Not only is virtual cycling just like riding outdoors, but in some ways, it's more fun, convenient (and safer!)
I'm not referring to an exercise bike, spin bike, or Peloton bike. I'm referring to riding my REAL BIKE indoors, in a virtual world - using a smart trainer that automatically adjusts the resistance to match the terrain or incline in the virtual world, and tracks my cadence, power/watts, and RPM - and even distance and GPS mapping as if you biked outdoors.
In this post, I'll detail my setup and provide links and resources if you want to set up something similar in your house or garage. But first, some pictures!
What do you need to virtual cycle?
These are the main components:
- A computer, tablet, phone, or Apple TV.
- A smart bike trainer.
- A subscription to Zwift or other virtual cycling app
- A bike to put on your bike trainer
The general idea is to have some sort of screen in front of you.
I've included a few setup pictures on the right, taken from Zwift's website. I've also seen setups with huge projection TV's that I'm pretty jealous of.
You can also only use your phone, mounted to your bike, if you want to or have no other option. However, the most ideal setup is using the Zwift companion app on your phone, and having as large of a screen as possible in front of you (tablet, computer, or Apple TV).
Smart Bike Trainer
There are two basic types: 'wheel-on' and 'wheel-off'. Here's a good article on the differences. I have the Wahoo KICKR shown in the photo.
You want to make sure you get a "smart trainer". These interface (usually via bluetooth) to your phone, tablet or computer and connect with the cycling software and control the resistance to your bike.
This is important for the realistic feel. When you go up a hill, you want to really feel like you're going up a hill. There's even an attachment available for some trainers that raise your front wheel when you climb!
There are other virtual cycling apps but I've only had personal experience so far with Zwift, and I can't imagine getting bored anytime soon.
Zwift is an online virtual world cycling game and training program that enables users to ride, train and compete. There is a free trial but after that it's $14.99/month. There are 9 virtual worlds including routes based on real-life places in France, England, and New York
I started off just riding and exploring, and recently started doing structured workouts. Eventually I may join group rides or even participate in races. Other than a few bots people can follow for pacing, everyone else in Zwift is a real-life person. Races are against real people, not NPCs.
The gamification part which helps with motivation and fun includes completing routes, collecting badges, earning in-game gear, and trying to beat personal records.
You can use almost any bike (but it does need to be compatible with the smart trainer). I'd recommend buying your smart trainer from a local bike shop so you can get personalized advice and support.
I initially used my mountain bike, but a road bike with more gears in the back is better so I bought road bike. I did have to use a different cartridge on my trainer for the mountain bike as it had less gears, and the bike shop swapped that out for me once I got the road bike.
To the left is a photo of my existing setup. (Yes, it's in my living room).
I run Zwift off a PC, and use the companion app on my phone to control the app. I also wear a heart rate monitor. The phone app lets you take screenshots, communicate with other riders, give others a "Ride On" and other things.
The rides can be automatically uploaded to Strava and end up looking just like a real ride outdoors (with maps too). It will also upload screenshots you've taken while riding.
Riding indoors means not being dependent on the weather, wind speed, time of day or night, or other factors. It's also safer (no cars to worry about).
Not having to worry about traffic or other things also means I can watch a movie, podcast, or TV while I'm riding (though I usually enjoy watching my avatar in-game riding around).
If you're wondering how realistic is riding indoors compared to outdoors, check out this video below: