Tuesday 16 January 2024

Freewheeling: Why I'd rather ride outdoors than use Zwift - even in mid-winter

It's that time of year when the all we want to do is curl up in a ball and hibernate until March.

The Christmas holidays are a distant memory, and we are too far away from Spring to have things to look forward to.

Things aren't helped by this freezing weather. We've been shrouded in this cold blast from the north, as the mercury barely rose above zero. 

So, for many folks based in the Northern hemisphere that would only mean one thing - Zwift. That form of e-sport cycling in which folks ride their bikes while hooked onto a turbo trainer and smart app simulating an outdoor ride has been a mainstay for millions of riders.

Initially folks could follow training intervals and do cadence/power reps. This gave rise to Zwift Academy in which folks could do a series of rounds of speed and power tests with the ultimate winner getting a professional racing contract with Canyon-SRAM (for women) or Alpecin Fenix (for men).

The app also simulates various well-known cycle routes and climbs so you can get to ride routes like Alpe d'Huez or the World Championships course without ever going there.

Zwift came into its own during the Covid lockdown when riders could do the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia virtually. Then local races were set up between more average riders. To add even more authenticity, folks have avatars of themselves racing on their computer generated bikes. If you don't ride or race along a known course you can go for a ride in fictional places like Watopia and the Makuri Islands.

And for a star-studded experience you can attend one of the many social bike rides with famous pro cyclists like Geraint Thomas, or even with the whole of the SD Worx women's team.

This e-sport cycling has become so commonplace that the Union Cycliste Internationale, has established the World E-Sport Cycling Championships, and have introduced regulations to prevent against cheating.

The whole set-up sounds great. Why worry your head about getting your gear on, braving the elements, maybe having to repair a puncture or even get into a "discussion" with an irate motorist when you can stay in the comfort of your own home, watching these avatar racers and listening to your favourite music? You can have that for the price of your favourite designer winter cycling kit - Le Col, Rapha, Pas Normal Studios etc.

It's really handy isn't it? Well, I must say all this indoor cycling isn't for me really. 

I am very much a firm believer in riding outdoors. True it can be challenging trying to find a decent day to ride when your fingers and toes don't go numb. Furthermore, the chance of punctures shoots up when riding on damp debris-covered roads you get a lot in winter - and frustratingly I have had a few. 

But despite all that, I must say I like the feel of the road under my wheels. Even if Zwift can replicate routes and gradients, it can't quite simulate the feel of a rough road, a head wind or street furniture, and of course other road users. I feel if I spent time on Zwift I would lose the ability to deal with that.

For me, all those rough and ready elements are part of the fun and adventure of cycling. It also improves my road craft when riding - be it when commuting or racing.

A couple of people I follow on Strava ride exclusively on Zwift. Then there is the odd day when they attempt to cycle outdoors, only to abandon their ride because they were terrified of the traffic. That's clearly the downside to riding in a virtual world. So for me, that can't be a great advert for Zwift. I would definitely avoiding that rider if they turned up at a road race or group ride I am doing as well. They'd be too much of a liability.

So, as much as Zwift provides the benefits and fun moments I mentioned above, I will always opt to keep my cycling firmly in the real world!

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