What’s Up in Watopia: New Features for Fall

If you have been consistently logging hours on Zwift, you have likely already encountered most of what I am highlighting in this article. However, if you are a seasonal indoor rider or runner, you may have missed some of the changes Zwift has made to their hardware and software since the last time you logged into the game.

Below I offer a break down on a selection of recent changes Zwift has made to their virtual cycling and running platform, against the backdrop of the resolution of their beef with Wahoo and the subsequent shutting down of Wahoo’s RGT this month.

Southern Coast Watopia Expansion

This past week, Watopia expanded with the addition of 19 kilometers of new road along the southern coast. The new, primarily flat road takes you through four distinct areas: Googie Springs, Evergreen Coast, Ciudad La Cumbre (Summit City), and Sandy Coast.

There are eight new route badges that incorporate the new road. Combined, the route badges amount to just under 5,000 XP, providing a significant bump toward the next level you may be targeting. Some of these routes will be included in the fifth stage of the Tour of Watopia, where you can double-up your distance-based XP. After the Tour of Watopia concludes, you will need to be at least level 10 to access the new road and complete the new routes.

After the initial discovery of the new road, I have found it nice to have another reason to visit the Mayan Jungle Loop, which was more of a destination than a place to casually ride through. I also imagine that this southern loop will eventually lead to more roads being created inside the loop around the big mountain. Since this part of the Watopia map is relatively undeveloped, this new southern road may be heavily traveled in the future as Zwift provides us with more routes on the varied terrain along the mountainside.

Zwift Play Controllers

This summer, Zwift introduced controllers that can be attached to your drop handlebars. In addition to enabling steering, you can navigate the menu, use the action bar, return Ride Ons as well as drop Ride On bombs, and use a new braking function (which may become more relevant in the forthcoming gamified events).

Think of these controllers as a supplement to the ways you already interact with Zwift. If you are using a PC, the controllers allow you to push the keyboard aside once you are in game. Same goes with your AppleTV remote; once the Zwift play controllers are paired you don’t need the remote. And, if you are touching the screen of a phone, tablet, or laptop, you don’t have to worry about your fingers being wet from sweat. The fact that you can dump buckets of sweat on these controllers and they still function is probably their greatest asset.

As a PC user, I have been controlling the game with Zwift Play. I am now almost completely independent of my remote keyboard and no longer have to dry my hands to use the touchpad on my wireless keyboard.

My initial advice when setting them up is to let out the reach adjustment completely on your shifters. That adjustment will provide you more room between the orange paddles on the Zwift play controllers and the gear-change levers on your shifters.

However, Zwift Play doesn’t necessarily replace the Zwift Companion App. I’d argue that many people will still want to be able to access those menus and screens on the Companion App while riding in game. I have been trying out different setups for making both my phone and the Zwift Play controllers accessible, such as the Tacx Smartphone Sweat Cover that is in the above picture.

I do find myself using the steering buttons more than I expected. When I had steering setup on my InsideRide E-Flex motion rig using the guts from an Elite Sterzo, I didn’t enable the steering in game that often. With the Zwift Play controllers, the steering capability is there if and when you want to use it. There does appear to be an advantage hugging the inside of turns, so I’m interested in racing in Crit City during an event with steering enabled.

I also appreciate that the controllers are rechargeable using the provided Y-split USB-C cable. I’m always bothered by how may coin batteries we are using to run our cycling equipment these days.

The Zwift Play controllers are being offered at a reduced price of $99 (compared to the regular price of $149) during what Zwift is describing as a beta phase of their development. This reduced price may put them into serious consideration for the curious, especially as people forced indoors for riding look for something new for their indoor setup this season.

Zwift Hub One & Virtual Shifting

This month, Zwift released a firmware update to their Hub trainer that enables virtual shifting. They also released the Hub One that consists of a replacement free hub equipped with a single 15T cog and large plastic guides, as well as the Zwift Click controller for shifting between 24 virtual gears.

The Hub One is not required to use virtual shifting on the Hub trainer. The Zwift Play controllers can also be used to change virtual gears in game. However, the Hub One’s single cog is compatible with chains ranging from 8 to 12 speed, which makes sharing the trainer across different bikes very easy. I also see the Hub One’s appeal of ease of setting up a bike on the Hub trainer, further eliminating the need for knowledge of micro adjusting the rear derailleur for shifting on a full cassette. Zwift is targeting the uninitiated indoor rider with the Hub trainer, and the Hub One does simplify bike setup even further.

The Hub One consists of the same freehub that is already installed on the Hub trainer, on which the two plastic guides and single cog are held in place with a standard lockring. The single cog has taller teeth than a standard cassette, which is common on single speed drivetrains. Instead of including only the single cog, plastic guides, and lockring (which replicates many single speed conversion kits available), Zwift includes the freehub to make the process of upgrading the Hub trainer with the Hub One easier on the person who may not have a lockring tool and a chain whip. The only tool required for installation is the 14/17 mm wrench provided with the Hub trainer. The Hub One conversion kit is currently available at a reduced introductory price of $59.99 (regular price $79.99).

The virtual gears replicate a range from 0.75 to 5.49 in 24 increments. To put that in plain terms, 0.75 is equivalent to a 30 x 40, and a 5.49 is roughly equivalent to a 55 x 10. I can’t imagine needing any lower or higher gears on Zwift. This wide range of virtual gearing should allow most users to adjust the difficulty setting of the virtual terrain to Max in order to experience gradients closer to how they would feel outside. Also, the 24 increments may mean that people can find that gear that is “just right” instead of being stuck with a mechanical gear that is either a bit too high or too low. Shifting under load isn’t an issue with virtual gears, but that’s not a habit we should be encouraging, especially among those new to cycling.

I’ve read in multiple places that Zwift is considering supporting virtual shifting on other smart trainers and smart bikes. Maybe since Zwift is now playing nice with Wahoo, we’ll see the two working together on virtual shifting in game across Wahoo’s hardware range.

Zwift Climbing Portals

In July, Zwift introduced a Climbing Portal that appears in Watopia and France. The portals can be accessed directly from the Just Ride menu at the bottom of the home screen or as routes within Watopia or France. You can also ride to the portals. The climbing portal in Watopia can be found off of the Volcano Loop. The climbing portal in France can be found on the northern-most road at the top of the map. There are signs in both worlds to let you know when you are approaching a climbing portal, as well as a prompt to turn toward it.

The climbs that you are transported to through the portal rotate on a set schedule. The Watopia climb portal will take you to a different climb every few days on a rotating basis. The France portal will take you to the climb of the month (Rocacorba for November). There are 17 climbs total that are currently being scheduled through the climbing portals.

The portal climbs feature a color-coded road based on gradient and a series of gates akin to the turns on the Alpe du Zwift. Riders receive statistics for each segment between these gates, such as average heart rate and power for each segment just like on Alpe du Zwift. There are three powerups that are randomly available, adding a minor gaming element to the climb portal: feather, small XP bonus (+10), and a large XP bonus (+250).

This feature has received a love/hate reaction from Zwifters. If you think you’ll hate the concept, it’s easy to ignore and navigate around. But, if you like the Alpe du Zwift challenge and experience, you now have a rotating schedule of climb options on which you can chase PRs and accumulate XP.

Videogame Elements

Currently, you can ride the Repack Ridge and experience a gamified time trial. Green time bonuses, blue speed boosts, and red hazards that slow you down are spread across the twisty course. Learning to steer with the Zwift Play Controllers takes a few runs, but you eventually become accustomed to the steering that is maybe best described as indexed in that you are changing “lanes” like on a running track.

This is kind of a novelty in this introductory mode. It’s pretty fun to try and improve on your best time (I haven’t been able to break the 3-minute mark with a PR of 3:03). A few repeated runs will help you adjust to the controllers. My set of Play Controllers seems more responsive on the right compare to the left.

However, Zwift has plans to hold races with these gamified features. They have shared that Repack Ridge will soon have a multi-player mode where a handful of cyclists start at the same time and race the course, potentially getting in each other’s way. There are also plans to introduce this format in Crit City, which some people may find attractive for the addition of gaming skill, pack positioning, and chance to spice up the racing. Many of us were initially attracted to mass start bike racing because it required additional skill sets beyond pedaling hard. Zwift will always be a videogame, so I like the idea of introducing videogame elements to the racing.

(Re)discover Zwift

For all of the above-mentioned features (and a few others I couldn’t fit into this article), I argue it’s a good time to become (re)acquainted with Zwift. We’ve seen past indoor seasons come and go where there hasn’t been that many developments made to the game. I’m the type of person who doesn’t look forward to heading indoors to ride, so anything new is welcome to help make the experience of riding indoors more interesting and tolerable.