By Jack Lynch
(5pm Wednesday, Kai Soh)
As a leisurely pursuit, cycling is all about motivation, participation and breaking down barriers for entry. People often cite inherent road dangers such as poor infrastructure or aggressive drivers as a drawback, as well as inclement weather or social isolation (Walsh, 2014). Thanks to a revolutionary new social network site (SNS), Zwift, these excuses are accounted for, meaning more people have access to bicycle riding and the associated health benefits.
Zwift is an innovative online platform which combines three present day trends, simultaneously allowing exercise, online social interaction and gaming. It encourages intimate publics (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013) to meet and share their cycling passion as a cohort, rather than alone.
It works by people fitting their bike to a stationary indoor trainer and wirelessly connecting that trainer to an app, which creates a ride avatar and transports the rider to a virtual cycling utopia. Here the rider can choose from infinite cycle routes, races or social groups to ride in. Ride data (power, heart rate, speed, distance, time, etc.) is displayed on the screen in real time, and the resistance on the trainer adjusts as the rider encounters hills, wind direction and even other cyclists, where it experiences positive slipstreaming if it tucks behind a group of athletes.
Zwift rider warming up on Zwift Island. (Image: www.coolhunting.com)
On its own, this is not a SNS, but rather a training tool. Zwift is unique, though because it encourages interaction between cyclists who are otherwise isolated on a home stationary trainer. There is real time group and private messaging so riders can chat about their day, offer positive words to others or choose to criticise or disparage if in a race situation. It is a fun and intimate feature which connects “strangers because of a common bond they share” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 44).
First launched to the public in mid-2014, Zwift already has riders from more than 150 countries and limitless bicycle routes and races possible for its users (www.zwift.com) . One of the secrets to its success is gamifying its interface. More hours in the saddle and success at races translates to riders ‘unlocking’ new routes and faster bikes. Just as in real life, a faster bike means a faster rider and more opportunities to compete well on the platform. It is something users fawn over and, as a result, become addicted to virtual cycling so they can reap the rewards for effort.
Essential to Zwift’s success is “building a trust-based online community” (Hunsinger, 2014, p.12). In the competitive online cycling world, there are plenty of ways to cheat. The most common method of dishonesty is by the user incorrectly stating their weight when signing in to Zwift. If a heavier rider claims to be lighter, it reacts with Zwift’s power-to-weight algorithm and makes them have an easier ride. This is a serious issue and threatens to dilute a fair competition and what it means to win a race. As there is no way of policing ‘weight doping’, it is up to users to respect the integrity of their competitors and be honest. According to Hoglund and McGraw (2006), gameplay cheating is “boring and dull”, but players “living a double life” (p.15) enjoy the feeling of being stronger or more talented than they are in the real world so feel compelled to continue the dishonesty.
Zwift race on Watopia underway. (Image: www.zwift.com)
There is an ongoing debate on whether social network sites should be categorised as a community or network. Hinton & Hjorth (2013) go into detail when differentiating the two, with academics divided on whether a community is a group of people committed to growing a common cause, or whether they simply need to be engaging in similar activities and sharing an interest. In either case, Zwift is a community. It links people from across the globe who are all trying to improve their cycling and, whether intentionally or not, are part of a movement to modernise a sport which has not experienced genuine change since its inception, more than 150 years ago.
Zwift is not the first program to try and digitise cycling, but it is the most popular. This is due to its easy to use interface and superior technology. It also has wide social media reach, using multiple streams to get the product to its target market. Zwift is on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube and Strava (the world’s most popular social media tool for athletes), meaning that it has reached almost everyone in the cycling community. On top of this, it utilises traditional and modern media influencers with paid marketing and sponsorship opportunities. Many professional cyclists are endorsed by Zwift and profess to using it in their off-season or whilst injured. Australia’s Mat Hayman won the world’s most punishing one-day race in 2016 – the Paris-Roubaix – six weeks after breaking his arm. The reason behind this incredible form on his return from injury was that when, “his confidence was at an all time low, he discovered Zwift,” (“Paris-Roubaix 2016 winner”, 2016) and could train through his rehabilitation with the online training tool.
When real life results are converted to marketing material, credibility is gained and people begin to take the product more seriously. When Hayman won Paris-Roubaix after training on Zwift, the cycling fraternity embraced Zwift as a training tool as well as a fun game. Flew (2008) wrote that, when it comes to social media, “the quality of participation increases as the numbers participating increase, and in turn attracts more users to the sites,” and this is true for Zwift. Racing is more competitive and addictive as people sign-up to Zwift and race their bike in the virtual world, while getting real-world fitness benefits.
Wings clipped but still on the bike. Mat Hayman trains on Zwift as he recovers from injury. (Image: www.zwift.com)
Zwift can be classed as either locative media or as a more anonymous vessel. In the virtual world, riders are simply athletes on the same roads, experiencing the same sensations as one another. Those with open profiles, however, can show where they are located, creating further intimacy. Riding the same road as a person from the other side of the world at the same time is a thrill which is impossible without SNS and despite the tyranny of distance, there is a “sense of shared space through embodied practices” (Farman, 2012, p. 52). This shared space encourages reciprocity within Zwift, making people log on and ride online more often as well as engage others to join them (Farman, 2012).
As a community, Zwift enables people to “develop ties with [others] on shared knowledge and experience” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.40). It helps global relationships flourish and alleviates barriers often associated with road cycling. By gamifying something that was otherwise a public pursuit, where successes and failures are watched and scrutinised, it offers a private setting for people to increase their participation when they feel confident to do so. This is a positive thing to help strengthen the often maligned cycling community (Jewell, 2017) as well as improve the health and wellbeing of our society.
Farman, J. (2012). Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. London: Routledge.
Flew, T. (2008). New media: An introduction (3rd ed.). South Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press.
Hinton, S., Hjorth L. (2013). Understanding Social Media. London, England: SAGE Publications LTD
Hoglund, G., McGraw, G. (2006). Cheating Online Games. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional
Hunsinger, J. (2014). The Social Media Handbook. New York: Routledge.
Jewell, C. (2017, Feburary 16) Sydney deputy Lord Mayor blindsides council with bike registration call. The Fifth Estate. Retrieved from www.thefifthestate.com.au
Paris-Roubaix 2016 winner. (2016). Retrieved April 16, 2017, from https://community.zwift.com/en/
Walsh, J. (2014, March 31). 10 things that put people off cycling. The Guardian. Retrieved from www.theguardian.com