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Zwift Demonstrates Mountain Biking & Steering at Eurobike

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As the flurry of announcements at Eurobike get under way, Zwift themselves has two items on the docket. The first is availability of the new Yorkshire course later today, a shorter looped replica of the real world UCI World Championship circuit that athletes will tackle in real life later this month. But the second is potentially more interesting: In-game steering of one’s bike, as well as an early look at mountain biking in Zwift.

Both the steering and mountain-bike bits are shown together as part of Zwift’s ‘Future Works’ program, which the company is treating as a bit like public beta. If you’re short on time and want a quick first look at things, check out the below video where I give it a whirl, and my impressions of how well it actually works:

Or, you can continue on with the whole words and photos thing.

How it works:

First up – the new functionality is not enabled yet in Zwift. While the company is demo’ing it here at Eurobike, you can’t ride it yet yourself. Though, apparently soon. It sounds like more on the order of weeks than months. Once it is lit up, the way it works is that you’ll need to be riding in Titans Grove. That’s the new portion of course on Watopia that features dinosaurs and terrain that does a fantastic job at causing misery for most trainers I’ve tested recently.

Within that, you’ll get what is essentially a turn prompt, not terribly unlike existing turn prompts, that will allow you to go off-road.

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Once you’ve done so you’ll be brought to the start of the course. It’s here that you can ‘calibrate’ or ‘zero’ your handlebars.

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See in order to track your handlebar movement Zwift will require either the companion app, or supported 3rd party hardware. At Eurobike they’re demoing the companion app, though almost the entire slate of indoor bikes announced at Eurobike has steering controls, as does the new Elite Steering plate, also announced at Eurobike. For everyone else though, you’ll need your phone and that phone to be physically attached to your handlebars. Zwift will be selling some phone mount accessories, including this one for your Garmin mounts:

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Here it is mounted:

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Or, you can use other ones. I personally use a Quadlock case, so I’ll probably just use that. To each their own.

The point is, it’s gotta be affixed to your handlebars. Though, it doesn’t need to be perfectly straight (as the demo phone illustrated), nor does it need to be centered on the stem. Anywhere will do. That’s what the calibration is for.

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In addition there’s a steering sensitivity slider, in case things are a bit too wild (or too tame), for your liking. You’ll see that above. Lastly, until you can get one of those swanky Elite steering plates (and until Zwift can whip up support for it), you’ll want to put something slippery below your front wheel. If you have a trainer mat, that experience will suck (and eventually, you’ll wear a hole in it). Zwift simply used a piece of wood floor sample that was glued to their trainer mat. Pro Tip: You can usually get these samples for free at your local wood floor or hardware store.

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Ok, for realz, we’re going to start riding now. Just pedal.

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As you pedal, you’ll initially look like you’re drunk trying to figure it out. It took me a minute or two of crashing to get the hang of it. And when I say ‘crashing’, I mean bouncing off the walls. It’s like kid bowling with those lane bumpers, you just bounce off and keep going.

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Remember that trainer resistance control on this roughly 12-15 minute long loop is still enabled, so you still have to pedal and work for it like any other portion of Zwift. Except here you’ll get nifty gold stars like the kid-bowling champion that you are:

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Again, this is all a concept feature – something to illustrate what they can do, and in Zwift’s mind – potentially a gateway drug to getting mountain bikers interested in the platform.

As far as how well it worked…well…let’s just say it’s beta. In my testing it was a bit finicky to get used to, and we had to reset the calibration multiple times to get it right. This is part of the challenge faced when using non-dedicated hardware like cell phones. Zwift has long talked about and been concerned with drift on the sensors in these phones, and that appears to be the case in my early riding.

Still, the good news is there’s plenty of interest from the hardware makers in making this right. Aside from Elite’s solution, Tacx has had a steering accessory for ages that could probably be updated or tweaked to work here. It really comes down to Zwift’s appetite to quickly prioritize software development to support the purpose-built accessories already available today.

Going Forward:

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Of course, for some amount of you – you’ll see this as pointless gamification of the platform. But that would frankly be missing the point. This test actually serves multiple purposes. First, it lets Zwift gather feedback on the underlying technology and acceptability of steering via phones. Does it work well broadly? Or are there blockers more visible once widely adopted?

Second, how can this technology be adopted to on-road use within the game? Less so for complete steering, but more for what’s termed as ‘veering’, or the idea of being able to select your line in a race. As Zwift’s aspirations in esports grow, and indoor cycle racing more specifically – being able to choose the line your bike travels (rather than plowing through the peloton every time you accelerate), is going to be critical as the next step of cycling esports.

And finally – perhaps most importantly – can Zwift find a way to take the skill aspect of this technology and broaden the appeal to an audience not currently on Zwift. Like it or not, if you don’t have the right weight to watts ratio on Zwift, then your ability to compete meaningfully on the platform is approximately zero. There’s no significant amount of ‘skill’ required today in Zwift that can overcome pure cycling power. Whether or not that should change is certainly up for debate, but in the real-world of outdoor cycling, technical skill is just as important to winning a race as is raw power output.

By deciding to demonstrate this technology first on a mountain bike course, Zwift is saying ‘Hey Mountain Bike Folks, there’s a place for you on this platform’. Which is another way of saying ‘Hey, we want your subscription revenue too!’. And I don’t think anyone will complain about mountain bikers on Zwift, well, except perhaps when they’re riding in the breakdown lane and crash into a runner. But it’s OK, you never see any runners anyway.

With that – thanks for reading!

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42 Comments

  1. Bilal

    Hi,

    What’s the monitor and stand and from where I can buy this ?

    Thanks
    Bilal

  2. Phil

    Thanks for the heads up Ray, is there any info or thoughts (from yourself or zwift) on the issue of turning the bars causing the bike to want to lean and increasing stresses due to the fixed rear of the bike?

    • Neil Jones

      Yeah, my first thought was along similar lines – notwithstanding the use of a low-friction piece of wood or whatever, how much additional rotational strain does this place on the forks and headset (especially with fat MTB tyres) compared to the normal turning of the handlebars on a bike when it’s moving along?

    • Chader

      IMHO, removing the restrictive wheel blocks typically used is more likely to reduce stress on the front end overall. Locking the wheel as happens with most blocks, leads to direct loading into the wheel (hubs, spokes, wheel) and then fork (legs & steer tube) up to the stem and finally the handle bars. That leads to instant loading at higher levels than the bike sees when rolling outside, and essentially being free to move.

      As such, removing the wheel block and allowing it the tire to more freely turn on a lower friction surface will reduce the stress and loading on all the parts mentioned above.

      I have used a flat riser with no cradle, and a low friction surface (painted wood or plastic sheet) for years and love the extra play. It is not as free as the Kinetic Turntable, but enough to lower the stress on the parts.

      The KKTT is a good start, but I feel the next step in this progression is the addition of centering via springs. It would mimic the centering forces we get from the Trail element of the bike and fork when ridden outside.

    • Eli

      I would hope they use electromagnets and not springs. That way the centering force can increase with your speed and if terrain is rough our you use deep section wheels with cross wind it could make the steering less steady

    • Chad McNeese

      That would be neat, but it will take some design and software to implement well. I think plenty can be gained from the simple approach to start. The law of diminishing returns is real and there is not a ton to gain from a more complex solution.

    • The communication to the device would just be two different numbers, say the high 4 bits of a byte and the low 4 bits with one number being how much steering to the left and the other how much to the right. If the numbers are equal then the wheel should be centered and diffrent numbers would allow for forcing the steering wheel in a certain direction a bit with alternating them allowing for it feeling rough (i.e. off road) How you control that is up to the app.

      The app could do complex work to interface with that or just use a simplistic view and just map speed to the centering force.

      I’d rather steering be well thought out for the future so we don’t get locked in to something that is limited. This would easily allow a simpler spring based centering device that would ignore those values and a steering device that is not told how to center could have a setting on what the defaut should be.

  3. How long until:

    1) First steering, thru axle hack which does incline/decline for the MTB crowed?
    2) It becomes a commercial product development of the KICKR Climb?
    3) Fans become available with a link “Spray” function for when you steer off the drop and end up in the wet bushes??

  4. Peter Mundy

    Great to see this. As an MTBer, will be great to have this option on the trainer for the winter months. Looking forward to it!

  5. Guy

    Afraid I don’t see the point in this one. Not riding on icy roads in winter, or getting in training on a weekday evening when pinched for time is one thing, but indoor mountain biking feels like it is removing an awful lot of the appeal of mountain biking.

    • In a way, I can see the appeal. I’m a road bike rider; maybe 85% of my time is on tarmac; ~10% is on a trainer; the remainder is on the muddy stuff. I ride commutes in the dark of winter plus some road training but switch to Zwift at the point were fixing a puncture on the road side become chancing exposure and hypothermia!

      For me, I can either go to Zwift races or workouts; but some times I want to have a “fun” experience. Winters here are cold, dark and glum. My weeknight window of 5pm – 10.30pm for training in December can be entirely in the dark and sub-zero temps. Being able to hook up my MTB, do interval training – sprint up climbs, charge down drop offs and have a bit of MarioKart style fun slaloming through a boulder garden or charge down Whistler – massively appeals to me. I can get my HIIT doing an enduro route!

      If I was going to do this outdoors in the UK winter, yeah I’ll miss out on the fun of being outdoors, but at the same time I could be in near zero or sub zero temps, in the dark and risking accidents in the weekday training window of 5 – 10pm. It maybe niche, but it opens up the appeal and has a differentiation to the other options in eSports.

      If you can get (and I’m sure it will be developed) a KICKR Climb that does positive & negative gradients plus steering that can be used on both road and MTB Zwift, then I’d be more likely to invest. Road – route selection would be advantageous but the rest I’d be meah about. MTB – makes it a MTB game! DH riders will never adopt, but XC, Cyclocross, Gravel riders and advnture riders would see an appeal.

  6. Chris

    Just need a Kickr Climb with one of these under it:

    link to amazon.com

  7. youpmelone

    can one change the view to “from the handlebar view” instead of from behind?

    • Chader

      Yes, there is a first person view in the game that is more like your actual viewing when riding outside. I use it almost exclusively with a 40″ screen about 2 feet from my head. It leads to a convincing feel of being “in” the game.

  8. Mike

    #Gimmick… I used the Tacx iMagic steerer many years ago, think I used it twice and never enabled it again, I guess if they changed Zwift so you could ride anywhere and not in a virtual track then it would be OK, but you will get bored pretty quickly in my experience.

  9. Armin Mangelmann

    Well, very cool, thanks for posting….i think people do not get the idea of steering…it basically give you an easy option to choose routes or whatever confirmation is needed…steer left for yes, steer right for no…
    Great, i will try to design a stand for my bike asap….will be perfect on my new rocker plate 🙂 have fun in Friedrichshafen..

    • Chader

      Steering for course direction selection will be great. But that will only apply when free riding or doing a workout. If you are taking part in an event like a race or group ride, there is no need or ability to steer.

      So, taking the steering into the event world will likely mean option to choose where to be on the road for things like drafting. It will add a level of control to the strategy that is already in use in racing and group rides.

      Essentially, it can and should be used in both ways above, and any others that could be added in the future. Consider the whole package and not just a single use or aspect.

    • scott g.

      The steering is for when the new MUP trail course, you have to steer around the phone zombies and virtual yappy dogs.

  10. RollersLoL

    Did they have a demo of how this works with rollers? Does it take into account any differences gained over terrain? IMHO that would be more important for a mountain bike than steering. They could adjust the player position on the trail based on speed during multiplayer mode. I don’t see how steering a little to the right or left translates to actual skills or gives any benefits. Next you’ll see them use the front facing camera and emulate a spin class while making the riders do ridiculous moves ala ‘Just Dance’. IDK, maybe it’s good for a change in scenery.

  11. JD Masur

    Possibly the worst idea since spinning. Go outside people.

    • George Gilkey

      Some of us live where the temps are -20 to -40F in the winter with snow, ice, and dark. Riding indoors is the only realistic way to get consistently high quality training. Not everyone lives in SoCal or Florida where “cold” is 65F.

  12. J_D

    I’m interested in the monitor and stand as well. Very clean look.

  13. Joe Maki

    I think some people are missing a basic point. Zwift doesn’t know or care what bike is on your trainer. Your regular trainer will work fine, no need to mount your Mountainbike.

    • dizpark

      yes, it is kind of funny, that they mounted a real mountain bike on the trainer for demonstration of this tech…with a grippy front tire to boot 🙂 . Of course on a real trail, steering does not work like this. The skill developed here is more akin to a skill developed using a xbox controller in an Xbox ‘sports’ game.
      PS. I get the point of down-the road potential of using this tech for e-sports events drafting,positiong etc.

    • Tod

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting that this is developing any useful skill. It’s just a fun new thing to try out and maybe make indoor training a little more interesting, at least for a bit.

  14. Chuck Kozlowski

    I welcome this addition to Zwift, I just transitioned from road cycling to MTB this past year since there are a good number of trails in my area. Just another feature that can distract me while I am in the pain cave.

  15. mtbler

    As a mountainbiker who uses his mtb on a trainer I am more interested in virtual gear extentions.
    It is a pain to ride flat roads with the limited gear ratio of a mtb.
    Or is there an option to put more resistance to your trainer other than climbing that I am missing?

  16. The expresso.com bike has had steering for a long time already.

  17. CAS

    They need to come up with a trainer that mixes a smart trainer with a system like the riprow balance trainer and then we are really onto something! Mix it with some Zwift off road trails and I’m SOLD!!

  18. pat

    two thoughts- with the “veering” option, maybe my avatar won’t try to immediately ride thru every other rider on the course anymore. I’ll be in a pack passing a lone rider and without fail, my avatar will swing out just to ride thru some random stranger. Then rejoin the group in the same position. Rather annoying habit he’s picked up over the years.

    when does the “huck” option become available? Just thinking how switchbacks you could cut off while descending down the Alpe du Zwift by avoiding a turn and just launching down the mountain. I would expect the landing to be just as unrealistic as talking the corner at the bottom of the radio tower descent at 60mph without pause.

  19. Russell

    No interest in the steering part of this, but the new MTB trail looks cool. Look forward to giving that a try.

    I appreciate that a lot of people want more gamification in Zwift, but I’m only in it for the training and want to be able to just put my head down and do the work. Hoping they keep all this stuff optional.

  20. NeilC

    Would this work with the Tacx Neo Track steering rack?

    • Chad McNeese

      Theoretically it might be able to work. It is restricted to ANT+ only, which means PC/Mac (and the few mobile with ANT+ native or via dongle).

      It is most likely a matter of communication because Zwift has to recognize the device in order to read the turn input. It will need to piggy back on a trainer (like the Climb does with a Kickr) or be a separate device set in the Device pairing screen. All possible, but will require work from at least Zwift’s side, if not Tacx to open it’s use.

    • NeilC

      Thanks Chad,
      It sounds promising

  21. Steve A.

    Super cool updates coming to Zwift! Will be a bunch of fun to test out the new mtb courses. I’m excited to see this coming since I have been using a garmin phone adapter that goes on the back of my phone case. Available on amazon
    link to amazon.com

  22. I didn’t see any sweet jumps … 🙁

  23. Mark Hewitt

    Any word on the Elite Steering plate? Now that Zwift’s MTB course has been released to the public everyone is clamoring to find a solution to enable steering. However the only reference I can find to the Elite offering is on this site!

  24. Brad Cox

    Will this work with wahoo climb?

  25. Tom Tarnowski

    Love your blog!