They pass by you in groups of about 20 or 30 riders. Many of them ring a little bell on their handlebars or give you the thumbs up sign--over and over again. And, they are annoying. I'm out having a wonderful even-keeled ride on a zigzagging road near sun-flecked mountains, and this throng of  cyclists--let's call them a biker gang--spoils all of the fun.

This strange experience is just one of a hundred I've experienced in a virtual cycling app called Zwift, one of the best I've tested. Other gadgets from Garmin provide similar tracking features, but not the same virtual world. BKOOL also makes a virtual trainer with a 3D simulation, but it doesn't quite provide the same level of detail as Zwift.

For example: There was the time another Zwift cyclist kept speeding up and slowing down next to me. On a winding path in Watopia--a virtual world named after the term "watt" in cycling that has to do with your power output as you pedal--I looked over and noticed an active volcano. Across a bridge later on the same map, a beached seaplane seemed to be sinking into the ocean. And, two towering bike statues made me look up in wonder.

The best part? I was exercising. Really hard with an elevated heart-rate. For a full 45 minutes on a high-end road bike. And I barely noticed the sweat.

Zwift works on a Windows computer, iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad, and Android devices like the Google Pixel 2. Easy to configure and use, the app syncs to a bike trainer like the one from Wahoo Fitness called the Kickr Snap that costs $600. I synced my iPhone X over Bluetooth to the Snap, then loaded the app on an HP Elite One 1000 All-In-One desktop I'm testing that has a massive 34-inch widescreen display (it costs $1,699).

I set the HP computer on a VariDesk Pro Desk 60 ($795), which leaned out over the handlebars of a Diamondback Century 1 bike ($1,200). With the app and trainer, it's quite a brilliant setup. I can lower the stand-up desk and use it normally, and my water bottle is always within arm's reach.

In Zwift, you can see your current time, distance, speed, and watt output. As I mentioned, cyclists use this power meter because it is more indicative of how much you are actually working on a bike and is far better than a simple speed output. When you bike uphill, you produce more power and work harder, and when you glide downhill in the app, you can try to maintain the same watts and pedal harder, watching as your speed increases.

Zwift is part entertainment and part workout, more so than any other apps I've tried on my phone or a tablet. Here's one quick example. Because the app automatically adjusts the bike trainer depending on the incline, you feel like you're really pedaling up a mountain, and then you get a nice reward when the trainer eases back and you cruise down to the ocean. Your visual stimulation makes up for the fact that you are not actually moving. In some ways, it's almost better than "training" in the real world, because you have constant feedback and can pay more attention to things like your current heart-rate and you fluid intake. After a ride, I'll even cool down with a cup of coffee. 

And, you can ride with friends. Those biker gangs notwithstanding, I enjoyed syncing up (technically and figuratively) with friends on the same route. You can click a button on an iPhone mounted on the handlebars to ring a bell or say hello to people (or not, if you want to stay focused). Even the HP desktop proved to be an major factor, a full-color widescreen training aid. That said, any monitor or laptop would work fine.

Is the app perfect? I will say that, once all of the little gadgets, the desktop, my stand-up desk, and the sensors were configured and working, it became quite easy to hop on the bike and ride each morning, although I can see where it might take some time to tweak everything. There are three main maps, and I hope Zwift adds more soon, as I might grow tired of the ones offered. And, the app costs $15 per month--maybe you'd consider that a lot for a fitness app. I had a little trouble with the Kickr Snap at first, adjusting the tension so that it felt like I was working hard enough (but not too hard).

Also, BKOOL does make a much cheaper trainer that costs $399 called the Smart Go that provides the same kind of feedback and syncs with Zwift.

For me, Zwift made a huge difference in my daily routine. I'm drinking less coffee, feeling more energetic--after cycling for 45 minutes, I'm ready to start processing email with abandon. I plan to keep using the app every day, and I've even lost a few pounds. Next up for me--I want to bike around the entire Watopia island. And avoid the biker gangs.

Published on: Feb 9, 2018