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The world of indoor virtual cycling: Group rides, racing and workouts

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

Cycling has boomed in the last year following the pandemic as more people are opting for active methods of travel. However, for keen road cyclists, the global pandemic has meant racing, group rides and sportives has been difficult. Add the winter weather, and it’s easy to see why so many cyclists have turned to virtual cycling, indoors, to get their fix.

Indoor cycling provides a safe and warm option for those who want to keep training and racing. Especially for anyone in parts of the world where cycling has been banned or discouraged, embracing indoor cycling is a great way to adapt.

The growth of indoor cycling

Indoor cycling has grown exponentially in recent years - from the bikes to the virtual worlds you cycle around to the technology that allows it. And that has been driven by the likes of virtual cycling platforms such as Zwift and Bkool. Racing has followed suit, with plenty of rides switching to a virtual one. In fact, in 2019, Strava noted: "Indoor/virtual cycling is the next big thing in biking," and, "virtual reality cycling adoption by cyclists has nearly tripled since 2016".

The pandemic has fuelled the movement, with indoor cycling equipment selling out everywhere and virtual platforms becoming cycling meccas for those who are used to meeting for group rides at cycling cafes. Many of those who were once resistant are now converted.

If you aren’t convinced, here are some tips for successful indoor cycling:

Set up: Your three options are an inexpensive basic trainer with your bike mounted to it, a more expensive smart trainer with sensors to measure power and speed that adjust the resistance to match virtual hills, with your bike mounted to it, or a very expensive purpose-built indoor bike that doesn’t have a back wheel. If you opt for the basic trainer option, you’ll need a smart connection to enable you to measure power and speed, which is needed for cycling on virtual platforms.

What to wear: Indoor cycling is much the same as outdoor cycling, and it’s a hard workout. Wear your normal cycling kit, or something sweat-wicking, expect a lot of sweat, and prepare for the heat rising.

Preparation for a cycle: As mentioned, it’s a tough workout, even if you just do a training ride. Make sure you fuel and hydrate properly, as you would for an outdoor ride. And have a towel at hand to wipe away the sweat if needed.

Platforms: Zwift is the market leader for virtual cycling and offers cyclists the chance to explore six massive virtual worlds, with over 80 routes to choose from. Originally created to be the perfect training aide for winter months, Zwift has become a lot more mainstream in recent years and now offers plenty of workouts and races to cater for all. Zwift describes itself as: ‘Zwift blends the fun of video games with the intensity of serious training, helping you get faster. Level up in the virtual worlds of Zwift with a community that motivates you every minute. Choose from training plans, group rides, races, and more. You’ll get fitter and stronger.’ There are plenty of other options so check them out: Bkool, Tacx, TrainerRoad, Sufferfest and Road Grand Tours are good alternatives.

Indoor and outdoor cycling Many professional cyclists turn to indoor cycling during the winter months in a bid to maintain fitness and build leg strength. The nature of indoor cycling means you can choose the type of workout you want - you can focus on hill climbing, sprinting, casual cycling, or racing. Plus, virtual platforms are pretty social, so you can ride with your friends in a peloton, or with people from all over the world.

Most cycling clubs are now running virtual group rides, while some companies are also putting professionals on group rides. In response to more people riding indoors, even Strava has updated its challenges, which are vital to user engagement, to give more credit for indoor rides. Most platforms sync straight to Strava or Garmin, and most platforms have rolled out group workout or ride functionalities. It’s safe to say, indoor cycling has come a long way, particularly with the increasing complexity of technology.

Today’s trainers are more intelligent than ever before, providing unerring accuracy that enables races and workouts, quieter, and simulates the outdoor riding experience better. Most of the major platforms don’t market themselves as a replacement for the real thing, more as a supplement. Following Garmin’s significant purchase of Tacx, the Dutch indoor trainer company, it shows the combination of a brand known for encouraging people to get outside and exercise, and the potential of indoor fitness.

Racing on the virtual platforms, instead of outside, has also surged in popularity and become almost as competitive as the real thing. The racing experience remains the same - there are attacks, tactics and solo performances. There are even streams to allow viewers to tune in and watch virtual races. Zwift has remarkably announced previously the goal to make virtual cycling an Olympic sport, the first eSport to do so. So it shows how serious the virtual cycling world is. Elite teams have also entered the indoor cycling arena, with the likes of Canyon launching their own Zwift team. Canyon has also started creating indoor trainer friendly bikes.

Indoor cycling will never truly replace the real thing, but it can offer the intensity and competitiveness many cyclists crave while in-person racing and events have paused. With such little real racing happening over the last year, indoor cycling isn’t going anywhere. If you haven’t tried an indoor group ride, workout, or race, give it a go!

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