Going virtual: An 'outdoor' cyclist tries Zwift and indoor riding for the first time

After holding out against it for years, one Cycling Weekly writer finally braves the world of online cycling, with mixed results

Adam Becket
(Image credit: Future/Andrew Sydenham)

Reader, I love cycling outdoors. I will bend anyone’s ear for hours about the benefits of being in the middle of nowhere on two wheels, and I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that riding my bike has helped me continue to stay on the straight and narrow, to keep me away from the mental health shaped wolf at the door. Throughout the pandemic I kept riding, through the heat and the cold of lockdown, even in the rain, because I simply had to keep going. 

Throughout this, I never once considered cycling indoors. Mainly through stubbornness, because I felt superior thanks to my exploits in the great outdoors, but also because of the merits I see “traditional” riding having.

Also, it must be said, I am a 27-year-old without the resources to buy or the space, generally, to host a turbo trainer or subscribe to Zwift. It’s expensive! Essentially, I missed the boat on this one. The covid-induced boom, when it was harder to buy a turbo trainer than find the ark of the covenant, passed me by.

However, I have always been intrigued. There are people who bang on about how great Zwifting is and given this in the indoor cycling special edition of Cycling Weekly, I volunteered to give it a whirl. What could go wrong? 

Day one

Thankfully, I borrowed a Wahoo Kickr that was hanging around in the CW offices, so no stress there. It should be noted that these things cost at least £500, so are out of reach for a lot of people, even if they are hooked on the idea of cycling indoors. I am not. 

Anyway, the big box is here. It is very heavy, so try to get someone else to help you set it up, that’s my advice.

With the blessing of my housemates, I have set it up in the corner of our living room-cum-dining room, where I normally stash my bike. Hopefully it’s not too noisy. Setting it up, once I have gotten over the weight, seems pretty straightforward, and when I had worked out that I needed to put adaptors on it in order to make my thru-axle fit, I was away. 

Onto Zwift, the important bit to make indoor riding fun - where fun is fast? Is that the tagline? The seven day free trial means I am able to complete this test of the whole thing without having to splash out too much.

It’s pretty intuitive, and once I’ve set up my profile and made an avatar that vaguely looks half-way like me, I’m straight onto riding in Watopia. It’s a fundamentally silly place, with no real vernacular to speak of, there are other people on here, but I don’t really get the social element of it - I’m unsure whether I should be chatting to strangers on here or just doing my own thing.

Adam Becket

(Image credit: Future/Andrew Sydenham)

Day two

It’s very sweaty. I don’t have a fan, and just a few open windows that don’t really cut the mustard. The general heat makes it difficult to go really hard, as you feel like you’re at your limit even when you are actually far from it. Pacing is difficult too; I’ve never had a power metre before, so I don’t really know what a watt is really.

This might be the perfect thing to do during the winter fuel crisis, energy permitting - no need for heating when you’re this hot.

I decide to do an FTP test just because it seems like the kind of thing you should be doing. Again, this is my first time doing anything like this, and it all seems pretty horrible. Sweat is dripping off every part of me, and the thought that I could just be having a nice refreshing spin in the outdoors is at the forefront of my mind. Because I’m an idiot, I suspect that I didn’t set the adaptors for the thru-axle properly, and so the gears keep slipping. A problem for tomorrow’s Adam.

Still, I now know my first FTP - 192 apparently - and this can be used as a benchmark by Zwift for my training and stuff. That’s clever.

Day three

Against my better judgement, I enter a race on Zwift, a Cycling Weekly ten km time trial, and it goes about as well as expected.

I’ve never done a time trial on the open road - there are many things I haven’t done, it turns out - so I have absolutely no idea how to pace myself. I go as hard as I can, lots of people disappear up the road on the screen, and I settle myself in for a long old drag. I finish in 27:43:21, a solid seven minutes behind Dr Hutch, but I feel like I’ve done OK, coming 55th out of 106. It could be so much worse.

Adam Becket

(Image credit: Future/Andrew Sydenham)

Day four

I think I’m starting to actually see the benefits of Zwift. I do a couple of the Zwift Academy training sessions, which are all built around making your aerobic and anaerobic fitness better.

These are the kind of things that I would never get round to riding my bike in the open world, because I prefer just exploring to doing interval sessions. But inside, with the ability to get straight into a workout, I get it.

It is pushing me more than just pootling around the virtual worlds, and I think this is what it is for. Forget just cruising around, because that is always going to be better outside, but for building fitness, strength and capacity, it makes sense.

On the virtual worlds, they annoy me a bit. If you’re going to make a pretend London, either make it completely made up or completely accurate, not this weird in between. Cycling along the Embankment, you swing through Trafalgar Square, past Westminster, across Lambeth Bridge, and all of a sudden you’re in the Surrey Hills. I prefer the nonsensical world of Watopia or New York, where at least the designers have gone completely insane with the course suspended in thin air above Central Park. This might just be my brain, but the non-spaces of Zwift are fascinating.

Day five

I’ve finally fixed the adaptor so my rear mech actually sits on the cassette properly, and turbo training is infinitely more fun when you are able to stay in one gear for a few minutes, just like ordinary riding I suppose. The training sessions are great, and actually mean that I’m able to fit more cycling into my week than I usually would - an hour on the trainer is just as productive, if not more so, than an hour outside and it’s a lot simpler to set up too.

I’m not going to call myself a convert, as I enjoy cycling outside too much, and I feel the mental benefits from being in the countryside far outweigh negatives like bad weather or the effort of getting there. However, I now understand why people go for it; it’s easier to train, you can really improve yourself on it, and it sets up training for you. I still don’t understand the social side of it, and it is undeniably expensive, but I am no longer a snob about it. Let’s see if I keep going now.

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Adam Becket
Senior news and features writer

Adam is Cycling Weekly’s senior news and feature writer – his greatest love is road racing but as long as he is cycling on tarmac, he's happy. Before joining Cycling Weekly he spent two years writing for Procycling, where he interviewed riders and wrote about racing, speaking to people as varied as Demi Vollering to Philippe Gilbert. Before cycling took over his professional life, he covered ecclesiastical matters at the world’s largest Anglican newspaper and politics at Business Insider. Don't ask how that is related to cycling.