I took what I believe will be my last Zwift ride of the season today. I remembered this morning that my Zwift account would automatically renew near the beginning of April and I decided that ten dollars would best spent elsewhere. Just a reminder, Zwift is a software program that connects to your trainer or ant+ sensor to calculate your wattage and simulate riding with other real people in a virtual environment. I really like Zwift but no matter how good the simulation of riding is it can’t beat the real thing, especially when it’s warmer than 50 degrees.
Around mid day I hopped on my trainer and started this final ride. Outside it was cloudy and gusting wind of 20+ mph but also 75 degrees warm. 10 minutes into the Zwift ride the sun came out and I went outside. I couldn’t stand sitting on my trainer watching my virtual self pedaling around Richmond Virgina and getting passed constantly. Now that I’ve spent my winter riding Zwift I feel confident in offering a review of the software.
First off I’ll just say that Zwift is really good. It simulates riding very well. It was very reliable, even when 0ver a 1000 users were online at the same time. It even worked well in many of these users were all riding in the same peloton. Zwift skirts the edge of being a game and being a simulation though I think it usually falls more into the realm of simulation.
Some of the game aspects include earning XP to increase your level giving you access to better equipment. This equipment actually increases your speed in the game, Zip 808s are much faster wheels then the classic box wheels. Another gamey aspect are powerups. Everytime you pass a start/finish line you get a randomly selected powerup. These make you lighter, more aero, or increase your draft. In my opinion the levels and equipment upgrades are a fun addition to the game but the powerups should be removed. The effect of powerups is barely noticeable and they last such a short time that I quickly came to ignore them.
As for simulation Zwift’s excellent 3D graphics and sort of realistic drafting physics make the software feel like a real virtual world. When large crowds of riders get riders pass through each other like ghosts, there is no collision mapping, no collision at all. Most of what you see on the screen is just eye candy, but it’s very convincing. How about the riding physics. I can only speak of Z power using a Kurt trainer, I’m sure using a smart trainer the whole thing would feel different, but it felt a bit laggy to me. For instance you’re in a big peloton near the back hand drifting out. You increase pedaling cadence and your power goes up, but your still drifting back, you drop down a gear and increase power again, you’re still drifting back. It’s like everyone is leaving you behind, then like a windup motor let go you begin moving through the pack and end up on the front. I learned to compensate for this, but it still felt to difficult to avoid yo-yoing from front to back.
What keeps Zwift from being more gamey, is just how hard it is. Any one can play mario kart, pick it up within a 15 minutes and have a good time launching banana peels at your competitors. You can wipe out several times and still be in the running somehow. In Zwift it all boils down to two simple variables. How hard you can pedal and how much you weigh. When I first started using Zwift I didn’t realize I was suppose to enter a weight, my default weight in the sim was 75KG or about 165 pounds. 60-70 pounds lighter then my real weight. I was crushing it, killing everyone up the hills, winning KOMs and amazing myself with my awesomeness, then I realized I was digitally doped up to the gills. It’s not uncommon to riders fly by you riding at sustained power levels that would win them the Tour de France.
On the less positive side, as a person whose been into simulation software for a long time Zwift feels more like a toy or even worse an “app” then a serious piece of software. This is because of design choices that take you out of the drivers seat. Take Flight simulator for instance, this old school piece of software gives you so many options, you can have multiple windows open, different views, instrument panels, data displayed on screen. You can start where ever you want, whenever you want, and go where ever you want. Zwift presents you with a slot car track where appropriately you have one item to control, how fast you go.
Don’t get me wrong, the user interface for Zwift is good, but it would be nice if it could be customized. In fact it would be nice to feel like you had more control in general. Zwift has two courses but only one active course per day. You can’t go ride by yourself, and there is no option to use the software offline even though it would work just fine.
What about Zwift as a training tool? I mean indoor cycling is really all about training right? There are all kinds of built in training scenarios, and options to create your own but sadly I never used them. I was to busy riding for fun. I did intervals but usually did lots of chasing of faster riders. I followed no structure, no plan, I just pedaled my butt off when I wanted and soft pedaled when I wanted. Would I have been better off following structured training videos? Maybe.
Finally, what about Zwift as a competitive outlet. It was a no brainer to form races and leauges on zwift but the software makes no allowances for these. Everything has to be planned outside of Zwift. How difficult would it be to incorporate an “office” into Zwift with planning applications such as a calendar. Even the chatting system is so rudimentary it becomes very difficult to plan and put those plans into motion. Still some of the racing I engaged in was really exciting and close.
Ultimately I still love Zwift and don’t really want to stop using it, but I know I won’t get much use out of when the weather’s nice. I’m looking forward to logging back into Zwift in 8 months and seeing more places to ride, ways to organize races and rides within the app, and getting into the racing.