Zwift’s September update included a new bike: the Handcycle! Powered by your arms instead of your legs, Handcycles are especially popular with disabled athletes who have reduced use of their legs. That said, they can be used by fully “able” athletes looking for a good arm workout.
The Handcycle is available now in everyone’s garage, free of charge. Here’s how Zwift describes it:
Designed in collaboration with experts in para-cycling, this frame is for athletes who crank with their arms instead of their legs. This well-balanced cycle will let you see the roads from a whole new perspective.
This frame is rated 4 stars for aero and 1 for weight, which seems sensible given the fact that handcycles are quite aero IRL, but also quite heavy.
Here’s everything you need to know about the performance of the new Handycle in Zwift.
Aero (Flat/Rolling) Performance
The Handcycle’s aero performance is strong, slightly edging out the fastest road setups (which includes frames + wheels) in game. This includes setups like the Specialized Venge S-Works + DT Swiss Disc wheels.
Its test time of 50:16.5 is just 0.5 seconds faster than the fastest road frame + wheel combos over our test route of two laps of Tempus Fugit totaling 34.6km. Does that make the Handcycle the new fastest road bike on Zwift? Not really. This is a more complicated issue than isolated speed tests. We’ll discuss this more below.
In contrast to its stellar aero performance, the Handcycle’s climbing performance is quite poor. And this isn’t surprising, given the high weights of typical real-life handcycles!
The Handcycle turns in an Alpe time of 56:07, which makes it the slowest frame+wheel combo in game. The next slowest is the Zwift Mountain bike at 55:51.
Note: all test results above are from a 75kg, 183cm rider holding 300W steady using Zwift’s stock 32mm carbon wheelset.
The Wheel Wildcard
Speed testing the Handcycle is a bit different from our typical “frame only” or “wheels only” speedtests, where we isolate the performance of a specific frame or wheelset.
The Handcycle is a unit, like the Tron bike or all Zwift mountain bikes, where the frame and wheels are inseparable. So when we talk about the performance of the Handcycle, we have to compare it to complete frame + wheel combinations, just not specific frames.
By that comparison, as noted above, the Handcycle just barely outperforms (half a second faster over 50 minutes) the fastest road setups on the flats. What are the fastest setups on Zwift? There are four turning in the same fastest times on the flats. Choose from the Cervelo S5 2020, Felt AR, Specialized Venge S-Works, or Uranium Nuclear frames, then pair them with the DT Swiss Disc wheels.
Given the drafting details explained below, one might want to compare the Handcycle to the fastest TT setups in game. It is significantly slower there, turning in a time 95.5 seconds slower on our flat test course than the fastest TT setup (Canyon Speedmax CF SLX Disc + DT Swiss Disc wheels).
The Handcycle is unique on Zwift because of the way it drafts and gives a draft to others. Specifically:
- An upright bike cannot draft a handcycle
- A handcycle can draft another handcycle
- A handcycle will get half the drafting effect when drafting an upright bike
We’ve confirmed this drafting behavior with tests:
- A Handcycle rider at 270W (3.6 W/kg) can stay in the draft of a road bike rider holding 300W (4 W/kg), since the Handcycle rider is receiving 50% of the typical draft benefit
- A Handcycle rider at 243W (3.24 W/kg) can stay in the draft of another Handcycle rider holding 300W (4 W/kg), since a Handcycle receives the full draft benefit from another Handcycle. These numbers basically line up with what you’d see if both riders were on road bikes.
- A road bike rider on the fastest setups (such as a Venge S-Works + DT Swiss Disc wheels) must hold 300W (4 W/kg) to keep pace with a Handcycle rider holding 300W (4 W/kg), since the road rider receives no draft benefit
Should You Use the Handcycle?
There’s one last question that needs to be discussed: should Zwifters who are riding upright, leg-powered bicycles be using the Handcycle in game?
Zwift says “Handcycles are available to all, but they’re intended for Zwifters using handcycles on their trainers. Thanks in advance for keeping that in mind.”
Leg muscles are much larger than arm muscles, so powering Zwift’s virtual Handcycle with your IRL legs simply isn’t realistic. For reference: the current world record holder for the fastest handcyclist told us that in no time during his training did he hit 700W.
Furthermore, it’s simply bad form. One hand cyclist wrote in to us recently on the topic of leg riders using the Zwift Handcycle and said, “Now, when we finally have visual representation, we are still far outclassed by leg riders because they are not riding the handbikes as they would IRL – using arm-level power.”
Here’s how we see it: if you want to test the Handcycle (powered by your legs) in a casual ride or two, that’s no big deal. But on an ongoing basis, and certainly in competitive events (hard group rides, races), leg riders should stay off the Zwift Handcycle. It’s just the right thing to do.
In our opinion, the Handcycle performs the way it should in Zwift. Like an IRL handcycle it is quite aero, but also heavy. Zwift’s drafting dynamics for the Handcycle make it not a good option for leg-powered racers looking to “cheat the system”, and that’s a good thing since there’s no easy way for Zwift to determine who should have access to the Handcycle and who shouldn’t. Consider the following race scenarios:
- TTT: a TT rig is faster than the Handcycle, and receives full draft off other bikes thanks to Zwift’s latest TTT improvements
- TT: a TT rig is faster than the Handcycle
- Scratch Road Race: the Handcycle will only receive 50% draft benefit off road bike riders, so you’ll be working extra hard while only having the aero performance matching what many other racers are using (fastest road frames + DT Swiss Disc wheels)
The only time the Handcycle could be seen as an advantage in a race is if you plan to ride off the front early, solo (or with another handcycle) and stay away for the duration of a very flat race. In that case, since road bikes can’t draft the Handcycle, it would be the best machine to have. But it’s nearly impossible to stay away from even a small pack of riders for an entire race, and you’ll probably get called on cheating if you’re matching the power of strong leg-powered riders!
The Handcycle will be added to the following posts, and it can also be found on our Master Zwift Frames List:
Questions or Comments?
Important note: this post contains speed test results for Zwift frames or wheels. These results may change over time, and a bike’s performance relative to others may also change. We don’t always revise posts when performance rankings change, but we do keep current, master versions of our speed test results which are always available. See the frame charts, wheel charts, and Tron vs Top Performers for current performance data.
A bit of “back pedaling” by Zwift. I didn’t think it was fair that hand-cycles were being used virtually by able-bodied people, yet Zwift released this without any consideration or guidelines beforehand.
Hey Ben, I share some of your sentiments and agree abled bodied athletes should not use the hand cycle avatar. That said, I know Zwift thought about this consideration. I can’t personally think of how they could limit it. Even deterrents would be likely too challenging.
Why isn’t it “fair”, it’s clearly no advantage, so what’s unfair? or do you just like moaning about Zwift?
The fairness comes in the representation of handcyclists (and similarly with other paracyclist). Handcyclist will always appear to be, at best, below average in performance compared to upright cyclist – even elite performers. Having the handcycle avatar is finally a way to explain why we are so slow. The “unfairness” comes in when leg riders use the handcycle and negate what the representation means though unrealistic power generation. Zwift seems to strive for accuracy, as much as they can, but generating leg power on a bike that, IRL could never utilise leg power, is completely against the ethos of performance… Read more »
Everyone will have a different view on this, of course. As a handcylist myself, I don’t mind able-bodied people using them at all. IRL I encourage it and often let people use my own bike to try it. Despite my disability, I don’t see handcycling as a particularly “disabled” activity, it’s just another way to ride a bike, albeit a much more difficult way to do it (with few advantages over an upright (mainly outrunning tandems on descents and not tipping over at traffic lights)). But, my take is that if you’re using arms you should be using arms –… Read more »
Could this be an option to finally hit that 100km down radio tower 🤔
Going by the article, TT bike + disc wheel is more aero than the handcycle… so, no. It’s not that hard to hit 100kmh, you just need to get an aero powerup (on your road bike), switch to TT bike at the top. Head down, use the aero powerup and start sprinting just before you reach the shadow.
Why even try it at the radio tower when you need to sprint with a power up. Just ride bologna much easier
I assume using a concept 2 indoor rower will also benefit using the handcycle when connected to zwift which i do sometimes.
It is great that hand cyclists have representation. Now give the two-wheeled racing recumbents a bike. This one could be for uprights and recumbenteers alike.
Yup, absolutely agree! The aero on today’s high end recumbents rivals or surpases that of optimized time trail bikes.
Thank you for adding the “Should You Use The Handcycle” section at the end. I understand that Zwift is a game, but I believe this equipment addition should be left to those it is intended for and not a “toy”.
The question Buddy The Elf (Buddy just sounded like I was about to threaten you! LOL) is, who are handcycles intended for. Yes, they were originally built for disabled people such as myself, and yes, Zwift created theirs for, and in conjunction with, members of the disabled community, but when it comes down to it, in the real world, if an able-bodied person wants to ride one (and is willing to take on the challenge and much harder workload) they are free to. Mind, I only know of two able-bodied people who ride one: A friend who runs a handcycling… Read more »
I guess the point is that an able bodied rider will almost certainly be using a regular bike in order to power their avatar, regardless of what bike the avatar is riding.
So they will have a massive advantage in Zwift compared to someone who is powering their avatar with a real life handcycle.
If it’s in my garage I’m bound to use it. Already took it for a spin. Telling people it’s bad form seems incredibly weird. I’m on a TT bike using Zwift, it’s like me telling road bike normies to not use in-game TT bikes. I don’t care what bike you use.
I like the handcycle. Will use again. I’m going straight to hell.
It’s actually nothing like a road biker using a TT bike. Those are both leg driven, so what you see in Zwift is realistic.
If you’re driving your trainer setup with your legs, but using a handcycle in game – that’s not realistic. And frankly, in speaking to at least some handcyclists, it’s insulting. Because all they have are their arms for powering their handcycle, but you could presumably be flying around Watopia using your legs to (over)power a handcycle.
But I don’t make the rules. Just sharing what I’m hearing from others.
Disagree that it’s insulting, that’s too far. You’re treating adaptive athletes as if they’re all thin-skinned. If anything, the more handcycles on the virtual road, the more awareness towards adaptive athletes and the sport. The handcycle in Zwift is fun.
I don’t mind being alone on this. I also don’t care if someone is riding a consistent 6.0w/kg up the Alpe. You do you.
Eric mentioned that some handcyclists find it insulting. I think they are the ones who can decide whether it is insulting, not us able bodied riders. Whether we intend to be insulting or not is a different matter.
As a handcyclist myself, I don’t think the issue is necessarily that it’s bad form for an able-bodied person to use the handbike (though there will be many para riders who disagree with me). What is bad form is the use of leg power when you never could IRL, in an environment that’s striving for performance accuracy. With all due respect to Eric (and many thanks for the test and review, btw) the figures he used for a sustained ride are unrealistic for a handcyclist. Some handcyclist may have a great power to weight ratio due to being a double… Read more »
“Leg muscles are much larger than arm muscles, so powering Zwift’s virtual Handcycle with your IRL legs simply isn’t realistic. For reference: the current world record holder for the fastest handcyclist told us that in no time during his training did he hit 700W.”
How about just somehow virtually lowering the power input that a bicycle rider puts in, so that it is equivalent to the power input that a handcycle rider puts in?
In that case, the power delivered by a handcyclist will also be reduced
According to Zwift, because of how handcycle stationary setups work, there’s no way to accurately determine if a person is on a handcycle IRL or an upright, leg-powered setup. There’s the rub.
Cone of shame? If someone outputs more power then the 95% percentile of hand cyclists, you have to contact Zwift to verify your power. Like now is with normal bikes?
I think, if it became a problem, Zwift could institute some power limits for handcycles. I’m sure the data is out there – “here’s what the very best handcyclists can do for 15s, 1 minute, 5 minutes, and 20 minutes”.
But I think Zwift will only put in that work if it becomes a real issue. At this point it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Out of interest, could you fit one of these to a turbo trainer IRL?
Yes – handcyclists have been doing that for years on Zwift. All the setups I’ve seen use a wheel-on trainer mounted to the front (drive) wheel of the bike.
As a Handcyclist I use a direct drive mounted upside down, im aware of other hand cyclist using same
Yes you can. As Richard P mentions many (most?) mount a direct drive trainer upside-down. I use a custom made frame, but others use a plyo box. The trainer hangs from the frame, the bike hangs from the trainer. A few bikes can use a Tacx Neo, but as with anything handcycling related, getting parts to fit them is tough. Not all trainers fit between the forks / footrests. I then put my TV on top of the box so I’m generally looking up to see where I’m going. i’ts quite different than riding IRL, as IRL you are looking… Read more »
Cool, thanks for the responses guys!
Thanks for testing the handcycle Eric! Now what we urgently (well, before the ZRL TTT on Tuesday) need to know is whether the horrendously ugly Cadex Tri TT bike beats the sexy Canyon Speedmax (dear god, I hope not). 😀
News flash: it does. More soon…
Hey Eric, any insight on if Zwift is considering a change from the 5-star method of classifying bike performance to something more precise (ex.0-100 or even 1-10) like other games? It would make comparing/choosing bikes much easier.
Haven’t heard any such plans, Matthew.
I tried it on a group ride and Zwift sure has a sense of humour! In a group, when you are in front of others, or when you pass others, then your camera view actually goes through the body of the person behind you and you see the view of their “inside face”
A little scary, but funny at the same time!
If you haven’t seen it, try it!
Paul, yeah I noticed that too. It actually starts to feel like a nightmare when you’re in a group with uprights, like with a pace partner. Depending on your pace, you can also see the empty souls inside the uprights, and if you get the speed difference right as you accelerate away, you can give them a virtual colonoscopy (since the camera sits at rear-end height). In addition, on 1 or 2 parts of the Alpe, when descending, you go underground for a quick bit. I’d have to say the camera view has room for improvement!
They should consider creating a cycle using both hands and legs simultaneously….
If uphill climb is an issue, then, design it with full carbon frame/wheels, pedals, disk brakes and put in 2x 1000w bafang or yamaha electric motors w/all wheel drive, to help going uphill and stopping when going downhill. Equipped complete with motorized wireless controlled steering, shifting, put in lights front and rear with left/right hand turn signals, and finally, luminuous flags, to indicate you exist on the road. You’re very low to the ground so, wear a helmet, goggles. You could easily be missed and ran over by an insecure male or a dui female driving a raised Ford F250… Read more »
Why is she Asian?
Having read about the handcycle….you almost don’t dare to ride it when having the benefit of your legs. I don’t think it is meant for only disabled athletes because Zwift would otherwise make it only accessible for those who qualify. LEQP is having an event next Sunday and doing 100k on Tempus Fugit with a set bike….the handcycle. Just to have the experience of riding the handcycle in a group and create awareness for those athletes who rely on the handcycle for daily use. Hopefully everyone gets a good workout and enjoys the experience.
No recumbent cycles in Zwift so the hand bike is the closest.
can some handcyclists shed light on arm-only FTP? whats average? whats top level. i use a vasa erg for swimming on zwift occasionally and can barely hang on to 1 w/kg (2w/kg for butterfly stroke but not for long!) whats a typical range for a handcyclist?
Great question Josh. I am new to Zwift and I am a T12 paraplegic (56 yr old). I used to race handcycles competitively. My classification is MH3. I have been off the bike for quite a few years, but recently have returned to riding. My main goal is to get back into shape and have some fun while at it. My current FTP is 110w. I sure hope with my training over the winter that my FTP will increase. Currently it is very difficult to join a group ride using the handcycle in Zwift with that FTP. From what I… Read more »
I have seen today for the first time a handbiker in the game. Wow, very nice that the handbikers have her own bike avatar. A recumbent one will be also very nice to use in the zwift world. I know that there are a couple of recumbent Zwift bikers.
Would love to see a recumbent tadpole trike avatar. I ride one irl and also use one with my Zwift hub. Hope to see one soon.
What hardware would you use with this? Do they make smart handcycles?
It’s hard to imagine that even an aero bike would be anywhere close to the aerodynamics of a handcycle. It’s so low to the ground and the rider has almost no area exposed to the front – just googling it sounds like CdA should be half that of an upright bike. Did Zwift get the numbers from actual testing, or fudge the numbers so there’s no super-aero bike?