Zwift — and Why The Future of Cycling is Virtual

Cycling in 2020 and its new venture with the online world

The landscape of cycling is changing rapidly — probably for the first time in a long time. And although it’ll always be real world sport, there is now a new way in which cycling can be enjoyed by everyone. This has become a controversial topic among many cycling enthusiasts and professionals. But change is coming. And this might be what cycling needs.

Cycling is a sport very close to me. Ive been a competitive cyclist and enthusiast since my early teens. I’ve loved it ever since the 2012 Summer Olympics. But in early 2020 (before Covid happened), I helped on a small project in partnership with a company called Zwift. Zwift is a US based online platform that’s pretty much swept the landscape of cycling off its feet; it filled a massive gap in the market by allowing cyclists and runners to play games, train, race, and socialise with people around the world.

I was contracted by one company who worked with Zwift in London to promote their platform and the benefits of exercise to corporate employees — people infamous for being time-constrained.

And it sparked the need to discuss a new, exciting chapter in cycling.

Cycling brings a strange, yet magical benefit to our wellbeing. The benefits it has on both your physical and mental health is somewhat unparalleled. It does undoubtedly alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety. And it has a certain calming effect that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

The feeling you get when riding through rural landscapes, mountain passes and sharp descending valleys is quite surreal. It is what makes cycling unlike any other sport.

What makes cycling different?

Cycling’s history.

The history of it all takes you to through a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Scandels and International success. And many diverse perspectives.

What other sport is there which travels through and embraces the cultures of the world? Which brings such a refreshing atmosphere to an event where you can be so close to your biggest idols for weeks as they bolt past your eyes?

The stories of the legends who train and race for a thousand hours a year through inane conditions are a glimpse of what cycling represents. It is a testament to the beauty of cycling. And to win any race the professional sport had to offer is enough to prove you are a brute force in the race to peak human performance.

Cycling has a traditional, old school heritage. It is a curation of astounding history. Filled with stories which could never be replicated today, like Eddy Merckx, who achieved 525 wins — including 5 Tour de France victories.

Few sports can bring together a world of nations in such a manner. And bringing cycling online is one of the best changes in culture that could have happened to it.

Why is cycling heading online?

As time passes, and people are spending more time online, cycling must evolve to keep up. We’re in a new era of cycling culture, and sport as a collective cannot affort to stagnate.

If you thought about all the ways cycling has developed as a whole over the past decade, there is hardly anything to note. Cycling is cleaner, and young riders are more naturally dominating. But fans want to be connected to their favourite athletes. And as more athletes are growing personal brands, this connection is now vital.

Even from a leisure perspective — although initiatives have been taken to improve cycling infrastructure, varying from country to country, it takes a long time for some governments to create cycling-friendly cityscapes. That, paired with the stubbornness of bike racing culture and its unwillingness to change has made things difficult.

And this is why new technology matters.

It lowers the barrier for two things: innovation and inclusivity.

Technology pushes sport forward, when done right. Technology brings the sport to wider global audience. It helps allow those who may have struggled to make it in the sport to now do so. And it helps teams and organisations to see clear results and find better ways to improve the sport entirely.

More voices can now be heard — and embracing technology is the reason for it. Zwift has made it easier for people and communities to meet and join together. It has allowed aspiring athletes to realise their dream and turn pro.

Cycling has had a few pain points to consider:

  • It’s an expensive sport
  • Events struggle to be televised due to the costs
  • Mental health, weight loss, equality and inclusivity need awareness
  • Grassroots pathways are still almost nonexistent in some countries

But as it is now, with the help of social media, cycling can widen its scape and accept a new way of sustainabile growth in viewership and support. The more it can accept the adoption of new technologies and online platforms, the more it can reshape the framework it has had to create a better future for itself.

Virtual cyclists riding through a forest
Virtual cyclists riding through a forest
Source: Zwift

Welcome to Zwift

I had tried Zwift a few years before it gained popularity, and I had no idea how big this platform was going to become.

It began in 2015 when Eric Min and Jon Mayfield realised there was a significant gap to resolve in cycling. With Zwift, not only has it brought a brand new dimension to the sport, it has also redefined how indoor cycling, shows, stage events, and virtual competitions can work.

Eric Min had a strong relationship with cycling from his past achievements as an amateur athlete. It was his passion to figure out what problems he could solve with a specialisation in software engineering. Their consumer-centric ambitions has shone through over the past few years and now, also thanks to Covid, Zwift now enjoys over three million registered users.

Eric found two main problems with indoor cycling

  1. Indoor cycling mind-numbing, and frankly worse than chores.
  2. Millions of people struggle to set time aside to ride due to busy work lives and personal obligations.

While riding on his stationary bike, trying to think of solutions, Eric simply had to look at himself to realise that the problem is there’s nothing fun to do while you pedal away. And so, Eric and his co-founder got to work on building their new online platform.

More people than ever have turned turned to bikes this year. And Zwift now provides a digital avenue for most people to connect and ride together when they do not have the time to do so outside.

Zwift focuses on catering to the cyclist. They target both the competitive and the enthusiast. They have also paved the way for growing home gyms and it accomodates anyone with time constraints. It helps to give meaning to the short amount of time we can have for exercise.

The game puts you into a virtual world where you can ride solo or with friends through various maps such as London City or Surrey; also New York and several World Championship courses in Richmond (US), Yorkshire (UK) and Bergen (Norway).

You can complete challenges, unlock character items, compete in small races, connect with the worlds best cyclists through social group rides, or just enjoy a moment to switch off from a hard day at work.

To use Zwift, you need:

  • A turbo trainer
  • A speed sensor
  • A bike
  • A computer device eg. phone, tablet, laptop or computer with its subscription

And that’s it.

An orange road bike underneath a large wall-mounted TV in an office
An orange road bike underneath a large wall-mounted TV in an office
Photo I took of Zwift’s company bike

I mentioned at the start that I collaborated with Zwift to promote cycling to promote corporate well-being. The project began with heading to the Zwift head office in London, where I learnt how to navigate the entire software and to gain a better understanding of it all. I then travelled to different locations around the country showcase Zwift to corporate companies and discuss the benefits of dedicated more time for leisure — even if it feels like you don’t have time for it

At the events, I had the opportunity to get corporate employees to test Zwift and battle their friends, or simply learn about how they can improve their active lifestyles through indoor cycling.

I did have a competition for all participants with a prize for the fastest male and female; whoever posted the fastest time in a short sprint of 200 metres won.

Having the opportunity to learn about Zwifts’ journey, and going behind the scenes to their HQ allowed me to appreciate their journey so far. When you get to experience the human side of a brand, it definitely creates a better connection to their work, Their role in creating change, and their future going forward.

I feel like Zwift now plays a huge part in cycling’s future this way. And it’s exciting to see what is to come over the years.

It was amazing watching people look happier from cycling just for a few minutes — some employees kept coming back afterwards to try again or just to ride before heading back to work.

It went to show just how much of a positive effect Zwift has for people.

Source: Zwift

eSports

After the news came out that Zwift secured a massive $120 million in funding, it was not long until they had announced their first esports league. The KISS Super League was the first dedicated esports competition for cycling: a series of events over 10 weeks, comprising mens and womens’ professional teams. It marked the start of a new era in professional cycling.

Although Zwift is still young (beginning in 2014), it has established historical feats that provided momentum for cycling and technology to create an even better sporting experience.

Zwift has now partnered with professional cyclings’ governing body, known as the Union Cycliste International (UCI) to launch a cycling esports world championship event from 2020, and it has now begun to sponsor professional teams.

This is great news for the platform and those who use and enjoy it. However, it didn’t come without controversy.

In 2018, it was announced there would be national championships for different nations to participate in and collect coveted jerseys of their country. And in 2019, several nations had their respective male and female winners.

The question of whether esports should be considered a real sport or at least similar to cycling stirred a debate online, with many saying cycling and Zwift should not be compared the same as real cycling has many more factors to express how much harder it is. However, this didn’t manage to maintain traction for long as it was swamped with more positive support for the idea.

But overall, Zwift has given us greater meaning and pleasure for indoor cycling, and this is is only the beginning.

It can be easily forgotten that we are just experiencing the first iteration of virtual cycling; technological advancements like this are still within their early stages. So, 10 years from now, the integration of technology and platforms like Zwift are sure to grow to staggering heights.

Writer & Cyclist ✣ BSc Sports Science — Exploring the world of Health, Sports, Science & Core Training | Join Self-Mastery: https://joxen.substack.com/

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