Real Workouts, Virtual Worlds: Welcome To Future Of Indoor Bike Training

Pedaling an indoor bike trainer is barely tolerable, at best. Thankfully, that’s changing with a new breed of interactive programs where you sweat, pedal, race against others, and see the sights of a virtual world on a screen.

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Indoor cycling software from companies like Zwift and BKOOL promises to “gamify” indoor bike training. These new tools help you escape into a magical multiplayer online world where riding your trainer faster makes your avatar crush other riders in a¬†virtual environment.

Will these new programs replace treadmills and traditional stationary bikes in home gyms? Well, yes, actually. We think they should.

How To ‘Game’ On A Bike

The term “gamification” applies the typical elements of game playing such as point scoring, cooperation, and competition to increase engagement. Crucial to the gaming experience is a new breed of electronically-controlled bike trainers upon which you mount your own bike.

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These wifi-enabled machines sync terrain on a laptop or iPad to the resistance in your pedal stroke. An electromagnetic braking system monitors resistance automatically via the software.

Resistance will automatically increase as you climb a virtual hill, and climbing a hill will be harder if you weigh more, just like in real life. This creates a realistic and immersive virtual environment.

Workout data is automatically stored and this allows a rider to compare the same ride they did today with a ride they did when they started training. Tracking your improvement over time is particularly motivating.

We got in at the ground level of this new phenomenon, testing this idea over the course of the past year. We tested two of the leading electronically controlled trainers, the Wahoo SNAP ($700) and BKOOL Smart Pro ($700). We will talk about the trainers themselves in a separate review, because the story here really is about the software.

ZWIFT

Zwift is the most popular virtual world for indoor bike training. The virtual world takes place on Jarvis Island, a U.S. territory about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. (Click here to read about the history of the island, including it’s guano mining operation and the gin-fueled suicide of Squire Flockton, a lonely guano miner, in 1883.)

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.36.10 AMCompeting against other riders is much more engaging than sitting on a regular trainer

After a free trial period, for about $10 per month, anyone can get together to ride with others in Zwift. You might find yourself riding alongside Jens Voigt, Ted King, or President Obama.

Zwift’s software is very engaging because there are always a bunch of riders on course. There are rewards for fast lap (orange jersey), and other acheivements. You can even use “power-ups” to boost your on screen performance briefly, just press the space bar. Just as in the real world, there are Strava segments on the course. I was surprised to see my Zwift training show up in my Strava feed as if I was actually in the South Pacific.

If you’re a dedicated cyclist looking to base your training on your functional threshold power, you can use Zwift’s new workout mode. Workout mode will tune your efforts precisely for maximum training benefit. Workouts like this are hugely beneficial for improving as a cyclist.

BKOOL

BKOOL software is similar to Zwift in so far as it uses an electromagnetic trainer to control the resistance as you pedal through the course on your display. It costs about the same as Zwift ($12 per month, but offers a few compelling discount plans). Its software was written for use with the company’s namesake¬†trainers, which we have been testing for more than 6 months now.

BKOOL Pro bike trainer

BKOOL allows one to ride not just in one virtual world like Zwift does, but also on hundreds of pre-recorded actual routes throughout the world. BKOOL features real streams of footage from a camera (like a bike mounted GoPro cam), which allows a ride in virtually any destination you might dream of. Prior to the Tour De France, you may wish to climb Alpe-D’Huez for example. BKOOL adds new courses everyday and they are already up to over 500,000!

BKOOL also offers virtual environments, such as a track or outdoor similar to Jarvis Island, complete with virtual weather that based on the actual weather experienced in that location at that time.

BOTTOM LINE

Before BKOOL and Zwift (and similar programs like TrainerRoad that gamify indoor cycling) popped up, the only way to ride indoor courses with power was on a Computrainer. A Computrainer costs $2500 and although it provides great data, it does not offer the ability to ride with or against other riders, an element crucial to the engagement that a “gamifying” trainer provides.

Zwift is the first program that makes exercise feel like a multiplayer video game. There are myriad ways to compete with other riders. There are goals and checkpoints to achieve to compete against yourself. The graphics are interesting and fluid. The platform is reliable.

Both Zwift and BKOOL are good programs that get better all the time as thier developers release updates. If you are interested in viewing and riding real courses then BKOOL is your best option. Although BKOOL has been around longer, and has a more diverse selection of courses, we find the Zwift environment to be more polished and getting better faster. It is Zwift that got us to stop and think, “Wow. This is different enough to change the way we feel about training indoors.”

Nobody liked training indoors before Zwift. Now it’s a social place to ride with and against each other in a way that is actually fun.

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Contributing Editor Tom Puzak, a former attorney, found himself more interested in his bike than filing copies in triplicate. Now as GearJunkie's resident "bike junkie" he makes less money but enjoys a more creative work atmosphere. Puzak is based out of the Minneapolis office.

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