Any cyclist with a turbo trainer and a PC could soon be racing their friends around the world with a new videogame software called Zwift, which launched Tuesday at Rapha Cycle Clubs in San Francisco, New York and London. Created by veteran videogame and software developers, Zwift is now in beta with a full launch expected this winter.
Zwift will work with any trainer — although using a ‘smart’ trainer like Wahoo where resistance can be externally controlled will improve the experience. At minimum, an ANT+ speed/cadence sensor is required, as is an ANT+ dongle to plug into the PC.
While there are other options out there for virtual racing, the price for Zwift is attractive: US$10/mo. CompuTrainer, the original power-training hardware/software brand, offers training and racing on a variety of virtual courses, but requires multi-thousand-dollar hardware. There are other trainers-plus-virtual-software options, like Bkool, Tacx or Elite, but again, those require a particular trainer.
“It was important for us to have an open platform,” said Zwift co-founder Jon Mayfield in San Francisco. “We are hardware agnostic.”
Speed is controlled in the game by power (watts), with rider weight, course terrain and even drafting taken into account. There are three primary ways to get a power measurement into Zwift. The first is simply the ANT+ speed/cadence sensor, and the software then runs calculations based on the particular type of trainer you are using. The second, more accurate way is with a power meter. The third, best option is with a smart trainer, which can adjust resistance based on terrain and, in Zwift, whether you are sitting in the draft or out in the wind.
Mayfield took the virtual power and draft calculations seriously.
“I am all about watts per kilo over time,” Mayfield said. “We want this to be fun and entertaining, but with legit training technology. We have a different virtual power than anyone. We use speed and acceleration, not just speed, as sprinting is important.”
In terms of graphics, Zwift delivers a fairly entertaining mix of cyclist behaviors — avatars hunker down in the drops for sprints and downhills, for example — and eye-candy effects like fireflies drifting past at night, in and out of the detailed trees.
When riders first set up their profile, they can choose what the rider and bike look like, from gender and clothing to rim depth and helmet color.
For now, there is just one course, Zwift Island, as interaction is key to the game. Once a community is built up, more courses will be added. For now, you can ‘ride with’ anyone on the virtual course at the same time, and you can track your friends on screen with a variety of markers.
You can race and track your friends by color code and time. You can also see them pass you, and even draft
Eventually, Zwift founders envision riders being able to interact verbally over their smartphones. ” You’ll be able to ride up on a pack and say, ‘hey guys, can I ride with you’ just like you can in the real world,” Mayfield said.
But like in the videogame world, there are plenty of virtual rewards, whether it’s leaderboards for sprints and KOMs, or jerseys for taking the lead on a certain stretch.
“This is the fun part. We’ve a learnt a lot from Strava over the years and what motivates people,” Eric Min, co-founder and CEO said in London. “We thought it would be fun if we had a fictitious 5km loop, and we have a green jersey sprint, we have a king of the mountains sprint and a Zerf sprint, so every 5km three sprints. And every time you hit the leaderboard of that sprint, you get to wear that jersey until someone takes it away from you. And we’re talking real time.”