"I want to hate it, but I keep pedalling" - indoor training gets interactive with Zwift's new mountain bike courses

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Keep the wheels turning and emerge fitter and faster from the lockdown. 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.

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)

Zwift. You’ve probably heard the name mentioned a 100 times over the last weeks and months. Popular before the current crisis, it’s now become something of a safe haven for cyclists who want or need to keep riding through this time of self-isolation and social distancing.

Zwift doesn’t give out its user data, but it does say that it has smashed its concurrent user figures — numbers riding at any one time — this spring, while the number of miles logged each day has risen from around a million last year to 3.4 million now.

So what’s the appeal? Why do roadies love it so, and should us mountain bikers bite the bullet and take part?

What is Zwift?

Think of it as link between a turbo trainer and an electronic device — your computer, iPad, iPhone or Apple TV. The idea is to turn training into a game, plonking a screen down in front of you and letting you ride with other cyclists in a virtual environment.

I need a turbo then?

Well yes, but the most basic, cheapest one will do for now. At the minimum you need a bike, a turbo trainer that’ll accommodate your bike, a speed/cadence sensor, a smartphone/tablet/laptop/Apple TV and a Zwift account. Also useful is a towel to catch your funky sweat, a fan to cool you down, and someone to carry you to the sofa 
when it’s all over.

What’s the appeal?

Aside from the whole riding-while-social-distancing thing?

Yes.

Well, turbo trainers get you fit. Any old trainer can do that, but Zwift says it’s the “gamification” (its term) that gets you hooked — you can unlock new places to ride, bikes and jerseys, and the more you ride the more you can “level up” or sprint up the pecking order. There’s also a cycling community aspect to it, knowing there are thousands of other riders there with you.

“Something we’ve noticed over the last few weeks is that Meetups have increased,” says Chris Snook of Zwift. “You arrange a time with friends to virtually meet and ride. Before the current situation Meetups accounted for 2% of rides, now it sits at around 7-8%.”

You can ride solo on Zwift but it also lets you ride alongside other riders, a bit like a spin class. There can be around 300 other riders with you on one of these Train Plan rides, and occasionally pros like Nino Schurter lead out these rides for charity.

Do I have to shave my legs?

Zwift is largely used by roadies, but what you shave or don’t shave in your own garage/shed/dungeon is up to you. Look, these are difficult times, we need to grab any riding we can, even if it’s just pretend — the very act of turning your legs over will help to relieve stress, and you might even get massively fit in the process.

Can I ride on singletrack?

Yes you can. Sort of. Zwift has added a single six-mile off-road section into the game, designed as a test-loop to see how its new steering function works. You mount your phone to your bars, and using its inbuilt accelerometers, Zwift gauges the degree and speed of your turns in an attempt to emulate the real-world experience.

Choose from two training plans to access the course: Dirt Destroyer or 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 10 weeks and implements specific high-intensity sessions targeting your cadence and power output.

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

Is it like riding a mountain bike then?

Not really. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t compelling and fun. And we wouldn’t ask you to do anything we hadn’t tried ourselves.

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).

If you’re planning to hook a smart trainer up to your mountain bike, you’ll need to consider hub width and axle type. Few smart trainers are designed to accommodate the 12x148mm boost rear axles, so finding one isn’t easy. According to our sister-publication, Cycling Weekly, the best relatively-affordable smart trainer that’s compatible with most modern MTBs is the:

Elite Qubo Power B Plus Smart Turbo Trainer £249.99

Elite Qubo Smart turbo trainerAccording to our colleagues at Cycling Weekly, it’s ‘a magnetic turbo trainer which comes with eight levels of adjustable resistance. It’s ANT+ and Bluetooth ready, and if the likes of Zwift, The Sufferfest and Trainer Road aren’t up your street you also get six months free subscription to Elite’s own My E-Training app.’ You’ll also need the Elite Thru Axle Adaptor kit.

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).

Kinetic Turnable Riser Ring T-750CS £39.99

kinetic riser ring for smart trainer steering

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

Zwift mountain biking: first ‘ride’ review

Just stay in and ride? Editor Danny hits Repack Ridge with Zwift.

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. 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.

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.

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. Well that was my view last September when I tried the system for the first time. Now, though, it sounds strangely appealing.