What I learned while riding an indoor cycling trainer

Just what or where is Watopia, anyways?

That's what I asked myself when this mythical location first appeared in my feed on Strava, the social network for cyclists that gives one a GPS view of the exploits of other riders.

In the past few years, "smart" cycling trainers have been sliding into the spare rooms of riders around the globe. Coupled to online apps that create a virtual riding experience, they provide a new level of engagement for fitness enthusiasts, enabling them to work out on a bike without stepping through the front door.

I've spent a bit of time questioning my virtual-signalling friends, without being overly tempted to join them. A key reason is cost – smart trainers don't come cheap,  with fancier models priced north of a grand. Also, I'm a decidedly unscientific rider – I simply love riding my bike, and have never been one for structured training programs or data crunching, even when I have a big event on the horizon.

But when a friend offered to lend me her top-line trainer while she was out of town, it was a prime opportunity to dip a cleated toe into a new ocean of cycling.

I married my racing bike to the trainer in my study, aimed the setup at my computer monitor, and signed up for a free trial of Zwift, an online massive multiplayer zone where you can pedal your cycling avatar through various landscapes and scenarios. After half-a-dozen outings, here are some observations.

It really is a workout

On a real-world ride, it's easy to find places to rest, be it on a downhill road, or rolling up and waiting at an intersection – but there's no real rest in the online world. Even the descents require some effort – when I stopped pedalling, the trainer's flywheel let out a reproachful falling whine, while my avatar slowed to a halt in the virtual roadway (presumably "giving all other other avatar cyclists a bad name") before levitating to the road shoulder.

I thought I'd lack motivation, but the constant stream of metrics (distance, wattage, gradient) kept me engaged, as did the graphics – and I somehow felt I was constantly chasing my own avatar, with his back to me at the bottom of the screen.

A heads-up display during a Zwift cycling workout.  Image: Zwift

A heads-up display during a Zwift cycling workout. Image: Zwift


Gonna make you sweat

I'm a big bloke and tend to turn humid under duress, but riding in one spot generated next-level perspiration. Despite a desktop fan aimed at me front-on and cranked up to 11, moisture was falling off my forehead, fingertips, chin etc at such a rate I had to dot the floor and handlebars with towels and t-shirts to soak it all up. Extra laundry duties could provide an added workout.

Roam around the world

Zwift's virtual home is Watopia –  fantasy islands that are home to a volcano, mountainous rainforests and desert plains, depending on where you go. There are also several simulacrums of real-world locations, such as London and New York – in the former you get to ride through a Tube station and up the escalator, while the latter has giant transparent tubes that you ride through in rollercoaster fashion above Central Park – one way to avoid gridlock.

A world without cars or potholes

I've ridden comfortably on roads around Australia and the world, but it really was fun to focus solely on turning the pedals, without having to watch for passing cars, the dangerous door zone and any other road conditions that might bring a rider unstuck. Indeed, recent reports from the UK contrasted a decline in road cycling with a surge in indoor riding.

What you do have is the avatars of other riders, with flags on their backs indicating their nation of origin, who you can race, draft or pass with a curious shouldering action that reminds of infamous moments in pro sprinting.

A stylised vision of New York with transparent tunnels.  Image: Zwift

A stylised vision of New York with transparent tunnels. Image: Zwift

Programs and options galore

Zwift isn't the only online player in the market. Many competitive cyclists swear by TrainerRoad, which specialises in structured interval training, guided workouts and performance analytics tools. The Sufferfest offers a multitude of workouts across nine categories, with video sessions that incorporate footage from professional races as part of the motivation, and it also has stretching and yoga workouts, a boon for many a creaky cyclist.

I thought that Zwift would just entail virtual rolling around, but was quickly introduced to structured sessions. With the smart trainer setting the resistance, there was no need to change gears as I went through a warm-up before alternating between high-cadence rolling and mad dash sprints, with the readouts regularly yelling "MORE POWER" and (somewhat less frequently) "reduce power".

So, will I join the stay-at-home revolution?

Thanks to Sydney's late-fading summer, my week whirred by (hot tip – trainers can be noisy) without what must be surely a defining experience for the indoor cyclist – a comfy, warm workout while chilly rain lashes the windowpane. And I never joined a group event, messaged another rider, tested my FTP, or met a real-life friend online for a fantasy outing.

I can't see the stationary world completely replacing the wide open spaces I love to explore on two wheels – from long outings in national parks to rolling through the 'burbs with the wind on my face.

But for me, the best thing about a week of indoor training were the structured workouts that shook me out of my comfort zone. It's easy to fall into patterns, routines and predictability – especially as a solo rider – and I enjoyed the way I was encouraged to push my boundaries. And I've had several friends tell me how stationary training has helped to boost their real-world endurance. 

With winter on the way, and several gruelling events on my calendar later in the year, my week of spinning in one spot has opened the door to temptation. So, if by chance you spot my avatar in some fantasy location in the near future, feel free to shoulder past and say "hi".

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.