Indoor cycling apps that are not Zwift: an introduction
Zwift is probably the world's biggest indoor cycling software at this moment in time, having the largest number of users. But that doesn't mean there aren't any Zwift alternatives - there have long been various options for training indoors and defeating the boredom of a blank wall staring back at you as you monotonously pound your pedals while the weather outside is inclement. For example, I used to watch hours of recordings that I had made of the Tour de France and Spring classics. I know others who have committed to a Netflix series exclusively for the turbo, to combat the encroaching madness.
Zwift, for me, has been an ample replacement to these decent (but far from ideal) indoor cycling stimuli. With the array of options and the community that has built up around the software, I find myself feeling very much part of a global family. That said, Zwift is not for everyone and not everyone falls in love with the game as I have done. The great thing is that there are many, many alternatives! A smart trainer can communicate simply and easily with many apps, all designed to enhance your indoor cycling experience. Most (if not all) smart trainers come with a free trial of at least one app, but more commonly they feature multiple different training and cycling apps. These range from simple structured training plans and workouts to full virtual cycling worlds. So, if you're unsure about getting into indoor training using a smart trainer, or unsure if Zwift is for you, read on to discover the plethora of other virtual worlds, augmented realities and training apps that could enhance your indoor training.
Smart trainer - jargon buster
Just like smart phones, smart trainers can be loaded with a variety of different apps, depending on the make and model you choose. Most, if not all, the apps mentioned in this article will work with smart trainers that are ANT+ or Bluetooth compatible - this is the standard communication used between apps and the smart trainer and is, in essence, what makes your trainer “smart”. Be aware, though, that some trainers that are ANT+ and Bluetooth compatible don’t have the variable resistance function, so you will be able to connect to the apps but your trainer will not adjust the resistance.
You can use simple turbo trainers with most apps too, if you are not willing to fork out the extra money for a smart trainer. A standard old-school turbo that doesn’t require plugging in can work well with most apps in two ways. First, you could use a bike based power meter (crank or pedal or rear wheel) to provide the power reading to the apps. This works with the same connection as a smart turbo (either ANT+ or Bluetooth), and while it gives you a slightly less immersive experience it still enables you to utilise the benefits of the virtual world riding experiences without the extra cost of a smart trainer. Alternatively, Zwift can be run using a cadence sensor connected to the game (there is an algorithm that calculates your power using the speed of your bicycle wheel and pedalling cadence). This may also exist in other apps, but apps that work on power readings will definitely require a power meter (either crank based or smart turbo). It's important to note that some apps may require you to have a smart trainer, and cannot be used with traditional turbos. I know Zwift will work with both standard and smart trainers.
It's also a good idea to use a Heart Rate (HR) monitor in tandem with your trainer, as it will give you extra information on your training and some platforms (like Zwift, for example) have competitive events that actually require you to use a HR monitor to verify your performances. You may also want to use a Smart TV or Apple TV. With an Apple TV you can run most cycling apps straight from the TV and connect via Bluetooth to your turbo trainer. If you are using a normal TV or smart TV you may also be able to do this, or you could link your computer that is running your training device to the TV via an HDMI cable. The benefits of having your cycling app up on a big screen are huge, both for your eyes and enjoyment of using the software - the bigger the screen, the better, because it gives you a more immersive, real-life experience as opposed to squinting at a small phone or tablet. From personal experience, Apple TV can be a little temperamental but I’ve found that a high quality HDMI cable from a reasonably high-spec laptop works brilliantly on a big screen!
So, you have your turbo set up, either a smart one or a traditional one augmented with power meters or cadence sensors, and you might even have your big screen up and ready to immerse you into a world of virtual cycling - but NOT Watopia! Without further ado, here are the top picks of indoor cycling apps that are the best alternative to Zwift, as tested by me and my pro-cycling compadres!
RGT Cycling (Road Grand Tours)
RGT Cycling are very much the new kids on the block. The platform is fast growing and even beginning to rival Zwift. I know many riders that have altered from being Zwifters to “RGT-ers”. The attraction of RGT is its real world symmetry - unlike Zwift, whose biggest attraction is probably the massive fictitious world of Watopia, all of RGTs routes and roads are based upon real roadways and routes from around the world.
RGT has a few options for virtual cycling: first of all, there are Real Roads. These are actual routes in real life, replicated with ultra-high detail. The list of these is currently quite small, but growing all the time, and today includes Mont Ventoux, the Paterberg, Pienza, the Stelvio and more. Secondly, RGT Cycling also has a range of different events - more event types than even Zwift. There is a normal race, time trials, an elimination style race, group rides and group training rides. More than enough to rival the Zwift experience! The structured training offered by RGT is also very similar to that of Zwift; RGT Cycling has worked with some of the world’s best coaches to provide sessions and training plans to help improve any athlete.
The really great feature of RGT Cycling is its Magic Roads feature - this is a step to revolutionise virtual riding. With Magic Roads you are not constrained by any pre-programmed routes or virtual worlds like Watopia, you choose the route you ride. Is it a real world road? Then you can create it in Magic Roads. The graphics are still perhaps a little behind those of the Real Roads, however all the elevation and inclines are correct to a tee. As soon as RGT Cycling can incorporate some form of features in a chosen Magic Road route to match those of the real world it will undoubtedly become the world’s biggest virtual riding software. My suggestion is to somehow extrapolate the data from maps to convert into like-for-like scenery - this will be the key to the Magic Roads being more realistic. At the moment, many users state the Magic Roads often feel a bit like being on a treadmill with the same scenery rolling past eternally.
To access RGT Cycling Magic Roads, to be able to organise events, and to connect your training plans to the software you need to be a premium member. This is however significantly less expensive than Zwift at only £6.99 per month. RGT also has a free subscription, where you have access to a limited number of the software’s features, but it still enables you to really find out if it is for you or not. If you decide you don’t need the full shebang, just stick with the free subscription and enjoy the real world virtual cycling!
RGT Cycling - Real Roads - Experience Iconic Cycling Roads
£6.99 per month for premium membership; free membership option with reduced features
This is indoor cycling software for Mac, PC, and iOS. It works by picking up the data from your Bluetooth Smart or ANT+ wireless devices, and gives athletes structured, power-based interval workouts. Trainer Road is like a dedicated indoor version of Training Peaks, where you can track your training and workouts in high detail. In terms of virtual reality, Trainer Road doesn’t offer any virtual world riding experience. Its main focus is cycling training, in the form of interval training to power. The workouts and training will work around your FTP and build your training zones from there to focused interval sessions. Interval training is proven to be the most effective way to improve performance, so Trainer Road could be a fast track way to achieve your desired cycling ability in double-quick time. The absence of augmented reality is no real loss as the software gives you detailed feedback on your session and intervals you have completed. For those of you seeking high quality interval sessions designed by world class coaches, Trainer Road is for you. A great training technology, with AI and machine learning from each of your sessions, it gives you self-sufficiency in following a training plan and understanding your own progress.
$19.95 per month, 30 day money back guarantee (free trial with selected smart trainers)
Put simply, this is horrendously hard. It’s called Sufferfest for a reason. Having done a number of Sufferfest sessions, I can also say it is probably the most exciting way to do indoor interval training! The training videos will guide you through your efforts, with sound effects and corresponding video footage of pro races and various riding to inspire you to bludgeon those pedals. These high quality training videos are combined with additional yoga and strength resources to make you into a complete athlete. All your data is stored in your passport so you can analyse it in detail. With a 14 day free trial, it is definitely worth a test if you’re looking for those high quality intervals with a bit of spice and excitement as well as a full off bike routine too. Intervals in Zwift and RGT can often just feel the same as intervals out on the road; with Sufferfest you feel like you’re taking part in something more bonkers! The app also utilises what is known as 'four dimensional power' to build your workouts. This is to give you a full power profile rather than simply using FTP. Sufferfest believe this enables them to give you a better, more precise form of training session which takes into account you as an athlete, rather than using a generic FTP formula for sessions. It makes sense when you think about it; every athlete is different!
The strength training videos that the platform offers are a great tool. The best athletes and the best cyclists are not just made on the bike, but in the gym too! It's a very good way to give your intervals that X-factor to make you go harder. I love Sufferfest for high intensity workouts that are soul destroying without any kind of stimulus.
Cost $14.99 per month; 14 day free trial
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Less of the virtual, these training rides will have you following actual real-time footage of riding on the road. I actually feature in one of these videos, in the foothills of Calpe with Vitus Pro Cycling! Enjoy a library of different video routes from around the world. Ride your turbo trainer at home but experience the roads of a far-flung country, whether that be Tour de France routes or the climbs of Italy, all in stunning definition. Your turbo trainer will vary with the gradient of the road you are following, and video speed changes as you speed up and slow down. You also pass riders in the footage, which is always a good morale boost for your riding! Personally, I never quite got on with Ful Gaz; however it is very different to many of the other platforms out there, so if you want something else entirely against the trend of indoor software then this is one to try for certain. The routes were brilliant, but I never felt like I was connecting with anything in any way, you’re just watching the video routes go by.
Cost £9.99 per month; 14 day free trial
Another strong competitor to Zwift, Rouvy uses real-time footage and real images (like Ful Gaz), but superimposes avatars into these to give you the ability to ride with other users and race, creating the ultimate real world virtual indoor trainer experience. This joining of video footage with avatars is really cool! Okay, the avatars aren’t as detailed as the Zwift equivalents but the group rides and true-to-life routes you can experience more than make up for it. It is almost parallel to Zwift, yet at the same time it is the opposite. Zwift being for the fun-loving gamers, and Rouvy for those that don’t wish to stoop to the levels of gaming but want to keep a semblance of sensibleness to their indoor cycling. A pretty cool mix of virtual avatars in real life footage of fairly stunning routes. Also check out Bike Radar's buyer's guide: Rouvy: everything you need to know - BikeRadar
$12 per month; 14 day free trial
So, virtual cycling is not just about Zwift - there are others being produced all the time. Veloton is one I recently saw which uses the graphics from the pro cycling computer game; Tacx has its own software; and Bkool has one too. Almost all cycling apps come with free trial periods so don’t fear if you find you don’t get on with Zwift. Try many, many more for FREE!
Blog by Tim Torrie
Tim Torrie is a semi-professional cyclist racing for TBW 23 Stuart Hall Cycling Academy p/b Trainsharp. Tim has raced at an international level since he was a junior and has raced in the top flight of the Zwift world for the past 3 years. Tim knows his way around Zwift and loves to see new riders getting on the platform. He hopes these blogs will help users get the most out of the fantastic software that is Zwift. Keep your eyes peeled for Tim in national races and time trials in the UK this year!