks inviting. It’s a clear day and the sun is shining. But everything is closed, there’s no cafes, restaurants or cinemas to go to. You’ve done your supermarket shop and the government has given strict instructions to avoid “non-essential travel.” The year is 2020. And we’re locked down.

The cycling world isn’t immune to these restrictions. Everywhere, races have been postponed and all planned training sessions are cancelled for the foreseeable future. With growing concern over the strain on the health services, group rides with clubs and teams are off the cards. Your bike sits in the corner, tempting, but another solo slog around the lanes? You miss the company, the chats. Shooting the breeze with your friends about their training plans for the week. Is this really the reality of the next few months? 

For some, it didn’t have to be.

“We all loved it and couldn't wait to get onto it, because it was company. It was the only time you really spoke to other people in the club.”

London-based rider Steve Cave was one of many who found solace in the world of Zwift during last year. While headlines were made about the rise of e-racing and the virtual Tour de France, there was another side to this software, one that went much deeper than rankings on a results sheet. 

All over the world, a community of amateur cyclists discovered a replacement for the group rides that had, for so long, shaped their weekends. Zwift Insider reported an all-time high of people using the indoor training platform in April 2020, with the number of users riding simultaneously tipping over 30k for the first time in Zwift’s history. As of late November, Zwift's subscriber base had grown by 270%. We witnessed a seismic shift in attitudes towards virtual riding, as people rediscovered a new social side of cycling that they thought had been snatched away. Zwift was no longer a platform for the most techy among us. Instead, it had become a crucial part of any cyclist’s armoury.

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One group who embraced this modern form of group riding was VC Londres, a club based in the heart of South East London. Born in the 1960s, the club has been running social group rides ever since its inception. Cave, a long term member of VC Londres, has been a stalwart of “Sunday club rides” for decades, showing riders young and old the joys of social cycling, with chats and cafe stops aplenty. Once the lockdown hit, for the first time, this Sunday routine was broken, and the 61-year-old, like many around him, was forced to innovate.

Photo: Sean Hardy

It was during a phone call to another clubmate that Steve had his bright idea. “I called Ed,” he explains. “He was the main man who already did a lot of Zwift. I spoke to him and he set it all up. We arranged virtual club rides on the Sunday and we’d normally have between around 10 to 15 riders, youths to oldens, it was such a variety.”

The banning of group rides, which once seemed like the end of all social interaction on two wheels, actually brought this small club closer together than ever before. “We all wore matching jerseys on Zwift, that everyone had,” explains Cave. A range of members came together for the VC Londres virtual rides, even those who wouldn’t usually venture on a club ride on the road. From young, up and coming riders, to those in their twilight years, and even current WorldTour professionals who grew up racing with VC Londres, it was a group ride that would likely never be seen on the roads of Kent.

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Unlike Cave, who has been riding bikes for as long as he can remember, Ed Block, the initiator of VC Londres’ Zwift meetups, was far newer to the sport. Despite not having been involved in cycling as long as his clubmate, Block's passion for Zwift comes from a more recent meaningful connection with the virtual training platform.

“I wasn't a cyclist at all until April of 2018. One of my best friends got diagnosed with cancer and we decided to do a Land's End to John O'Groats to raise money for the charity that he founded,” says Block. “I started training by literally going out and buying a bike which I struggled to ride home for about four miles. Training on Zwift though, I got to the point where Land's End to John O'Groats was fairly comfortable, actually. Discovering Zwift was a godsend really.”

Ethan Hayter cut his teeth at VC Londres. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/ 

Once lockdown hit, Block's extensive knowledge of Zwift helped him to create meetups for VCL which suited riders of varying ability, using the platform's ‘no-drop’ functionality.

“In Zwift, in the meetups, there's an option of keeping the group together,” he explains. “So what that does is, no matter what somebody's individual power output is, the group as a whole will move at the average of everybody. Say, you're off the back, it sort of feels like you've got an elastic band attached to the group. It will let you fall back a certain distance, but as long as you don't actually stop pedalling, after a while, you suddenly get a burst of speed, unrelated to what you're pedalling, and it will bring you back to the group.”

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“It doesn't matter what your power output is or your watts per kilo, the group will stay together. So that's what we used. And that was fantastic.” Zwift’s ability to keep rides together can make meetups of a range of abilities run more smoothly than they would on open roads, ensuring that no rider will be left behind, and further instilling a sense of community in the event. 

To take things further, many groups on social Zwift rides, VC Londres included, used a software called Discord to communicate via voice calls during the meetup. Though it's something most commonly used by gamers to coordinate targets or attacks in video games, Discord added to the interactive side of Zwift meetups that was so crucial during a lonely lockdown period. Cave cites one of the riders in VC Londres playing his ukulele down his microphone during meetups. “We’d all start to crack up, it was so funny.”

“It had benefits that we hadn't really thought about,” says Block. “One of our clubmates had moved to Australia. So suddenly, he was able to join the club rides again, him and his son. It's all brought everybody together again, those who wouldn't have been necessarily together easily outside.”

Photo: Sean Hardy

It was the lighthearted escapism that made Zwift so much more than a tool for fitness gains during lockdown — though, of course, that was a benefit that came with it. This virtual platform offered a community to so many who needed it in a time which brought unprecedented challenges to us all. VC Londres is just one example in thousands of clubs globally who found comfort in friendships forged all over the world, between riders young and old. Naysayers may turn their noses up at virtual riding, but Zwift became a saviour for many people who lost a crucial part of their social interaction when lockdown hit.

For Zwift itself, people using its platform for social purposes and club rides has not gone unnoticed, with big updates promised for this section of the Zwifting community. Last year, ride leaders creating meetups had to make sure that every individual who wanted to join the ride was following them on Zwift, the invite then had to be accepted by each rider so they could join the event. The process is a little clunky, and has led to Zwift confirming some big advancements in the coming year.

Related: Zwifting to parity, how e-racing is blazing a trail for gender equality in cycling

Anyone who is a level 20+ rider or level 10+ runner will soon have the opportunity to create their own club on Zwift and invite members via the Zwift Companion App. From there, it will be possible to create custom events suited to the needs of the club. Whereas meetups only let you invite people who follow you on Zwift, clubs will let you invite anyone to your event, using a simple sharing link just like any other Zwift event.

With this update, the community element to Zwift will be elevated even further, and the social events that helped clubs like VC Londres build friendships in a trying time will be more easily accessible to the masses.

The threat of new variants and further lockdowns is seemingly forever looming, but Zwift proves that even in the most unusual and restrictive of settings, the community that underpins the sport of cycling can make a real difference to the lives of cyclists.

Rouleur's content is supported by Zwift. Find out more about riding with Zwift this winter here

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