Virtual bike riding seemingly came out of nowhere to become something of a phenomenon. Professional riders are doing it. Local cycling clubs are doing it. Individuals who want to keep fit are doing it. If you want to do it too, we’ve teamed up with Broadband Genie to build this guide that will walk you through everything you’ll need to join the virtual bike riding revolution.
What is virtual bike riding?
Virtual bike riding uses an indoor bike trainer alongside a digital platform like Zwift to provide a more engaging training experience. While it isn’t as interesting as riding outdoors, it’s a close second that comes into its own during colder or wetter months.
Virtual bike riding can become part of your general fitness campaign, prepare you for specific events or offer entertainment alongside fitness. One of its strengths is that it can be whatever you want it to be.
They also gamify fitness by offering rewards, badges, jersey unlocks and special events to compel you to train more than you otherwise might. This is the main reason these apps are so successful.
What you need to start virtual bike riding
You will need some specific equipment to take up virtual bike riding.
You will need:
- A turbo trainer – Smart trainers work best as the app can control them but any trainer will do
- Heart rate monitor – Optional for monitoring training zones
- A phone, tablet or laptop to run the digital training app and companion app
- A Zwift or Road Grand Tours subscription – Zwift is subscription only whereas Road Grand Tours has a free version and optional subscription
- A good broadband or WiFi connection – You need a good connection to avoid server lag and to keep the experience immersive
- ANT+ or Bluetooth – Connects the device running the app with your smart trainer and/or heart rate monitor
- A fan, towel and water bottle – Indoor training gets hot so these are a must!
Setting up for virtual bike riding
Setup is crucial for a positive virtual bike riding experience. If you have an indoor trainer set up already, you’ll have the basics. A bike, trainer, fan and a screen of some kind.
You will also need a strong broadband or WiFi connection where you’ll train. Apps need at least 3mbps to keep updated, avoid lag and to keep chat flowing. Anything less and the map won’t update frequently enough and you could find yourself falling behind. Compare broadband deals here if you think you need an upgrade.
The setup for virtual bike riding goes a little something like this:
- A turbo trainer set up in front of a screen. An old laptop or tablet works best.
- The virtual training app installed on that laptop or tablet.
- The companion app installed on another device so you can chat (optional).
- A Bluetooth or ANT+ dongle connected to the device running the app. This is recommended if you’re using a smart trainer, heart rate monitor or power meter. The app can control and monitor everything for a fuller experience.
- Fan facing the trainer and a towel and water close to hand.
Ideally, you want all this set up so you can drink, towel yourself and chat on the companion app while pedalling comfortably.
The app runs on the laptop or tablet and reads your heart rate, power or data from a smart trainer. This data will be displayed on screen and can be used to assess effort.
If you’re using a smart trainer, the app can control effort, simulate an incline and take power readings. This will all be fed into the app to provide accurate feedback on your effort.
Smart trainers aren’t mandatory but are useful. Any trainer can work with these apps. If there is no smart input, the app will take revolutions, heart rate and time into consideration and use an algorithm to simulate your effort. The algorithm is fairly accurate too!
Virtual bike riding platforms
There are two virtual bike riding platforms that gamify riding and others that use video.
Zwift is probably the best known. It has basic graphics but a large user base. It has a companion app, regular events, special events and lots of unlocks. It currently costs £12.99 per month.
Road Grand Tours is another virtual bike riding platform that gamifies training. It has better graphics and more real circuits but a smaller user base. It has a free version with a subscription that costs £6.99.
There are other virtual bike riding platforms like SufferFest, TrainerRoad, Tacx and Bkool. These use a mixture of video and statistics to provide indoor training. They are good but not as engaging as Zwift or RGT.
Troubleshooting virtual bike riding
There are two common errors that new virtual bike riding setups can suffer from:
If you’re training in the garage or spare room, it is common to have a poor WiFi signal. These virtual bike riding apps depend on a solid internet connection to work so this can cause issues.
Use a WiFi analyser app on your phone to check signal strength. Then either use a WiFi repeater to make it stronger or change to a quieter WiFi channel.
Bluetooth connection keeps dropping
If you use Bluetooth to connect your trainer, heart rate monitor or power meter to an app, having it drop out during efforts could be very frustrating. It’s an issue that is fairly easy to fix.
Turn off Bluetooth on every device you don’t need at that moment. With fewer devices vying for airspace, those devices you do need should work much more effectively.