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Are We All Destined to Become (Cycling) Avatars?

The new world of endurance VR has its origins firmly planted in triathlon.

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In the past few years, virtual-cycling platforms have exploded, creating real competition with real prize money, kickstarting product innovation, reigniting passion for indoor trainers, and, in some cases, taking riders off-road and into the paincave permanently. This new world of endurance VR has its origins firmly planted in triathlon. (Hello, Slowtwitch forums.) We have just one question: Are we all destined to become avatars?

Prince Harry was hammering his brains out. Crossing the London Bridge, the redhead surged to 26 mph to catch a pack of Japanese cyclists, identified by their rising-sun flag logos. Passing Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, he desperately tried to keep up with four Brits, flying the Union Jack. Pounding out of the saddle up Box Hill, the famed 2012 Olympics race-course climb, he looped back into town and furiously reeled in a bunch of Spaniards and Swedes, finishing in 32:24, 442nd out of 1132 participants on the route that day.

Watching all this on my TV screen, I’m drenched in sweat, lungs heaving, totally spent. You see, Prince Harry is me—my avatar, whom I’d customized with royal red hair (so he’d be easy to spot) for my first ride on Zwift, the wildly popular interactive online cycling “video game.” Like all newbies to the red-hot world of virtual cycling, I was dazzled by the technology that cartoonifies your efforts in real time, automatically raises and lowers resistance as you climb and descend hills, and makes it easier when you draft. Yet what surprised me most was how deep it took me into the pain cave. On a bike, I like to do my own thing, ride my own pace, which usually isn’t real fast. But now, I suddenly had to keep up with that Mexican, had to pass that Israeli, had to push into the red. The peer pressure, even amidst strangers, was weirdly addictive and exhilarating. It made me do—this is true, no hyperbole—the workout of my life. It was so fun that, even though I’ve always hated indoor cycling, I couldn’t wait to do it again. One ride and I was hooked.

I’m not alone. Zwift and Bkool—a similar online group workout system dominant in Europe—are joining a growing roster of several dozen virtual-training apps to make indoor cycling, dare I say, cool. These platforms are so engaging and effective at transforming fitness that they’ve ignited sales of indoor trainers, helped pro cycling teams find and sign new members, kickstarted the development of a virtual pro racing league (that’s paid cash prizes as high as $3,500), and goosed new product development. Pro triathletes Lionel Sanders and Lucy Charles even credited Zwift with helping them both earn second-place finishes at the Hawaii Ironman last fall.

You could chalk this virtual-training renaissance up to fear of distracted drivers, to time-crunched Type-As, or weird weather. But there’s a lot more to it—an addictive element that has us wondering if the future of road cycling is one without roads.

On a Roll

Bike trainers have been around for more than a century—an ad for the Schlock odometer- equipped trainer appeared in the December 23, 1896 issue of The Morning Times of Washington, D.C. Video workout programs arose with the invention of VHS in the 80’s, and the video-plus-trainer concept quickly emerged.

In 1986, Seattle-based RacerMate created CompuTrainer, the first electronic bicycle trainer/ergometer with interactive motivational software and course creation; it became a favorite of top cyclists and triathletes for two decades. In 1994, Los Angeles-based personal trainer and Race Across America rider Jonathan “Johnny G.” Goldberg created the first indoor cycling class—he called it Spinning—an instant sensation now found in various permutations in every corner of the world, now including online with streaming platform Peloton.

In 2009, Spain-based Bkool debuted the first virtual group cycling simulator; wildly popular in Europe, it has ignored the U.S. market until recently. Finally, four years ago, America’s new wave of virtual cycling arrived with one Californian nerd’s solitary effort to get fit without dying of boredom.

John Mayfield was a lifelong non-athlete and professional video game programmer who got addicted to riding and running when he bought an Orange County home next to the Santa Ana River bike path in 2005. Soon, he’d lost 50 pounds and for fun began building a stationary-bike video game to keep him fit in the dark days of winter, decoding heart rate, speed, and cadence sensors and designing a program around the data. As he improved his single-avatar game, he’d post a snippet of it on tri forum to get feedback, all of which was wildly positive.

Meanwhile, online financial-trading entrepreneur Eric Min, a London-based New Yorker who missed riding with his friends in Central Park, was convinced that an interactive cycling video game that could connect people in real time would instantly catch on. Actively searching for a game designer, he logged on to Slowtwitch in November 2013 and stumbled upon Mayfield’s beta version of what would soon become Zwift.

Min was so struck that he immediately picked up the phone and flew to California the next day. Mayfield, impressed by Min’s enthusiasm, social vision, and deep start-up experience, shook hands and became co- founder and lead developer.

Fast forward four years and the company, located in a high-rise with a stunning harbor view, employs 70 employees in Long Beach and 20 marketing people in London. Zwift’s rapid user growth and instant addictive nature has attracted $45 million in funding, including $27 million last August.

“Our vision has always been to get people to exercise together,” says Min, now Zwift’s CEO. “The most important thing isn’t the route. It’s what we call, ‘Social density.’” That’s Zwift’s not-so-secret sauce. To achieve it, ‘Zwifters’ are all funneled onto the same course every day, rather than getting to pick their own routes. The peer pressure and the environment are already making triathletes step up their game.

Great Britain’s Lucy Charles used Zwift for all of her winter training and three times a week in the summer for both solitary workouts and social group rides before a valiant bike leg helped her secure second place in her Kona debut last year. “It has played a profound role in my biking progression,” she says.

Canada’s Lionel Sanders, also a second-placer in Kona last year, has actually used Zwift for all of his 6.5 weekly hours of bike training since October 2016. For him, it’s not just a performance-enhancer; it’s a lifesaver.

“The five percent of my cycling that is outdoors is all races,” he says. “Even in the summer, I’ll bring my trainer out on the deck. There are three reasons for that: No red lights and traffic—so no wasted time. Number two: life and death. I’ve been hit by cars four times, once getting knocked unconscious and losing my teeth. The road is too dangerous. And three: It’s a better workout. I get pushed to a higher intensity by riding with other people. It’s more motivating and fun.” Not that you can’t enjoy the same camaraderie and competition riding with a group outside, but when a huge group is waiting for you every day in your living room, it can bring out the beast.

“Like it or not, we’re social beings,” Sanders says. ”I can tell people are watching my numbers on Zwift; I have an audience every single day. It forces me to raise my game. I can’t wimp out.” Training remotely with an ex-pro racer friend living in Atlanta through the Zwift platform, Sanders says his average one-hour power stats rose from 400 to 412 watts, and his two-hour best jumped from 350 to 360 watts between the fall of 2016 and last March. “Pretty good after so many years of riding,” he says.

Platform Showdown

Zwift is not alone in offering a virtual-trainer app that turns you into an avatar, automatically makes hill climbs harder (if you have a compatible smart trainer), and lets you ride with others. The aforementioned Bkool, founded by Spanish gamers in 2009, is a head-to- head subscription service ($10 for Bkool; $15 for Zwift) with a cornucopia of features that is just now starting to make headway in the U.S. As with Zwift, it converts data from speed, cadence, power, and heart-rate sensors, beamed by ANT+ and/or Bluetooth to your computer, into a real-time on-screen rider. For resistance on hills, both platforms require a $400 to $1200 “smart” trainer from Wahoo, Tacx, CycleOps, and others—or Bkool itself. (Zwift, a pure software company, does not sell a trainer or any hardware.)

Bkool, like Zwift is designed by videogamers, offers similar graphics and social potential—including messaging to fellow riders and syncing to Strava and training programs—but piles on more reality-enhancing features. Bkool features optional rider-supplied video footage, weather- and wind-altered resistance (i.e. ride the Kona course with headwinds and tailwinds), near-coasting on downhills (you must soft-pedal), and the big one, according to U.S. national manager Brian Orloff: “inertia simulation.” This high-tech trick lets riders with Bkool-branded trainers carry downhill momentum into a climb—and narrow the gap between real and unreal.

For sheer variety, Bkool is untouchable. By encouraging users to submit and film their own rides, it has amassed an astounding 2.6 million routes, including the Hawaii Ironman. This compares to Zwift’s three ride venues (London, Watopia—an imaginary tropical island-and Richmond, Virginia, the site of the 2015 UCI World Road Championships for cycling, each of which are loops that include some fork-in-the-road, left-right options.) By contrast, Bkool routes are often point-to- point and can’t be altered.

While there’s a flood of subscription-based virtual-training apps out there (Sufferfest, Kinomap, TrainerRoad, and Rouvy are among the most well-known), none offer the seamless social interaction of Bkool and Zwift. But even Orloff admits that Bkool’s current lack of that magical “social density” may be a disadvantage.

Example: The minute that my Prince Harry avatar joined Zwift’s continuous London loop from Big Ben to Box Hill, it had 538 riders on it. That crowd always gave me people near my level to ride with and against. By contrast, although 1429 users were using BKool when I rode it, only 12 were spread out on my particular course. So for 45 minutes, I occasionally passed or was passed by another rider, but I mostly rode alone. It wasn’t as motivating and fun for me as London.

“We humans look for connections,” says Justin Ross, a Denver sports psychologist, cyclist, and triathlete. “Riding with others builds a layer of community and competition and lowers the perception of effort. Going it alone or with people of different abilities who can’t ride well together can be grueling and isolating.” That’s why common nicknames for treadmills and bike trainers are “dreadmills” and “life drain-ers.”

The social aspect, combined with the safety, convenience, and potential performance-enhancement via indoor virtual training is what is powering the growth of Zwift and makers of the trainers and sensors.
Stats released by Zwift in August 2017 claimed it had 108,000 current subscribers—which could grow to 300,000 users this winter, when indoor riding typically jumps, says Min. The 267,000 people who have logged onto Zwift at least once have ridden 206 million kilometers. The average ride time is 61 minutes, which was borne out in my experience. I was so pumped after my first London loop that I immediately did it again, for a total ride time of 63 minutes. On a regular trainer, like many, 30 minutes is my limit. Now I’m just waiting to be discovered and signed to a pro team like triathlete- turned-roadie Tanja Erath.

America’s Got Talent

Now that Zwift has helped indoor training move towards real cycling, the platform itself is transforming into Star Search. Like a teenage Justin Bieber vaulting to fame through his YouTube videos, previously unknown cyclists are now getting noticed online.

Three people were signed to pro contracts after riding with the Zwift Academy, a structured training program that has drawn several thousand people worldwide. Leah Thorvilson, 37, a former US. Olympic trials marathon runner who took up cycling after running injuries stopped her in 2015, beat out 1,200 Academy riders and signed with the Canyon/SRAM team for 2017 and 2018. Thorvilson is joined this year by German ex-triathlete Tanja Erath who was picked over 2,100 women. In late 2017, New Zealander Ollie Jones, 21, joined the under-23 squad of superstar Mark Cavendish’s Dimension Data cycling team after winning a six-week Zwift training program.

“Zwift’s reach and data collection opens our team up to the whole world,” said Dimension team principal Douglas Rider to Cycling News in November. “This isn’t a marketing gimmick. It’s a way to find young talent.”

In 2017, the Zwift platform spun-off an independent race series that uses its courses. The CVR World Cup (Cycligent Virtual Racing) stages races every Tuesday across eight “zones” approximately every three hours over a 24-hour period and culminates in World Cup events that bring live racers together in one venue with some cash prizes. Started by former Tucson, Arizona, bike racer Frank Garcia, after he Zwifted into shape and got hooked, it held its first WC in March of 2017 in Roanoke, Virginia, with racers from 10 countries, including U.S. ex-pro Jeremiah Bishop. In April, a live-broadcast race in Las Vegas included TV interviews and commentary for the CVR website, while a September race in Paris distributed $135,000 in prize money, with $3,500 for the winners.

Virtual training is also impacting weekend warriors’ seasonal riding habits—and driving new product innovation.

“It’s always been that people got on a trainer only in the winter,” says Jose Mendez, director of product management at Wahoo, which began making the Kickr smart trainer in 2012. “But one day in the middle of summer, it was 95 degrees here in Atlanta and I look at my Strava feed. I see dozens of Zwifters.

“I get it—it’s hot. It’s hell outside. And weekend warriors are saying, ‘I’ll just stay inside and ride Zwift.’ All of them are turned on by the community aspect. It’s so engaging that it’s even bringing new people into cycling” Mendez wouldn’t reveal by how much Wahoo’s trainer sales had gone up. “I can say that Zwift is very good for our business—and we’ve been very good for them.”

Case in point: Just after I spoke with him, I visited Rock ’N Road Cyclery, my local bike shop and asked the manager if he’s selling trainers. “Look here,” he said, pointing to two boxes of Wahoo Kickrs stacked on the floor behind the counter. “This is Southern California, where you ride year-round. We’ve never sold trainers. But now, people are asking for them.”

Zwift reported that 68 percent of its subscribers used a smart trainer in January 2017, up from 46 percent in January 2016. The rest ride on “dumb” trainers.

Another factor driving the growth is, as Lionel Sanders pointed out, fear. Cyclists are disproportionately involved in traffic injuries and deaths. A June 15, 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “bicycle trips account for only 1% of all trips in the United States,” but that “bicyclists face a higher risk of crash related injury and deaths than occupants in motor vehicles.” In 2015 in the United States, over 1,000 bicyclists died, and there were almost 467,000 bicycle-related injuries. Studies show that drivers are more distracted than ever, with cell phones—particularly texting—being as dangerous as drunk driving.

The virtual road is not only safer, but becoming more immersive as technology advances. Wahoo, which makes the direct-drive Kickr ($1200) and wheel-on Kickr Snap ($599) smart trainers, is introducing the Kickr Climb, a device that attaches to the Wahoo-trainer-bound bike’s front fork and tips the bike upward as much as 20 percent during hill climbs and 10 percent down during virtual descents. Besides greater realism, the device provides relief from a static riding position.

Coming attractions: More inertia simulators, like the ones already found on Bkool trainers; true coasting; on-screen tourist information (“To your left is the London Eye, at 443 feet high, the world’s biggest Ferris wheel when opened in 2000.”); smart treadmills with slope control (for Zwift’s almost-ready-for-prime-time running apps); voice interaction; riding on Mars; and the dual Holy Grail of virtual riding—steering control and virtual reality. Oculus VR headsets actually popped up at the recent Interbike show.

My own big idea: Real Virtual Reality (RVR), where I am actually riding my real mountain bike up to my local Top of The World trail and beaming my route, speed, elevation, and real-time GoPro video to my friend in Alaska who is virtually riding along with me now from his living room. Cool, huh? Maybe someone like John Mayfield will read this and start working on it.

Not to be overlooked is the simple pleasure of enhanced avatar customization. Nose rings and tattoos? Transforming into a pedaling dinosaur or a 1964 Mustang from the movie Cars? Heck, I can’t make my avatar go faster, but I did enjoy the hour I masqueraded as an English prince who’s marrying a Hollywood starlet. Who knows, the thought may have elevated my output by another watt or two.

At Zwift headquarters, they tell the legendary tale of a tiny 62-year-old blonde-haired Caucasian age-group grandmother at the Hawaii Ironman last fall whose avatar was a 23-year-old black girl with rippling muscles and a purple mohawk. When asked why she chose the unlikely online representation, she simply said, “Deep down, that’s how I see myself.”