Zwift has transformed the indoor cycling experience.
First launched to the public in 2015, Zwift has consigned the days of mindlessly staring at a wall while turning the pedals on a turbo trainer to the past.
Instead, the training platform enables riders to sync their indoor setup with the Zwift app to power an avatar around an ever-expanding network of virtual worlds. If using a ‘smart’ turbo trainer, the effect of drafting in a group, or hitting a climb, can be replicated by the automatic adjustment of resistance, adding realism to previously one-dimensional training sessions.
But that sense of realism extends beyond headwinds and hills – Zwift has also added a social dimension to indoor training.
Every single avatar you overtake, draft or get dropped by on the game is powered by another real-life rider, and it’s common to be met with messages of encouragement and thumbs-ups (‘Ride Ons’) from other users (aka ‘Zwifters ‘) when just spinning around one of Zwift’s worlds.
However, Zwift’s social side goes deeper than sporadic examples of kindness or encouragement. Zwift has helped to further cycling’s inherent adoption of communities – the cycling clubs that stretch back to the very beginnings of the sport – albeit in the virtual world.
Like real-world clubs, Zwift’s online riding groups are established for any number of reasons – be it shared interests, location or to promote a particular community.
Clubs aren’t only for reimagining a cafe run in Watopia, either. Some have a competitive edge, with members representing their clubs in Zwift racing leagues and events, and immersing themselves in the worldwide online cycling community.
A brave new world
Established clubs give riders the chance to Zwift with like-minded and similarly able people on virtual group rides, rather than riding around solo. Tom Harvey, of Islington Cycling Club in London, says, just like riding on the open road, the virtual experience provides motivation and a shared sense of belonging.
Harvey has witnessed the benefits of a Zwift cycling club firsthand. As a member of Islington CC, his local club, he, like many, turned to indoor training in 2020 during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK.
“I had a turbo before lockdown but after half-an-hour you were climbing the wall because it was so boring,” he says. “[Zwift has] totally transformed it.”
The built-in chat feature of the Zwift Companion app enables riders to communicate during a virtual ride, while some clubs increase the social aspect even further by using video call platforms or Discord chat channels during virtual sessions.
When gathering in groups was banned by the UK government, Harvey’s club took their weekend rides to Zwift, and 20 to 30 members would ride each week. They would also host a Zoom-based ‘cafe stop’ after the session as a chance for riders to catch up.
“At the beginning of lockdown, it was fantastic because it meant you could get a bit of exercise and ride with a group,” he says. “There would be a chat going on while we were doing it, and then you’d all get to meet afterwards. I think, for a lot of people, that was a real savior during lockdown.”
Today, Islington CC’s Zwift club is more than 100 strong and requires riders to be paid-up members of the club before they can join the virtual group rides.
While the club is only just restarting group-focused online rides for the winter, Harvey says Islington CC has also been active in the WTRL Zwift Racing League – a feature that has revolutionized indoor training for him.
“I’ve always wanted to race but I’ve always been too old and too scared,” he says. “I can now do an hour’s race, it’s completely enthralling and immersive, and it’s a fantastic bit of exercise. It turns out I can sprint, which I never knew before.”
Representing his club in virtual races has also increased the amount he rides. “I ride more on Zwift now than I do outside. It used to be that I’d do a Sunday ride and long week-day ride, and now I’m probably on Zwift every other day.”
The Black Cyclists Network (BCN) also took its rides online during the pandemic, with Zwift subsequently enabling the group to extend its reach.
Set up by Mani Arthur in October 2018 to tackle the lack of diversity within road cycling, he says the intention of BCN was “to create a club where black and brown people felt welcomed and didn’t feel intimidated to join”.
The London-based group’s popularity had been snowballing – “before I knew it, a dozen turned to 20, 20 turned to 40” – but then the pandemic hit, forcing the ban on in-person group rides. Rather than see this as a negative, Arthur used the global nature of Zwift to extend BCN’s reach beyond the geographic limitations of a real-life club, connecting and riding with cyclists virtually worldwide.
“I’ve always been an avid fan of Zwift for many years, but during the lockdown it definitely helped us as a club,” says Arthur. “We weren’t able to meet up as a group, so it enabled us to set up rides and also have that kind of social interaction. We would have a Zwift ride on the Sunday and then we would have a Zoom as well.”
The weekly 90-minute Sunday afternoon sessions would be a chance to catch up as a club, have a pedalling party complete with DJ and song requests, and would attract riders from across the UK and worldwide.
One moment, when a rider based in Coventry joined the Zwift ride’s accompanying Zoom call, sticks in Arthur’s mind: “It was someone that I’d been talking to on our Facebook group. He’s the only black rider in a club that has 300 members. For him, it was a big deal to finally connect with us and be able to show his kids a bunch of black and brown people riding bikes, and be like ‘there are plenty of people who look like daddy that [ride bikes]’.”
At its peak, the group’s weekly Zwift rides were attracting more than 1,000 people from around the world, with 300-plus still regularly joining.
“I don’t think they’re necessarily always black and brown riders, but that’s the beauty – we’re very inclusive,” says Jo McLean, the club’s secretary and events co-ordinator.
Virtual group rides provide a social alternative when the weather’s bad, McLean says, enabling riders to stay connected.
Providing a safe space
While BCN is an example of a community-focused, in-person cycling club using Zwift, other groups have been established to create a safe virtual space on the platform.
LGBTQ Zwifters is one such example. One of the largest clubs is Zwift, it has more than 1,500 signed-up riders who are members or allies of the LGBTQ+ community. Each Sunday, it hosts three 60-minute ‘Pride Rides’ to cater for different time zones, and aims to be an inclusive space where cyclists can connect and enjoy rides together.
“I found LGBTQ Zwifters probably a month ago,” says Boston-based Bridget Tan. “Before that, I was just riding by myself on Zwift, joining events and doing some programs on there.
“Zwift can get really lonely, especially if you’re trying to do a long ride. I think for me personally, anything more than 90 minutes is a drag. Having that community on there, just knowing that there’s this one other person that’s going to hold you accountable to finish a ride is big for me.”
She wanted to find a group of “very like-minded folk”, so started searching for LGBTQ+ groups in the Clubs directory on the Zwift Companion App. She stumbled across LGBTQ Zwifters and was drawn to it because it was founded by a woman who is also a person of color.
“[LGBTQ Zwifters] is literally open to everyone regardless of how you identify,” says Tan. “I think that’s important because, in the outside world, although there are LGBTQ-friendly clubs, at least where I live, a lot of clubs are still really male-dominated, and there’s a lot of this bike bro kind of culture. Those cultures are not particularly welcoming to people who identify other than a cisgendered male person.”
LGBTQ Zwifters’ reach isn’t limited to Watopia either, and Tan hopes to soon meet up with the new friends she has made online. “I think this is a big piece of what online cycling can do – [you can make] these connections online, but there’s a lot of potential to meet these people in real life as well.”
While most clubs are created and led by individuals or independent groups, Zwift has introduced a number of features to improve accessibility, inclusion and a sense of community.
That includes the introduction of handcycles. Launched in September 2022, Zwift “hopes the handcycle will allow adaptive athletes and Zwifters to have more fun in-game and better represent themselves on the roads of Watopia”.
Previously, only time trial, road and mountain bikes were available on the game, regardless of your setup at home. The new, recumbent-style addition isn’t reflective of all handcycles, but is proving to be a hit too, with a 125-strong group – The Handcycling Club – available to join.
Zwift says the handcycle is “the first step of a larger plan to represent adaptive athletes on the roads of Watopia”, with more updates coming soon.
Change of pace
While Zwift’s network of clubs is growing fast, one of the game’s latest features aims to cater for riders who can still benefit from the motivation – and drafting benefit – of riding in a group, without being tied to a schedule.
Called Pace Partners, they are essentially ‘always-on’ group rides. Running 24 hours a day in the Watopia and Makuri Island worlds, there are nine different paces available – ranging from 1.1W/kg all the way up to 4.2W/kg. Riders can join whenever they like and find a group that suits their pace, while Pace Partner courses change weekly to keep things fresh.
The groups have a social aspect to them too, complete with a group chat and plenty of Ride Ons. And who knows? A Pace Partner group might open the door for riders to find a club or connect with other like-minded individuals in Zwift’s online world.