Friday, December 11, 2015

Zwift and How I Spent My November Mornings On An Island in the Pacific

Right in the middle of the lane.  What a dick.
Sweat was pouring down off of me onto the bike as I closed my eyes, got out of my seat and hammered the pedals.  The gate was in sight just a few hundred yards ahead and I was in a dead sprint trying to outrun a shifty Canadian who had slid in behind me mid way through the climb.  I was pedaling as hard as I could in the highest gear for what felt like an eternity.  I looked up in time to see the other rider edge over the line just ahead of me.  But my disappointment was short lived as I realized I had set a personal best on the climbing segment.  So much for my planned "recovery ride".  Just another morning on Zwift.

Novembers can really suck. The best of Fall riding is behind us, and stick season descends like a gray blanket on the landscape.  It doesn't help that the sun starts setting about the time you're finishing lunch and every day you leave your cubicle in complete and total darkness.

Albeit, this November was as good as they come- warmer and drier than usual- but that isn't saying much.  Usually around the time Thanksgiving dinner is served my desire to live a healthy lifestyle is crushed and I go into full "off-the-wagon" mode with my eating and exercise habits.  

Last year I heard about the Beta testing of a new game called Zwift that works with cycle trainers to create a virtual reality cycling experience.  Even "dumb" trainers like mine will work when paired with cadence and speed sensors.  With the ample snow last winter, I was never desperate enough to order the gizmos or climb on my bike trainer.  But this year was a different story.
No, not that kind of virtual cycling.... yet.

The first week of November I made the plunge into the world of virtual cycling.

I dug out my old Kinetic Road Machine trainer that had been collecting dust in my basement, and went online and bought a Garmin Ant+ receiver for my laptop, as well as a Garmin cadence and speed sensor set.  As soon as they arrived, I downloaded the program for my laptop (Mac Air) and the app for my iPhone.  

The setup was easy and self-explanatory.  Zwift lets you know if your trainer is compatible and gives instructions on what gear you need to get setup and get moving.

In no time I was riding along a two lane road on a virtual island out in the Pacific, known as Watopia, with a few dozen other Zwifters.  Using my speed and cadence, Zwift computes your estimated power and in turn translates that into your avatar's speed on the virtual course.  Your virtual rider also reacts to the amount of effort you put in by climbing out of the saddle when  you hammer and grabbing the water bottle when you're taking it easy for a bit.

While Watopia is my favorite training ground, there is another course set on the streets of Richmond Virginia.  Currently you have to ride the course that Zwift has chosen for that day.  There are rumors that more courses are on the way soon.

Each course has a number of timed segments, including a sprint segment, a mountain climb, and a full lap around the island/city. Posting the best time on the constantly updated leader board earns you a special jersey and some bragging rights.  As you approach these segments Zwift tells you your best finishing times, and motivates you by showing your estimated finishing time based on your current effort.

Drafting.  Sharing is caring.
Like regular road cycling you get an added power bonus by slotting in behind other riders and drafting.  I can attest from experience that losing touch with the peloton is just as demoralizing and painful in virtual reality as it is in real life.  In addition to drafting other riders, you earn easter eggs the more miles that you bike.  These can be used to customize your bike and appearance in the game.  At the end of most segments you also earn "bonuses", which can range from points toward earning the easter eggs, to extra speed on the climbs or descents,  and even a drafting bonus.

The game also allows you to flick an elbow, ring a bell, yell out "hammer time", "I'm cooked", or give "ride on" encouragements to other riders, among other actions.  It does not, however, allow you to spray them with a water bottle or slap them on the ass.  It is possible to text other riders during the game, but so far I've found myself too busy trying to keep up to be social during rides.

Zwift can be as solitary or as social as you like.  Although I haven't yet taken part, there are organized rides and their Facebook page keeps you updated on upcoming events.  These events include rides with celebrities, charity fundraising rides, and regular group rides of all different abilities.

Your smartphone can act as a sort of "remote control", but isn't required for running the program. It is useful to have the commands right there on your handlebar, but be sure to mount it someplace you won't sweat all over it.

One of my favorite features about Zwift is that it seamlessly integrates with Strava.  The metrics that Strava provides are extremely useful for training and motivation.  Given that alot of the other riders Strava you can also see who you were riding with after you're done. (Okay that sounds much creepier now that I wrote it.)

One feature I have yet to take advantage of is the "Training" mode that provides structured rides based on the amount of time that you have or to help you reach a particular performance goal.  I've still been very entertained by the "free-form"  rides around Watopia and Richmond, but I'm sure there are some people who will prefer the structured settings.

Now that I've used my trainer more in one month than I have in the last five years, I'd say Zwift is working at keeping me motivated.  Here are some things that I've learned:

- Bring a towel.  You'll need it.
- Use a fan. You'll need that too.
- Get some extra rear tires if you have a trainer that makes contact with the wheel (they wear quickly)
- Never try to outsprint a Slovak
- Bring a water bottle-- or two.
- Take it Easy.   This is harder than it sounds.  My rides usually go a little something like this:

Minute :00  Hop on the bike and put along nice and easy just planning on stretching the legs a little because I've decided to take it easy today.

Minute :02 Get passed by a group going just a little faster than me.  Decide to push a little bit harder to join the peloton.

Minute :10 Jump into a breakaway group pushing about 50 watts more than the group I jumped into.

Minute :15  Move to the front of the breakaway to pull the group for a while.

Minute :20 Hit the sprint segment at full speed.  Start hammering, because GREEN JERSEY!!!

Minute :35 Realize I'm close to besting my time on the next segment so decide to pick up the pace some more.

Minute :40 Finish the segment but decide to ride a little further to cool down.

Minute :45 Realize I'm only a couple miles from the next easter egg so push on.

Minute :60 Another sprint segment! HAMMER!!! HAMMER!!!

Minute :65 Collapse on the floor quivering in a puddle of my own sweat and vomit with a smile on my face.

If this sounds like a decent way to spend your mornings then here's a list of the gear that you'll need to get started:

Kinetic Road Machine Trainer
Ant+ Sensor
Speed and Cadence Sensors
Heart Rate Monitor (Optional)
Spare Tire
Phone Holder (Optional)

And if you're looking for some direction on a smart trainer to buy, I found this site pretty useful.

If you're interested in learning more details here's the unofficial "manual" for Zwift.  Or just jump in.  Your first 50 kilometers are free, and signup doesn't require a credit card.  Just remember to take it easy.  (Yeah, right)

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