My 5-Year Zwiftversary

My 5-Year Zwiftversary

(Pictured above: my first Zwift ride, then a ride at Zwift’s 2019 Eurobike booth almost 4 years later.)

Five years ago today I went for my first ride on Zwift.

It was my first winter after returning to serious road cycling, and I was already dreading the roller sessions. At the time, none of my local riding buddies were using Zwift – I’m not sure any had even heard of it. But I saw it on a random Facebook post, downloaded the game, ran it in “just watch” mode, and immediately knew I had to give it a try.

After a little research, I found a website in Germany selling Tacx Vortex Smart trainers for ~$290 to my door, and I pulled the trigger.

First Zwift session: November 12, 2015

The night my Vortex arrived I put it together, hooked my bike in, and went for my first Zwift ride from the middle of my living room. The trainer wasn’t calibrated, and I wasn’t dressed for a real ride… so that effort didn’t last long.

But two days later I went for my first “real” Zwift ride – two laps of Watopia’s Hilly Route (which was the only route on Watopia at the time). Uploading it to Strava certainly confused local friends. “Are you in the Solomon Islands right now?”

And that’s how it all began for me. I jumped in with both feet! Less than a month later I would launch, which became Zwift Insider two years later.

I wish I had been on Zwift from the beginning, but when Zwift beta launched in 2014 I was just returning to serious cycling after an 18-year hiatus. So I never got to ride Jarvis. But what I have been a part of has been special. So each year, I look back and deliver my perspective as a Zwifter and the editor of the web’s most popular Zwift fansite.

Zwifting as a Necessity

Our all-time Peak Zwift of 34,940 came in the middle of worldwide Covid lockdowns. Those same lockdowns shut down pro cycling for months, driving many pros indoors, where they discovered Zwift. At one point in mid-lockdown we had several pro teams per week leading group events, and pro riders on course at all hours of the day. It was wild!

The same happened to non-pros, of course. Cyclists who had never considered Zwift now found it as the best of only a handful of options. Smart trainer sales soared, with some retailers reporting a 900% increase year over year. Getting up and running on Zwift is no small thing – it typically means purchasing a smart trainer, and often some accessories. This barrier to entry was simply too big for many cyclists, but when it became the only option, that barrier was suddenly a minor factor.

Stepping Into the Mainstream

This year, much more than ever before, Zwift has become part of the mainstream cycling world. What was once a small bunch of misfit techies celebrating one hundred concurrent riders is now a massive online community where several thousand regularly ride together.

Thanks to massive subscriber growth and events like the Virtual Tour de France and the upcoming UCI eSports World Championships, Zwift’s profile has risen even higher in the cycling community and the sporting world at large. This led to a massive $450 million investment round announced just a couple of months back, giving Zwift a unicorn valuation of $1 billion.

Zwift is no longer a small startup. It’s not just a beta for nerdy cyclists. This year, Zwift was, in many ways, the biggest thing in cycling.

Today most cyclists know what Zwift is, even if they aren’t “Zwifters”. We see setups in bike shops, ads during the Tour de France, events at world tour UCI races. Most of my local riding buddies are now on Zwift – even the ones who poked fun at me that first winter.

And Zwift is no longer seen as the bad weather antidote: it’s avoiding city traffic. It’s confidence for elderly riders. It’s inspiration for anyone recuperating from injury. It is a supportive community you can access from wherever, whenever. And that’s powerful stuff.

Zwift has become a thing. A really good thing.

Trainers: Much Progress, but Further to Go

The KICKR, now in its 5th edition

If you wanted a smart trainer in late 2015 your choices were slim. Wahoo’s KICKR ruled the day, but if you couldn’t shell out $1200 you were limited to a small number of trainers that weren’t terribly accurate or reliable. The Vortex Smart I purchased did the job for a season, but I would upgrade after a year to a Tacx Neo and become a “direct driver” for life. (Today my wife rides the Neo while I use a KICKR v5).

Today we have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a smart trainer! (I spent many hours this summer putting together the Zwift Insider Smart Trainer Index, and one thing that experience taught me was that there are many, many smart trainer models on the market.)

Lots of options is a good thing. Lots of good options is even better! Unfortunately, the past twelve months haven’t seen much innovation in the smart trainer space. While we did celebrate the release of an updated Direto and KICKR, there hasn’t been anything eye-opening in the smart trainer world in months. What we are seeing is the price of high-quality direct-drive trainers slowly dropping, as the features of “budget” direct drive trainers begin to match the features of past years’ premium trainers. Today for ~$900 you can get a trainer with the same capabilities as the $1200 trainers of a few years back.

Covid has slowed this drop in prices, as demand has outpaced supply. But we’ll continue to see prices drop and features improve in the $700-$900 range of trainers.

Are we living in the golden age of indoor trainers? Not by a long shot. I would summarize today’s trainer market as there is still plenty of room for improvement, but we’ve come a long way. Today’s smart trainers still suffer from compatibility issues with certain frames, connectivity challenges, poor calibration tools, and setup requirements that are daunting to many cyclists. It’s still too hard to get going on Zwift, and that needs to change.

ZwiftHQ sees this. That’s why they’ve spun up a “Fitness Tech” division. They’re being pretty tight-lipped about what’s in the works, but suffice it to say it won’t be the same as what’s already on the market. They want a simple, reliable solution. I’m thinking a plug and play smart bike, probably with an integrated screen/computer. Just buy it, plug it in, and start riding. Like a Peloton bike… but for cyclists. 😉

A Virtual Tour de France. It really happened!

The eRacing Niche

Zwift racing participation continues to increase, with the first-ever Zwift Racing League pulling in a massive 6,000+ registered riders each week. And of course, we can’t forget the Virtual Tour de France, which was a huge deal, even though only top pros could participate.

But 2020 has seen Zwift less focused on eRacing than past years. And that’s not an accident – it’s a purposeful shift in focus toward the needs of the overall Zwift community. While Jon Mayfield was chided by the community early on for saying racing on Zwift was “niche”, in a way he was right! The majority of Zwifters aren’t racing – not even close. And with tens of thousands of new riders coming online thanks to Covid lockdowns, Zwift made the decision to focus resources on maintaining a stable platform and a steady stream of events for riders of all stripes.

There simply hasn’t been much development on the eRacing side of things in the past year. Features like anti-sandbagging are still only seen in a handful of events, and Zwift taking over ZwiftPower has meant no further innovation on that front.

As a regular racer on Zwift, I certainly have a list of improvements I’d like to see. All Zwift racers do! But I also realize that devoting development resources to race-specific features means fewer resources applied to features that could improve the experience for even more people. It’s a tough balance.

So Many Rides, So Little Time

There was no in-game event calendar five years ago. The community organized their own events and shared them on a Teamup calendar, and riders had to choose the right course then congregate at the start/finish banner before the event. Racers would jump the gun, make wrong turns, have their clocks set wrong… it was a mess! But we made it work because it had to. You couldn’t have hundreds of riders hanging out in one place without some competition!

We also only had two worlds: Watopia and Richmond. (Confession time: I fell in love with Richmond as a race course early on, and still love it. My first Zwift race was on Richmond, so it holds a special place in my heart even though I get dropped on Libby Hill every. single. time.) Happily, this year Richmond got a refresh, making it a much more palatable course for many Zwifters.

Now we have events happening around the clock – a few hundred every day! And ten worlds to choose from.

Support: Here For You

Zwift’s documentation and support were pretty sparse back in 2015, which is one reason why this website was built. When I had a question I would research the answer then document it here. Eventually, I started doing the same for other people’s questions (usually pulled from the Zwift Riders Facebook group), and before I knew it a sort of Zwift knowledgebase had developed.

Thankfully, Zwift has built a large support team since that time. It grew significantly larger when lockdown began, as thousands flooded to the platform and with them, many questions. This year, Zwift even spun up a program to allow Zwifters to perform a support role on the forums and get paid for their labors. What will that lead to? Only time will tell.

Changing Zwift Staff

Early on I was impressed by Zwift’s core team. Eric Min would pop into support chats on Facebook. Jon Mayfield would chime in on Reddit threads. And Lindsay Ruppert or Eric Chon always had some appropriate snark for anyone whining in the Zwift Venting Area.

These staffers were engaged in the community, passionate about what they were building, and cyclists themselves. Eric’s enthusiasm was boundless and infectious.

Five years in, I’ve been able to rub real-world elbows with hundreds of Zwift staffers at various events, and I communicate with many of them on a regular basis. A big re-org happened this year with Zwift’s top management, and one big result I’ve seen from that is Wes Salmon taking a more public-facing role. That’s been a good thing. As a longtime and regular Zwifter, Wes has his finger on the pulse of what the community needs. But he’s also got the project management experience to make stuff happen.

Zwift staffers have been largely working remotely since Covid began. Has this slowed the pace of development, or perhaps reduced their ability to collaborate effectively? That’s unclear. But I think it’s fair to say that for Zwift (and most companies around the world) Covid has presented some major challenges and created a need for creative thinking and organizational flexibility.

Virtual + Meatspace

When I joined Zwift five years ago, I never would have guessed that I would fly halfway around the world to hang out with people I only knew through a virtual cycling platform.

And yet, that’s what I’ve done. More than once!

In June 2019 Monica and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary with a trip to Girona, where we hung out with Zwiftcast’s Simon Schofield and several other Zwifters for a week of beautiful rides and late-night dinners.

(left to right) Zwifters Glen Knight, myself, Al Clewley, and Kerry Smith riding the Girona Gran Fondo, June 2019

It may have begun with a virtual spin session, but the relationships I’ve built through Zwift have become real, personal, and valuable. I’m looking forward to doing more “Zwift Travel” in the near future.

The Future Is Bright

It’s not hyperbole to say my involvement with the Zwift community has been life-changing. It’s changed my fitness, it’s changed my work life – it’s even changed my vacation plans! And I’m loving every minute of it.

This winter is going to be crazy, with the crush of new riders on the platform. And I firmly believe that our community will keep growing as the Zwift platform develops and Zwift leadership strives toward their goal of more people, more active, more often. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Ride on!

About The Author

Eric Schlange

Eric runs Zwift Insider in his spare time when he isn't on the bike or managing various business interests. He lives in Northern California with his beautiful wife, two kids and dog. Follow on Strava

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Beth Greenaway
Beth Greenaway
5 months ago

I am in my first year of zwift usage (like many, I joined at the end of March this year) but it has already massively changed my life for the better. I am fitter, healthier, enjoying my cycling and addicted to everything the platform offers me. As someone living with a chronic health condition, I thought my days of enjoying cycling were over. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I have the amazing community on zwift to thank for that 🙂

Rob (@robgrootzwaaftink)
5 months ago

Great story Eric! I love your blog and read it on a daily basis. I just celebrated my 1 year anniversary. And Zwift has definately changed my live and fitness too! I got addicted and spend waaaaay too much time cyling on my Tacx Neo 2 and even more time reading everything there is about Zwift and watching way too many Youtube video’s on Zwift… 🙂

Rocky Schlange
Rocky Schlange
5 months ago

Good Zwift history Eric. I didn’t know most of that about how it all started, and when you jumped on board.
My end goal for 2021 is to work hard and become a good rider in my age group. That goal was made after being with you a few weeks ago and watching you race. Cycling is going to become a priority for me once again, as soon as I can get all the storage boxes emptied and out of the training room.
BTW…My new Rocker works great!

Joy Murphy
5 months ago

Great article! I am celebrating my 2 year Zwift-iversary this week and wish I would have started sooner. Racing with people around the world is the best!

Jacob Braaten
Jacob Braaten
5 months ago

Been on since Winter of 2016. I remember pulling up to the start line for races and hoping you had the right course picked. And all the blue bots roaming around! My brother, Dad and I have been using it for years now to be able to ride together from 3 different states. I think I am enjoying it more now than I ever have. Now I just need to convince my better half that I need a trainer upgrade.

Ray Ruyack
Ray Ruyack
5 months ago

12/24/2014 – Jarvis………

Adrian Amos
Adrian Amos (@ahamos)
5 months ago

December 5, 2015 was my first Zwift ride. I’d only had a road bike since August of that year, and I had a lot of friends who swore for the next year they’d NEVER do something so silly as “virtual riding”. My how things have changed.

Sergio Palacio
Sergio Palacio
5 months ago

congratulations Eric. I’ have run some races against you.

5 months ago

While there is a lot to like and praise Zwift for, ZwiftInsider will consistently refrain from criticizing Zwift where appropriate, and ignore issues brought up by the community.

Obviously, ZwiftInsider has something to loose, it it is Eric’s choice what to write/publish, but it does show ZwiftInsider for what it is.

Paul Rayner
Paul Rayner (@paulrayner)
5 months ago
Reply to  Jerrads

There are plenty of places on the net to find negativity about Zwift, and I’m very grateful to Eric for creating a place which highlights the many different, positive things which make Zwift “the best there is”.

Thanks Eric – the world of Zwift really would be less fun without your help – please keep riding on! 🙂

Sam Crofts
Sam Crofts (@sam-crofts)
5 months ago

Great read Eric, thanks for all your work, you win and lose with a smile and that comes through in your articles! Chapeau and Ride On!

Hugh Grainger
Hugh Grainger
5 months ago

Thanks Eric – great stuff. Not had my first anniversary yet, and won’t have for a while, but have been getting stuck in and ticking off a lot of firsts. Use you as a resource an awful lot and have never thanked you.

Oliver Radermacher
Oliver Radermacher
5 months ago

Great article Eric. I nearly enjoy your site every day and looking for everything new in retlation to Zwift. Started a few years ago I am now a depentand :-), and I am happy that I could have convinced my wife as well. I like outfdoor rides as well but often a ride on zwift is much more fun, less traffic and by far easier and faster to start. And I like all the worlds and roads on Zwift and I am looking for interesting events Zwift offers all the time.So thanks for your passion and especially for all the… Read more »

5 months ago

My own 5-years Zwiftversary was on Oct 21st this year; although I’ve dropped in and out at times. I started off spending two years on an old mountain bike fitted to a dumb trainer with cadence sensor, then upgraded to a Tacx Flow, I now have a dedicated trainer bike but still haven’t quite made the leap to direct drive (maybe in the January sales). I never quite got to ride on Jarvis, but I remember well the days of doing five laps of Watopia because that’s all there was, and sometimes going for a ride with only blueys for… Read more »

Jonathan Gagnon
Jonathan Gagnon
4 months ago

My 5 years Zwift birthday will take place on December 3th. Ride on!

Alejandro Mallea
Alejandro Mallea (@amallea)
3 months ago

I’m only halfway there (2 years and 5 months), but by this point I am addicted as well. The real life benefits in terms of health and also in terms of cycling power have been concrete and obvious. My wife and I ride almost every day, and we certainly want to keep it going. Congratulations on the milestone, Eric!

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