Zwift merges indoor fitness with massive multi-player online gaming

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At its core, Zwift is indoor cycling software. But layered on top of its functionality is a community that in the two years the company has been operating has grown in both scale and sheer strength. At an event at Rapha’s cycling in SF, I found myself surrounded by core users proudly flaunting their team names and meeting, often not for the first time. Even Barry Bonds showed up to the happening little shop to check out what Zwift had going on.

Without trying it for yourself, it can be difficult to wrap your brain around how the gaming, fitness and social aspects tie together. It’s a cycling community, built on gaming software, that connects to indoor training. Put simply, Zwift has built software that, from the comfort of your own home or local gym, allows you to feel like you are riding alongside your friends on your favorite scenic road.

Zwift has grown steadily this past year, with 170,000 accounts, 2.5 million rides and 45 million miles ridden to date. According to the team, the average ride is longer than an hour, which is impressive. If you’ve ever spent time on a bike at home or the gym, you know that anything more than 20 minutes and you start to feel like a hamster (or at least I do).

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So why have so many people never heard of Zwift? The company isn’t new. With 17,000 Twitter followers, 100,000 fans on Facebook and a half million views on YouTube, Zwift has had little mainstream press coverage recently outside of the cycling circuit. A month or so ago, Mark Zuckerberg did post his support of Zwift when he found himself using it as a recovery option after breaking his arm. Turns out there are many other tech execs on the platform, including Max Levchin, Kevin Systrom and Uber’s Ed Baker. But the biggest barrier as to why the company isn’t more well-known in tech circles is that until you try it yourself, it’s hard to really grasp what’s so great about it or when and where you would use it.

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Zwift isn’t hardware or a device you can just buy. It’s a subscription-based service where you pay $10/month and BYOBike. Unlike Peloton, which requires you to buy a $2,000 bike to ride or take their classes, you can use any road bike on any indoor trainer regardless of its age or fanciness, simply by adding some sensors. Trying Zwift for yourself still requires some setup with fairly high-end sports equipment or belonging to a gym that has the above. Zwift is hard to come by, despite technically being an accessible platform to fitness enthusiasts. When you see it in action, though, you immediately want to saddle up and try it for yourself, regardless of what you are wearing, which in my case was jeans and heels.

Digging into the software itself, Zwift does two things. First, it tracks your activity and performance stats. “There’s actually real data behind all this. It’s not just a game. We measure everybody’s watts, their heart rate recorded, we have their cadence, the rate that they are peddling the bicycle. We log it all to a real data file, and industry standard fit file, and it also uploads to all the standard services like Strava,” says co-founder and lead developer Jon Mayfield.

Second, it connects to compatible hardware to adjust the tension of the bike and mirror the ride experience of the course you see in front of you. “When you are going up or down slopes in Zwift, certain trainers, which is the thing the bike mounts to, have a smart feature where they can actually change resistance. So we support every smart trainer out there to control the feeling. So when you are going up a steep mountain, you are going to feel it. When you are going down a descent, if you do want to pedal it’s going to be very easy. We also use that controllable feature so that when you are doing a workout we can make it so you are putting out just the correct amount of effort so you get perfect structured training intervals every time.”

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True to the gamified nature of Zwift, you have a profile with your stats and an avatar you can customize, selecting not only your jersey, but also which brand and model of bike you ride. In 2017, the company expects to improve character customization to include mustaches, goatees, jewelry and more.

Also slated to roll out in the coming months is voice interaction, which will help build on the social aspects by allowing you to talk to anyone on the platform. Zwift’s iOS app, currently in beta, is expected to go public, making the service mobile and much easier to use. With the introduction of this new app, all you’ll need is a heart-rate monitor to run or ride on Zwift. Then, there is, of course, running, which will be introduced in beta to current users as early as Christmas. At launch, running will be alongside existing cycling courses. But there is huge potential to build a dedicated experience for trail running, marathons and possibly even spin it out to become its own subscription service.

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To support these new endeavors, Zwift is closing a $25 million round in early November. Though the company is unable to disclose exactly who is involved, the round is being led by a private equity firm based in London with other investments in the video game space. The funds will be used to further product development and to lay the foundation for future growth. Prior to this Series A round, Zwift has quietly raised starting with a friends and family round at launch and their first angel round earlier this year.

Zwift’s biggest challenge to date has been waiting for hardware to catch up. VR, for example, is something the company has built and made available, but headsets are still bulky and aren’t designed for fitness in VR. Smart trainers, which are core to the company’s functionality, still average around $1,000, and there is a finite supply of popular modules. Zwift’s CEO, Eric Min, says to expect hardware partnerships in early 2017. “Our vision is to create the most engaged and socially active fitness platform.” The company is talking to manufacturers of stationary bikes and eventually treadmills that will be Zwift compatible, making the service more available and easier to use.

“If you work long hours, if you live somewhere with limited access to the outdoors, places where there are weather issues, you always have the opportunity to ride your bike with a fun group of people in Zwift,” says VP of Product and Olympic cyclist, Mike McCarthy. “It doesn’t take away outdoor riding. It just gives people the opportunity to ride more.”

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Personally, I am bullish on Zwift and hope to see them grow into the virtual fitness future that they have the potential to lead. Despite living in perfectly sunny and temperate San Francisco, I find indoor workouts more convenient. You can sweat at home or at your local gym, hit the shower and get back to your day. There is also the added safety element of not wanting to ride or run at night, especially as a woman. For urbanites like me, it also removes the risk of getting hit by a car, which happens far more than any of us know.

The social aspect of Zwift is also intriguing. If I could catch up with my friend in Berlin, while we virtually ride next to one another on the same loop, I might work out more. With more than 500 community events a month, there are plenty of group rides you can join. But what I find most motivating is that, despite being stationary on a bike, you feel like you are going somewhere. Zwift’s integration with Strava shows the virtual path you completed, and seeing the map and incline stats for the path you rode gives you a sense of accomplishment that a calorie count or heart-rate stats just don’t. Take all these reasons and add running to the mix, and I think there is massive potential for Zwift to tip over into the world of mainstream fitness.