Local cyclists use virtual world to remedy their itch
The winter months generally dampen the exercise efforts of cyclists and runners alike. On a cold and dreary day, a 15-mile trek down a rural road by one’s lonesome is far from appealing. Zwift is a virtual cycling experience that entered the cycling scene in 2014, reaching Owensboro shortly thereafter.
Fast forward to 2020, and “winter” for many cyclists, especially in Europe, never ended. COVID-19 sparked a worldwide pandemic that has many avid cyclists confined to their homes. While the virus itself poses an imminent threat, the risk of injuring oneself to the extent of hospitalization is the primary concern of several government leaders.
Local cycling enthusiast Harry Roberts joined Zwift in November of 2014, one of only 1,000 members that would serve on their beta group. That group assisted in troubleshooting problems during the company’s early phases, while also providing suggestions for improvement.
“When I first joined, it wasn’t anything like it is today,” Roberts said. “There was only one island that you could ride on and it didn’t have near the number of features that we have today.”
After a successful beta test, Zwift now features a plethora of virtual worlds and platforms for endurance training. The worlds range from downtown London in its present form to a futuristic New York City that features flying trolleys and roadways in the sky. Individuals can enter the virtual worlds for everything from a casual joy ride with friends to competitive races for varying ability levels.
“I entered my first race on November 29 of 2014,” Roberts said. “Back then we had to synchronize the clocks on our computers so we could ensure that we all started at the same time. “The rise of technology and the evolution of social media fostered a completely new level of competitiveness, allowing members to stream races on a variety of social medial platforms. In streaming races, individuals can earn a wide array of prizes featuring everything from t-shirts to cash.”
“The social aspect is what caught my attention,” Roberts said. “I’ve more than doubled my time on my bike.”
Roberts also alluded to the fact that Zwift’s ultimate goal is increase socialization among users; so much so that they provide minimal insight and instructions about their product, encouraging new users to consult with current users for assistance.
A basic package on Zwift costs $14.99 per month. To operate on Zwift, however, one would need a smart trainer that they can mount their bike to. One must then connect their trainer to the operating system of a tablet, computer, or other device to navigate on Zwift. Most riders then elect to connect the operating system to a large screen television to enhance the riding experience.
Athletes under the age of 16, however, can access Zwift at no cost. A fourth-grade student at Highland Elementary School, Chaney Heady, utilizes Zwift as a means of encouraging her teammates on the Daviess County Middle School track and cross-country teams.
Chaney’s dad, Chad, is also an active Zwift user, and hopes that his daughter’s efforts will be contagious.
“With social isolation and distancing, it’s tough for young athletes to stay motivated,” Heady said. “Chaney began streaming her virtual runs and races a while ago, but we’re both hopeful that because of our current situations her teammates will take notice.”
The family also uses Zwift to stay connected with friends and family, and above all, to stay committed.
“Chaney’s grandparents are constantly reaching out to us and saying how they saw her run on Facebook,” he said. “Whatever it takes to keep her running and committed, I’m willing to do it.”
On most January days, Zwift will reach 20,000 worldwide users at one time. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, they’re exceeding 30,000. Local enthusiasts expect those numbers to continue to grow both locally and globally.
“It turns exercise into a video game,” Heady said. “What more could you ask for?”