Review: Zwift is a cycling game so good it makes outdoors lovers want to stay in

Newshub's Dunc Wilson reviews Zwift the cycling game.
Photo credit: Zwift

For many moons now, a strange virtual world has been popping up on my Strava feed.

Strava, if you don't know, is a multi-sport workout tracking app that has its roots in cycling. People do a ride, run, walk or other exercise activity, then post their efforts - often with a photo - to show their followers how flippin' great they are.

Anyway, the pics from this new, digital planet called Zwift are all video-gamey and the map often shows them having ridden through part of an ocean. I'd just been giving kudos and moving on.

Whatever this Second Life: Bicycle Edition thing was, I wasn't interested. I'm a real, outdoor cyclist, you see.

Then I was asked to try out this mystical static-cycling system. I agreed, but felt it was going to be a tough sell.

I haven't played videogames since the '90s and my last time on an exercise bike was so incredulously boring, it cajoled me to go and cycle the entire New Zealand coastline.

Zwift employs the use of a Bluetooth trainer, with your bicycle of choice, sans rear wheel, attached. For this review, I used a Tacx Neo 2 trainer.

Newshub reviews Zwift cycling Tacx Neo 2 trainer.
Simply bolt your bike into the smart trainer and ride away, while staying put. Photo credit: Newshub.

This is basically a bike hub and cassette in a big black plastic, semi-flexible stand, which can magically alter resistance and send pulses through the chain when the game demands it. There's also a huge sweat mat that you place the bike on and trust me, your family/cleaner/people in the apartment below will thank you for that.

With my Marin Nicasio 2 gravel/adventure bike bolted on, I fired up the Zwift app on the iPad and gave the pedals a spin to power-up the trainer's Bluetooth. Yes, it's powered by the human on the pedals, no plug-in power required.

Zwift found the unit after just a couple of pedal turns and a few screen taps later I was entering my vital statistics and designing an avatar to look just like me.

Zwift's avatar designer lets you create a lifelike representation of yourself, or invent a disguise.
Zwift's avatar designer lets you create a lifelike representation of yourself, or invent a disguise. Photo credit: Newshub.

I was then whisked into the app's signature world of Watopia, where I saw my guy sitting on the roadside, getting overtaken by riders from all over the world.

I gave the pedals a spin and my little man began to move! I was cycling in my lounge and this little dude was copying my every move. I was 'gaming'.

My little orange-jerseyed stunt double reached the first corner of the course, but I didn't slow down, I just kept pedalling; exactly how you wouldn't in the real world on a real bike. I didn't even lean and turning the handlebars would have been pointless.

The game handled everything and took Lil Dunc round the corner at great speed. It even dodged the other riders on the track for me. Magic!

In my eagerness to get spinning and trash a few Zwifters in a faraway land, I hadn't noticed the unit's cassette was out of alignment with my usual wheel's gear settings. This meant only a selection of the gears worked.

One of the downsides of the hardware is that the gear alignment may not match your regular rear wheel. Once you've performed a few swaps, though, you'll likely get it down to remembering how many turns your cable tensioner needs, so it should become less of a chore.

Gears all set, I climbed aboard for another go. It was one of those seriously humid December days, but I've long been a sucker for punishment, so I pulled the ranch slider open a touch and wore only a pair of shorts.

London popped up as a course option this time and being a Greenwich Meantimer by birth, I dialled it in and began to spin. As if by magic, I was transported to the Mall, then Embankment and Trafalgar Square, which was a real thrill amid this COVID-19-ridden world. I even cycled part of my old commute along the north bank of the Thames towards Chelsea.

Despite being an overly-patriotic London, with more Union flags dangling about than a James Bond vs Bridget Jones epic, I was temporarily transported back there.

Zwift allows you to virtually cycle around faraway places like London.
Take a virtual hoon around London, like you're on a 'Boris Bike' on your OE. Photo credit: Newshub.

In the real world, beads of sweat flicked rampantly all over the mat, while in Zwiftland I was racing along crowd-lined streets, my guy casually sipping from his bottle.

A series of arrows popped up offering me a number of course extensions. I immediately recognised one as the location of that Geography field trip when we did more walking than work: Box Hill, Surrey.

I tapped the screen to accept the route change and was soon whisked down into a mock London Underground station. The Neo 2 trainer began juddering my chain as my bike flew down the station's stairs and shot into a tunnel.

This is one of the effects created by the software and trainer - another includes riding on cobbles. Both are very realistic, but you'd hope so for a piece of hardware costing in excess of $2000 (the Neo 2 has been replaced by the Neo 2T, which retails for around $2899).

My bike and man exit the tunnel at an imaginary Box Hill Underground station and a tough climb ensues. At 224m, it's not even the same elevation as Rangitoto, yet on a sticky, hot summer day indoors, it's a challenge.

It's also very akin to the real thing: the tight switchbacks, the National Trust house... the spot where my first girlfriend and I cooked on that (possibly illegal) charcoal BBQ. It was all very familiar!

After cruising down the other side at great speed, the game chucks you back down the magical mystery tube and you teleport back to Central London. It's only been 45 minutes, but what a day out that was!

Now, Zwift isn't the only software option when it comes to this type of indoor cycling. Tacx, the company behind the trainer I used, offer a package that includes 3D training maps, live opponents and the juicy promise of "unlimited high quality films" for you to ride to.

Then there's third-party offerings from TrainerRoad, Bkool, Rouvy and the masochistically-titled 'Sufferfest'. All offer free trials.

By all accounts, and if my Strava feed is anything to go by, Zwift has cornered the 'social riding' market and has users flocking to race against their mates.

With much of the world having faced some sort of lockdown in recent months, virtual cycling has seen some fast momentum gains. It does cater for serious use as well, offering subscribers a plethora of dedicated training plans.

For many, the hardware cost will puncture the bank account; while others will find the obvious answer is to shelve the $8000 bike plans, buy a $5000 one and spend the rest on your rainy day training platform.

For me, Zwift made staying indoors much more attractive, for a time. In heinous weather, or dare I say lockdown, its uses and potential fun are limitless.

Those after a dedicated training plan and the social benefits probably need look no further, while those who love a good leaderboard are probably already hooked.

However, if you're like me and can't get past the lack of airflow, you might like to try the following $5 mod:

Add a little fan to your Zwift to create lovely airlow.
Zwift set-up + $5 USB fan = the dream. Photo credit: Newshub.

Dunc Wilson is The AM Show Line-Up Producer and author of 'The Big Loop - Cycling Coastal New Zealand'.

Newshub was supplied Zwift Tacx Neo 2 gear for this review.