I think I’m getting old. I’ve been around the block enough times to remember writing about not just numerous viable Zwift competitors, but rather a decade ago when Zwift themselves was announced as a company to replace now relics of the industry. As is tradition, each year at Eurobike, someone buys the big booth space and shows how much investment money they’ve got to burn. One year that was Zwift, last year it was MyWhoosh, and this year it’s Rolla. In fact, Rolla took MyWhoosh’s actual spot on the show floor this year, with MyWhoosh not present here in 2023.
So, what or who the heck is Rolla? Well, first, they’ve got nothing to do with Rolo, sadly.
Second, and most critically, it’s got graphics game. Or, rather, the game has graphics – really good ones, at least for the indoor trainer industry.
But here’s the most critical part: The game is, and can be streamed from virtually any display hardware you have in your house.
How it works:
You see, unlike Zwift (and all other trainer platforms), which runs on hardware you own (your computer, tablet, phone, etc…), Rolla can run on either your own hardware, or can be served via the cloud in up to 4K resolutions with stunning graphics. This means that you don’t need a $2,000 computer to get stunning graphics, rather, you just stream it from the cloud with the “same bandwidth required to watch YouTube”.
The platform is based on Unity, and as an app they’re supporting everything from Windows/Mac computers to Apple TV and Amazon Fire. Heck, if you want to run it on Linux, you can do that. And of course iPad and Android tablets. Even your Roomba can probably run Rolla, cause, ya know…it rollas on….
You can see in the video above some of the graphics, everyone who walked by the booth and every single person I talked to said some variant of “it’s stunning”. Now, the 4K stuff they showed in the booth was running on high-end computers with NVidia 3060 graphics cards. But Rolla says that the image quality of the streamed stuff is the same, especially once at the 4K streamed level. That’s something I’ll have to test in real-life once I get back to the DCR Cave.
But the key is the game streaming piece here, which means that you aren’t hamstrung by your local computer. The current break-out of ‘local hardware’ versus ‘cloud option’, is as follows:
Game Running Locally – Your own Hardware:
– Mac (internal testing)
Cloud Streamed via:
– Android Tablets
– Apple TV
– Google TV
The concept of cloud streaming is not new in the industry, there’s been various iterations of it over the years, but by and large there’s a huge shift to it. As long as you have YouTube or Netflix level bandwidth, you can run the game. And if you don’t, that’s why Rolla still supports local installs. I’ve long argued Zwift needs to look at streaming the game for those that want that as an option, and potentially charging appropriately for that (at higher graphics levels).
Next, what about the game and route itself? At present the company has ~130KM of pavement, all of which is available for both cyclists and runners. That’s all within one ‘world’, and then from there divided up into half a dozen current routes:
The number of ‘worlds’ is less important than total pavement/routes, as Zwift themselves has shown. We’ve seen Zwift take Watopia and add endless routes to a single ‘world’. Like Zwift, Rolla’s location on Strava would appear in the middle of the ocean, if mapped.
Additionally, like other platforms, you can customize your avatar and bike within the ‘garage’, which is by far the swankiest bike garage I’ve ever seen, virtual or otherwise. At present, everything in the garage is available to everyone, but Rolla says that once they get a bit further down the road they’ll introduce unlocks and such, but that isn’t a priority for the immediate moment.
As I alluded to above, you can both ride and run everything, and if there was any takeaway for runners, it’s that your runner avatar actually looks like a real runner while running. Check out the video above. While Zwift can certainly be credited with providing a great running option, I think we’d all agree that the Zwift runner-man looks like someone inserted a piece of rebar into it – just zero fluidity.
In terms of connectivity to trainers, the platform supports ‘all the Bluetooth things’. Bluetooth FTMS smart trainers, Bluetooth power meters, cadence sensors, speed sensors, and heart rate straps. They also support legacy non-FTMS Bluetooth connections like that from nearly decade-old Tacx trainers. However, they don’t support ANT+ at the moment. Their logic is that basically every device is dual ANT+/Bluetooth Smart anyway, and at the moment they’d rather focus their development efforts elsewhere. In 2023, for this specific scenario/application, I can’t really argue with that (whereas if you were talking power meter analytic streams, I’d disagree).
Like most trainer platforms, there’s both the main app (called ‘Rolla World’, discussed above), as well as a companion app, called ‘Rolla One’. That companion app does all the usual trainer companion app things, but also is aiming to consume more health/fitness data. For example, they tout data from Garmin, Oura, Withings, and tons of other platforms. Basically, they want to be able to have a holistic look at your health, which is where the company initially started from.
In fact, the app supports recording both indoor and outdoor workouts, with full sensor support. Again, their thing here is all about the holistic side of training, not just indoor cycling workouts.
Likewise, they support structured workouts today, for which they have a handful. But they also know they need to add support for TrainingPeaks and other platforms. That’s in the medium-term cards. I’d argue that needs to be shorter-term in order to attract more converts, but hey, adding API support is easy since they’ve already built-out the structured training piece.
(You can see the structured workout above, and then a portion of the in-game look below, the heads-up display bit is cut-off in my photo, but the left-side shows the targets)
Inversely, when it comes to outputting, at present it’ll export to Strava, but it sounds like they’re adding support quickly to other platforms. To me, platforms like TrainingPeaks are a hard requirement to even start a conversation with most endurance athletes. But they seemed to understand that.
So – what about price? At present it’s free. And the company says it’ll remain that way for the next year or so, while they take in user feedback. After that, they’ve sketched out a model somewhat similar to Peloton’s recent app-only revamp, whereby there’s a free level with a limited number of workouts per week/month, then a mid-tier that has most features (including 1080p cloud streaming), and then a full ‘Pro’ tier that has 4K cloud streaming. They noted that if you use your own hardware, then you can always choose the highest resolution your hardware can do, there’s no limit there. Their mid-tier pricing goal was in the same ballpark as Zwift today. But again, that’s realistically a long-ways away, so I wouldn’t overthink the specifics of this plan, this far out.
The most common question I get on the show floor at Eurobike is “What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen here?”. I probably get it asked 50 times a day (seriously). And frankly, I didn’t really have a good answer to that at Eurobike this year. There was no ‘Holy crap’ new product. But as I recorded a sports tech recap video, I kinda realized that this was as close to it as I was going to get this year. Not because Rolla is the end-all-be-all, but because it’s the thing everyone was talking or asking about. And in effect, it’s the most memorable thing from the show. What else would be an appropriate answer?
But here’s the problem: Reality sets in.
There’s been plenty of platforms that can make prettier graphics than Zwift. Zwift, by their own admission, isn’t aiming to have the best graphics in town, they’re aiming to be the most interesting, socially engaged cycling platform out there. In order to do that with bring-your-own-hardware, they’re going to have to ensure they have compatibility with that iPad you found in a drawer from half a decade ago. Or that dust-filled computer you should have recycled years ago.
But even more than that – Zwift has nearly a million subscribed active monthly users. Rolla? About 2,000 active monthly users. On an average day in Zwift-land right now (June/July/etc…), you’re gonna see somewhere between 3,000 and 15,000 concurrent people riding. Rolla? Just handfuls. Of course, it’s a new platform effectively announcing themselves to the world today. But time and time again the singular bar to success is whether or not people see other riders out there riding. While there are always those who claim to “hate the virtual crowds”, history has overwhelmingly and incessantly demonstrated people want social company on social fitness platforms. Full stop, period. They want groups, they want races, and they want social interaction.
Rolla has to ensure that they take the momentum from Eurobike to not just increase the user base, but listen to the user base. They argue that’s why they plan to be free for the next year or so – specifically to take user feedback. Find out what sucks, fix it, and then iterate.
As is always the case with startups, it’s a case of iterating and finding traction before the music stops. Out of all of the indoor trainer attempts thus far, this seems to have the strongest starting point to do so. Only time will tell if they can pull it off.
With that – thanks for reading!