Sitting in front of a phone, laptop or even projector screen, cyclists are transported to a virtual world of their choice, pitted against other riders with the ability to chat as if they are shoulder-to-shoulder on the open road.
It’s become a haven for those in lockdown, with more than 28,000 concurrent riders – 12,000 more than ever before – using Zwift when lockdowns set in late last month.
Zwift users are clocking up almost six million kilometres per day around the world, more than triple the distance of this time last year. In March, the rate of new users quadrupled for boutique Australian equivalent FulGaz, which uses real footage of countless roads around the world to offer an even more realistic cycling experience for those punching out the kilometres indoors.
Cycling Australia has partnered with FulGaz in an effort to stimulate its racing-starved members, while thousands have jumped at the chance to ride with the pros in one-off Zwift races and an invite-only series has drawn a swathe of spectators.
Matthews is a Tour de France green jersey winner who should be in the midst of his European season and eyeing a potential Olympic debut later this year.
“Mentally it’s [the season and Olympic postponement] been tough to stomach, but for the time being it’s the closest we can get to reality of riding on the ride,” he said of riding in the virtual world.
“You don’t have the freedom of going into the hills and being totally by yourself and seeing the most beautiful views in the world.
“But it’s a nice tool to have in situations like this.”
Long-time Zwift user Adams said the benefits are both mental and physical.
“What we’re experiencing is global, so you’ve got people from all parts experiencing the same emotional distress and fatigue,” he said. “And it’s all positive when you log in; everyone’s very supportive, so it’s a great outlet for that.
“You get your training in but you’re also interacting with other people.
“And to see [Australian road time trial champion] Luke Durbridge come past me sitting at six watts per kilo and just keep going it makes you think, ‘These guys are special.'”
FulGaz founder and chief executive Mike Clucas could count his employees on both hands but is now recruiting to best service his expanding audience.
“Think about Zoom for video conferences; that’s been around for ages but all of a sudden it’s central to people’s lives and that’s been the same with FulGaz and things like that,” he said.
“We’re saying, ‘Here’s the Alps, the Dolomites, the Californian coast or the Brisbane river loop’. The world’s gone weird, so let’s do something that’s a fun distraction.”
Despite acknowledging people will be bursting to get back outside, Clucas expects the industry to hang on to a chunk of its new customers once restrictions ease because they’ll have discovered the convenience and efficiency of virtual riding. But ironically he also hopes to see another positive, real-world spin-off.
“It’s maybe strange to hear from someone from a virtual cycling company, but I’m really excited about more people commuting to work as part of the new normal,” he said.
“[After riding indoors] they realise they’re in their own air bubble, not crammed into other people on public transport or in cars.”
Adams, an avid user of Tasmania’s mountain-bike trails, won’t need convincing. He’s already lining up rides on the other side of the planet once normal service resumes.
“We are very lucky to live where we live,” he said. “But you could just about pick any country in the world and you could make contact with someone you have a relationship with [through Zwift] to meet up for a ride.
“I don’t think there’s anything that gives you the ability to do that anywhere else.”