Zwift is not my natural environment. Nor are there any comparable virtual training platforms that provide runners and cyclists with on-screen routes through gorgeous landscapes. As Gen. Xer his formative years included uninspired video games for Intellivision’s AstromashI spent most of my time playing outside. When it comes to working out, I still prefer the outdoors to any virtual world, but I also live in a northern climate where winter temperatures often drop below freezing. Riding in sub-zero air is possible, but it may not be everyone’s idea of fun.
Zwift is here to help you fight for your right to stay cozy. The company is known for its virtual worlds—like the tropical archipelago of Watopia and its spinoffs—that provide creative and colorful distractions for runners and cyclists to explore while sweating through their training programs. Now, Zwift has moved beyond software and into the hard goods field, introducing its first-ever smart trainer, called the Hub.
Smart coaches with direct leadership have been around for nearly a decade. These devices connect to the rear drive assembly, replacing the rear wheel. When you pedal in a stationary position, it transfers your real-world efforts into the virtual training environment displayed on the app running on the phone, computer, or TV in front of you.
The experience of riding on a Smart Coach has evolved so much that many of the frustrating communication kinks that originally defined the experience have been worked out. Most of today’s smart trainers provide a smooth and realistic ride. Arguably the most advanced smart trainers provide a more calibrated environment than can be replicated abroad. They can measure your power output accurately to within a percentage point, and they can record a maximum power output of over 2,200 watts. They can provide a connection so seamless that your brain almost fails to register that you’re not really in the world on screen. Some even bump and shake as you ride over virtual cobblestones. The cost of these trainers in the Kingdom is $1,400.
The cost of a new hub is $500. So what are you giving up by paying so little? And most importantly, what do you make out of the Hub, other than the hundreds of dollars still in your wallet?
One big difference: The Hub comes with a pre-installed 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12-speed cassette to match the bike cassette you’ll be using on the trainer. That’s a big plus, especially for someone like me, whose indoor bike is a decade-old Specialized S-Works Amira SL4, a ten-speed. Most other trainers come with a bar pre-installed or several options for more modern combinations. But if your bike (like mine) has an older cassette that may not be trainer compatible, you will first need to buy a cassette yourself and then secure it in place with a whip and cassette lock tool. Either that or drag the trainer to your local store and have them install the right cassette for you. With Hub, you can select the correct cassette option without installing anything.
Setting up a smart coach can be mind-numbingly frustrating. While the axle requires some splicing, i.e. attaching the back and front feet to the back and front feet of the trainer using nuts, washers, bolts and a wrench, this process takes five minutes. All parts are color-coded, and the instructions are succinctly explained in the accompanying manual, with some demonstration videos accessible via QR code. After installing the legs on the trainer and taking the rear wheel off your bike, the next step is to attach the bike following the instructions for quick release hubs or hub hubs, depending on what’s on your bike. (Both adapters are included.) After mounting the bike to the Zwift Hub via the appropriate adapter, tightening the skewer, and aligning the chain, it’s a matter of plugging in the trainer and waiting for the status LEDs to blink blue, meaning it’s ready to pair with Zwift so you can start riding. Explore some virtual terrain.
One important note: The Hub doesn’t lock you into using Zwift exclusively. It also works with virtual training platforms such as TrainerRoad, Wahoo SYSTM, Wahoo RGT, and Rouvy. All of these are subscription services that range in price from $12 to $20 per month; Zwift charges $15 per month, and the subscription is not included in the cost of the hub.