Zwift: Let's Dance!

Our series of stationary training articles dedicated to Zwift has been about getting the most out of the individual experience. But what about those of you who enjoy the social aspect of riding a bike? Or think you might?

Zwift differentiates itself from most other indoor training software tools in that it is an MMOG: Massively Multiplayer Online Game. You’re not alone in Zwift’s virtual world.

This can be a little intimidating. Joining an online group session is only slightly less so than joining your first road group ride. It’s not uncommon to feel like that socially awkward pimply-faced freshman. Zwift is that slightly-more-popular-than-you friend that pushes you out onto the dance floor when your song comes on.

Like other indoor training software tools, Zwift will certainly provide ride feedback like other indoor training tools as part of the Zwift Head’s Up Display, which we covered in our second article. But when you first start riding in Zwift, your focus is immediately drawn to the virtual world, with your avatar front-and-center. Not only do you see yourself riding, but you see other people on the course with you. You are no longer alone. You can interact as part of a real time, worldwide community. You’re on the dance floor and you’re dancing.

Your interaction with others in Zwift can be whatever you want it to be, from incidental contact to being the life of the virtual party. Wallflowers can keep a safe distance, limiting themselves to observing others on the road. At any given time, there can be thousands of people riding in Zwift, from all over the world. As you get closer to other riders you’ll see their names and their home countries displayed near their avatars, and in the rider list on the right side of the screen (above).

Feeling socially warmed up? You can wave to other riders as you meet them, send group text messages, or even give another rider a “Ride on!” You may even see one of the popular schoolmates (we’ll talk about running in Zwift soon, too):

Zwift allows not only this casual contact, but with a bit of planning you can be part of a more discreet, targeted effort such as a group ride or workout. Zwift offers events that take the social aspect of indoor riding up a few notches. Let’s dig into “events” a bit.

Alright, where do I RSVP?

The good thing about Zwift is that you don’t have to RSVP to the party; you just show up. You just need to know what is happening and when. The best place to see this is at www.zwift.com/events:

The Zwift events website lets you see what's coming up soon. You can click on any of the events to get more details. There are events going on all around the world, and you just need to determine which work for you, and be there at that time. There isn’t necessarily a sign-up. It’s like the local group ride, you just gotta know when and where.

Zwift events can be broken into 3 categories: races, group rides, or group workouts. Read the descriptions; you’ll can get an idea of how fast you’re going to need to go to keep up. While your local real group ride may specify a pace of X mph, in Zwift it’s usually dictated by watts/kg: You will be riding with people at a similar power-to-weight ratio as yourself. (There are some rides that are velocity-based.)

Some of the events do take a bit more planning than others. For example, a race may have you indicate your class by changing your name on screen to include your category or other details. For example, the race in the image above has a link that will describe more about how to qualify, as well as the rules around the race.

When your event is approaching, you just fire up Zwift like normal. At the Start page, you will see the Upcoming Events display on the right side of the screen, as shown here:

Just click on your selected event and you’re prompted to join. You are now ready to go. If you start early, you will be sitting at the start line with a group of other riders warming up on virtual trainers (as is the case just below).

Interaction in the group ride is a bit different than in the open ride. There will be designated ride leaders and sweepers, which are indicated by arrows floating over them and a colored beacon that you can see from all over. All group messaging will be limited to the group ride participants. As you head out on the course, you will see other riders, but will not see their names show up in the rider list on the right side of the screen. You will see your position within your group. The only riders that will be listed will be your fellow group riders. Riders in the group will all be wearing matching kits.

Once the clock hits zero, your trainer disappears and you will take off as a group. While it is a group ride, there is nothing that will normalize all of the riders so you can stay together. You can get dropped (and, boy, did I!).

A group workout is a bit different than a group ride in that it will keep all the riders together. So, whether you are cranking out 200 watts or 500, you will stay together unless you stop pedaling and drop a few seconds behind the group.

How fun are group rides? Let me ask you this: How fun are analog, on-road group rides for you? If you find them frustrating, what can I say? Zwift is pretty realistic. You may find a similar dynamic. Virtual group riding adds some interesting elements: maintaining pace and keeping up with the group, using the draft, taking the front, etc. That’s not so easy, and it’s especially tricky in a virtual world.

Give this some time. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t yet have the hang of group rides, even after you have a few of them under your belt. In the screenshot above, we were expected to be pacing at 2.0 watts/kg and yet I was losing pace to the main group while cranking at 4.0 watts/kg. How did that happen?! The groups set their wattage and it’s suggestive. Also, from a 50kg female's perspective (so I've heard), try riding 2.5w/kg ride on a flat route and you’ll realize, much like in real life, you actually need to put out more watts just to keep up.

My group ride experiences were pretty varied, and maybe it just takes some practice, and perhaps experience in choosing the right rides, with the right riders! My first ride was supposed to be a 16-mile ride at what I thought would be a manageable pace. I was dropped within the first 3 miles! On the next ride, 5 laps around London, I was able to at least stay on the lead lap, although I finished over 10 minutes behind the leaders, almost getting lapped. That group had an intermediate sprint and that broke the group up pretty quickly. I rode that group ride mostly by myself.

On another ride, four of us who got dropped formed a small group and we did a good job at staying together. We ended up finishing relatively low in the group rankings (at the end of an event, you will see how you fared). That was fun! I was riding with people from South Korea, Germany, and New Zealand. That, by itself, is pretty cool.

A number of the bigger groups, especially the industry groups - Zwift Fitness, Team ODZ – tend to be more as advertised, that is to say, ride leaders tend to herd their cats… er… riders with success. Look, this is part of Zwift’s charm: These avatars aren’t some coder’s figment, they’re proxies for actual people.

That’s enough dancing for now.

We’ve talked extensively about the many ways that Zwift can motivate you, from individual achievements in our last article to today’s exploration of the Massively Multiplayer Online Game experience that differentiates Zwift from other indoor cycling tools. We focused primarily on group rides today. We’ve had our first dance, and hopefully you are looking to do this again soon. Keep an eye on Slowtwitch.com, as we will be offering some regularly scheduled Slowtwitch group rides soon.

There is still plenty more to cover in Zwift. We barely touched on races or group workouts today. Many Slowtwitchers are waiting for me to write about these. Next we’ll take a look at the aspects of Zwift that make it more than just a game, and how it can be used as a serious training tool. A seriously fun training tool!