How to: Cycle with Zwift (a basic guide)

Zwift is taking the cycling community by storm, giving riders an immersive cycling experience from the comfort of their own living room. OK, using an indoor turbo trainer can probably never be considered a comfortable experience, but I’ve found that using Zwift helps address the monotony of indoor cycling staring at a blank wall – plus unique experiences like waving at dolphins while cycling underwater.

This article tells you a bit about how I got started with Zwift, the kit you’ll need and some tips on how to get the most out of it over the first few weeks . . .

What is this ‘Zwift’ then?

At a very basic level, it’s an online cycling game.  At a more complex level it’s an online cycling community that lets you ride your own bike in a virtual world, take part in training activities and group rides, and even race.  It is no substitute for getting on your bike in the fresh air, but it is a good alternative for the winter months or when the weather is a bit rubbish – something that happens a lot in the UK.

Zwift's underwater section
Zwift’s underwater section

What basic kit do I need?

  1. A bike.  Definitely a bike.  It doesn’t have to be anything flashy or expensive – I know some people who use their worn out mountain bike.  It does need to work though, so as long as the pedals go round and the wheels don’t fall off then you’re pretty much good to go.
  2. A turbo trainer.   Needless to say, you aren’t expected to cycle in circles around your living room or office – this is where the turbo trainer comes in.  Regarded in the cycling world as the spawn of Satan, turbos allow you to fix your rear wheel against a resistance roller and pedal away to your hearts content.  There are different types of turbo, more of which I’ll cover later.  Mine’s an Elite Force Mag Elastogel turbo trainer.
  3. A riser.   Most turbos come with a front wheel riser which rises (no, really) your front wheel and makes cycling more comfortable and stable.  If you don’t have one you can always use a big book or catalogue.
  4. A fairly capable PC running Windows 7 64bit or higher, or a Mac running OS X 10.7 or higher, both with 4GB of free space and 4GB of memory.  Any less and it just won’t run very well (if at all).
  5. The free Zwift software.  Pretty essential for any of this to work.  Download it at http://zwift.com/free-trial/
  6. An ANT+ dongle.  A small device that plugs into your computer and communicates with various sensors attached to your bike.  The Suunto Mini Move Stick is particularly good.
  7. Cadence, Heart Rate and Speed sensors.  You’ll be pedaling like mad but not going anywhere in Zwift if you don’t have these.  They communicate directly with the ANT+ dongle which in turn allows Zwift to calculate how fast you are going.  I use the Garmin sensors.
  8. A fan.  Cycling indoors is hot work so you’ll inevitably sweat a lot more.  Use a fan to help cool yourself down and give the impression of feeling the wind in your hair.

In addition to the above you can also use power meters and smart trainers, but that stuff is for another day – personally I just use all the above and get on with it just fine.  If you’re unsure then the Zwift website has loads of information about specific kit which will be compatible, and once everything is set up you can ask it to ‘Check my gear’ to confirm everything works.

Does Zwift cost me anything?

It does, but not in the first instance – which is great if you want to see if it’s something you get on with.  The software itself is free and you have 14 days or 50 miles (whichever comes sooner) to give it a spin to see if it works for you.  After that you’ll need to pay $10 a month on a pay-as-you-go subscription service to keep using it.  Not bad when you compare the cost of doing similar activities at your local gym.

Strava Premium members get a 2 month free trial of Zwift too

Setting up your kit

Ideally you’ll want to have your kit set up in front of your laptop, or even better – your TV screen.  Personally I find that linking your laptop to your TV gives a better experience, but you don’t have to if you can’t.  Another thing I’ve found is that it’s great to have music playing whilst riding – so crank up the volume on your favourite tunes and pedal into the virtual sunset.

Zwifting in the living room

Other things you may want to consider is a USB extension lead to make sure that the ANT+ dongle is within range of your various sensors, water to drink, and the really cool Zwift mobile app that lets you control your ride without getting off your bike.

Your first ride

Zwift device pairing
The Zwift device pairing screen

Once you’ve downloaded and installed the Zwift software and set up your bike and other kit, you need to create a profile by giving the usual personal details to set up your account, as well as gender, weight and height information to help with speed and power calculations.  After this then you must pair your gear, as shown to the right.  Once this is all set up then you are ready to ride.

One click of ‘OK’ and you get presented with the ‘Drop-In’ screen which shows you who is riding and allows you to select particular types of rides or training programmes.  Feel free to explore these later, but for now you can just click ‘Just Ride’ and you’ll be transported to the beginning of the Zwift Island course (known as ‘Watopia’).   If everything is working, once you start to pedal you will see your online character moving along the road.  You don’t need to steer, in fact you can’t, but there are times when you can select a fork in the road to take you on a different route.


That’s pretty much it for this basic guide.  Hopefully by now you’ve managed to pedal around and are starting to get a feel for what it’s like to cycle in this online world.

Future posts will cover some of the more advanced features that I find most useful, so keep an eye out for those – in the meantime, feel free to subscribe to the blog or leave a comment below.

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