What if I told you that an alternative to Zwift exists that is (currently) completely free to play, and has an (almost) comparable feature set. Would you be interested in learning more?
Well, if you haven’t yet already been acquainted, allow me to introduce you to RGT Cycling (formerly Road Grand Tours).
And if you have already heard of, or tried RGT Cycling, then have you logged in lately?
RGT Cycling has a game client for Windows, and both Mac and Apple TV. It has a companion app (required as best I can tell) for both Apple and Android.
I’ve not yet extensively tested RGT Cycling, so what follows is a first play through. Actually, maybe play is completely the wrong word. This is a “game” but it’s a game very much in the Zwift style – i.e. hard work is very much required.
For this ride I took on the Pienza course. This is an 8.2km hilly Italian circuit featuring 235m of climb per lap at 6% average gradient.
In many ways the start of the ride was similar to Zwift.
On selecting a course – of which there are several – I found myself dropped in to that course. Much like my first ride on Zwift, I had no idea where I was on the circuit. I had the Heads Up Display (HUD) giving me a fair amount of info, but with no understanding of the map, I wasn’t really aware of where I was, nor what lay ahead. I see nothing really wrong with this – it’s part of the fun. But like Zwift, I think the initial ride experience could be expanded upon and made more beginner friendly.
Being completely honest, graphically, I was expecting better.
Things looked very rudimentary, much like Zwift on the iPad. Digging about in the UI proved a little fruitless, until I realised that you can change the graphics settings quite easily. Only you need to do so from the App.
And this brings me on to the thing I found most unusual about RGT Cycling: the reliance on the App.
Now, like Zwift, there is a free “companion” App which, as mentioned, works on both iOS and Android. Finding the app in the Google Play store was simple enough – as was finding RGT Cycling in the Windows App Store – and downloading / installing was straightforward.
Where things got a little … messy for me was in being forced to register using the App.
It seems really odd to me that I have to log in to the Windows App store, download the game client, then install the app, boot it up, and then be prompted to switch to my phone / the App to complete the registration journey. And that registration journey was not great from the App, truth be told.
The registration process could definitely benefit from a bit of further user experience improvements. Probably the most frustrating piece was the “country” selection which was a huge drop down list of available countries, which was next to impossible to scroll through. I wanted to select UK, but gave up after struggling to scroll down past the countries starting with “A”. Likewise, other fields were not easily selected, and when selected the input process wasn’t very slick.
Pairing of devices – my Tacx Neo 2, and Wahoo TICKR heart rate strap – wasn’t handled automatically. I like the Zwift method of ensuring this is done before the ride starts.
In RGT Cycling, pairing is a case of clicking on each of the elements – power, cadence, heart rate – and then pairing the appropriate device. This was fairly seamless, but “connecting” took a few tries for my heart rate monitor. Even when paired, the display only worked on the App until I disconnected the pairing, and reconnected. Then it worked in both the app and the game / HUD.
Once paired, I had no further issues.
Somewhat confusingly, but also quite interestingly, there were numerous arches to be found around the circuit. One such example is the Strava arch above. These weren’t super well highlighted on the larger course map, but were very visually obvious when cycling around the course. What I really liked was the obvious delineation of Strava segments. These are obviously fixed, but having some defined segments beyond KOM’s and sprints was a nice addition.
Speaking of things that were difficult to see on the minimap (the top right), my own marker was obscured by the huge flag icon. Other riders are marked by a little circular “peg” thing, which works well. Having my own marker set as a big flag feels unwieldy, but not a show stopper.
Moving on to the graphics, as mentioned above it is possible to toggle between Low, Medium, and High from the app. Doing so did not require the app to be restarted.
I put the graphics on to High and had a constant 59fps on my Nvidia GTX970.
From previous research, and having seen the Canary Wharf / London circuit on YouTube, I was expecting better graphics.
I would compare the graphics equally with Zwift on the high settings. Zwift definitely looks better on things further away. In RGT Cycling, scenery in the distance / on the horizon looked really basic.
Now, I have no idea how big (or small) the development team is for RGT Cycling, and I know graphics are not trivial. What I will say is they are easily good enough, but there is room for improvement. The same can be said for Zwift, but as a paid product, I feel Zwift should be leading the pack in every aspect.
Going into RGT Cycling, I had no idea what to expect in terms of active rider count.
Although I wasn’t around in the early days of Zwift, I am aware that Watopia was heavily populated with bots / computer riders. This is the case on RGT Cycling.
As I pedalled around Pienza, I found many other riders online. It took me a while to realise they were largely automated / bot riders.
There’s no problem with this. It’s nice to see others on the course. What I might suggest is:
- Reset these riders periodically
- Have some bots riding at lower intensities
- Make small packs of bots that stick together
In the HUD, one of the nice things is that you get a few more stats about other riders than you do in Zwift. One such stat is the number of laps that a given rider has completed. Think about it as though you’re cycling around the Volcano Circuit. Wouldn’t it be nice to see how many laps a fellow rider has completed, rather than just the kilometers ridden? I appreciate this isn’t straightforward given that riders may enter the Volcano Circuit as part of other routes.
Knowing how many laps a rider has completed had the adverse affect of highlighting exactly who was a bot. There aren’t too many humans, I imagine, who would have done 300 laps or more. It would make for a more realistic experience to periodically remove bots, and re-add them. This way they reset and get more realistic looking stats. Just a thought.
Continuing on with the bots theme, a couple of other ideas would be to have bots riding at lower intensities.
As best I could see, bots were fairly rigid in their watts per kilo output. So a bot may trundle past me at a steady 2.9w/kg. This is fine, but 2.9w/kg is my upper limit, and I didn’t see any bots below this average. I did see several above.
One of RGT Cycling’s differentiating features over Zwift is that it very visually tracks the additional benefit gained from drafting. Therefore it would have been nice to get more out of this feature. Keeping up with bots at my limit – as they motor on up a climb at a steady wattage for example – was really difficult. So whilst I really wanted to play with this feature, I didn’t have the physical capacity to really do so.
And this goes for having small packs of riders at the same wattage. This seems fairly feasible – just add several bots at the same time, at the same average wattage, and have little bunches that real riders can tag on with.
Much like in Zwift, certain points on the track are special. In Zwift we have the KOM and Sprint boards, and in RGT Cycling, we have similar.
On the Pienza track there was a KOM segment to tackle. I think the way RGT Cycling displays the KOM is better than Zwift’s approach in most regards.
Heading up to the start of the KOM segment, a ticking down counter and display marked the distance before the start of the segment. This is something Zwift lacks.
The best times were displayed a really nice looking leaderboard on the side of the screen. This built up a bit of drama, and gave some indications of times to aim for.
I found the Pienza circuit was akin to a roller coaster anyway, so if we weren’t going up, we were going down. Rarely was there much flat. This meant hitting the KOM didn’t feel much different to most of the rest of the track – except for the addition of the timer. This isn’t something that’s specific to RGT Cycling, it was just a consequence of that particular route.
Zwift or RGT Cycling, going up hill is hard, hard work. This climb wasn’t the most challenging, but it certainly wasn’t an easy one for me. On my first lap I went for a strong time (by my standards), but then on my second lap I aimed to ride around or slightly over FTP.
A difference between Zwift and RGT Cycling in terms of the KOM was that the top of the KOM was not the top of the climb. I’ve never experienced that in Zwift.
Once at the top of the KOM, and as mentioned because I still had to continue climbing, I found that I’d switch to some recovery pedaling, which gave me time to play with the App some more.
One thing I noticed was that, unlike Zwift, there are no “personal bests” as best I could tell. Only the Top 10 all time records. This could be a really nice place for RGT Cycling to differentiate themselves from Zwift.
The App layout was a touch confusing. There were a variety of menus and options which were not that intuitive to use. Unlike in Zwift, I could customise my rider from the App, and there was no process of “unlocks” so all kits, bikes, and accessories were immediately available to wear. That said, any changes to kit or gear would only be applied at the start of a new ride.
Whilst playing around in the App, I saw a couple of real riders saying “hi” to each other. Whilst the App does have a “messages” function, I couldn’t make my messages display on screen. Perhaps messaging and on screen messages are not the same thing.
There are a variety of camera angles to play with, as per Zwift, and unlike Zwift, the 1st person view is default in RGT Cycling. I found the 3rd person view to be my personal favourite.
Once at the top of the climb, there was a long, fast descent. Descending feels different in RGT Cycling to how it does in Zwift. Gearing feels noticeably more important in RGT Cycling. Unless I actively dropped several gears, pedaling went very slack on descents.
Another thing that is different – more realistic for sure – is that RGT Cycling enforces breaking on certain corners. There were, as best I recall, two 90 degree (or hard) corners. For both, I was automatically slowed down / braked. This feels more realistic. Note that as a rider you have no control over this process.
As mentioned at the start of this write up, much like Zwift, you are (seemingly) arbitrarily dumped on to the circuit when you start a ride.
In the case of the Pienza track, I was placed about half way around the lap, just after the top of the KOM (but still with climb to go). I’m not really a fan of starting on a climb.
As such, after a few kilometers I reached the “official” start / finish line for the lap. Unlike Zwift, this does have a countdown to the end of each lap in terms of remaining meters. I liked this feature, though again, lack of a UX HUD tutorial meant I had to decipher this for myself.
Each lap is timed, and I was told my second lap was down on my previous lap. However, my lap times were not displayed (as best I recall).
After two laps – which took me just shy of an hour – I was pretty much done. I’d hoped to get to 30km, but with 556m of climbing I only managed 22km.
Unfortunately the end of ride stats are nowhere near as comprehensive as Zwift. Fortunately, you can (and I did) hook up to Strava which gives the usual level of detail. Again, this needs to be done using the App.
Once I had reviewed the single screen of stats, I was able to exit the ride and get back to the main menu. This is nicer UX than Zwift, which unceremoniously dumps you back to desktop when finishing a ride. On the main screen I could see a real time list of activities such as other riders finishing laps. This was really cool, but there were only ~10 real riders online at the time I was riding so this data wasn’t difficult to see. Imagine 1000 other riders online at the same time. This info would be like looking at the Twitter fire hose – bits of info zipping past so fast that you could never read them. In other words, this won’t scale very well.
Although out of order of proceedings, I have included two other screenshots taken from the App.
This screenshot is what I saw as the primary screen whilst riding. I quite liked this. As can be seen here, the power, cadence, and heart rate icons were what I needed to click to pair my hardware with the game.
The top green icon – a little TV – was how I swapped my graphics between low / medium / high. The top right burger menu held things like what kit and gear I was using, my profile data, etc (as best I recall).
The display shows the riders around me very prominently. As I later determined, the best way to determine who was a bot was that they had no flag, and they only had a first name.
Also their distance ridden was very high. And as can be seen, most riders were very strong compared to me, a less physically fit / capable rider.
I feel they could drop the bigger menu bar at the very bottom as I found that distracting. There was prominent help icon which I didn’t explore. I feel a little more colour could be used in the app as a whole. It felt very dark.
Like Zwift’s Companion App, the RGT Cycling App gave a personal summary of my ride after I finished. I’m wondering if this is where personal bests may be held. I need to explore this further still.
Overall I had a pleasant first experience with RGT Cycling. It was vastly better than I expected. I’d go as far as to say it’s easily comparable with Zwift, and for the price (free) then I think Zwift should be sitting up and taking note.
I managed an hours riding with only a brief pairing issue. The registration process could be nicer – allow me to sign up in Windows, using a desktop mouse and keyboard please(!) – but overall it was really well done.
Hooked up to Stava I can see I managed 22.26km of distance with 556km of climb. It wasn’t my strongest ever performance, but I got through 527 calories, which is great as I then went out for a big Italian meal.
It would be super nice to see some of these stats in game, or in app. I would really like to see my personal records as well. And I thought RGT Cycling had the ghost rider feature – but I couldn’t seem to find it.
All in all, really positive. If you haven’t yet done so, I strongly urge you to give it a try.
I’m going to try each course over the next few weeks.