For a complete beginner to online / indoor cycling as a means of keeping fit, there are a lot of things to consider.
What follows is a list of all the essentials and nice-to-haves that I have bought for riding online / on Zwift.
Please be aware that this article is by a beginner, and aimed at beginners. If you have any alternatives or suggestions, I would really appreciate any comments.
If you would rather see a concise list of all the things I’ve bought for riding online / on Zwift, then find out “what does Zwift really cost?“
With that said, let’s get on with all the things I think you might need to ride on Zwift.
First and foremost you will need a bike.
There are two main choices for your bike. Either you can:
- Use your existing bike – road, or mountain;
- Use a dedicated indoor exercise bike
I honestly don’t know much about the dedicated indoor bikes, having never ridden on one. A friend has the Wattbike and rates it highly. Before I bought my own bike the Tacx NEO Bike Smart was on my list of potential avenues into indoor cycling.
For simplicity, and if you simply don’t want the hassle of maintaining a proper bike, then go with a dedicated smart exercise bike like the Wattbike.
Why I opted for an outdoor road bike was to keep the option open of taking my cycling outdoors. This is something I have somewhat of a fear about, as a friend got killed on his bike on a road near me, and I was passing by shortly after it had happened. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had been the victim of a hit-and-run by a white van. And he was a very accomplished cyclist. At the moment, I’m more than content with indoor cycling.
My bike is a Specialized Allez 2019 model. It was one of the cheapest entry bikes from a brand I’d heard of. I paid £600 for it. I love my bike.
If I were to buy again today, I still think I’d go for the same setup, but the Wattbike is a very tempting alternative.
I bought my bike online (Evans cycles – going out of business afaik (mid 2019), so maybe avoid), and opted to have it delivered. It came in a ridiculously oversized box, and the delivery company gave me about 7 missed calls to ensure I would 100% absolutely, certainly be in to receive it. There was no way they wanted to be mucking about with this taking it back and forth.
In hindsight, I wish I had gone to collect it from the local bike shop. I could have got a basic initial setup, and ensured it was all good to go before taking it home. To do that, however, I’d have needed a bike rack or something, so the costs would have increased.
Setting up the bike involved straightening out the handlebars, attaching the pedals, and adjusting the saddle height, all of which was fairly easy to do with the supplied tools and instructions, even for a complete beginner.
That said, I was essentially guessing at all of the setup steps, and had to resort to a lot of YouTube’ing to get the whole thing setup.
As an example of a problem I faced: I didn’t tighten my left pedal quite enough, and experienced a weird knocking sensation about 6 weeks after buying the bike, but tightening resolved it.
Other problems I’ve experienced have been related to gear “indexing”, which is the art / science of ensuring your gears are correctly aligned (no weird clicking noises, or gears changing of their own accord), and various leg pains from improper saddle position. These are far less likely on a dedicated indoor training bike.
Where To Put Your Bike
An initially easily overlooked aspect of your indoor cycling training setup is the position / location of your bike. I would strongly recommend having somewhere you can put things whilst you’re riding.
In my case I keep a drink, a towel, and a multi-tool on the window ledge right next to my bike. The drink and towel are used frequently throughout each training session, though the multi-tool is only there for emergencies. Throughout riding you will encounter clunks, clicks, pops, and assorted other noises and irritations that need adjustments and tweaks. Or, just buy a dedicated exercise bike and you can likely avoid all of these issues.
There are, of course, dedicated desks for indoor cycling. Wahoo do one that is really expensive. In my opinion you’re paying for the brand name. That desk definitely has some nice features – the angled holder for an iPad / tablet / phone is very cool. But any height adjustable desk should suffice.
Indoor Bike Buying Tips For Beginners
- You do not need a fancy / expensive bike if riding exclusively indoors – bike weight has no impact;
- Use the Cycle To Work scheme if you can (you can get clothing, helmet, accessories this way, too);
- If you definitely won’t be going outdoors, buy a dedicated indoor bike;
- Mine was around £600, and I bought it based on YouTube reviews, online cycling magazine reviews, and because I thought it looked cool (that was the biggest priority honestly!);
- Check that your bike of choice comes with pedals – it seems ludicrous, but not all road bikes do – if not, make sure you buy some.
Attaching the bike to the smart trainer was, for me, much more difficult.
#2. A Smart Trainer
The smart trainer is the hardware that translates your real world pedal revolutions into movement in to your software of choice – Zwift, in our case.
There are all manner of smart trainers, from lots of different brands, at lots of different price points. I can’t recommend you a specific trainer as I took a total gamble when buying mine. I opted for the Tacx Neo 2. I really like this smart trainer, but I’d struggle to recommend it to absolute beginners (like I was). A better option may be the Wahoo Kicker, let me explain why:
It’s all to do with the cassette. Not sure what a cassette is? No, I wasn’t sure either.
Well, a cassette is the spiky set of gears that sits on your back wheel. It looks complicated. In fact, it looks like the kind of thing that – should you ever need to remove it – you would likely want to seek the help of your local bike shop, or friend who “knows about bikes”.
Why do I mention this? Well, the Tacx Neo 2 does not come with a cassette attached. You need to provide one. Which in my opinion, is a bit of a poor effort for a piece of hardware that cost me £1200. The Wahoo KICKR does come with a per-attached cassette, so on that front, it’s significantly easier for a complete beginner.
Why did I opt for a Tacx Neo 2 over a Wahoo KICKR then? I wanted the road feel feature. I couldn’t find another smart trainer that could simulate what it feels like to ride over dirt, or cobbles, or grates, or ice. This is a really cool feature, akin to force feedback on a computer game. For me, it was a must-have. Though I admit to not realising I needed a separate cassette before purchasing. This is because all the pictures show the Tacx Neo 2 with a cassette already attached – highly misleading.
For a complete beginner, as I was, having the smart trainer ready to go, out of the box, would have a been a much better scenario. As it was, I ended up having to buy a second cassette (which I never ended up using – I took the one off my Specialized Allez back wheel), a chain whip and lockring removal tool to install the cassette on the trainer, and then learn how to install a cassette, for which the supplied Tacx Neo 2 instructions were poor. Definitely not a product aimed at a beginner.
Yet the end result has been worth it. Once up and running, the Tacx Neo 2 is an amazing trainer. No doubt.
Smart Trainer Tips For Beginners
- Your smart trainer will likely cost as much, or more than your first road bike;
- Buy the best smart trainer you can afford: buy right, buy once;
- Consider buying a smart trainer that already has a mounted cassette, or you will need to provide your own cassette (and have the tools and knowledge to install it);
- Wahoo and Tacx both have great high end trainers;
- A dedicated exercise bike like the Wattbike means you don’t need a separate smart trainer / have to do any setup.
#3. A Computer / Laptop / Tablet / Smart Phone
You will need a way to run Zwift. There are many ways to run Zwift including:
- On a Windows PC / Laptop
- On a Mac / OSX
- On iOS – iPad, iPhone
- On Apple TV
- On Android (beta)
You currently cannot run Zwift on Linux. If this means nothing to you then don’t worry, this is only information for computer nerds. In a similar vein, I have had no success trying to run Zwift through Wine or VMWare / VirtualBox.
My advice would be to run Zwift from either a dedicated computer, laptop, or iPad / tablet, in that order of preference. The better your computer, the nicer your graphics will look.
Also, run Zwift on as big a screen as possible (a TV is ideal), and have the screen directly in front of you as your ride.
With this in mind, whilst you can run Zwift on an iPhone, I wouldn’t recommend it for day-to-day usage.
Zwift seems fairly comfortable running on typical hardware found in most modern computers. Therefore you should be fine running Zwift if you have even a modest setup. You can download Zwift before buying any extra kit, and run the game in ‘watch’ mode to see how it will run on your current hardware.
If you are a computer geek like me, or you want to make sure that the computer parts you have, or are planning to buy, will run Zwift at 60fps or greater, then Zwiftalizer benchmarks are awesome for this very thing.
Zwift runs really well on Apple TV. If you have the latest Apple TV, Zwift can run in 4K resolution – providing your TV supports 4K.
Overall Apple hardware seems to be the easiest way to get Zwift up and running, and the in-built Bluetooth on most Apple devices has proven much more reliable than ANT+ for me, personally. More on this below.
How I Run Zwift
Currently I run Zwift primarily through my iPad. Almost all of the blog posts you will have seen, certainly up to May 2019 include screenshots from iPad game play unless otherwise stated. Graphically the iPad is somewhat underwhelming, losing a bunch of nice effects such as the heat sheen from lava in the Volcano. This isn’t the end of the world, but nicer visuals can be experienced with better hardware.
Zwift runs absolutely fine on my iPad. My iPad is about 3 years old (a 2015 model), and copes with very large group rides with very little juddering / low frame rates. As mentioned above, it makes sacrifices in graphical quality to achieve this, but the experience is perfectly fine, especially when getting started.
I’ve found running Zwift on my 2014 Macbook Pro to be visually more exciting (heat sheen effects, big plumes of dust, slightly better graphics overall), but moving my laptop is certainly less convenient than using the iPad.
If you have the option, running a HDMI cable from your iPad, laptop, or PC to your TV could potentially make the gaming experience much more immersive.
July 2019 Update – I now run Zwift on a dedicated gaming PC which I picked up from eBay for £250. This is an i5-4460 with 16gb RAM, and a GTX 970 graphics card. This spec has been absolutely perfect for 60fps+ Zwifting at 1080p.
#4. Connectivity – ANT+ or BlueTooth
You will need a way to connect your smart trainer (and optional but highly recommended heart rate monitor) to your computer.
If you’re using an Apple device, most seem to have BlueTooth built in, and this works really well from personal experience.
On PC, I would recommend using ANT+ along with a USB extension cable to place the ANT+ device underneath your bike. I found having the ANT+ dongle plugged into my PC to be problematic. As daft as it sounds, ANT+ apparently suffers from connectivity issues when there is “wind”. In other words, my fan was the cause of the ANT+ signal dropping out. Madness.
I’ve tried both ANT+ and BlueTooth on Windows and had more success with ANT+.
Zwift, Windows 10, and BlueTooth don’t seem to play well together. There is a workaround to this, currently in beta testing, that allows piggybacking your trainer through the Zwift Companion App on your smart phone. This method seemed unreliable for me.
If any of this sounds highly technical then don’t worry. Essentially an ANT+ device is a tiny USB dongle that you plug in to your computer. Once done, Zwift will take care of the rest.
#5. A Big Fan
If you’ve never done indoor cycling before, let me tell you: you will sweat.
If you’re used to indoor cycling at a gym, or dedicated spin class, most likely they have fairly good air conditioning. Maybe you do at your home. Maybe you are going to cycle in your garage, or somewhere else that’s cold by default.
I do not have A/C. I have a rather large fan. You must have a fan, or some other equivalent sort of cooling system. Amazon have tons of them. Get a big one that moves a lot of air. You will be grateful you did.
Whilst you’re there, consider getting a smart plug. This way you can use Alexa, or Siri, or whatever to “OK Google, can you start the fans, please!“. I’ve not got one of these, yet, as my brother told me they don’t work on a 4-way multi-plug. If I had a dedicated plug, I’d buy this as I have started riding, only to realise I’ve not put the fan on.
Remember to wipe the sweat drips off your bike at the end of every ride.
Recommended (But Optional) Extras
Almost everything else from this point is optional, but still highly recommended. Remember, if using the Cycle To Work scheme that you can get all your clothing and accessories as part of the scheme.
#1. Heart Rate Monitor
I’m semi tempted to list this as a mandatory option, but I guess you could get away with not having one. I’d highly recommend you get a heart rate monitor. I got a Wahoo Tickr. It’s served me really well so far.
Zwift will prompt you to wear a heart rate monitor, and it’s a really interesting statistic to keep an eye on. I’ve learned my heart rate is actually quite high. Probably all the stress from my day job. Whilst I’m now aware of it, I’m not entirely sure how to use the information.
Even so, it’s very useful to see in exactly which zones you have been working under whilst on your ride. Zwift shows you this information at the end of each ride.
#2. Sweat Mat / Floor Protector
I believe A Big Fan is an absolutely essential purchase. But (almost) equally, your sweat is going to drip off you and on to your bike, and down on to your floor. Depending on the location of your bike setup, you may or may not care too much about this.
For me, I have the bike set up in the house, and even though we still have the horrible carpets in from the previous occupant, I didn’t want to drip my sweat / chain oil all over the floor.
My advice here is don’t go crazy, but for the sake of £20, it’s worth getting if you care about your flooring at all.
#3. Clothing / Towel
Clothing is optional. Oo-er. You can, of course, wear any clothing you want to, or cycle totally nude. You’re in your own home, do what you like. However, some cycling specific clothing is going to make your indoor cycling that little bit more enjoyable
With no prior knowledge, I bought the highest rated pair of cycling shorts I could find on Amazon. At the time of purchasing, this was the FDX Men’s Classic Cycling Jersey and Gel Padded Bib Shorts. Quite the title.
The obvious mistake I made was in buying a shorts and jersey combo. I have never worn the jersey, and likely never will. The gel padded (super important) bib shorts have been a real winner. Make sure you buy some padded shorts, because the saddle on a road bike is not primarily built for comfort.
If your budget stretches to it, buy two pairs of shorts. I like bib shorts, just personal preference. It’s handy to have a second pair when you have thrown your first sweat soaked pair in the wash.
Also, I highly recommend buying at least one (preferably two) moisture wicking base layer tops. They are thin and light, and do a great job of keeping you cool, working with your Big Fan to move heat away from your body.
You may wish to wear a headband, and / or wrist bands. I do not, but I have seen riders wearing these on both YouTube and Twitch
You will almost certainly want to keep a towel nearby whilst riding.
#4. Zwift Companion App
The Zwift Companion App is a free download and works on both Android and iOS. I use the Zwift Companion App on every ride. It includes a bunch of useful features:
- Real time Map view
- List of Zwifter’s online and nearby
- Friends who are riding, and Notifications if desired
- Various indicators when in Workout Mode
- All manner of useful buttons enabling quick actions whilst riding
- Goal management
And likely much more that I have missed. It’s really a very useful tool and something I would highly recommend that you use.
However, it comes with a couple of caveats.
#1. No YouTube
Because the Zwift Companion App (ZCA) is just that, an app, it takes priority over other apps. For example, whilst using the ZCA, you cannot have YouTube running in the background. This may be Android specific, I’m not sure. This means you cannot listen to music on YouTube whilst using the ZCA.
Not a huge deal – I have taken to listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and downloaded MP3 DJ sets. But this requires extra thought up front.
You can switch to YouTube (or any other app) and run the ZCA in the background. But this means you don’t have immediate access to the ZCA, so can’t – quickly – get access to any of them actions or information it provides.
#2. Phone Holder Required
As mentioned above, you could put your phone off to the side – on a table, on a window ledge, or whatever you have nearby that holds all your miscellaneous items.
But the joy of the Zwift Companion App is being able to see useful and helpful info, at a glance. If your phone is out of the way somewhere, maybe even out of sight, a great deal of the benefit of the App is lost.
Therefore it is best to have your phone and the Zwift Companion App somewhere within eye sight. For this, a phone holder / phone clamp / phone stand is a really useful investment. I opted for a Joby GripTight GorillaPod phone holder, which does the job, but isn’t perfect.
Here’s another thing:
The Zwift Companion App only works in portrait mode. The picture of my phone on my bike here shows the phone in landscape mode.
Fortunately the GorillaPod allows a wide degree of movement, so rotating the phone down, and to the right means I can keep the phone in portrait mode, keeping the Zwift Companion App happy. It does consume about 1/3rd of my right handlebar, however. That said, I haven’t found this to be an issue.
Update July 2019 – I no longer recommend doing this.
After each ride I like to drink a scoop full of Whey Powder, mixed in with 12 fluid ounces of water. When I first started riding, I did not do this and I would say it’s highly optional, and not something you need to do right away.
However, it is pretty tasty – I like the Banana flavour – and after having started using this Whey Powder / Protein Powder after every ride, I have felt stronger and better overall as a result.
One thing to say upfront: buying £50+ worth of powder seems a little crazy at first. Fortunately, I didn’t need to as my wife had already bought this (unbeknownst to me) for her own gym going. I would recommend that you do get some of this stuff as I believe it has significantly helped my muscle recovery. Also it tastes like old school McDonalds Banana milkshake, so massive win.
On top of the cost of the protein powder, it’s highly recommended that you get yourself a protein shaker / mixer cup. These are cups / bottles designed specifically for shaking / mixing the protein powder in to your water, leaving few to no lumps. Amazon have tons of different options. Again, fortunately for me, my wife had one of these already.
There are a wide arrangement of energy gels and protein bars which I have no current experience with. Generally, to the best of my knowledge, these are primarily useful on longer rides: think 2+ hours or more.
I would say these are not essential by any means for a beginner rider, and eating high calorie food / gels on a short ride may end up offsetting all the work you do on the bike anyway.
As ever, GCN have some great videos on cycling food, so I would highly recommend you check them out before purchasing.
Water / Hydration / Drinks
Whilst on shorter rides you can get away without the specialist protein bars and energy gels, you cannot skimp on hydration.
In my case, I started out using a trusty pint glass. Oh yes, sports casual.
However, being a bit of a clumsy doofus, I ended up dropping my pint glass, and smashing it (whilst not on the bike I might add). Such a shame.
After doing this, I found a fairly well used sports bottle which can be opened and shut – to avoid accidental spillage – and has a small nozzle that easily fits in the mouth when riding. Trying to drink from a pint glass whilst pedalling was a messy affair.
Still, let’s not be snobs about this. Getting water, however you do it, is what matters. Spilling a bit all over yourself isn’t going to adversely affect you.
Shoes / Pedals
Dedicated cycling shoes and special pedals are absolutely not essential for getting started.
As mentioned above, make sure that whatever bike you purchase does come with some basic pedals. If not, then it would maybe make more sense to start out buying road cycling / clippy pedals from the outset.
In my case, my bike came with some basic pedals with buckle-style fasteners. Whilst simple, they are effective, and allowed me to get started riding with the footwear I already had – trainers.
Basic pedals also allow you to share your bike with others, without them also needing a special pair of shoes and cleats. This is particularly usefull if you are sharing the bike with a partner, or other family member etc.
I think that about covers the essentials.
The whole setup is expensive when getting started.
However, I absolutely believe the pros (health, fitness, well-being) outweigh the cons (cost, extra clutter in the house).
If you have any questions, please leave them as a comment below and I will do my very best to answer them.