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Cyber cylists

Bend cyclist Erin Reis spun her pedals at a brisk clip, mindful to elevate her heart rate before participating in an evening criterium bicycle race. Oddly, the other female competitors didn’t appear, even though a roll call list on Reis’ phone told her they stood among her.

“Is anyone here?” she asked to teammates on a group call with her smartphone. When no one responded, the 40-year-old cyclist hopped off the stationary bicycle trainer in her bedroom. She crouched before the keyboard in front of her flat screen television and rebooted Zwift, the virtual cycling game that has, despite kinks, revitalized indoor training around the globe.

When Reis, a new and enthusiastic user, lined up for a later race, she encountered the same problem. No video-game-like cycling avatars cued up.

“That’s a bit frustrating,” Reis said, opting instead to spin a quick interval workout through a virtual world called “Watopia.” With a heart rate of 160, she zipped past towering palm trees and coursing lava flows. Before going to bed, she filed an inquiry with Zwift about the glitch. By morning, Zwift had diagnosed why she wasn’t able to join races. The firewall of the anti-virus software she recently downloaded was blocking her access.

“I thought it was a user error. Or that my 10-year-old trainer was the issue,” she later said.

Glitches like these have been the figurative bumps in the road for Zwift and its 160,000 global users — whose tech-savvy and equipment vary as much as their cycling abilities. For Reis, a competitive mountain biker and cyclocross racer, Zwift makes indoor training during winter fun.

“Riding indoors is kinda bittersweet, but on days where I’m short on time I’ll ride Zwift,” said Reis, a hospitalist at St. Charles Bend who uses Zwift four times a week during cold and wet months. “Zwift makes you ride harder than riding on a trainer by yourself.”

Zwift’s virtual group rides and races mean Reis can get her race fix whenever her “competitive nature bubbles up.” She’s already joined Fearless, an international all-women’s racing team, which she encountered on one of several Zwift Facebook groups. She can communicate with them during rides or races by using Discord, a voice and text app designed for video gamers she accesses on her smartphone.

“It’s fun when you see the other people in the race, and you have a strategy,” Reis said. “It’s like cycling in real life, but not at all.”

International appeal

Zwift, a Los Angeles-based company, has experienced explosive growth since its founding in 2014. About 330,000 users have tried it so far. Many cyclists such as Reis and her husband, Tiago Reis, read about Zwift on bicycle blogs before their friends began documenting their Zwift workout results on Strava, a social media site for athletes. In addition to a fictitious tropical island, Zwift workout locations include London and Richmond, Virginia. The surprisingly detailed and expansive landscapes are the result of Zwift’s revolutionary envisioning of stationary pedaling.

“Our challenge is getting people to reappraise what indoor cycling is. At the end of the day, we’d all want to ride our bike outdoors,” said Steve Beckett, vice present of marketing and customer acquisition at Zwift. “Cyclists are quite serious people who tend to have a preconceived idea of what training indoors is like — ‘it’s a bit boring’ — but if you can ride indoors, you can be a better rider outdoors.”

Zwift relies on word-of-mouth referrals from friends and coaches for half of its new sign-ups. One out of four users are American, and 3,019 Oregonians are signed up, including professional triathletes Linsey Corbin and Jesse Thomas, both of Bend. An early obstacle for Zwift founders, Beckett said, was making an exercise video game relevant to users whose average age is 38 — an age group that typically hasn’t touched a video game in at least 20 years.

“I probably hadn’t played a video game since I had an Atari,” Tiago, 47, said. He began using Zwift this fall while recovering from some cracked ribs he sustained while mountain biking. He anticipates using the program four times a week this winter when he’s not Nordic skiing. Erin, who manages a 12-hour, seven-day-on, seven-day-off work cycle, is able to bang out hour-long sessions before work, including competing in an all-women Saturday race that begins at 4:30 a.m.

“Zwift gives us a lot of flexibility and access to customize our workouts,” she said.

Dangling, digital carrots

During a recent workout, Reis pedaled through an aquarium corridor in the tropical fantasy land called Watopia. On the screen, her heart rate and wattage output is displayed above the head of her avatar, which she customized to sport blonde, athletically cut hair to match her own.

“Look, there’s a huge sting ray!” she said as one flitted by a sunken pirate ship. For such amusing distractions to an otherwise uneventful workout, users pay $15 each month based on a subscription model similar to Netflix. Erin enjoys the dangled “carrots” that can include video-game-like “PowerUps” and give her temporarily improved aerodynamics or heightened drafting abilities while riding behind competitors. Users are alerted they’ve scored a course record when their jerseys turn green or become polka-dotted. While other users’ avatars zip by, their names and nationalities wave in banners above their heads. Zwift users don’t have to worry about steering as they might in a conventional video game, but they can select left or right at forks in the road and explore virtual worlds ribboned with hundreds of miles of cumulative routes.

But Zwift’s bells and whistles aren’t just for fun — Zwift supports serious training regimens. Coaches who customize workouts with software such as Training Peaks or PerfPRO Studio can easily upload files into the Zwift platform, as does Cody Peterson, Erin’s coach at Bowen Sports Performance in Bend. Like other Bowen clients, Reis can tackle Peterson’s detailed and challenging workouts with the amusing distraction of Zwift, either at the studio or at home.

“Zwift has a built-in following,” said Peterson, also a bike fitter and former professional mountain biker. “Before, we were looking at people who just wanted to come in and train. Zwift takes that to another level. It’s huge, a global situation. There is a constant stream of (thousands) of people on Zwift to ride with.”

This online global community makes stationary training a social affair. Riders can interact with those toiling in the same room as them — or others cranking in real-time a hemisphere away.

“It’s not like riding on the trainer, which you’re doing solely for training,” he said. “People ride Zwift for enjoyment.”

Bowen Sports Performance began channeling its training sessions through Zwift last winter for groups of six. Clients hook their bikes up to any of the studio’s 12 high-end Wahoo Fitness Kickr trainers. Clients can participate remotely in Bowen’s Zwift group sessions from their smart trainers at home. Soloists can do a “Zwift hour,” assuming they’ve already opened an account with the game maker and supply their own IOS-equipped gadgetry — Bowen has only one loaner laptop. This winter, Peterson expects to see 50 to 100 clients complete their Bowen-made training regimes through the program.

Zwift or bust

On Zwift, competition knows no bounds. Last month, New Zealander Ollie Jones, 21, scored a professional cycling contract with his performances in Zwift Academy, an international indoor and on-road cycling tournament.

Locally, age is not a determining factor for enthusiasm and accomplishment. The Zwift efforts of elite masters cyclist and coach Mike Larsen, 50, gained the attention of TeamODZ, a Zwift team from Canada and the West Coast. Although he’s only met one of his teammates in person, he trusts them in a breakaway during any of the Zwift Academy races they compete in online.

“With a lot of these guys, we text, we have a Facebook page. I have a pretty good rapport with these guys and I haven’t even met 95 percent of them in person,” said Larsen, who has competed in about 120 Zwift races and follows 40 Bend cyclists’ Zwift activities. The appeal isn’t lost on Larsen’s coaching clients, who use Zwift to complement any indoor workout Larsen hands them.

“My clients are riding a half hour or an hour longer on Zwift because of the interactions,” he said. “For myself, I have done 10 five-hour-plus rides on Zwift — that’s the most miles I’ve ever logged on a trainer. If I’m not on Zwift, I don’t want to be on my trainer. I’d rather run.”

The game company plans to launch a beta version of Zwift Running — for those plodding on treadmills — in January.

Erin Reis uses Zwift, a virtual bicycle riding and racing simulator, in her Bend home. (Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin]