Image above: Zwift places the cyclist in a virtual world and allows them to ride with — or race — other users
Riding a bicycle in the depths of winter is rarely desirable, with short days, gales and driving rain putting off all but the most hardened enthusiasts. Now cyclists are taking a spin with their friends without leaving their front rooms.
Virtual reality cycling has boomed over the last year after the arrival of a wave of online training apps that simulate real road races or allow users to challenge others from around the world.
Matt Hayman, who won the 2016 Paris-Roubaix road race, used Zwift to stay fit when he had a broken arm
More than 36,000 Britons have signed up to Zwift, which was started by an American living in London who got fed up with traffic-clogged roads. It is popular among “Mamils” (middle-aged men in lycra) and it is hoped that it will fuel interest in cycling among a new generation.
Cycling is in decline across the country, with experts blaming traffic. According to the Department for Transport, 14.7 per cent of people in England cycled at least once a month in 2014-15, down from 15 per cent a year earlier and 15.3 per cent in 2011-12.
Al Clewley, 48, a pilot from West Sussex, signed up to Zwift during its trial period more than a year ago. He gets on his bike in his spare room two or three times a week for 15-mile rides around a virtual island. “What this gives you is the immersion you get from a video game with the fitness that comes with targeted cycle training and the social aspect of riding or racing with other people,” he said.
Most systems for virtual cycling are apps for iPhone, iPad, Mac or PC that connect via Bluetooth to a stationary training device — effectively a bike stand that attaches to the back wheel of a bike and simulates gradients by applying a brake.
CycleOps Virtual Training and Sufferfest use videos to simulate being on a road. Zwift, which costs £9.49 a month for a non-contract subscription, places the cyclist in a virtual world and allows them to ride with — or race — other users. The start-up has 220,000 users in 125 countries, including 36,000 in the UK. Eric Min, a New Yorker, devised the app in Britain. “Cycling . . . became more difficult when I moved to London ten years ago,” he said. “I resorted to indoor training, but that can be a very dull experience.
“What I love about cycling is the social aspect — going places, competing, tracking your data — and we wanted to replicate that.”