First Ride: Zwift's new mountain bike steering segment
Zwift is a piece of virtual training software that allows you to ride, race and train against other people online. It's big with road cyclists, but it's now introduced two new test features in the form of steering control and a mountain bike segment. Is it the future of indoor training for mountain bikers and roadies or just a bit of novelty? We find out...
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Spending time on an indoor trainer is a pretty tedious experience at the best of times, but it's a good way to maintain or improve your fitness, especially over the soggy months or when you're pushed for time. Zwift aims to make that experience much less of a bore, by using the output from a power-measuring smart trainer to take you for a virtual ride, complete with a selection of routes, other people to ride with and the option to take part in group rides, races or training programmes.
Up until now, it's been limited to (virtual) road bikes and routes, while your handlebars are basically just there for you to hold onto as you sweat buckets onto them. That's now changed with the introduction of a test segment that introduces steering into the mix, all via a virtual mountain bike course.
How do you try out the steering feature?
To do that, you simply mount a smartphone with the Zwift Companion app installed onto it to your bars on whatever bike and smart trainer combo you're using and then head for the hills - specifically the Titan's Grove route in the Watopia virtual world.
How much riding you need to do to get to the steering test segment depends on how much in-game riding you've done - for me it involved a 15km spin beforehand because I have insufficient ride time on Zwift to go directly there or near to there. It's obvious that Zwift is introducing new features to generate a bit of buzz and get more people riding further, as well as testing the features themselves.
Zwift doesn't claim that this is a perfectly polished feature but the setup was pretty crisp and easy. Ride up near the segment and you get prompted to take a mystery route and if you do that, you're then asked if you'd like to try out the steering test. A very quick setup then follows; just confirm that you currently have the bars straight ahead and then click okay on your phone and you're good to go.
I should point out that Zwift recommends a proper phone mount for this. I don't have such a thing so I bodged mine in place on the stem with rubber bands, which left a bit to be desired in terms of rigidity but worked surprisingly well all told.
Once that's all done, you start the segment, which has an additional gamified feature that requires you to hit certain lines on the trail and rewards you with a score for doing well. Get full points and do it under a certain time - 12 minutes - and you get a free mountain bike. A virtual one, obviously.
With such pressure riding on the whole event, it'd have been nice if there was a brief test period before the timer started to see how sensitive the steering was - the first thing I did was chuck in a load of lock and veer all over the place, but that got under control fairly quickly.
I also wished I'd put something a bit slippy under your front wheel - two layers of coated cardboard for example - as my bike and trainer sit on a carpet to keep them quiet and that meant a fair bit of effort was needed to move the bars, with a resulting loss of sensitivity.
What's the segment like?
After the non-stop, pedal-as-hard-as-you-can regular world of Zwift, things rapidly got a bit hectic as the segment starts with a downhill; cranking hard and trying to gauge how the steering worked was a tall order (for me at least) and I was all over the place, with my speed too high for me to react accurately. It's bizarre to be backing off the pedalling on downhills to keep the turns manageable and I was almost reaching for the brakes in places - which obviously do nothing.
It's surprising how much extra effort and concentration needs to go into keeping yourself on track, while you need to be more on top of your gear shifting as the gradient (and trainer resistance) varies much more and you need to be crunching through the gears much more often and getting out of the saddle to punch up short climbs - just like a mountain bike.
With practice, the steering becomes more natural to do and by the end, I was getting the hang of it; I suspect this would happen even faster with a more secure phone mount and something to help free the steering up under the tyre.
What's the verdict then?
I'll admit to being pretty taken with it; I think Zwift is generally engaging for riding on a trainer, but it's still easy for your mind to wander enough that you think about checking Instagram or your emails while the virtual world rolls by. There's no chance of that with the steering feature; it's both mentally and physically absorbing and the recreation of what riding a mountain bike is about - constant steering input, gear changing and mixed efforts - is very convincing.
Would it translate to the rest of the Zwift world? There's probably limited demand for road-style cycling - it'd be cool in some toned-down way for keeping your attention on the game screen rather than letting your mind wander, especially in group rides or races.
If there were more mountain bike tracks then I'm sure I'd be keen to try them out, but I think my regular use of Zwift is more focussed about the training effort. Its big advantage is that you can go pretty damn deep into the pain cave without needing to worry about staying upright or riding into anything, allowing you to work harder than it's possible to work on a real bike.
Steering is fun, but it's not adding much to the pain party for me; maybe the rise of it as an esport in its own right - they've even got virtual dopers now - means it'll be adopted more broadly to make it an even more all-encompassing experience.
That's the fun of Zwift for me; it's great for being able to get a lot of training into a short amount of time while still being engaging as you try and keep pace with riders near to you and ride through somewhat abstract virtual worlds. That said, it's not cheap - it requires a subscription of £13 a month and a top-end smart trainer can cost up to £1,000 as well as the bike you need to put on top of it, though there are more affordable options.