Jim’s Tech Talk
By Jim Langley
It’s all Ed Pavelka’s fault. You remember, Ed. He’s the founder and original editor/publisher of this here RoadBikeRider e-newsletter and comprehensive online resource for roadies. Ed’s retired from writing and publishing now and riding just as much as ever.
Ed and I go way back. We first met during the Putney Bicycle Club’s Route 9 weekly time trials around about 1978. That was a nice flat out-and-back 10-miler right next to the Connecticut River dividing Vermont and New Hampshire. I worked at the bike shop that sponsored the club, West Hill Shop. Ed worked at VeloNews, which was based in Brattleboro at the time.
Fast forward a few years and Ed was running Bicycling Magazine. He hired me to open and be the technical editor for their new west coast office in Soquel, just outside Santa Cruz, California where I live. Then, when he needed an editor for RBR’s Tech Talk column, he reached out to me again.
Suffice to say that I owe Ed a lot, certainly for the employment and even more for the opportunities and the mentorship that elevated my game from bike mechanic to cycling journalist.
Ed Says Give Zwift a Try
So, you can understand why when Ed tells me something, I listen. His most recent advice – about a month ago – was that I should join the virtual cycling world Zwift. If you’re watching the Tour de France on NBC TV, you’ve probably seen the ads.
I was a Star Trek Next Generation TV show fan and got a kick out of their ultimate virtual reality on the Holodeck. So, I was eager to try virtual riding, yet when I looked into Zwift a few years ago when my cycling pal Mike Andalora started raving about it, I couldn’t figure out how to connect devices to appreciate its full features.
I told Ed that and he strongly recommended the specific setup he uses since for him (and me, too) it made all the connections between the various components automatic. Plus, provides the best virtual reality cycling experience.
Ed uses a Tacx Neo 2T smart trainer with an Apple TV 4K connected to the TV for the display. Plus a Polar H9 heart rate monitor strap: https://amzn.to/2QZBpwi. And, finally runs the Zwift Companion app on an iPhone.
Going For It
Ed’s never steered me wrong, so I went for it and copied his complete setup. I signed up for full access to Zwift, which is $14.95 a month. Here’s a photo of my new pain cave.
My previous unsmart trainer (a Kurt Kinetic Rock & Roll Pro – about $670 when I reviewed it years ago https://www.roadbikerider.com/kurt-kinetic-rock-and-roll-pro-ru-trainer-d1/) has been replaced with the $1,399 Neo. It’s so smart, it immediately connects to Zwift to display on the TV screen and on the iPhone app all the data you expect for just riding, whatever training you wish and full-on racing. The only thing the trainer can’t provide is heart rate. The Polar heart rate strap takes care of that via its bluetooth connection.
Notice the large fan. This is a must. Also, I have a table within reach for the TV and Apple TV remotes plus hydration and food. For easy access and viewing, I can connect my iPhone to my bike because I have a Rokform mount, which I reviewed a while back: https://www.roadbikerider.com/rokform-pro-series-ultra-light-iphone-6-bike-mount-and-case-d2/. The only problem is that it’s in the sweat zone so if I’m dripping, I put the phone on the table with the other stuff.
You don’t need to copy our exact setup. There are lots of different ways to Zwift. Here’s a good video that walks you through basic to extreme setups (least to most expensive). You’ll see that you can go even further than our setup even. For example, there are devices that lift the front of the bike when you’re climbing. And, even newer is a device that lets you steer. You don’t need these extras to ride but they will add to the virtual reality.
Observations After a Month Zwifting
If you’re an expert Zwifter you probably don’t need to keep reading. But, it would be great if you’d weigh in with a comment adding your best tips and advice to help new Zwifters or those just thinking about trying it.
How Real is It?
Well, it’s not up to the standard set on the USS Enterprise’s Holodeck in Star Trek, but I have to say that Zwift’s virtual world completely convinces me I’m not pedaling in place on a trainer. So much so that I’ve ridden for over 3 hours on a single ride, and pretty much lost myself in the experience – exactly the way I can outside.
Here’s a screenshot of the most amazing Zwift ride I’ve done so far. I’m on Alpe Du Zwift, which is Zwift’s copy of the famous Alpe d’Huez climb. Keep in mind that a smart trainer like the Neo is constantly changing the effort it takes to pedal. It even simulates the feeling of riding over dirt roads or wooden bridges – you feel it in the pedaling and hear a change in how the bike sounds. Also, when you fly downhill you can barely pedal and the trainer keeps the wheel spinning just as it would outside.
It was a tough workout getting up the 22 segments to the top of the 3,766-foot TDZ climb. I made the mistake of not drinking enough and had dropped 8 pounds afterward. That’s about 5% of my body weight. I just didn’t realize how challenging Zwift’s virtual reality is.
It’s not like riding a trainer alone in your house. In Zwift there’s a list of riders on screen. They’re with you on whichever course you choose. So as I crawled up the mountain I was being passed by faster roadies from around the world, and chasing the few I could catch. As riders go by you and you them, you see their name, the flag of their country and how many watts per kilogram they’re putting out. It’s all highly motivating.
Today’s ride I wanted something for recovery. So, I chose the route called Sand and Sequoias in Zwift’s most popular virtual cycling world, Watopia. Here I spun easily on the mostly flat roads. But I couldn’t resist and tested my legs on the Fuego Flats sprint and Titan’s Grove King of the Mountain climb for time. That way, I’ll be able to see if I improve the next time I ride the loop.
When you start these timed sections, Zwift makes a chime noise and suddenly you see a timer pop-up on screen showing your elapsed time compared to the previous riders. You can ignore it, but it’s going to time you regardless.
Is it Worth the Monthly Fee?
You have to decide this on your own. So far, for me, I’d say absolutely, and the main reason is because the world of Zwift is full of new and cool places to ride (one expert said they currently have 108 different routes). Yes, they’re just virtual rides, but like I said earlier, they feel real – at least to me (that’s the part you need to figure out for yourself).
Zwift’s value is in more than the routes, though. Always having others to ride with – even if they’re just avatars on the screen – is motivating. Plus, there are group rides to join (at all hours since riders are around the world), workouts and racing at every level.
You may have seen the virtual Tour de France on Zwift that took place earlier this year. It’s pretty incredible that Zwift pulled that off and it tells you something about how realistic it is if it worked for true professional riders.
Besides the Trainer, Do you Need a Special Bike or Particular Gearing?
No. Part of the genius of Zwift is that they seem to have thought of everything and from what I can tell, are quick to address users’ needs and requests.
You can ride whatever bike you like. And, thanks to being able to adjust Zwift’s difficulty setting from within the program, any gearing will work. That’s one of Ed’s best tips to me.
It’s important because you might live where the roads are pancake flat and not have the gearing for Zwift’s hills or mountains. No worries. Just set the slider to easier on the difficulty scale, which is like putting on a much larger cassette. Here’s a video explaining this feature:
What Are my Tips for Rookies?
Double-up on the shorts
Apart from what I’ve already mentioned, I’ll add a tip from my coach Mark Edwards. It has to do with the likelihood that due to the game and social aspects of Zwift, you’ll probably end up riding significantly longer than you did on your “dumb” trainer.
This puts you at greater risk of chafing from so many additional pedal strokes. Coach Mark’s tip, which I find really helps, is wearing two pairs of shorts. Choose shorts without excess padding so as not to add to your leg reach.
Save the bike
Speaking of the damage trainer riding can do, you’ve got to protect your bike and components from sweat. It will work its way in between parts and cause serious corrosion quickly. Consider using an accessory often called a “sweat net,” such as this https://amzn.to/35a9cv0.
You may need more coverage, though. Don’t let sweat get onto your front wheel, crankset handlebar or levers. You can inspect your bike after a session to make sure you’ve protected everything in the sweat zone.
Prepare to be confused at first
Also, I think beginners should expect to have to go through a learning curve getting everything setup and learning how the game of Zwift works. I’ve only just begun but I’m learning fast thanks to Ed’s help and that of many YouTube experts.
One of the most helpful is the GPLama, Shane Miller. When I called Tacx for help setting up my Neo trainer, they actually sent me to one of Shane’s videos. Here’s a link to his extensive video library. If you have a question, he has probably answered it: https://www.youtube.com/c/ShaneMillerLama/videos.
What’s great is that Zwift is so popular all the information you need to become an expert is readily available online. For example, google the recovery ride I mentioned and you’ll find this, which tells you everything you need to know: https://zwiftinsider.com/route/sand-and-sequoias/.
Zwift is video game-like
Know that Zwift is virtual reality cycling, plus it’s also a game. What this means is that there are lots of things you win as you ride more and tick off the different Zwift levels. For example, today I made it to level 10 and suddenly a pop-up on the screen told me that I had unlocked the Tour of Italy Challenge. I had to look up what that meant on the zwiftinsider.com site above.
In closing, I hope this Zwift overview is helpful and that if you give it a try you enjoy it as much as I do. With how quickly Zwift has become popular – and how impressive Zwifting is, I’m expecting even more amazing virtual cycling to come in the not too distant future. And I’m looking forward to being part of it.
If you leave a comment with any questions, I’ll do my best to answer it.
Jim Langley is RBR’s Technical Editor. He has been a pro mechanic and cycling writer for more than 40 years. He’s the author of Your Home Bicycle Workshop in the RBR eBookstore. Check out his “cycling aficionado” website at http://www.jimlangley.net, his Q&A blog and updates at Twitter. Jim’s streak of consecutive cycling days has reached more than 8,000. Click to read Jim’s full bio.