by Mark Smeets
Zwift is a great way to share the love of cycling and promote a healthy lifestyle with your children.
When I stumbled on this article about Zwift for Children, I thought, “Wow, what a great resource for parents.” The more I read, the more it dawned on me that our children are the ones who benefit most.
Some of the information will be common knowledge for seasoned Zwift community members. For those who aren’t, or the potential to share our beautiful sport with our children never occurred to you, continue reading.
If you find it helpful and see the merit, you’ll enjoy upcoming articles by the author exploring ADHD and Autism and using cycling as a relationship bridge.
The author put it best when he said, “if we don’t promote the strengths of our children (in this case cycling), we’d have a dysregulated child, but my wife and I had to learn about this, recognize and change our mindset first, and we learned the hard way.”
My family has a unique situation. Our son, who is now 8, has ADHD. When he was first born, we were utterly ignorant as to what ADHD was and struggled to understand how we go about best supporting our son (He may also be on the autism spectrum, but that is another conversation for another article).
When our son was 5, I began my journey into triathlon and did what most triathletes do. I bought a bike trainer and signed up for Zwift. My son saw me biking on our TV with my moving Zwift Avatar and desperately wanted to join me.
To give you a sense of the amount of energy he had and what we had to contend with, he and I climbed 54 flights of stairs for a Lung Cancer fundraiser in Downtown Vancouver 2 weeks after turning 5 – we did it in about 12 minutes.
Owen also completed his first Triathlon in October 2022.
No Resources Available on Zwift For Children
I could not find a single resource dedicated to having younger kids ride on bike trainers unless they were teenagers. I did what most parents probably do, researching every possible solution, YouTube, and Google, calling bike shops, etc., and checking out the specs on every trainer I could find.
Fast forward to April of 2022, when I was diagnosed with ADHD (the age of 47), I realized that all my knowledge gained was because I hyper-focused on the research behind ADHD and trying to help my son. I also used the research as an opportunity to include and educate my son in the process of what each component of our journey did; this helped temper some of the impulses he had to do things immediately. It also helped me stress that this is his superpower.
We Are Not You
Your situation may not be our situation. Perhaps your child loves biking so much that they wonder what the “next level” of biking is, or you have your bike trainer or stationary bike set up, and you want some company. If biking isn’t your kid’s thing, I encourage you to discover your child’s strengths and embrace them with them.
I want to share the knowledge I’ve gained so that your child can bike even when it’s snowing or pouring rain outside or your bike lanes are sketchy, so you have a safe alternative.
I’ve split the article into categories; the goal is to have your child riding beside you the fastest way possible, and I will identify what is optional and what isn’t.
The Best Parts—Money does Matter
As most cyclists know, getting into Biking is expensive, and if you are a parent on a limited budget, you know that there are always ways to save. If you have not been searching Facebook Marketplace, you should start now. You will avoid unnecessary spending and you can pick up most of the critical components 2nd hand.
For this article, I will assume that you already have a bike.
One subgoal I had when I started this was to make sure that my kids were riding their bikes beside me, not a stationary bike or something that wasn’t comfortable for them. Also, you do not need much space, just the size of your bike, and a bit extra. Feel free to bring it into your living room (adults do, so why can’t kids?)
You do not need gears for your bike, either. Any bike will do.
Kurt by Kinetic is the only bike trainer company I’ve found that makes trainers that can fit wheel sizes starting at 16”. The great news is that the Kinetic trainers hold their value exceptionally well, are built to last, and are, in my opinion, one of the best fluid trainers on the market.
You do not need a brand new trainer, you don’t need a direct drive trainer. (I have no idea if a direct drive would work with a kid’s bike but even if it did, the price point of a device is unrealistic for kids and families).
You need to convert your adult-size bike trainer to a kid-sized trainer—that is what the small wheel adapter does.
You need a) the correct bike trainer style and b) a small wheel adapter.
1. Bike Trainer Styles: You’ll see two kinds of Kinetic bike trainers in the marketplace, the older V style, and the newer U style; you will need the U style one. I picked up the old and new-style bike trainers for $80 on Marketplace. Don’t worry if you pay more. They are incredibly sturdy and well-built. You need the basic trainer, don’t worry about all the other fancy models. You can also look for a wheel-on trainer with Bluetooth-controlled components or stick with the basics.
2. Small Wheel Adapter: Kinetic sells the small wheel adapter kit directly on their website. It’s best to purchase it directly from the vendor’s website to ensure you get the correct adapter kit. I’ve never seen them on Amazon. The price for the equipment runs $60 USD/$78 CAD.
At this point, if you purchase just the trainer and adapter kit, you can have your child riding beside you for less than $200.
Bike sensors (required): There are two sensors that you need to get that are critical to riding on Zwift, a speed and cadence sensor. These sensors allow your bike to communicate your wheel speed and pedal cadence to Zwift, so the game knows how fast and often you are cycling.
Two popular brands are Wahoo and Garmin. You can buy them individually or in a pack. They appear on the Facebook marketplace quite frequently as well.
To my understanding, it does not matter what side pedal you attach your cadence sensor to, but typically it goes opposite where your gears are, on the non-drive side.
I am in the Wahoo ecosystem and have had zero issues with them.
Heart Rate Monitor: This is one of those items that is neat to have but not needed. The heart rate monitor would allow you to observe your child’s heart rate in the game. It has zero effect on your in-game experience.
I have not found a chest strap monitor that fits around a child’s chest (I’ve asked Wahoo about this, and the TIKR and TIKRX are as small as they come for chest straps. I’ve found the same problem with the Garmin ones.
You do have the option of using Wahoo’s TIKR Fit, which is a monitor small enough to fit around a child’s arm. If you go this route, pair it with Zwift, and you have an in-game heart rate.
Trainer Tires: The trainer tire I use can be a single tire you swap on and off the bike or a rubber tread that goes on around the back tire. It protects your tire from the wear and tear of the roller as you pedal.
I have not found a trainer tire that fits small enough for a kid’s bike.
As lovely as it would be to prolong your child’s back tire, it isn’t critical. It’s easy to go to any bike shop and replace the tire. It also takes a while to wear down that tread (depending on how much you ride).
As our kids grow, the bike will get replaced with a bigger bike anyway, so it’s optional.
One word of caution (and experience). The rubber from the tire will wear off and fly behind the trainer. Find a way to protect your carpet or your area by placing something to catch that flying rubber.
Now that you have your bike, the trainer, and two sensors, it’s time to sign up for Zwift.
Zwift offers free accounts to children until they turn 16. You email them through the website requesting access, fill out a form, and once you send them back the parent-signed PDF, you’re given access for your child.
The link is here.
You can run Zwift via Apple TV, iPad, iPhone, or PC.
In-game Setup Suggestions: I’m not going to go through how to set up Zwift, but I want to offer some practical advice for in-game settings that I learned along the way.
Weight: For your child’s weight, I get as close as possible to the options offered in the game. It affects your child’s speed, so be as accurate as you can.
Tire size: The game’s smallest tire size is 20” wheels. That will do just fine.
Heart Rate: In the settings, you don’t need to set a max heart rate or FTP. It won’t affect your children’s game experience.
Chat: Here’s an important one. Turn online chatting off to provide your child with an extra security layer.
A final word of caution: There are a lot of route choices. Some of the courses have nice forests with dinosaurs and other cool things. There are some very challenging courses with giant volcanoes and an 18% grade that will take your child forever to climb. It could be very demotivating.
I’d love to see Zwift introduce a series of kid-focused courses that connect children and nature with cool elements, like dinosaurs, aliens, under the sea, etc.
Finally, A Bit of Practical Advice
If you want to make sure your child has a delightful riding experience, it helps to have the following:
A small table: You will want a place to put your iPad/Computer/iPhone, TV remotes, drinks, food, etc., safely and securely.
A fan: A fan is essential, and pretty much any fan will do.
A sweat mat or towel: This is always helpful to have. The salt from any sweat will stain the finish on the bike.
Hydration: Water, Kool-Aid, Nuun, root beer—ensure your child remains hydrated.
Zwift may not be for you, but if you enjoy the bonding time, try swapping Zwift out for playing Nintendo or Xbox or watching a TV show while you pedal.
If you are in the Wahoo or Garmin ecosystem for your attachments, you can record your child’s workout on the apps they provide. Your little one might think it’s cool to see their metrics.
If you don’t have a regular bike but you have a stationary one for your child, that’s fine. Attach the speed and cadence sensors to the stationary bike. You are good to go.
You are now set up with the ability for you and your child to cycle year-round from the safety and comfort of home on their own bike.