Virtual Cycling isn’t new, but it exploded in popularity and gained appreciation during the pandemic as cyclists searched for safe and engaging outlets for their riding passion. It’s similar to video games, except instead of playing with controllers, you play with pedals!
The largest virtual cycling platform Zwift reported over 2.5 million users in 2020. Several major cycling events now have online versions, like the Tour de France, the Olympics, and the World Championships. The popularity of virtual cycling is growing, and for good reason.
If you love to ride your bike but don’t particularly appreciate that you cannot ride outside year round, there is an appealing option. Now with virtual cycling, you can enjoy everything you love about cycling from the comfort of your home, even during the winter!
You don’t have to take it from me. When asked what virtual cycling means to him, Australia’s Tim Searle, the holder of the most kilometers rode on the virtual cycling platform Zwift and the first to log 200,000km, had this to say.
“Virtual cycling allows me to train when it would previously not always be possible. To me, the biggest attraction is the convenience of just being able to jump on and ride.
My wife would also say that she likes the safety aspect of not worrying about me. Not having to worry about poor weather is also something I do not have to think about when riding indoors.
One of the other major things I like about virtual cycling is that there is always someone to ride with and chat with, no matter what time of the day. It has become more important to me more recently with lockdowns.”
Virtual Cycling is Simple!?!
Virtual cycling is a simple concept. All you do is log onto your computer and pedal away while watching videos of cyclists worldwide or moving your avatar with other cyclists in a virtual world. Well, it isn’t that simple. There’s a lot to it, and it’s great.
As technology advances, we will see cycling esports emerge to take their place. In fact, I predict that we will see virtual cycling become as popular as traditional cycling within a few years. But before that happens, I will explain how virtual cycling works, why it’s unique, and why it’s here to stay.
I’ll also share my top tips for beginners who want to get started with virtual cycling.
Let's get started!
Outdoor riding is fantastic, but sometimes it’s just too cold or wet for us to ride outside. Indoor training lets us enjoy the benefits of outdoor riding without having to brave the elements.
Indoor bikes offer several benefits, including convenience, efficiency, and no weather dependence, and they don’t leave you with a dirty bike. They’re also good for targeting specific goals such as increasing cardio fitness, strength, power, etc, and fun!
The gamification will motivate you and the realism will satisfy the most ardent of avid traditional cyclists.
Which is the Best Virtual Cycling App for you?
In the past, riding and training indoors were considered cycling reserved for the hardiest and most dedicated cyclists. It consisted of a simple training program, a stationary bike, and a stopwatch for interval workouts. Music was the only thing keeping you going, and resistance was provided by a handlebar-mounting lever combined with the bike’s gear system. Cycling was often compared to riding a bike through thick muddy terrain, and there were no indoor cycling apps.
Over recent decades, technology has advanced at an incredible rate. Today’s best indoor cycle trainers are “smart,” which means they can connect to smartphones, tablets, Apple TV and computers via Bluetooth or Ant+. So instead of a lever controlling the intensity of the workout, this can now be achieved by software commands from whatever indoor bike training application your device is running. As a consequence, nowadays, there is a huge range of indoor bike training applications available that provide an immersive experience that is both fun, motivating, and challenging.
There are many different apps available for indoor cycling, but choosing one that works well for you will greatly impact your experience, enjoyment of the sport, and commitment to it. So take a look at the list below to see which one fits your needs the best.
It’s arguably one of the most popular virtual cycling applications available today for several reasons. Envision yourself playing a video game where your legs control the action. Or you are interacting with other cyclists worldwide in the metaverse. That’s Zwift.
With Zwift, you can ride with friends, join groups, compete against them, or just go out for a spin alone. You can also do structured workouts.
It features many gamified elements that encourage you to ride longer and harder, increasing your fitness and enjoyment. Zwift’s catchphrase is “Fun is fast,” and with constantly evolving challenges, badges to earn, and theme-based events with in-game kit and equipment unlocks, the motivation factor is high.
Wahoo - RGT
Wahoo RGT is an indoor cycling app that simulates riding real road courses on a turbo trainer. You’re not just going through a virtual world; instead, you’re actually climbing some of the most famous mountains in the world.
You can also use a variety of coach-created structured workouts and create your own courses based on an upload of a route map. With Wahoo SYSTM, cyclists can add another dimension to their training using the brand’s own Four-Dimensional Power profile and sophisticated algorithms.
The Top Five Differences Between Wahoo-RGT and Zwift
Wahoo-RGT has 12 different routes and offers flexibility when choosing, including the ability to select where on the route you begin your ride. You can also upload your GPS route data to create a custom “Magic Road,” making training for a real-life event easier.
Zwift offers over 100 routes throughout ten different worlds, from their fictional Watopia to simulations of France, Richmond, Paris, and Tokyo. Three worlds are always available with multiple route configurations, and you will always find other virtual cyclists to ride with you, including numerous Pace Partners of varied ability levels.
Physics and Riding Dynamics
Wahoo-RGT boasts the most realistic physics and dynamics of any virtual cycling platform. Their creators used real-life data to incorporate lifelike drafting, leaning in, and braking for corners to give their riders a natural experience.
Zwift emphasized in-game equipment realism over physics, creating countless available bike frame and wheel options with a wide range of performance in aerodynamics and speed. Riding dynamics are not as realistic without slowing and braking, and the draft algorithms are not as sophisticated.
Structured Workouts and Erg Mode
Wahoo-RGT has many structured workouts and allows riders to import training programs from the third-party coaching site Training Peaks. Erg mode control is available in workout mode and intuitive using their controller.
Zwift has an extensive library of workouts and plans, including a workout builder for custom training plan creation and third-party integration. The user interface gives the rider the option to pick a plan or individual workout that best suits their needs based on time, intensity, and preference. Erg mode is easy to control using the Zwift Companion App.
Community and Social Engagement
Group rides and events are available to Wahoo-RGT subscribers and are easily accessed and shared with others. Unfortunately, riding on RGT is sometimes solitary, with few other riders joining you other than bots.
The everyday rider will find Zwift because of the features offered but will often remain a subscriber because of the sense of community. Group rides and events are well-attended and prolific, and it isn’t uncommon to find several hundred to thousands of fellow cyclists together. In fact, during the height of the pandemic, there were over 40,000 riders on the platform at one time. Riders also have the option to create a group ride meet-up and invite others.
Racing and Competition
The racing on Wahoo-RGT is popular with competitive cyclists of all levels because of the realistic physics and courses simulating real-life events. Several high-profile real-life Pro race promoters use the platform to host virtual events to accompany their race calendar, like the Tour of the Gila. Handcycle events for adaptive athletes utilizing lifelike handbikes and avatars are a unique feature of Wahoo-RGT.
Zwift racing is highly competitive, and riders attend numerous daily races in large numbers, but the race dynamics are inferior. Zwift racing has a stigma of a cheating culture, but the organizers are addressing the issues with auto- and results-based categorization innovations. Zwift hosts the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, the virtual Tour de France and sponsors Le Tour Femmes. Zwift also has a website dedicated to Cycling Esport racing.
Wahoo-RGT is limited to cycling. Zwift includes running options with run-specific routes, workouts, and events. There’s a track for runners only, group events, and races. Duathletes and triathletes find this difference in the platforms appealing.
Zwift and Wahoo-RGT cost $14.99 per month. Wahoo-RGT offers a discount to subscribers in their Wahoo X program that includes access to the SYSTM platform featuring video-based cycling training, multi-sport options, yoga, strength, and mental training options.
Fulgaz is an excellent indoor cycling app option offering over 400 real-world routes. With actual live videos, it could be the closest you get to the real thing as you travel around the world from the comforts of your own home. If you’re an avid cyclist, you’ll be able to spot some famous cycling routes as you cycle your bike through 5,000 miles of options.
Unlike other applications such as Zwift or RGT Cycling, which use simulated environments or provide simulations of real roads, Rouvy uses videos of real roads and blends them with elevation data.
Some of the course apps can also create animated 3D riders. There are more than one hundred of these augmented-realty courses available, as well as avatars of yourself, the animated riders can either be virtual partners for your previous records, ghost racers for you to compete against, or other real-life users.
There are thousands of different route films available that cover over 3,000,000km worth of roads, so it’s safe to say there’s something for every rider.
MyWhoosh is similar to Zwift and RGT but is new to the virtual cycling scene, free, and is continually evolving. The platform’s creators pride themselves on having the most robust performance verification in the industry, making competitive racing appealing to riders of all levels. Especially elite and professional competitors lured in by the lucrative prize purses.
There are a few other virtual cycling platforms out there, like Kinomap and Virtupro, that offer many of the features of the ones listed above, and there will be more as virtual cycling gains in popularity. Watch this space.
Choosing the Right Trainer
There are numerous options for turning your regular bicycle into an indoor cycling setup, and they fall into two main groups.
Dumb trainers are simple and basic, like a magnetic or air-resistance trainer, and most models are called wheel-on trainers because the rear wheel rotates on a roller that creates resistance.
To transmit information to apps like Zwift, you must use a PowerMeter because this type of trainer does not transmit data. Hence the term “dumb.”
A dumb trainer lacks resistance variation producing a less realistic riding experience making it a poor choice for the “smart” cyclist who wishes to save money on an upgrade.
Smart trainers are more complex electronic devices capable of broadcasting power and cadence via ANT+ and Bluetooth. Most trainers in this category are direct drive, meaning that you remove the rear wheel from your bike and place the chain directly on a cassette mounted to the unit.
The app you choose controls the smart trainer’s resistance. When the course incline or road surface varies, the resistance will change, and hills will feel like hills.
There are many models to choose from with a wide range of features in several different price ranges. A description of each is beyond the scope of this introduction, but I have tried many, and a smart trainer is the way to go.
There are several smart bikes on the market, giving the dedicated indoor cyclist a more advanced option that doesn’t include strapping their expensive carbon road bike to a trainer. The Stages SB20, Wattbike Atom, Tacx Neo Smart, and Wahoo Kickr bikes have many features to facilitate and enhance the virtual cycling experience. A smart bike is basically a bike and trainer all in one, and the performance is superior in many aspects, but it comes with a price.
Setting Up Your Indoor Cycling Rig
Once you have chosen a trainer, the next step is to install your bike if you don’t splurge for a smart bike. Be sure to find a stable surface with enough space to allow unhindered use. Place your trainer and bike on a mat to dampen vibration and decrease noise and get a towel to catch your sweat. There will be a lot of it.
Support the front wheel with a block or other device to ensure that it doesn’t move. Several on the market have different heights to vary your position during climbing workouts.
The bike you decide to mount to your trainer is essential. Make sure your saddle is comfortable if you plan to use the same bike indoors and out. You move less frequently when riding inside, and there are often fewer reasons to come up from the saddle.
It must fit appropriately if you’re fortunate enough to have a second bike for indoor riding. There should be little variation between your indoor and outdoor bike setups. Eliminate as many variables as possible by using similar components and a bike of comparable geometry.
A professional bike fit is always a good idea, and your fitter will be able to provide the expert guidance you need. It is more convenient to have a bike that you leave on the trainer, but if it isn’t fit effectively, you will be prone to repetitive overuse injury.
How to Set Up Your Indoor Cycling Space
The final piece of the puzzle. If you’ve gotten this far, then you may be the type to go all-out, transforming the basement into a “Pain Cave,” but you don’t need to go quite that far. Find a safe, comfortable area that’s well-ventilated and won’t disturb your family or neighbors with enough room to do your thing. Here are a few essentials.
Portable desk – Any portable desk that is stable and large enough to hold your device, water bottle, snacks, a towel, and anything else you will need in arm’s reach will do.
Fans– Without a fan or two to circulate the air overheating is an issue that can sap your performance and cause a potential health hazard.
Sweat Cover – Protect your bike from the corrosive consequences that sneak up on you with indoor riding.
Air Cleaner – Poor indoor air quality is a significant health hazard when cycling indoors. After riding for only a short time in a poorly ventilated area, CO2, particulate matter, relative humidity, and temperature rise to unsafe levels. Be careful to take the necessary precautions.
Nothing will stop you now from riding into the metaverse to get a good workout and have fun doing it! Virtual cycling is the future of fitness for cyclists and, in time, will be considered a unique discipline. You don’t need to feel guilty about riding indoors with your virtual friends while the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. Virtual cycling isn’t a thing you have to hide in your basement.
Sharron Yaxley, the first female rider to log over 200,000 Kms on Zwift, had this to say when asked what virtual cycling means to her.
“Zwift has provided me with a brilliant, safe, and convenient platform to train, have fun, stay socially connected while simultaneously achieving my fitness goals.”
Be proud virtual cyclists, and Ride On!
What does virtual cycling mean to you?
Before you answer that question, do me a favor. Give it a try. An honest one, and then let us know your thoughts. Comment below! I can’t wait to hear.
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Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!