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Indoor vs outdoor cycling: Why you can have just as much fun riding indoors

Man riding a Lapierre bike connected to an Elite turbo trainer
(Image credit: Elite)

It wasn’t too long ago that indoor cycling acted like a sweaty boredom-inducing device reserved for the brutal winter months. The indoor trainer was set up out of necessity, and it was only ever ridden begrudgingly. But now, indoor cycling is more engaging than ever. The advent of indoor cycling apps like Zwift, Rouvy, and RGT have made indoor cycling – dare I say – fun.

Today's best turbo trainers only add to the excitement, introducing a whole new set of capabilities for the indoor trainer. Now, you could simulate gradients and climbs, perform ERG mode intervals, and do it all through an integrated smart program, leaving you to do nothing more than keep the pedals turning while you lose yourself in the interactivity of your chosen app or your favourite TV show. 

Many of us fell in love first with outdoor cycling – the breeze whipping through our hair, floating over the rolling hills, and the way our tyres gripped the tarmac. It is a feeling like no other, but there are trade-offs to both indoor and outdoor cycling. One risks crashing, mechanicals, and bad weather, while the other risks monotony, boredom, and technological failures. And on the other hand, one gives you freedom, speed, and unbridled competition, while the other gives you convenience, entertainment, and endless options in the virtual world.

In this article, we’re going to explain why you can have just as much fun riding indoors as you can riding outside. First, it’s all about staying connected.

Pro riders took to indoor racing during the pandemic-induced lockdowns of 2020 (Image credit: BBC)

Social life and virtual connectivity

Never was there a better time for virtual connection than during the global pandemic that started in 2020. When lockdown hit (and as it continues to do so), we were confined to our indoor spaces with no more social interaction than faces on a screen. It can be depressing and demoralising; but when the pandemic threatened to shut the world down, online platforms such as Zoom and Zwift saved the day.

Some group rides and races have been cancelled two years in a row, but you will never struggle to find riding partners on Zwift. Every route, platform, group ride, and race is filled with thousands of riders 24/7/365. You can jump on the trainer on Christmas morning, or start a Zwift workout at 9pm after a long day in the office – at any time of day, every day, you will be surrounded by hundreds of other Zwifters.

Cycling is not only important for our physical health but also for our mental health, too. When we ride outside, we can experience the rush of endorphins, bask in the sunlight, and chat with friends, all while bettering our cardiovascular health. When confined to the indoor trainer, it used to be that these benefits were stripped away from us as fast as a dinner guest showing off their tablecloth-pulling party trick. But with so many indoor training apps like Zwift, RGT, and TrainerRoad, we are more connected than ever, even (and especially) during a global pandemic.

You can stay connected on Zwift through more than just pedalling, too. Many riders use Zoom, YouTube, Twitch, and Discord to see and chat with each other during live riding sessions. Even though it’s just a screen, it’s a lot better than staring at a lonely wall. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about anyone being late, or poor weather ruining your training ride. On the indoor trainer, you can pedal at your convenience and stay protected from the elements, while still staying connected with your friends and riding partners.

Check out our run-down of Zwift easter eggs (Image credit: Zwift)

Psychological benefits of indoor cycling

Some say that indoor cycling is more difficult mentally than outdoor cycling, but I disagree. Sure, if you stare at a wall and do an FTP test on the trainer, you might as well be knocking your head against a wall. But with a smart trainer, Netflix or music, and a Zwift group ride all loaded up, it’s difficult to not be entertained.

You are also protected from the elements indoors, which you means you’ll never have to worry about the cold, the headwind, or the pelting rain. Behind crashing – which you’ll also never have to worry about on the indoor training – getting stuck in inclement weather is one of the biggest buzzkills to an outdoor ride. Indoor cycling removes the stress of crashing, weather, and (most) mechanicals, allowing you to pedal away with peace and serenity.

There is also the gamified aspect of indoor cycling that will keep you entertained and engaged. This includes experience points (XP), KOM/QOMs, route badges, climbing challenges, and more. On Zwift alone, it would take years of Zwifting every single day to complete all the challenges and unlock all the different bikes and in-game equipment.

The subtle pings and pop-ups from XP points and leaderboards are enough to stimulate your brain every few seconds, helping you stay focused and motivated for your entire ride. And if you’re not interested in the gaming-meets-cycling world, you can zone out and watch Netflix, listen to music, an audiobook or a podcast. Use the time to be entertained, or even to learn. The choice is yours.

Speaking of motivation, we cyclists are a competitive bunch. It’s hard not to push harder on the pedals the moment a rider overtakes you on the cycle path. And in the virtual world, the feeling is no different. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve instinctively sped up after a rider zoomed past on Zwift. The feeling is innate, and in the virtual world, there are always thousands of riders sharing the same route.

On a weekday Zwift ride, you’ll pass and be passed by hundreds of other riders in just a few kilometres. The feeling of connection and community is like no other. Even the busiest real-world group rides will never be more than a couple of hundred cyclists; but on Zwift, you could see 5000 other cyclists every single day.

(Image credit: Zwift)

More racing opportunities indoors

It is no secret that hosting a bike race in real life is hard work. Whether it’s permits, funding, weather, or schedule conflicts, promoting a bike race is one of the toughest and most underappreciated jobs in cycling. Even some professional races run on the edge of cancellation, and for local and regional events, it is even tougher to survive. The global pandemic has only made things worse; but in the virtual world, you have nothing to worry about.

Zwift races and group rides run 24/7/365, and every hour usually comes with multiple options for you to pick and choose. RGT, BKool, and other indoor cycling apps host their own races and series too, so there is never a shortage of options. Weather, sponsors, or even a global pandemic will not put a stop to Zwift races, which you can rely on for a great workout any day of the year.

Some Zwift races combine all the categories, too, allowing lower category riders to challenge themselves against the upper categories. It is extremely rare to find an outdoor race or group ride that safely combines all of the racing categories. But on Zwift, these rides and races are happening every day. You could even line up against Mathieu Van der Poel, or Tom Pidcock in a weekday Zwift race. Never would you get the opportunity to race them in real life.

(Image credit: Zwift)

Low stress cycling

As previously mentioned, there are a few stress-inducing aspects of outdoor cycling that you won’t find in indoor cycling. Events like punctures, mechanicals, and crashes can do more than ruin your ride, they can also ruin your bike and your body.

Indoor cycling removes these stressful situations from your ride – you cannot puncture on a direct drive trainer, and it’s really hard to crash on an indoor trainer (although riders who use rollers will tell you a different story).

Not only will you be protected from the most catastrophic and painful parts of cycling, but you will also have more freedom on the indoor trainer. Even during a group ride or race, you can get dropped or stop at any moment without ruining your own ride or others’.

Commit to a long group ride outside and you could be the anchor dragging the group down if you happen to puncture thrice or struggle on the climbs. Indoor cycling allows you to ride at your own pace or ride with a group without the fear of messing up anyone else’s ride. Zwift even has a 'Keep group together' feature that you can enable on group rides which will set up a virtual fence around your group. No matter how hard or how easy you pedal, you will all stay together.

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Zach is a freelance writer, the head of ZNehr Coaching, and an elite-level rider in road, track, and e-racing. He writes about everything cycling-related, from buyer's guides to product reviews and feature articles to power analyses. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science at Marian University-Indianapolis, Zach discovered a passion for writing that soon turned into a full-fledged career. In between articles, Zach spends his time working with endurance athletes of all abilities and ages at ZNehr Coaching. After entering the sport at age 17, Zach went on to have a wonderful road racing career that included winning the 2017 Collegiate National Time Trial Championships and a 9th place finish at the 2019 US Pro National Time Trial Championships. Nowadays, Zach spends most of his ride time indoors with NeXT eSport.