Born from the gaming world, Zwift is an online platform where cyclists train and make gains from their own homes. With daily uses doubling pre-COVID-19 stats, the option of being with an online community during the pandemic has made this popular app even more so.
Cyber cyclists with nothing more than a bike, a screen, the Zwift app and a smart trainer (which will turn your ride into a stationary bike and transmit data to the platform), can unlock up to nine different worlds, bikes, gear and clothes.
But besides avatar mods, the community of riders is what’s made Zwift so popular.
Zwifting with others in a pandemic
Greg Fisher, the VP of partnerships for True Communications and PR firm for Zwift, says they’ve seen a hefty spike in uses since the pandemic.
“People turn to services like Zwift in order to preserve their fitness, to continue to do what they want and try to, I think maintain a sense of normalcy in their life. That includes fitness, but I think that also includes connecting with people.”
Fisher says the main draw to Zwift is who’s there, and how they’re connecting.
“Training indoors can be such an isolating activity,” he said. “It’s just lonely and having a really big community out there to be with you while you do that just helps a ton.”
Globally, Zwift’s popularity has doubled since the pandemic. They have reported twice as many users cycling at peak times with up to 35,000 users using the app at once.
They also had twice the kilometres travelled in one day — as high as 9.5 million, which means Zwift is seeing higher rates of use and longer rides year-over-year since lockdown.
As of right now in Canada, Zwift is still experiencing a 79 per cent increase in engagement since this time last year.
Mike Vance, president of Calgary Crankmasters, an elite local cycling club, joined a Zwift event organized by members of the group. Although Vance would prefer cycling outside, he recognized the need for an alternative to riding in person during the pandemic, especially given its popularity.
“Anybody who is on the road or even mountain biking is on Zwift,” Vance said.
A different experience
Todd Garrett, a Zwifter and another member of Calgary Crankmasters, found the Zwift community unique, riding with pro cyclists and users from across the globe is something he may never have experienced outside of the game.
“You’ll see someone’s name and they say, ‘Oh, they’re from Wales. OK. Interesting. Oh, and then you know, they’re from Brazil or whatever.’ And you can have a conversation with them where everyone else can see it, or you can do a sidebar. Or you can do it in Discord if you have a mic and you can talk to them live. So it’s kind of interesting.”
Fisher says that when he trains on Zwift, the other online players push him competitively, in a way that is more intense than in real-life cycling.
“That feeling when you’ve been working very hard and then someone rides by you, you want to ride harder and faster and maybe longer than you intended.”
It’s also the fun video-game-like experience that distinguishes Zwift from training on a regular stationary bike.
“You don’t find yourself thinking, ‘Good god, I’m indoors spinning away in a trainer,’” Fisher said. “You find yourself thinking, “I’ve just ridden across the top of a volcano, and I need to climb that mountain pass, down from the ski resort, you know.”
Another attraction is Zwift’s safety and efficiency.
“[On Zwift] you don’t have to worry about traffic and people swearing, yelling and throwing things at you and potholes. And you know, there’s a lot of distracted drivers. There’s a lot of pitfalls of riding outside,” Garrett said.
Garrett and Vance both report Zwift cycling as more intense than being out on the roads, about 50 per cent more. Plus, there’s the added benefit of cutting out commute time, if you’re not starting from your house.
“I Zwift for two to three hours and I’m off and then you know, I’ve got the rest of the day to spend time with the family or that sort of stuff,” Garrett said. “People look at me like I’m very strange. A lot of my friends ask, ‘Why aren’t you riding outside?’ [It’s because] I’m able to train hard for shorter periods of time and still get the rewards.”
Now that the provincial regulations for outdoor gatherings are less restrictive, both Vance and Garrett plan to cycle outside more.
“I’m definitely gonna go back outside now that the COVID thing is kind of turned down and stuff, but I think I’ll always probably supplement it [with Zwift],” said Garrett.