Online cycling system Zwift has millions of worldwide users, and now it’s scored a sports-tech coup, becoming the ‘software environment’ for a virtual Tour de France next month. Zwift enthusiast Hal Crawford talks to the company’s co-founder about the growth of indoor cycling – and why he believes its popularity will outlast the pandemic.
Like almost everything, the most famous bicycle race in the world has gone online in response to Covid-19: the Tour de France Virtual will be held over three weekends in July with the software environment being supplied by a company named Zwift.
This extraordinary sign of the times is possible because bikes lend themselves to virtual worlds – they only move forward and wheels set on other wheels go nowhere – and because for the past six years Zwift has been creating a world that is the next best thing to real for road cyclists.
The product is an indication of the future of exercise and its widespread adoption through the ranks of professional and weekend cyclists may well be the first of many “device environments” that have you sweating in the same spot.
The idea of a software/hardware combination making exercise at home more fun isn’t new – think Wii Fit – but the path to adoption taken by Zwift is. It started with hardcore bicyclists and was fit for actual races before beginning its conquest of the mainstream. Whether that will come to fruition, or whether the somewhat exclusive nature of bicycling culture will give mainstream victory to some other company remains to be seen.
I wanted to talk to Zwift’s London-based co-founder and CEO Eric Min because having used Zwift myself, I was interested in the future of the company. And in case you are thinking this all sounds a bit advertorial, rest assured I’m receiving nothing from the company for this article. The platform is not perfect, but it’s bloody interesting.
How it works
At the moment, Zwift only makes software. To get the system working you need a bike and a “smart trainer”: basically a roller, a brace to hold your bike steady on the roller, and sensors to send your laptop, tablet or phone information about the speed of your back wheel.
The smart thing about smart trainers is that they also receive information from the software, and can change the resistance in the roller. Combine this with a virtual world with hills, and the software makes the roller harder to turn going uphill, and easier downhill. This simple mechanism is surprisingly convincing, and can make scaling a mountain in Zwift horribly realistic. Add a large computer or TV screen in front of your bike and thousands of other real people cycling with you at the same time, and you’re there: in a world of pain, just where cyclists want to be.
The boss’s plan
When I speak to Eric Min over Zoom, he’s quieter and less Silicon Valley than I expected. He’s obviously happy about the Tour de France deal, which is the biggest marketing boost the company has received, but he begins by talking about the move the company is going to make hardware in order to target a “softer” audience. Zwift has realised that it has to make things simpler.
“Our strategy is to develop a sport that can speak to the softest consumer,” he says. “We want people to watch Zwift and play Zwift … (but) there are some barriers that we’re working on. For example, we need to make it very easy for a non-cyclist to come to Zwift and just buy Zwift. And it’s a little bit clumsy at the moment because they are almost too many choices.”
The move into making hardware trainers will invite comparisons to a bigger player in the home exercise market, Peloton. Peloton, which went public in 2019 and now has a market cap over US$16 billion, makes expensive home exercise bikes connected to its proprietary exercise network. Rather than races, Peloton’s real-world equivalent is the gym spin class.
Min dismisses the Peloton comparison, saying they are not a competitor. I believe him because of the price point – the Peloton costs $3500 NZD, on top of which you need to pay a subscription – and because Peloton does not aim to be a sport. You can buy a decent smart trainer that works with Zwift for around $900, although you’ll need an old bike as well. Zwift and Peloton memberships cost US$15 and US$13 per month respectively.
Before technical matters, though, there is an even earlier barrier for Zwift: what should you call it – game, simulator or platform?
“At the end of the day, we are a fitness company … born out of gaming,” says Min. “We use video game technology and all the addictive hooks that come with video games. (But) I don’t think of Zwift as a pure fitness play. We’re trying to create sport, because we think sport has so many more threads to keep it engaging.”
I realise as we are speaking that the gaming angle is probably why I am interested in Zwift, and why it has been so successful in getting me to stay in one place, moving my legs like a hamster in a wheel. It’s a game you feel good after playing.
“We’re using all that technology that the video game industry has perfected and employing that related to fitness. So it’s rewards, the competition, the community.”
Like all stay-at-home fitness products, Zwift received a massive Covid boost, doing six months of pre-epidemic growth in a month. The platform put on an extra virtual world to cope with demand. Min is vague about the number of active users but says there have been over two million accounts created since beta launch in 2014. In New Zealand around 18,000 accounts were created in the same time. The international user base is currently 85% male, but Min wants to move that to the real-world cycling gender split – 70/30 – and then towards parity.
He says a typical path to membership is an ex-cyclist joining to get back in shape. “Here’s an interesting metric for you. More than half of our customers, male and female, are overweight.” The company knows this because you input your height and weight into the software before you begin. This is important so the system can work out your speed, as lighter riders move quicker under the same power.
It’s no accident that during the conversation Min mentions people watching Zwift as well as cycling on it. Through the epidemic, several races have gone virtual on the platform, and spectators have looked on as the avatars of professional cyclists compete. You watch a race on Zwift as you would watch any bike race, and you get a fair bit of the drama too: real pelotons (there is a drafting factor in the game), breakaways and fierce personal duels.
The new Tour de France
Which brings us to the Tour. The virtual version will ensure there is racing in July, with the real event postponed to late August. Professionals including big names like Chris Froome will take to top-of-the-line trainers indoors to race six stages over three weekends.
“99% of all the teams will be showing up,” says Min. “For the first time, since I think 1984, the tour is hosting both the men and women’s field. We made it very clear that it was important for us to host a women’s event at the same time: equal distance, same amount of TV coverage. That kind of parity has never existed before.”
Ella Harris, one of New Zealand’s top cyclists and the only Kiwi in her Canyon-SRAM team, will be one of those women let into the club for the virtual competition. The 21-year-old says racing in Zwift requires a different mindset and can actually be more physically intense than the real thing.
“Zwift racing in itself is definitely a separate discipline that requires quite specific training compared to outdoor racing,” she says. “Because you’re just peddling the whole time. You’ve got no excuse to stop … the intensity is constant.”
The intensity is also a reflection of that sprint nature of the races, with the longest stage in the Tour just 48 virtual kilometres long. That stage and three others will be new environments modelled on real-life France, while two stages will be based on modified existing worlds. The virtual Tour will end with a sprint finish down the Champs-Elysees.
Like a lot of cyclists, Harris’s use of Zwift ballooned through the epidemic. “During the lockdown I went for close to three weeks, just solely riding on Zwift. It’s just such a great substitute for riding outdoors. It’s very easy to just switch a session that you do outdoors onto his Zwift instead.”
Not everyone shares the enthusiasm. Harris lives at home and mentions her brother, a cyclist, for whom virtual cycling is a travesty.
“He just hates the fact that people take it so seriously when you’re just riding in your lounge.”
There is also the greater risk of repetitive strain injury after long sessions on the trainer, something that professionals have to watch out for in particular as they move between environments.
For Harris the drawbacks are minor, she says she can’t stop her fiercely competitive spirit coming out even for the virtual races, and she’s looking forward to the Tour races. “I think it’s cool that women are doing this Virtual Tour de France when it’s symbolic of cycling for anybody who’s not even interested in the sport.”
Zwift already allows people to hook up running treadmills to the virtual world, and while cycling you often see the runners on the side of the road, usually looking forlorn.
Eric Min says you will soon be able to hook up rowing machines too, because that sport comes close to cycling in its suitability for stationary emulation.
“Rowing reminds me of what cycling was six years ago when we started the business. We’re super-excited,” he says, pointing out the sport’s popularity in New Zealand and Australia. Despite the enthusiasm, Min, a former competitive cyclist himself, can’t stay away from the bike.
“I think cycling is the sweet spot because it’s just a perfect exercise machine. We will give you more abilities to interact with the game. So today there’s literally one input to the game, which is your watts (the power you transmit through the pedals). But in the future, it could be steering, it could be brakes, buttons … where you could develop skill, just like a video game.”
It will take several more iterations of the technology before we have the chaos and glory of the real thing, but I can tell you, when you are struggling up a mountain or trying to catch someone, Zwift feels pretty authentic. Whether the purists like it or not the technology is going to become more and more widely used – it’s safe and convenient – and with the virtual Tour, 2020 may go down as a seminal moment in the development of virtual sports.
The Tour de France Virtual is streaming on Sky Sports 3 from July 5.