by John Rogers
Getting a smart trainer and picking an “App for that” is a big investment. There’s lots of choices along the way, and a bit of learning to figure out how all these things come together to create a great indoor virtual riding experience. Here’s my journey to get things up and running…or riding.
Hardware and Setup
After looking over the Wahoo Kickr demo at Trailhead Cycle in Champlin before and after rides last year, I finally took the leap and bought a system from them this past fall. Knowing little about smart trainers, I did some research online and learned that Wahoo is one of the top brands and that Zwift is the most popular of Apps that can be used with smart trainers. Zwift does require a monthly subscription fee as most of the popular training apps do.
You can buy these cheaper online and set it up yourself if you have the tools and know-how, including computer experience. I opted to go through Trailhead because they offer free in-home setup and, if you get the version with the rear cassette as I did, they will ensure that the trainer is correctly adjusted to your bike for smooth shifting. In my case this did require a new chain and rear cassette because my old stretched and worn parts didn’t mesh well with the new cassette on the Wahoo.
Having more computer training than the average user, I opted to set up the system myself once Trailhead got the bike and trainer working together. There are about as many ways to configure your setup as there are trainers to choose from. I didn’t buy any of the extras like the Kikr Training Desk that fits over your handle bars for typing on your computer while you ride (more on this process in a bit), or the Kikr Climb that automatically changes the grade (angle of your bike position) if going up or down hill, or the Kikr fan (I use an old fan leaned against the wall).
I did want to incorporate my wall-mounted TV with the system, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep setting up and removing my laptop from the system, or figure out how to type on my computer without buying the additional computer desk for the trainer. I finally opted to use my IPhone-6 to run Zwift. This setup required the purchase of an adapter for my phone which has the charging cord combined with an HDMI output, allowing you to output your phone display to HDMI while keeping the phone charged. This setup is sufficient for my needs although I occasionally have video dropouts to the HDMI output for a second or two during the rides that aren’t happening on the phone display.
Finally, I use my ipod-touch with Zwift-companion App to communicate with other riders, view the map of my location and that of other riders, adjust my route or send “Thumbs Up” encouragements to other riders. As an added plus, Zwift will automatically upload your rides to Strava (Kind of like Facebook for workout sharing). I can punch out short messages on my ipod, or use the voice recognition feature to send larger messages. These sometimes get garbled with the bike noise, occasionally with humorous word mixups that can generate additional comments or LOL responses, but it’s usually adequate for others to get the message and adds to the fun of the group ride.
The Zwift Experience
Now for the fun part. Zwift can be a bit intimidating at first because it really doesn’t come with a good comprehensive user manual. There are a few good tutorials on the Internet and many how-to videos to help get you excited about getting involved with the Zwift community.
I started just by riding around the first “world” that the App defaulted to, but quickly wanted to join a group ride. I found this is easiest to do by selecting an
event from the Zwift website Event’s link (https://zwift.com/events/). After creating an account, you can even join a ride in advance and then are automatically prompted to go to that ride when you log into the zwift app.
Like TCBC, rides are categorized by your riding ability. There categories go from A through E, with “A” being crazy-fast, and “E” being for “Everyone”. Between “A” and “E” are the various ride levels that most will find a group that meets their needs.
With TCBC I lead C-rides and regularly ride several B-rides, so now I had to figure out how my comfort level fit into the Zwift Categories. Zwift rides use w/kg rather than mph to categorize the rides. You can look up more information on this online, but it’s basically your power output in watts divided by your weight in Kg. So, without consulting your high school physics book, I’ll give you my experience with actual riding on Zwift at my TCBC comfort level.
I found that I’m most comfortable riding at the “D” level. I can push harder if I want or ride a bit slower if I want. I find “D” level to vary from a good TCBC “C” ride to a comfortably-paced “B” ride (like Sonny’s or Kodiak Kruze TCBC rides). Slower to average C-riders will want to find beginner rides or other D rides that have ratings below 2.0 and preferably holding around 1.5. I find a good workout with the D rides that go as high as 2.5. One day I opted for a C-ride when there were no available D-rides near the time I was riding. I might as well have been riding alone and some of the riders actually lapped me before the end of the hour-long ride. I’ll stick with D rides on Zwift.
I should mention that Zwift and your smart trainer will simulate hills, and more important with group rides, drafting. Stay with the group or you’ll lose the draft and, unless you’re a stronger D rider, you will have a hard time catching up. They do have sweeps on Zwift, and their job is to pull the slower riders who lost the draft back into the group. Works sometimes but, from my experience, once riders fall off the back, they don’t easily catch up – even if following a sweep. Stronger D riders can help sweep, as I sometimes do. The larger the sweep group is, the stronger the draft and easier it is for the slower riders to rejoin the group.
When it’s working, there is a “Fence” in Zwift, a red line in front of the leader that will keep the group riders from riding too far ahead. If you violate the fence boundary by riding through it, a 60-second countdown timer will appear on your screen and if you are not back well-within the group-side of the fence in that time, you will be kicked out of the group ride. Many of the rides allow you to rejoin or late-join within the first 30 minutes of the ride. Ride leaders have a gold “beacon” and sweeps have a red “beacon”, vertical beams of color that allow riders to identify them from a distance.
Zwift has six “worlds” that you can ride in. The virtual “Watopia” is always available, while the others (Richmond, London, Innsbruck, New York, Yorkshire) change on a monthly schedule. If you don’t want to use Zwift, you can look into a number of other Apps to work with your smart trainer. Also, you can link your smart trainer to RidewithGPS and ride one of your favorite TCBC routes and enjoy the hills and valleys, only without the enjoyable scenery and company that you experience with TCBC and even with the Zwift group rides.
Finally, I must say that I picked this trainer up at just the right time – who would have expected we’d all be stuck at home and have part of our riding season cancelled. Zwifting on my smart trainer has been a sanity-saving, fitness necessity for me over this past winter and into our spring riding season. I actually over- trained on it mid-winter (not used to what is basically doing a spinning class up to 5-days a week for several weeks). I started having leg cramps and had to back off for several weeks. That’s how much fun group rides on Zwift can be.