Zwift: your ultimate guide

Zwift: Your Ultimate Guide
(Image credit: Zwift)

Zwift has made suffering indoors in solitary confinement a thing of the past thanks to the advent of the smart turbo trainer. Zwift is the brainchild of Eric Min (CEO/founder) who, together with programming wizard Jon Mayfield, envisaged making indoor cycling more socially connected, time effective and interactive. After months of invite-only beta testing during the latter part of 2014, Zwift quickly moved from an open-beta phase to a polished, subscription-based product in 2015.

With an ever-growing plethora of worlds to choose from, including two new worlds specifically for the Virtual Tour de France that comprises Mont Ventoux and the Champs-Élysées, and a host of other novelties and training options, Zwift has fast become the indoor-cycling tool of choice among cyclists of all ages, abilities and nationalities. The whole concept can be difficult to grasp at first — especially for newbies or those not familiar with smart-trainer jargon — but after reading this guide you’ll be Zwift ready in no time.

What is Zwift and how does it work?

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Zwift is an interactive cycling game that mimics real-world cycling, via a turbo trainer and screen, allowing you to train and race against other cyclists from all around the world in the comfort of your own home.

But it’s more than just a game — there’s a physical element that makes it a captivating and immersive experience thanks to the relationship between rider, bicycle and turbo trainer. While classic turbo trainers or rollers can be made compatible with Zwift with the addition of a speed sensor or power meter, the interactivity is rather limited in terms of resistance but Zwift can still calculate your power when an ANT+ or Bluetooth speed/cadence sensor is connected to your bike.

Offering the best experience are today's best turbo trainers, which are direct-drive and feature smart resistance control and a built-in power meter. Using clever in-game algorithms, the resistance of your smart trainer will automatically adjust to match the topographical nuances of the Zwift world you’re riding through — the difficulty of which will increase on hills and decrease on descents. The game will even detect when you’re drafting another rider and reduce your required power, albeit fractionally, just like in real life.

Zwift workouts

A smart trainer will automatically adjust its resistance to match the in-game topography  (Image credit: Zwift)

How much is Zwift?

New members will benefit from a 7-day free trial before a monthly subscription fee of £12.99 or US$14.99 is required to continue using the platform.

How to get started 

Zwift is compatible with a host of platforms including Mac and PC, smartphones and tablet-based devices. Unlike Mac and iOS devices with built-in Bluetooth LE, PC users will require an ANT+ dongle to read the signals from the sensors on your bike or trainer. It’s also wise to ensure your device meets the minimum system requirements.

Below are several points to help you get a better understanding of how Zwift works, including in-game tips and how to unlock better bikes and equipment.

1. Account basics

After creating an account it’s recommended that you link it with third-party apps such Strava, Training Peaks, Garmin Connect, Today’s Plan or any other fitness tracker applications in the connection panel in your settings. Over and above filling in your name, age and height, it’s important that you input your correct weight as Zwift will use this to calculate your speed and watts per kilogram figure. 

2. Avatar customisation

Here you can get creative and personalise your avatar to look just like you or take on a completely different set of character traits altogether. Customisable items include an array of helmets, glasses, jerseys, gloves, socks and shoes as well as personal attributes such as hair, facial hair and skin tone.

3. Zwift bikes, wheels and the Drop Shop

There are several default bikes available while other ‘more exotic’ options must be unlocked with promo codes earned from XP points and completed challenges. An easier way to get your hands on bikes or wheels is by using the in-game currency called Drops. You’ll need to earn a lot of it in order to purchase bike frames and wheels from the Drop Shop. The good news is you can earn upwards of 50,000 Drops per ride depending on how deep into the red you’re willing to go.

Zwift Tron bike

Bikes can be purchased from the Drop Shop - except the Tron bike which will need to be unlocked by completing an epic climbing challenge (Image credit: Zwift)

4. XP points

XP points are awarded for every kilometre (20 XP) or mile (30 XP) you ride and count towards reaching higher levels in the game, of which there are currently 50. You will receive additional XP points every time you get a small- or large-bonus powerup, complete a new route, or ride a KOM or sprint segment. 

5. Zwift companion app

A downloadable application, the Zwift Companion app is your link to everything in the game. It allows you to communicate with other Zwifters, search for friends, find - and then join - virtual group rides and races, and set goals. As soon as you start riding on another device, it transforms into a controller and makes navigating a far easier exercise than using a laptop or keyboard.

6. Zwift PowerUps

Powerups are randomly awarded as you pass through a start/finish, sprint arch or summit a KOM. There are seven different types including five performance-enhancing powerups that can be used to your advantage in races.

  • Large bonus: 250 XP points
  • Small bonus: 10 XP points
  • Feather Lightweight (feather): Reduces your weight by 10% for uphill attacks. (15 seconds).
  • Truck Draft Boost (van): Boosts the draft you are getting off riders by 50 per cent. (30 seconds)
  • Helmet Aero Boost (helmet): Handy for attacks off the front or contesting the sprint. (30 seconds)
  • Breakaway Burrito: Great for breakaway attempts as it makes you undraftable for 10 seconds.
  • Invisibility (ghost): Great for a sneaky breakaway attack, as it makes you invisible to other riders for 10 seconds. Also good for confusing your breakaway companions, making them think you're going to attack, setting you up for a free leadout. 
  • Steamroller: Reduces the CRR (Coefficient of Rolling Resistance) of your tyres, for 30 seconds, to mimic that of a road tyre on smooth tarmac. Used on cobblestones, wooden bridges, or in the mountain bike segment on Repack Ridge, it can be invaluable to your chances of success.
  • Anvil: Essentially the opposite of the Feather Lightweight, the Anvil makes you heavier for 30 seconds to descend faster.

7. Zwift jerseys

Apart from the cycling jerseys you can unlock in the game, there are also a variety of halo jerseys that denote the fastest female and male riders currently on the course — the coveted KOM, Sprint and Lap Leader jersey.

8. Challenges

Most Zwift challenges come and go like the tide. However, there are a couple of permanent fixtures, such as the challenge to climb Mt. Everest, which will unlock you a lightweight Trek Emonda, and a challenge to continue climbing to 50,000 metres in order to unlock the Tron Bike. 

The majority of Zwift challenges are sponsored or charitable endeavours, such as CeramicSpeed's Mission to ride various distances on different types of bike, and Zwift's call to arms of riders to join the Tour For All, promising to double its $125,000 donation to Doctors Without Borders if 250,000 riders took part. 

Wahoo Ecosystem review

We recently reviewed the Wahoo ecosystem, including the Kickr, the Kickr Core and the Kickr Climb.  (Image credit: Josh Croxton)

What equipment do I need?

First things first, you will need a bicycle and a Zwift compatible trainer. As previously mentioned, a dedicated smart turbo trainer will provide a far more immersive experience than merely adapting your classic turbo trainer. There are a ton of different smart trainers available, from cheaper wheel-on models to pricier direct-drive units. For the budget-conscious, our guide to the cheapest Zwift setup provides all the hardware setup advice you're likely to need and provides tips on how to save money in the process. 

For those who want to get the most out of Zwift, a direct-drive smart trainer such as an Elite Direto X, Saris H3 or Wahoo Kickr is highly recommended. Then there is the smart bike option among the best exercise bikes, which replicates the fit from your road bike so all you have to do is jump on and start pedalling. Notable options include the Wattbike Atom, Wahoo Kickr Bike, SRM Smart IT and the Stages SB20 Smart Bike.

Best Zwift setups

It’s also worth investing in a couple of ancillary items such as a good-quality fan to keep you cool, a stand on which you can securely mount your laptop or tablet, and a mat to prevent scuffs and marks on your floor.

Wahoo also offers a Kickr Climb device, which simulates gradients while climbing.

All the courses and rides

There are currently eight free-roam 3D-mapped worlds on Zwift — Watopia, London, Richmond, Innsbruck, Yorkshire, New York, France, and Paris which rotate based on a schedule that can be found on the Zwift community site. Each course offers a comprehensive number of routes that vary in profile and distance.

There are two more Zwift Worlds that are locked to events only, meaning the only way to enter these worlds is by joining a group ride or race at the allotted time, these are Crit City and the Bologna TT. 

1. Watopia

The mythical island of Watopia remains a favourite among Zwifters and offers the most variety in terms of terrain with 54 different routes to choose from - although some of which are limited to Zwift's treadmill-based audience of runners. It’s also home to three monstrous climbs: the Epic KOM, the Volcano climb and legendary Alpe du Zwift.

Zwift Watopia’s most challenging route: The Four Horsemen (89.3km/2112m)

Taking in no less than four demanding climbs, the original KOM, Epic KOM, Volcano climb and Alpe du Zwift, the Four Horseman features 2112m of vertical ascent spread over 89.3km.

Zwift Repack Ridge MTB Course

Repack Ridge can only be ridden if you're connected to the Zwift Companion App (Image credit: Zwift)

Repack Ridge MTB Course

Zwift recently added the Repack Ridge mountain bike course to the Watopia world map. Comprising a one-way side trail off Titans Grove, you enter the trailhead from the north and ride through a purpose-built off-road course complete with climbs and downhill singletrack. 

To ride Repack Ridge you will need to be connected to the Zwift Companion App. As you approach the trailhead you will be prompted by a right turn pop-up sign labelled with a question mark (?). Here, you must confirm that you want to try the Zwift 'Steering Test' - which uses the accelerometer in your smartphone to steer (ensure your phone is securely mounted and your bars are centred). 

Complete the trail in under 12 minutes and 30 seconds and achieve at least 9 out of 10 stars by staying on the blue line and avoiding the red Xs and you'll unlock the Zwift mountain bike. 

2. Richmond

Based on the 2015 UCI Road World Championship route, Richmond can be ridden in three variations: Full Course (16.1km/157m), Hilly Lap (9.1km/133m) and the Flat Loop (5km/19m). None of the courses can be ridden in reverse.

Zwift Richmond’s most challenging route: 2015 UCI World’s Course (16.1km/157m)

It might be relatively short in distance but the lumpy nature of the UCI World’s Course makes it a true challenge for any Zwifter worth their FTP.

3. London

The London map was added to Zwift in 2016 to coincide with the Prudential RideLondon. It offers a mix of 13 different routes, including a Richmond Park-inspired section and Surrey’s most infamous climbs: Box Hill and Leith Hill.

Zwift London’s most challenging route: PRL Full (173.1km/2606m)

Designed to mimic the distance of the real Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100, the PRL Full route requires Zwifters to climb Box Hill 11 times.

4. Innsbruck

Like Richmond, Innsbruck was designed to give Zwifters and professional riders a taste of the 2018 UCI Road World Championship course. Mapped in exquisite detail, Innsbruck is configurable in five different layouts, the most popular route being the 23.7km/494m UCI Worlds Short Lap.

Zwift Innsbruck’s most challenging route: Lutscher CCW (22km/825.8m)

German for lollipop, the Lutscher CCW route is one for the climbers with unrelenting gradients that kick up to 14 per cent in places.

Zwift UCI Worlds Yorkshire Course

Of the five Yorkshire routes available to ride, the longest and most challenging option is called the Royal Pump Room 8 (Image credit: Zwift)

5. Yorkshire

Zwift unveiled the Yorkshire worlds course ahead of the UCI Road Race Championships which comprises five routes based in and around the Harrogate finishing circuit. The official 2019 UCI Worlds Harrogate course measures 13.8km in length and takes in 245m of climbing.

Of the five routes available, the longest option is called the Royal Pump Room 8. As the name suggests, it's essentially a figure of eight loop that includes finishing the entire Worlds circuit twice (in both directions) totalling 27.5km/490m of climbing.

6. New York

Set 100 years in the future, New York features suspended sky roads that shimmy between the city’s skyscrapers and routes through Central Park. The futuristic setting represents Zwift’s move to gamify the training experience and keep users more entertained.

Zwift New York’s most challenging route: Everything Bagel (34.3km/545m)

Everything Bagel is the longest route on the New York map and is ideal for a hard, all-out 60min effort taking in 545m of climbing.

7. Paris

Paris consists of just two routes, Champs-Élysées and Lutece Express. Both traverse the city streets of the Tour de France's famous final stage, but in opposite directions. Paris was launched ahead of the 2020 Virtual Tour de France. Both are 6.6km routes with a mere 39m of climbing, there's a sprint point on each lap and the historic finish line that needs no introduction. 

8. France

Like Paris, France was introduced ahead of the Virtual Tour de France. Slightly larger in size, France comprises eight routes, including 'Ven Top', a 20.75km(1539m) route that features a digital replica of Mont Ventoux, which takes the crown as Zwift's biggest climb, ascending at an average gradient of 8% for 19km. 

9. Makuri Islands
Inspired by Japanese culture, this fantasy landscape is the newest to Zwift and at this time consists of one map, Yumezi, which features a mix of roads, dirt roads and cobbled surfaces. There are eight routes within the Yumezi map, ranging from 3.3km to 15.9km long. Climbers will likely flock to Chain Chomper (184m of climbing in 13.6km) and Sea to Tree (108m of climbing in 3.3km).

Zwift Crit City

Zwift recently released Crit City, which was created to replicate the feel of a city criterium (Image credit: Zwift)

Special event only worlds

1. Giro d’Italia Bologna TT course

2019 marked the first pop-up world launched by Zwift: the 2019 Giro d’Italia Bologna TT course. While the 8.2km time trial was freely available for the duration of this year’s Giro d’Italia, it can currently only be ridden at special events/races.

2. Crit City

Crit City, like Bologna TT, is an event-only map meaning it can only be accessed by joining official Zwift events. Created to replicate the feel of a city criterium, Crit City focuses largely around racing.

There are two routes available: Downtown Dolphin and Bell Lap, both of which negotiate the same course but in opposite directions. The length (1.9km/1.2 miles) and elevation (8 meters/26 feet) of both routes are identical.

The Zwift Academy

The Zwift Academy is a global talent-identifying platform that provides aspiring riders from all over the globe with an opportunity to compete for a professional contract. Using Zwift’s in-game framework, riders need to complete several workouts and races before a select group of finalists go head-to-head in a series of real-world scenarios. Since its inception in 2016, seven athletes have graduated from the academy and earned professional contracts: Leah Thorvilson, Tanja Erath, Ella Harris and Jessica Pratt with Canyon-SRAM and Ollie Jones, Martin Lavrič and Drew Christensen with NTT Pro Cycling Continental U23 Team.

Zwift KISS Super League

eRacing has become increasingly popular of late, and Zwifters can compete against each other in racing leagues and national championships (Image credit: Zwift)

Zwift training and racing

Zwift has become so effective as a training tool that many professional riders use it to keep fit during the winter months or to recover from injury. Take Mathew Hayman for example, who used Zwift to win Paris-Roubaix in 2016 after breaking his arm six weeks before the race. Steve Cummings did a similar thing and secured both the 2017 British road and time-trial titles after a shoulder surgery prevented him from training outdoors.

While many Zwifters merely free-ride to stay fit, others prefer using the app’s many built-in training programs. Zwift’s training plans use your FTP to calculate certain workout metrics to track improvement and progression. Furthermore, coach-prescribed workouts from TrainingPeaks can be imported into Zwift and completed using ERG mode, a setting that locks the resistance of the trainer at a set wattage for each interval.

Racing has become massively popular on Zwift. Using the Companion app, riders can browse through and enter an array of different races, which are graded from A-D based on FTP in order to keep riders of equal ability together.

The Zwift Racing League was launched in a partnership between WTRL, Zwift, Zwift Live and Zwift Community Live and takes the form of a multi-week seasonal team-based league across myriad time zones. At the very top is the Premier Division (PL), which comprises 20 of the top e-racing Pro-Am and Community teams in the world. Like all leagues, there is a promotion/relegation process at the end of the season where the top team from each (3 in total) of the APAC, EMEA East, EMEA West and AMERICAS E/W divisions can earn a starting berth in the PL.

A+: 4.6 w/kg or above (and 300w+ FTP)
A: 4.0 w/kg or above
B: 3.2 w/kg to 3.9 w/kg
C: 2.5 w/kg to 3.1 w/kg
D: Under 2.4 w/kg or below

Competitive racers can then use ZwiftPower to view results, join teams, track their ranking, and view power analysis of theirs and their competition's races. 

The rise of eRacing has revolutionised cycling as we know it, with events such as the Zwift National Championships ushering in a new wave of national champions, the UCI committing to a Zwift World Championships, as well as the formation of the world’s first professional eRacing cycling team — Canyon ZCC

Zwift Community Live has taken things a step further in this realm, offering a live stream and live commentary for various races. 

Aaron Borrill

Aaron was the Tech Editor Cyclingnews between July 2019 and June 2022. He was born and raised in South Africa, where he completed his BA honours at the University of Cape Town before embarking on a career in journalism. Throughout this career, Aaron has spent almost two decades writing about bikes, cars, and anything else with wheels. Prior to joining the Cyclingnews team, his experience spanned a stint as Gear & Digital editor of Bicycling magazine, as well as a time at TopCar as Associate Editor. 

Now based in the UK's Surrey Hills, Aaron's life revolves around bikes. He's a competitive racer, Stravaholic, and Zwift enthusiast. He’s twice ridden the Cape Epic, completed the Haute Route Alps, and represented South Africa in the 2022 Zwift eSports World Championships.

Height: 175cm

Weight: 61.5kg

Rides: Cannondale SuperSlice Disc Di2 TT, Cannondale Supersix Evo Dura-Ace Rim, Cannondale Supersix Evo Ultegra Di2 Disc, Trek Procaliber 9.9 MTB