A trip into the metaverse with Olympian Greg Henderson and a Zwift trainer

Mike Kilpatrick riding in Zwift
The metaverse is already here and allows you to ride with legends. Photo credit: Newshub

By now you've probably read a lot about the metaverse and what it promises to deliver. That might get you excited, send shivers down your spine or perhaps a bit of both.

The metaverse rose to prominence in 2021 when Facebook's parent company changed its name to Meta, saying that reflected its focus on a future vision of a network of virtual worlds focused on social connection.

But for many the metaverse already exists, whether that's in video games like Roblox and Fortnite, or for both professional and recreational cyclists who use Zwift.

Zwift is a massive multiplayer online cycling (and running) world where you can cycle your bike attached to a compatible trainer and your pedalling effort is translated into the virtual world.

The better smart trainers also adapt to the virtual world, where a steep slope will require you to drop gears and get your heart pumping harder and you can take advantage of the downhills to grab a breather.

Late last year Zwift launched Neokyo, a futuristic world inspired by Japan's major cities with fast flat roads, towering buildings, neon billboards and more, adding to its virtual destinations.

The expansion to its Makuri Islands world joined the likes of Paris, London and New York in the game, allowing those stuck at home during COVID-19 lockdowns access to a community of like-minded cyclists and different environments.

When the company offered to let me try out their version of the metaverse with a bike and smart trainer I jumped at the chance to see if this slice of the future was worthwhile.

But first I asked Kiwi Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Greg Henderson why I should use Zwift and why professional cyclists spend time in virtual worlds instead of the real world.

Henderson rode in the Tour de France five times and was one of the early adopters of Zwift which he used to help with his interval training.

Greg Henderson, injured after a fall, rides during the 159.5 km third stage of the 2015 Tour de France.
Greg Henderson, injured after a fall, rides during the 159.5 km third stage of the 2015 Tour de France. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I liked it to be very structured so I would know exactly when the interval would start and finish and I knew exactly how much power I had to use," Henderson told Newshub.

But the reality is that traffic lights and roundabouts in the real world can impact that at any point.

"Then all of a sudden Zwift came out. It's quite immersive. It's like training in a lab," he said.

"It dials in the power that you have to do and there's no variation, there's no fluctuation, there's no headwind or tailwind.

"Your gains and improvements are then quantifiable because every time you get out and do that same structured training program and you see improvement, you know that nothing's changed."

But that doesn't mean you need to be a serious cyclist to benefit from virtual riding.

"It caters for everyone, that's the fantastic thing about it," Henderson said.

"You build up these communities and you join these group rides and they chat about anything from recipes to what they're going to eat or what beers they're going to drink after their ride." 

Group rides are also tailored to the abilities of the cyclists. Cyclist power output in Zwift is measured in watts per kilogram (w/kg) and there will be limits placed on the maximum power allowed in group rides, designed to hopefully everyone can enjoy it with no one left behind suffering.

"It's really inclusive," Henderson said.

The Kiwi cycling legend leads a group ride on Thursday nights called The Kiwi Crew Ride, and gets people from Australia, Europe and the UK "hanging out" for the ride along.

He said they can get up to 150 riders in the group just "chatting away", either typing on the phone to show messages in the game or using Discord for voice and video chats.

One of the things that makes the Zwift metaverse special is that you'll often see professional cyclists training in the same world as you, Henderson said.

He estimates there are 150 to 200 professionals that have a special badge by their names to indicate their status.

Andre Greipel riding the 2021 Tour of Britain
Andre Greipel is one of the many professional cyclists you might see while riding around one of Zwift's virtual worlds. Photo credit: Getty Images

"You'll often see the likes of Andre Greipel or Geraint Thomas or other Tour de France stars riding around Watopia," Henderson said.

"They're there because they are doing their structured workout. It might be raining or cold or winter or wherever they are in Europe so they're on Zwift to get their intervals done.

"So it's a bit of a buzz when you might be riding Alp d'Huez and some guy comes flying past you and you're like 'okay, that was Rohan Dennis'."

And Zwift is ready for the future of the metaverse too, virtual reality headsets and all, Henderson said.

"I know the actual designer of Zwift has already coded in all the virtual reality coding. It's there already.

"They're actually waiting on a head unit that isn't big and bulky."

Henderson has tried Zwift using Meta's Oculus headset and said it was "absolutely incredible" but if you go too hard or too fast it gets really sweaty inside the headset.

"Once they overcome or refine those head units, you'll be riding in virtual reality in no time I reckon."

An Oculus VR headset from Facebook.
The Oculus VR headset, like that pictured, are too big and bulky for use in the virtual cycling world at the moment. Photo credit: Getty Images

One of the other big benefits of riding in the metaverse is the relative safety of it, Henderson told Newshub, particularly with roads becoming more populated.

"It's actually not a very safe place to ride your bike on the road any more," he said.

"I know Australia's typically bad and New Zealand's quite bad for aggressive drivers and accidents.

"Europe's a bit different. They really enjoy cycling, it's one of their sports so they actually take the time and give cyclists some room. But I know for a fact a lot of professionals now will half their riding time by doing half of it indoors in the virtual world."

So how does someone who has never used either a smart trainer or Zwift get started?

"I would start just trying out different courses in different worlds. You'll notice they rotate on a weekly basis but Watopia is the big world," Henderson said.

"I would choose one with limited elevation so you're not instantly climbing up the side of Alp d'Huez or something like that. Stick to something flat and then you'll find that's where there are a lot of riders to ride around with. 

"It's incredible. You'll never ride alone again, you always have hundreds and hundreds of riders around you."

So those words ringing in my ears I got ready to hop aboard a proper road bike for the first time in more than 30 years…

I was both a little nervous and skeptical about jumping into an online world with so many other people. I'm something of a loner so generally much more comfortable in less crowded situations, virtual or not, and I've really never felt that immersed in online games.

I should have known my Olympian mentor wouldn't lead me astray.

With the bike and trainer set up in front of my 55-inch television and using both the Apple TV and the Zwift companion app on my phone I was up and pedalling away in no time.

The first thing I noticed was how much more comfortable I found the road bike compared to the exercise bike in my garage. The bent over riding position put much less strain on the top of my legs and made cycling more enjoyable.

My first ride was a 19.1km effort in Watopia, past a virtual volcano, with just over 150m of elevation.

Mike Kilpatrick riding in Zwift
My first ride around Watopia, including an underwater tunnel. Photo credit: Newshub

It took me just over 46 minutes to complete the loop, partly because every time the smart trainer adjusted how hard I needed to pedal my mind blew a little bit. I was also distracted by the scenery whizzing past.

But otherwise it felt very natural, very quickly.

I enjoyed the benefits of being able to draft behind other riders for a speed boost and the on-screen prompts encouraging me to catch up with those in front give me constant mini- targets.

I was getting encouragement from other riders too, even though I had decided a group ride wasn't for me just yet.

I quickly got to know the names of some of the cyclists who were on the same route as me and I enjoyed identifying where they were from by the flags against their name.

I didn't see any Kiwis, but I did happen across another couple of Scots which gave me a lift, knowing I was likely interacting with people from my homeland on the other side of the world.

My second ride, a 23.1km loop around Central Park in New York, was even more enjoyable. By then I knew what to expect and so I gave myself a bit more of a challenge with 369m of climbing during the ride.

There were moments on the biggest climb that I regretted that choice, but when I crested the hill and started going downhill the sense of achievement was huge.

I've used exercise bikes hundreds of times in the years since I last owned a road bike and never felt anything like that high. I can see why it could be addictive.

I completed that ride in just over 55 minutes and stepped off the loan bike with two things on my mind.

The first was how quickly could I save the estimated $3500 it would take to mimic my loan set up permanently.

There are cheaper trainers and bikes but once you've had a taste of something that good you don't really want to accept less.

But I knew both the trainer and bike could operate with Zwift alternatives so I went down that rabbit hole, trying to work out which would be best suited to me overall.

How did Wahoo's Systm's compare, which uses real-life ride videos instead of virtual worlds? 

Or maybe being able to ride along some beautiful routes in Aotearoa with Rouvy would be better - the 37.8km Lake Tekapo route, including video, looks spectacular. Or maybe I could push myself by doing the 41.9km Lake Pukaki road instead?

And what about Bkool or RGT Cycling, both of which offer smart training and riding functionality in real and virtual worlds?

For someone who hadn't ridden for so long, it didn't take me long to get addicted to the idea of spending hours riding different routes from the safety of my own living room.

The second thing on my mind was slightly more profound, I think, and that was really feeling and understanding the positives the metaverse has to offer for the first time. Until then it had all been hypothetical.

Minutes later it was brought home even further. A friend I worked with over 20 years ago and hadn't seen since the turn of the millennium commented on my ride, saying he'd ridden past me in Central Park.

It was a moment of joy, seeing a name from the past pop back into my life, and gave me hope the positives of the metaverse will outweigh the negatives.

I guess we'll find out!

Newshub was supplied with a Wahoo Kickr smart trainer and a Giant road bike for this feature and review.