Note: I have not played online games since about 2007? which is about when I stopped playing Counter Strike, so I don't have other online game experience to draw on. Some of what I "discover" with Zwift may be standard features in other games but I don't know. I imagine that many of the folks reading this aren't regular online gamers either so maybe it'll all work out.
Basically you need five things to get onto Zwift, and a smart phone helps.
1. Something to ride, meaning a bike and some kind of trainer. If you don't have an Ant+ power meter you need to have one of their supported "classic" trainers. I don't have an Ant+ power meter but I do have a CycleOps Fluid2, one of their supported "classic" trainers, aka "dumb trainer".
My bike on the trainer (out of sight to the right).
Wood frame in the back is part of my (rarely used) motion rollers.
USCF wood sign will end up in the trailer I think.
Note the aero wheels. They really help on the trainer. Ha.
2. If you do not have an Ant+ power meter then you need an Ant+ speed/cadence sensor. I have one of those, from my 4iiii Sportsiiii days, and it's mounted in tandem with my SRM speed pick up. It gets tricky - it's why my speed pickup was not aligned in my last race - but when it's right it's right. Picture will be after #3.
3. Ant + USB dongle. This item receives your Ant+ data from your bike (either the power meter or the speed/cadence sensor) and tells the Zwift world what you're doing on the bike.
Ant+ dongle on the floor; it's the part that looks like a black cap on the USB extension cable.
Ant+ speed pick up is the rectangle thing on the frame, the cadence is the cylinder thing.
SRM speed pick up is behind the chainstay under the Ant+ speed pick up.
4. The Zwift application on your supported computer. I think most modern computers will be fine - I use a 2011 MacBook Pro, nothing special, and it's fine. You need some minimum video card. I haven't tried Zwift on anything else.
Zwift app on the silver MacBook, at the screen where you can click "Just Ride" to start a ride.
My MP3 player resides on the black Toshiba. It dates back to 2000 or so and struggles to play MP3s.
Note also: white baby monitor, smart phone set on "keyboard shortcut" Zwift page, big fan on floor, TV, stacks of DVDs, wired SRM on bike, temp/humidity, DVD/VCR, speakers (not hooked up), backup bike laying on its side on a box in the background.
5. Optionally if you have a smart phone then you can download the Zwift app to your phone. It's not a standalone app because it won't display the Zwift world, it's a support app. It lets you see some things like a rider list, it's really the only way to text other riders (no verbal/mic/talking stuff yet), and it gives you some shortcuts for things like waving, wiggling your elbow, using a power up, or taking a picture. I mainly use it for pictures and sometimes for texting. I'll also use it to view the rider's full name (only the first initial appears on the computer app).
My smart phone (Android) with one of the three screens up.
Note power differential - I'll return to that later.
So once you're all set up you log in and set some parameters. At first it was just weight, sex, and… was that it? Recently they added height, FTP, and age.
You get to set your avatar (the thing that represents you in the Zwift world). I put gloves on my guy, a helmet, and I darkened the skin a bit (I thought the whole skin tone thing was interesting but I guess it makes sense).
Then you allow the Zwift computer app to find your bike (Ant+ powermeter or speed/cadence pick up if you're using a classic trainer), click "okay", and you're on the island.
Recently Zwift introduced a second island, and I have very few screenshots from it. I do have some screenshots from the first island.
My first screenshot on the first island, just testing things.
I'm in the grayish Zwift jersey on the double yellow line.
For the first lap I went around clicking all the buttons so I was waving, elbow wiggling, saying "Ride On!", stuff like that. Whenever I see someone going through those motions I smile because it seems pretty apparent it's someone new to the island and playing with the controls.
No idea who this is but I'm just in front of him.
If you click on someone else you get a small leader's board as well as the other rider's current ride data. Right now this is the only way to see the leader board, at least the abbreviated version. You do see the one leader board when you pass through the leader board finish line for that board (like the green jersey board when you go under the green banner), i.e. the three inflatable banner/bridge things.
A real life elite teammate in the Polka Dot, me in the green.
So what does Zwift do for you?
The biggest thing I think Zwift does is it gives you a lot of the normal (good) distractions you experience on the road. You see people you know, you go for familiar land marks, and you feel compelled to push a bit if it means hanging with a particular rider.
One missing aspect is the "big group ride" thing. Yes, you can ride with someone for a bit, maybe even two or three someones, but eventually one rider will pull away on a hill (almost always) and without any compelling reason to hang onto that rider the impromptu group starts to split.
I think when there are more people there will be more organized rides and therefore more groups. I can't imagine what it would be like to be buried in a 100 rider group but I hope to find out.
So barring the future big group ride thing I found Zwift did two big things for me.
First it motivated me to do some all out sprints on the trainer. I really dislike sprinting on my trainer because I can't rock my bike. Therefore it's not a natural motion and I quickly find excuses not to sprint. On Zwift, though, there are some clearly defined spots where Zwift times you, and if you're going for a sprint, Zwift only counts "right here".
Therefore when you get to that spot on the lap you have to sprint or you don't get timed and you have to do another lap to get another chance to do a timed sprint. When I'm thinking of sprinting on a regular training ride I inevitably ease and think, "Okay, let me sprint in a minute or five".
And then after an hour or three I decide I'll do the couple sprints some other time.
Second, with Zwift also there's a sense of trying to do as best as possible. I didn't think I rode better "for others" but recently I did a set of intervals for someone else, and I found myself much more motivated to do the intervals since I had to upload the file after the ride so that someone else could check it.
Likewise Zwift puts you and your effort in front of everyone else, so you naturally want to do well. Call it what you will, competition, whatever, it's still effective.
On the first island I even went for a KOM. It took me about 1:23 (83 seconds) and absolutely massacred my legs, but I pushed about 75 seconds more than I would have had I made the effort in my own little "sitting on a trainer" world. With Zwift, with a timer staring me in the face, a concrete albeit virtual goal ahead of me, I pushed until I got to the banner.
I've probably done more hard sprints on the trainer in the last several weeks than I have in the last several years, and I can't remember the last time I'd done any kind of way-over-threshold effort lasting longer than a minute that wasn't in a race.
So Does Zwift Work?
Well yes and no.
First the negatives.
There are no structured workouts (yet). Zwift exists for you to use, not to tell you what to do, so if you want a structured training ride then you will probably ignore Zwift while you do your ride. That's how I did it.
It emphasizes fitness over virtually anything else. Zwift doesn't reward a good bike handler, someone who knows how to corner, any kind of real world group riding skills. It rewards numbers, high watts and, for climbs anyway, low kilograms. In fact in the new world Watopia there are two hard turns in the green jersey sprint and you really have to go 100% through both of them. It's so unnatural that I consciously look away from the screen so I don't try to lean or coast or whatever.
Finally, for now, it's in beta so there are a limited number of riders in the world. It's not like a true Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) where you drop into a road and there are riders buzzing back and forth such that you can't ride alone. The newness also means very little structure, meaning very few group rides, very few races, very few regularly scheduled anythings. I imagine in the future you'll find a 5 PM ride, 6 PM ride, 7 PM ride, etc, so that you can log on and join a 20 or 40 rider strong 6 PM group ride or whatever. But right now? Not so much.
Now for the positives.
First, the world engages you. It's not quite like the real world, where there's much more randomness. Sometimes a training ride is nutty, sometimes it's boring. In Zwift, at least for now, it's pretty stable, so no Godzillas or snipers or anything, just you, the other riders, and the course/world.
However that world gives you landmarks, some level of expectation ("okay after the left turn it'll start to descend a bit"), and it allows you to think ahead of your avatar. If you were just riding the trainer then every second is consumed by the here and now, and every second can feel like it's dragging on forever.
I've found myself so distracted/occupied by Zwift that I almost forgot that I was coming up on the green jersey sprint.
What this does is it makes time absolutely fly by. I'm good on the trainer for 2 hours at a time, without Zwift. Music, a bike DVD on low volume, that's all I need.
Last night I wanted to do at least two sprints. Ended up being three, but with Watopia the laps take me 30 minutes each. 3 sprints meant I rode 90 minutes. It didn't feel like 90 minutes because I was so focused on whatever was happening around me.
It was like being on the road.
Second, Zwift does make you put some skin in the game, meaning you end up with a vested interest. As I mentioned above I did repeated sprints on Zwift, something I never do on the trainer. I mean, why would I? My trainer power is much lower than my outside "rock the bike" power so I never saw the point to doing a trainer sprint. However, with Zwift, I now have a reason, so I sprint.
Zwift also gave me motivation to ride a bit harder than normal. Again, on the trainer before Zwift, I could ride hard but there was no point. Now I'll push a bit to see if I can stay on a wheel, or try to not be too pathetic in the KOM, or whatever.
Third, Zwift allows me to interact with riders from all over. Back in the day (23 years ago, give or take) I did the Tour of Michigan (part 2, part 3). Our host for the two years we did it, Alan, was super nice, super supportive, and… we never saw him again. Alan never came out to the East Coast and we never went back to Michigan.
So I never saw Alan again.
Until I was on Zwift.
Then, bam!, a guy with his first and last name went flying by me.
Not only that, he was up there in the green jersey leader board.
It was Alan, the same Alan from the Tour of Michigan.
And now we comment to one another on our own efforts and stuff.
I think that that is what Zwift really brings to the table. It's the social aspect, like Facebook on bikes, and although I initially thought of Zwift as more of a MMOG kind of thing, it's really a social tool as well. In most MMOGs you don't use your real name, so you don't see a Joe or John or David, you see SuperDuperHaxx0R or THOR or, well, SprinterDellaCasa.
I plan on being on Zwift for the long term. I know the development will continue with the platform and I know the crew there have a passion for the sport and a vision for Zwift.
I know this because at the beginning, before any Zwift investment opportunity showed up, I spoke for an hour or so with one of the founders. He later told someone else I was "bullish" on the concept. A now-former teammate moved to join the team. And a fellow NYC race promoter (and former pro, which is way more than I can ever boast), also joined the crew.
I believe in all of them. I can't wait to see what they unveil in the next year or two.
There's one more data point I have.
In 2015, because of the insane amount of snow we had over the winter, the bitter cold lasting deep into March, I rode outside three times between January 1 and April 12. I rode outside March 15, 22, and April 12.
Every single other ride was on the trainer, maybe 70 hours worth.
I was sick for most of March and up until after Easter weekend. I therefore raced poorly on March 15 and 22, not even finishing the race officially on the 22nd (I stopped halfway up the hill in the sprint).
However, after recovering from my bout with what appeared to be the flu, I showed up April 12th hoping for something a little better.
I'm not going to credit Zwift with everything. But it certainly helped me, it helped push me to make race-like efforts, and the 30+ second solo effort I put in at the end of the race is something I haven't pulled off since about 1986.
So there's that.