Ride Type: Virtual simulations of real and imaginary roads
Compatibility: iOS, Android, Windows, Mac
Required Equipment: A smart trainer/power meter or speed sensor
Integrations: Strava, Facebook, Adidas, TrainingPeaks, Today’s Plan, MapMyRide, Withings, Fitbit, Garmin, Technogym
Well, everyone. Zwift is far and away the leader in the dedicated indoor cycling app market (for the record, we are excluding Peloton here because we consider it a different category) – and for good reason. Zwift has done a superb job of offering something for everyone in the space, which is no small feat. For example, Zwift offers virtual simulations, group rides, structured training, and the top gamification features compared to other apps. Does that mean Zwift is the right app for you? It depends.
You will notice that there are two Zwift apps – one that acts as the ‘game’ screen and the Zwift Companion app that acts a bit like a remote control, enabling users to locate events, interact with other riders, and view activities completed by them and their network. Once you download the app, you will be asked to create an account and provide information, such as the type of athlete you are and what you are training for (for example, maybe you are a triathlete training for an Olympic distance event), your body weight (to allow the app to function properly), and so on. From there, you are asked to pair devices (ideally a smart trainer, or a speed sensor or power meter). Assuming everything is plugged in – yes, this happens to all of us – pairing is pretty simple.
Next up are the more personal questions – seriously, it is like a superficial dating site – and on an iPhone, it will ask to access your health data to speed up the process. You decide, but it is designed to create a more accurate simulation in-game and, let’s face it, it’s 2021 and we share everything everywhere. The most critical measurement is your weight given your speed on the course is dependent on your watts per kilogram (input the wrong weight and you will be faster or slower than you should be). The rest of the selections are cosmetic – what you look like and the bike you will ride. If you are new to Zwift, the options are limited, but the longer you ride on the platform, the more equipment you can unlock. With that, you are ready to start your 7-day free trial.
Zwift has something for everyone. While you could simply load the app, hit ride, and start pedalling, there are options, such as the course that you ride and the type of workout you opt for. Zwift has 10 different maps you could ride, and each map is large enough to have several different routes available, which translates into dozens of combinations. The catch is, you only have access to three of the maps on any given day, and certain maps are only open for specific events. That said, route variety isn’t a problem, unless you are hoping to ride a particular route on a particular day and it is not available.
Most of Zwift’s routes are simulations of real-life courses, but the largest (and arguably most popular) map is Watopia – which is a fictional Zwift creation that offers flats, hills, and mountains across hundreds of kilometers of virtual roads. In all likelihood, there will always be a route suitable for any type of ride you are seeking without defaulting to a structured training session and engaging the ERG mode, which isn’t ideal for, say, an easy recovery ride for which you are seeking a bit of variability. A fun feature on Zwift is that, after you finish a ride and upload it to an integrated app, such as TrainingPeaks or Strava, the map data gets pushed along with all of the ride metrics just like in real life, which means virtual Strava segments to keep you motivated.
If you are seeking structured workouts, Zwift has built a pretty extensive library and even offers multi-week structured training plans. Finding the right workout for you isn’t particularly user-friendly (although self-coached athletes aren’t always putting much thought into it anyway so perhaps this isn’t too much of a downside). Rides can be imported from other platforms in a variety of formats, and structured workouts will show up automatically from linked accounts, which is convenient. We found the Zwift workout builder to be the easiest to use of all the cycling apps we reviewed. There is a simple drag and drop functionality that you can leverage without the need to use a separate platform or a computer if you are running Zwift off a tablet or smartphone. That said, the drag and drop functionality is a lot easier to use on a computer (or maybe it’s just our wide fingers that are getting in the way).
Arguably the top feature Zwift has to offer (especially as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic) is the functionality to set up group workouts or meet-ups. Before we get there, it is possible to simply find someone you want to ride with and hit the ‘Ride With’ option, which puts you next to your friend on the course and will help you stay there while you build speed. Alternatively, you have the option of organizing a formal start time with up to 100 of your followers, which gets everyone on the course at the same time. With the meet-up option, you can choose to band everyone together, which ensures that your group stays together on the road regardless of individual power output. Meet-ups are scheduled exclusively through the Zwift Companion app.
As you might expect, the ride experience on Zwift is relatively life-like when paired with a smart trainer (beware that the default trainer difficulty is set to 50% so if you feel like you are flying up 15% grades, you may want to check that out). There are numerous riders on course, and drafting is enabled with algorithms that reasonably simulate the benefits of tucking into a group or sitting behind another rider. We did find it a bit difficult to stay in the draft with speed changes and the lack of brakes, but it gets easier with practice.
The Zwift graphics are of fine quality, and the scenery and rider avatars are reasonably realistic (though perhaps a bit too one-size-fits-all). There are opportunities for improvement in ride speed realism, particularly going downhill where nothing prevents taking hairpin corners at 75 kph. Moreover, there is a fair bit of riding straight through other riders, as if passing through a ghost, which is no doubt exacerbated by the number of people on course. While it doesn’t impact the quality of your workout, ‘gamers’ would be unimpressed.
Training rides work well in that the ERG mode produces consistent power when needed and makes cadence-based sessions or high wattage sessions cognitively simple to perform. What we particularly like is that the ERG mode shuts off automatically in situations where you have had to ease up or aren’t holding a reasonably consistent turnover, making it much easier to get back on top of the gear once you have regained your focus. The ERG re-engages once you have been holding steady for a few seconds. It might not seem critical, but if you have ever been in the middle of a hard interval and have had to ease off for whatever reason, then you will know that you can pooch your legs pretty easily while pushing the equivalent of a massive gear.
The concept of group meet-ups is excellent, and Zwift has invested effort into making it function as close to the outside world as possible. You can text your friends through a keyboard or via the Zwift Companion app. The ‘keep together’ feature keeps the group together on the road, and it can be shut off if you want to be more competitive. It all works in theory; however, we personally struggle with the value of it. It is difficult to text and ride – and it is probably not a skill you should be striving to develop for riding outdoors. In practice, the ‘keep together’ feature is nearly a must-have given the sheer number of riders on the courses, but it means the competitive aspect of riding together can get lost. Moreover, if you get dropped because you stop pedalling – which happens on long rides – it is nearly impossible to get back on, even if you are pushing much higher watts than the ride leader. Perhaps we are nitpicking the market leader, but we would argue other options exist.
Zwift has a huge following for obvious reasons – the game experience feels realistic, and the app offers opportunities to compete around every course with intermediate sprints, course records, and timed hill climbs. It is fun to race for a leader jersey on a segment and track your performance. You can select structured workouts, create your own, or upload a workout from a partner app. You can host meet-ups with your friends and ride together on course. Your rides sync seamlessly to a huge number of partner apps. Ultimately, Zwift has something for everyone and it is growing rapidly, particularly as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. We predict that this growth will translate into ongoing investment in the platform. It could mean, too, that riders should expect even busier roads (and this is where we are more hesitant to embrace Zwift – for us, the most epic rides happen with a handful of others, at most, along quiet roads, but we’re all different).
Full Disclosure: We’re cyclists – not marketers – and we are not affiliated with Zwift. This cycling app review is an independent review based on our own experience with the app – to help you decide if it’s right for you. For more, check out our other reviews of cycling apps.