As a new dad life has changed in many ways. For all of us, regardless of where we live, the pandemic has changed our lives as well. Around a year ago I came to the realisation that my bike time was not going to be as it was and despite being a staunch anti Zwifter Blackmore quickly made a large investment in our otherwise modest IT budget and off into Watopia we went. Since then I have been fascinated, reliant and bemused in equal measure by the world I have entered into.
Zwift in itself is an excellent tool to train with, race on or just bimble about on but it’s not necessarily perfect and to fill these gaps steps in Eric Schlange.
Eric runs the website Zwift Insider. On his site you can find hints and tips to enhance your Zwift experience including, most usefully in my opinion, course maps and elevations, a feature which seems to be lacking within the game itself.
The Zwift Insider. Inside Zwift.
In order to fuel my fascination with Zwift I got in touch with Eric to see if he would answer a few questions about how he got his site up and running as well as some of the why’s and wherefores’ surrounding his new found role.
Eric, a pleasure. Can you give us a brief low down of how you have become the Zwift Insider. Is it a self proclaimed title or an official role?
I started a website (ZwiftBlog) in December 2015, a month or two after joining Zwift. It got popular quickly because it met a need: I was essentially creating a Zwift knowledgebase when Zwift themselves didn’t yet have anything of the sort.
Two years later I approached Zwift about having them sponsor the site in some way, and work more closely with me so I could get more advance notice of game updates, answers to my questions, etc. They said yes, but as part of that deal I agreed to change the site name to Zwift Insider, since ZwiftBlog was a bit confusing (many people thought the site was run by Zwift).
It began as a side hustle. It’s now part of my full-time workday, as I’ve shifted job duties since 2015 to focus on Zwift Insider. I’m self-employed, so I’m fortunate enough to spend my days working on projects I’m passionate about and directly invested in.
I’m 42 years old and live in the small town of Kelseyville, California.
The Zwiift Insider. Not inside Zwift.
What is your riding background? An enthusiast or racer? Were you a really early adopter of zwift?
I rode a lot in high school – road and MTB – but it was all casual, because there really wasn’t any bike racing or serious clubs in my area. Then I stepped away from serious riding for 18 years. I knew I loved cycling, but I was running my own business and raising a family, and knew I didn’t have the time to ride in the way I would want to.
Got back into it when a couple friends discovered cycling and started riding regularly, then I discovered Zwift 10 months later, and here we are! I signed up for Zwift just a few weeks before they came out of public beta and went to a paid service (around October 2015). That was around 1 year after Zwift initially launched as a beta service.
Most of my outdoor riding is on the road. I’ve done some road racing, but never got super into it because the time investment required, as well as the risk/reward ratio, is just too high for my taste. Honestly, I find Zwift racing just as fun, and it carries none of the risk or time/financial cost.
You’ve ridden nearly 60,000 km on Zwift alone and achieved level 50 (I’m staring up at you from a lowly L18) you clearly do a lot of the route and game research yourself. How many other contributors do you have to the website?
Over the years I’ve had lots of contributors, but at this time I only have two people (Karissa Minn and Tim Perkin) who write for me on a regular basis. Folks often send me one-off articles, which I love to publish as long as they’re interesting.
I’ve always seen the site as a sort of community hub, so the more it’s populated with quality content from Zwifters worldwide, the better.
Is the site affiliated officially to Zwift then?
As stated in the footer of zwiftinsider.com, “Zwift Insider is independent of Zwift corporate (www.zwift.com), although Zwift does provide funding to help defray site costs.” I’d say we’re officially affiliated, yes. But we also maintain editorial independence, much like Simon over at the Zwiftcast does with his work.
The Uber Pretzal course map. Horrid.
The gaps in which you fill, routes guides and such, are essential (the route elevation, or lack of, is really unnecessarily irritating). Why don’t Zwift do it themselves?
The “Why doesn’t Zwift do this themselves” question is one many Zwifters have asked about many topics over the years. In the end, it boils down to a combination of Zwift’s priorities and available resources.
Sometimes what Zwifters think is important, Zwift doesn’t see as important. At times Zwifters are right, and eventually Zwift sees the light. Other times Zwift is right. It’s important for Zwifters to realize that Zwift has a massive amount of user data at their fingertips, and they’re trying to solve problems and create solutions based on what they see there. Everyone uses Zwift differently, and thus has different priorities – ZwiftHQ has the unenviable task of deciding what’s actually most important.
Available resources is the other issue. Zwift has a lot of employees (400 or so?), but they’ve historically had a hard time filling needs in their game dev and web dev teams. Apparently working on “cool” AAA games with massive budgets is more appealing than working on a niche cycling game. Who would have guessed?
When I’ve talked to ZwiftHQ about the “Why don’t you do this?” questions, it’s never a response of, “We don’t think that’s a good idea.” Instead, I usually get something like “We’ve thought of that, and plan to do that eventually.” They’re thinking way ahead, and have big ideas.
How have you observed the pandemic changing peoples use of Zwift?
First off, it increased the number of people using Zwift. My guess is it increased Zwift’s userbase between 2-3x (some cycling retailers reported trainer sales increased 900% in the early lockdown months). But I think it also made people realize that indoor training doesn’t have to be the terrible thing you do when you can’t ride outside due to bad weather, darkness, or lockdowns. It’s a cycling discipline in itself, and it can be really fun and fulfilling if you do it right.
Pre-covid, there were many cyclists who hadn’t given Zwift a try because they were content with the outdoor alternative. (This applies to lots of top pro riders, in fact.) Covid sort of forced them to try Zwift, and when they gave it an honest try, many realized it’s actually really good.
I’ve told naysayers this, for years: if you try Zwift, on a good setup, you’ll be hooked. It’s just getting them to try it that’s the hard part!
That has certainly been true in our case. We have a good friend within our in-house bike club who makes rocker plates under the brand Omnirocker. What does your zwift set up look like?
I currently use my first road bike (Specialized Roubaix SL4, now a dedicated indoor bike) on a Velocity Rockers plate with a KICKR 5. Big screen TV, powered by a Windows PC. You can see my setup here:
Big fan of rocker plates here! I’ve used one since my second season on Zwift, and nowadays rocker plate makers send them to me for review, so I get to try them all. Haven’t tried Omnirocker yet (I think they don’t want to spend the money on shipping) but I’ve heard very good things about their rockers.
Excellent placement of the AC there Eric!
Climate control is a key part of Zwift racing, my friend.
One of the biggest bug bear is people lying about their weight in the game. Do you think Zwift can do more to make sure the playing field is fair?
With the absence of hardware on the market that automatically weighs people (and I don’t see that happening any time soon), weight verification comes down to a combination of manual verification and some basic protections in game like not letting people change their weight in the start pens.
I actually think Zwift does a pretty good job at this point in verifying performances, for top-level races. Pre-Covid the biggest races were actually held in person, so weight, height, and power accuracy were all very controlled. It’s tougher now, with everyone remote, but I think Zwift’s setup with random checks and ZADA seem to work pretty well. It’s actually a pretty rigorous process to be approved to race in the big leagues on Zwift!
Lastly, I’ll say this: I don’t think weight and height doping is a major problem on Zwift. (And no, I don’t have empirical data to back this up.) I just know I don’t see a lot of B racers riding with unrealistic height or weight numbers. The bigger factor, I think, is our tendency to scapegoat others when we fail. Lost a Zwift race? The winners must be cheating! (what are you trying to say Eric?)
It’s important to remember that Zwift is a massive community of very dedicated cyclists. You may be a competitive racer in your local area IRL, but prepare to be humbled when you face off against the world.
For those of us relatively new to the platform how has it developed since the early days and what do you think the future holds for Zwift? Virtual reality? More real world features like wind direction and so on?
Zwift actually worked with VR goggles in early days – they used to demo it in their road shows (see here). For whatever reason, Zwift hasn’t pursued that seriously, it appears. (One problem was, you get really sweaty in those goggles.)
I think Zwift as a company wants to make their product much easier to use. Pay some money and a big box arrives at your door. Unpack it, plug it in, hit the button, and you’re up and running. That’s what needs to happen to get the next generation of Zwift users onto the platform.
But regarding game development, I think Zwift is going to be focusing a lot on the Clubs side of things. Zwift has always been social in its DNA, and if they could just get the Clubs thing working well in game, it’ll unleash social power like we haven’t yet seen on Zwift. Clubs will let people form their own groups and create and share their own events. That’s a big deal.
Personally, I’d like to see racing become more gamified, more strategic. That would include wind direction, as well as more interesting powerups, better customization of your bike, etc. And I’d like to see Zwift enforce race categories in basic ways, like not letting someone with a detected FTP of 4 w/kg sign up for a D race.
The bike you always wanted but can't afford the wheels for. Until now...
That does sound excellent. We’ve found riding with groups like DIRT and using Discord to be really terrific. With other platforms like Rouvy and RGT developing rapidly do you know if Zwift have plans to improve things like graphics to improve the user experience?
Zwift is always improving its graphics – each new world they release is a notch better than the last. But they’ve never tried to have blockbuster-level imagery, either… it’s more like Fortnite than Call of Duty. They’re more concerned with having the game be playable on a variety of devices, to keep the barrier to entry low.
What advice would you give to a level 18 Zwifter looking to crack level 20?
I’ve got a post for that!
Mostly, it just comes down to putting in the work. But there are various strategies that can help you earn XP a bit faster than the typical Zwifter.
I guess deep down I knew the answer to that, best get back on the trainer!! One last question from a clubmate apparently there is a 4th Locked Challenge, how is this activated?
It’s unlocked when you hit level 51. 😉
Thanks Eric for you time, we’ll be sure to see you in the online world soon! (In fact you flew past me up a hill the other day,, didn’t stop to say hi, but that’s ok!)