Are indoor trainers the future?

Are indoor trainers the future?

We are now deep into the third industrial revolution – the mechanical is being cast aside in favour of the digital. New technology relentlessly invades and transforms every aspect of our daily lives, reshaping everything from our homes to our cars and even the humble bicycle. Electronic groupsets and the e-bike are just two ways the bike has been thrust into the 21st century, becoming another addition to the list of “must remember to charge” devices in our daily lives.

But there is one development that has taken cycling in an unexpected direction, moving the landscape from outdoors to indoors. The rise of online worlds is inexorable – virtual reality, social media and immersive video games are all drawing the user into an environment often bigger than their own. In cycling, these interactive innovations have all melded in one ever-growing piece of software that, if you believe those involved, could change the shape of the sport in unforeseeable ways.

Zwift, at its core, is an online training platform for cyclists, that links up with your smart turbo trainer to offer structured workouts. Pretty simple right? But where Zwift truly stands out is in its ability to connect users who ride side by side in an ever-growing virtual world. Indoor training has existed for decades, hitting a new phase in the 1980s with the birth of spinning, which continues to be a popular institution of the modern health and fitness industry.

Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, recently recalled his 13-year-old self slogging away in his London home using a turbo trainer and listening to a Walkman when his mum wouldn’t let him out to train at night. And now his son Ben is following in his footsteps. “My son, for example, wants to be professional,” Wiggins recently told a gathering of cycle industry bods at the launch of Zwift’s new pro racing league. “He comes home from school and rather than go and play Fortnite until 3 am, he goes on Zwift now. We’re happy because he doesn’t have to go out in the dark. It’s also the connections they make – one of his best mates lives in London and they hook up and meet each other to go riding, which is amazing really.”

The inspiration behind Zwift, as set out by company CEO Eric Min, is something all cyclists can relate to. Speaking at the same event as Wiggins, held in the central London Pinarello store in January, Min said: “It all started in November 2013. I’d been a cyclist for ages and I relocated to London from New York and I just struggled to get outside. What I missed was the social fabric of cycling and the racing scene in New York City where I’m from, so I soldiered on riding indoors, riding a turbo, something I was used to. What I missed was the social element. All the tech was there, whether it was social network, Strava or gaming tech, and I thought, ‘why can’t we try to replicate even 80% of the social elements of riding, whether it’s competition or training or club riding? For it to be successful it had to be at scale. You needed to have an environment where you could have a global community of cyclists. That’s how it all started.”

In many ways, Zwift is the quintessential model of the 21st-century invention – you find a group of people, and you connect them in a way they have never been connected before. In Zwift’s case, you take cyclists who are serious enough to train indoors, but who are missing the social stimulus of riding, and you take them to their own world from the comfort of their sheds, bedrooms and living rooms.

And while it’s possible to see Zwift as just another good idea and nothing more, the reaction of cycling’s biggest institutions has been fascinating. In September 2018 the UCI, cycling’s international governing body, announced it would be laying down the rules for eSport in cycling, including anti-doping regulations. UCI president David Lappartient said: “We’re looking to the future of every aspect of cycling and so were keen to help virtual cycling develop. We want to ensure that happens properly by creating some clear guidelines and rules, including anti-doping.”

Lappartient’s willingness to develop the virtual side of the sport suggests he feels it is more than just a helpful training tool for amateurs – it could play some significant role in the future. He also announced plans for a World Championship of virtual cycling, something likely to frustrate the cycling’s traditionalists who would oppose anything that lessens the glory of the coveted rainbow stripes.

The UCI’s commitment was echoed by British Cycling, the national governing body, who announced its own e-racing championship alongside a long-standing partnership with Zwift that will stretch beyond the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. British Cycling’s commercial director, Jonathan Rigby, said: “The eSports market is particularly exciting for cycling as it enables so many more people to participate and be active. We are thrilled to be exploring this new territory with Zwift, to innovate in cycle sport. Its technology and our cycling expertise will together allow communities of cyclists to get more out of riding bikes for competition and for fun. We are also excited about what this could mean for identifying talent. We are proud to have a wealth of gifted riders competing on the world stage and we are confident that Zwift technology will enable us to unearth more future stars.”

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