Warning: this one might require some tolerance from you Pinkbike readers and commenters out there. The words below are mostly about indoor trainers, road bikes, and watts, all things that you probably didn't come here to read about, which is completely fair. Please, turn back now if seeing those topics on Pinkbike makes you feel a bit angsty - I'll get back to the normally scheduled content after this. In the meantime, the idea of going for a virtual ride is too interesting for me to ignore.
''No way in hell am I going out in that,'' I said to one of my usual riding buddies without even the slightest hint of shame. ''That'' was negative ten-degree temps and wind that was busy turning snow banks into frozen white concrete dunes. I've heard about people who enjoy riding in the snow, but I'm obviously not one of them. There's just no novelty there for me, and I don't need to feel like I'm hard as nails (I'm not) for going on a ride regardless of conditions - I've been mountain biking for a long time now, and I've done my share of cold, wet weather riding during those years.
Instead, I usually spend my winters sitting around in a sort of self-imposed stupor, often while eating a block of cheddar cheese like it's a giant orange candy bar. Or just eating actual candy bars. As you can imagine, this is not the best approach for my health, be it physical or mental. Short of meth or those sorts of things, you haven't felt low until you've woken up at 7 am and finished a half-eaten Big Turk while you're still in bed.
But not this winter. This winter, it's been entirely different; no half-pound cheese bricks for dinner, and I've been riding a metric shit ton, all of it in the ''sun''... kinda. I haven't been covering any actual distance, mind you, and some will argue that all I'm doing is playing a video game. I've been using a program called Zwift that, when combined with a ''smart'' trainer like the Wahoo KickR or Tacx Neo (a comparison of the two is coming soon) trainers that I've been trying out, creates the most realistic yet completely fake indoor riding experience that I've ever seen.
I know that you're not on Pinkbike to hear about stationary trainers, watts, and a glorified video game, but hear me out on this one. Or maybe stop reading now if your definition of interesting begins and ends with things like dirt jumping, downhill and enduro racing (aka exactly what Pinkbike is all about), which bike has the longest wheelbase, or why Jesus will make his return to earth in the form of a gearbox bike (Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the gearbox calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our drivetrain, Gearbox Jesus).
Yes, I know this sort of thing isn't the usual Pinkbike fare, but this is my op-ed and I'm writing about a road bike video game and a stationary trainer. I've been crucified before, and I'm expecting to be nailed up again after this one... It feels weird to be excited, enthusiastic, and evangelical about an indoor trainer, but that's exactly how I found myself acting when I explained this whole Zwift thing to my Pinkbike colleagues a few days ago.
So, what exactly is Zwift?
The best way to describe it might be to say that it's one-third stationary trainer, one-third fitness program, and one-third video game. It's the latter that really makes it interesting, however. Basically, your bike is attached to a stationary trainer of some kind, and this communicates wirelessly (if you have a ''smart'' trainer) via science to your computer to tell Zwift how much power you're putting out. Zwift itself is a virtual world where you ride your bike, along with thousands and thousands of other people, and the more power you put out, the faster you go. You know, just like in the real world. There are three riding zones, each one open at a specific time to keep people riding together somewhat, and a load of different routes to choose from in each zone. You can pick from a pancake flat route or, if you're up for it, tackle some epic climbs that start at a tropical sea level setting before winding up mountain passes, through alpine villages, thread up through roadside snow banks, and eventually finish at a radio tower atop a mountain peak.
Depending on the route you take up, you can log around 1,600 feet of elevation gain and loss, and every last foot of it feels extremely real when you're using a ''smart'' trainer that instantly adjusts its resistance depending on the road grade. I'm talking out-of-the-saddle efforts just to get up some of the steepest pitches.
Pretty cool stuff, but it isn't the video game-like graphics, watts, or real-time power-to-weight ratio feed that makes me want to pedal a bike for hours on end without actually going anywhere; it's the other riders on Zwift who are spread all around the world. I'm in western Canada and usually find myself going for a virtual ride late at night, so I'm often "riding" with people from Japan, Korea, Thailand, and other countries sharing their time zone. But when I'm on in the morning, I'm pedaling with thousands of people from Europe. I'm usually about as social as a rattlesnake having a bad day, but it's hard for even me to deny how rad it is to be riding with people from all over the globe.
I had one of the most enjoyable battles in recent memory, be it in real life of in the virtual world, a few nights ago with a chap from South Korea during a twenty-minute climb. We stalked each other from sea level up to around four hundred meters, swapping the lead back and forth the whole way. In the end, he bolted ahead of me less than a minute from the top, after which I promptly dropped to a cadence of 10 RPM and swallowed the barf that had risen in my throat while I was working to stay with Mr. Yoon.
That's a different kind of low than eating a block of cheese for dinner, but I'm not sure it's any better.
I just can't get past the fact that there really was a real Mr. Yoon, suffering (probably not as much as myself) in his garage or living room in some part of South Korea. Technology is crazy these days; just imagine if someone told you about this stuff a decade ago? And it's only going to get better - picture an Oculus Rift-type setup that incorporates steering and other body movements. It might be coming.
The other crazy thing about Zwift is the online cycling community that it's spawned, something that even a rattlesnake like me can appreciate. There are loads of daily races for different fitness levels, some of which are streamed live via an actual race commentator, and even group rides being led my professional and ex-professional racers. And those who want to go really deep can listen to the Zwiftcast, a podcast about all things Zwift that's put together by Brit Simon Schofield.
So, what does any of this have to do with mountain biking? Not much, at least right now, but that doesn't mean that it won't in the future. At the time of me writing this, Zwift is close to releasing a running version of the program that, if the rumors are true, will see them eventually put people on trails rather than on the road. Virtual trail running isn't that far off from virtual mountain biking, is it? I'm not trying to convince anyone that this is a replacement for riding outside - it simply isn't - but just imagine being able to simulate a mountain bike ride, steep grades up and down included, during those dark winter months when riding on dirt is a dream that's months away for some of us.
This whole Zwift phenomenon isn't designed to replace riding outdoors, and I'd obviously much rather be weaving through trees on some prime singletrack, but I can't do that right now. It's cold, wet, and dark outside, and, truth be told, I haven't ridden my mountain bike on singletrack in over five weeks. The winter solstice, aka the shortest day of the year, is only recently behind us, and I usually celebrate the day of least light by drinking until I pass out in hopes of simply waking up in June. But not this time. Instead, I went for a great ride. Inside, mind you.