"I want to hate it, but I keep pedalling"

Chances are you already know what Zwift is. That’s why you’re reading this. But if you want to try it out Zwift mountain biking, read this guide.

>>>MBR Trail Bike of the Year 2020

Zwift is basically a video game. It involves riding a stationary bike in front of a screen that’s displaying a imaginary world.

zwift mountain biking

What you need to get Zwift mountain biking

The absolute very basic set-up…

  • Bike
  • Turbo trainer (that fits your mountain bike) – from £50
  • Speed/cadence sensor – from £20
  • Smartphone/tablet/laptop
  • Old towel (for catching all the sweat – yuck!)
  • Zwift account (7 day free trial, switches to approx £12 thereafter if you don’t cancel it)

Go smart?

If you’re certain you want the full Zwift experience then you’ll need a ‘smart’ turbo trainer (from £250). Smart trainers interact with the Zwift courses as you ride them and adjusts resistance to your rear wheel that mimics climbing/descending and off-road surfaces (mud, gravel etc).

What about steering?

This is the new thing with Zwift. The ability to control your onscreen avatar around corners and obstacles etc. Combined with Zwift’s new off-road tracks, makes the experience much more interesting and gamified for mountain bikers (see our review below).

There’ll be more Zwift-specific steering devices coming along in the near future but for now it’s a matter of mounting your smartphone to your handlebars and using its built-in accelerometer to detect your steering input.

You can get various things to stick under your front wheel to improve the experience but, to begin with, just bung something suitably slippy under there such as an old bit of linoleum or the shiniest bag-for-life you can find.

Courses and bike options

There are currently only two MTB courses on Zwift: Dirt Destroyer and Singletrack Slayer.

Dirt Destroyer is an intermediate training plan that lasts six weeks, with workouts ranging from 45 to 90 minutes, and three to five workouts per week. Singletrack Slayer is an advanced training plan that lasts ten weeks and implements specific high-intensity sessions targeting your cadence and power output.

As for bikes, initially you will not have much choice. You’ll be on the general Zwift MTB. You unlock other bikes as ride. Bikes currently available include Specialized Epic, Scott Spark and Canyon Lux.

Zwift mountain biking: first ‘ride’ review

To me, the concept of riding a mountain bike on an indoor trainer seems like the ultimate oxymoron, as well as going against the fundamental reasons I ride one. Namely to get outdoors, up close and personal with the natural world, enjoy the thrill, reward and mental health that comes from speed, exertion, social interaction and overcoming the challenges of the terrain. And yet here I am, going against all my instincts, and swinging a leg over a motionless hardtail attached to a stationary trainer at one end and a rotating wheel chock at the other. In front of me there’s a big screen showing a representation of a trail, winding through pristine meadows, passed alpine cabins and across perfect ladder bridges.

This is Zwift’s latest development – a singletrack ‘simulation’ to add to its ever-expanding virtual world, accessible via a monthly subscription payment and, of course, attractive finance packages to help with the hefty purchase of the smart trainer itself. If you hadn’t heard already, Zwift is huge in the world of road biking. So much so that many roadies seem more excited by pedalling around a virtual world than a real one. The mountain biking element is a new one for Zwift, and still in development, but obviously the company is keen to expand into areas previously untapped by the lucrative and extremely addictive combination of fitness and gaming.

Within the first few metres of the Repack Ridge course, the limitations of the system become obvious. You stay on the trail by steering – literally turning the handlebar – which is, of course, bears no relation to what you actually do off-road. Instead of leaning the bike, the front wheel turns left and right on a turntable, while a phone on the handlebars uses its built-in accelerometers to read the angle and send the information to the screen. The demo bike is set up quite sensitive, so it takes a few corners to tune my inputs and stay on the track. Get it wrong and you don’t crash, but the pedalling resistance increases. So to make good progress you must hold your line. As the gradient changes, so does the resistance at the cassette (there’s no back wheel, just the smart trainer), and so you can actually stop pedalling on the downhills. But the brakes aren’t hooked up to the system, so it’s easy to feel like a runaway train when descending.

I want to hate it, but I keep pedalling; keep steering; keep going to find out what’s around the next corner. I’ve spent many hateful hours on turbo trainers when I used to race XC, and no amount of video or music ever made them less than tortuous, but this is, dare I say it, quite addictive. The simple act of steering, changing gears and reading the terrain is taking my mind off the effort of pedalling.

No doubt it will get more realistic too. Inevitably, virtual reality headsets, braking sensors and more sophisticated trainers with tilt functions will dramatically improve the experience. And think about it: become a virtual mountain biker and you’ll never have to clean your bike again; you’ll never have to replace your bike, or upgrade its components; you’ll never have to drive, fly, take a train to the trail head – a whole world of trails would be right there inside your living room.

But, I am also equally convinced that it will never replace the experience of actually riding a bike off-road. Was I surprised by my quick spin? Absolutely. Do I see myself ever buying a smart trainer, paying a subscription to Zwift and pedalling off on a virtual ride on a Sunday morning with my online mates? Absolutely not.