VC BUYERS GUIDES: THE BEST VIRTUAL CYCLING APPS
You’ve just bought a turbo trainer and you’ve got all the vital add-ons to improve the indoor riding experience. What next? Many of the top trainer manufacturers (including Wahoo, Tacx and Elite) provide their own free software, you can link your turbo.
That software tends to be functional and good rather than great. To get the most out of your indoor riding, it’s worth subscribing to one (or more) of the specialist apps available. Here’s our rundown of six of the best virtuals cycling apps out there and some of their key features:
Zwift is the most popular platform with over 1.2 million registered users. “Peak Zwift” was achieved earlier this month with over 28,000 riders on the app at the same time.
Zwift’s popularity can be put down to two key factors: Gamification and interaction with other riders.
As you clock up KMs you earn experience points (with more accrued on special events). Those XPs then unlock more features – new routes to ride, bikes to use, kit to wear. You also accrue drops – Zwift’s currency – to trade in for upgrades: Faster frames and faster wheels.
There are 8 different virtual “worlds” to choose from: Two make-believe cycling mekkas; Watopia (featuring a corner for corner facsimilie of Alpe d’Huez) and Crit City (dedicated to short, criterium races). You also have 6 real life courses: London, Bologna (based on the time trial from the 2019 Giro), New York, Innsbruck, Richmond and Yorkshire. The final 3 are based on UCI world championship courses.
The social element is a big plus. You can join various organised events, from races to club rides to gran fondos. You can chat to other riders as you go, meaning you’re never really alone. The zwiftpower site polices race events and keeps league tables.
The structured training plans are a little limited. There are a number of different plans (grouped by the time you have to spare, or a target), but those plans have a limited amount of tailoring for your needs.
Zwift is the most popular app out there, probably because its the most fun. Boredom is one of the biggest challenges of long turbo trainer sessions, that’s rarely an issue on Zwift.
|£12.99 / month||PC, iOS, Mac, Android||Fun, addictive, social||Lack of performance analysis|
In contrast to Zwift, TrainerRoad is focussed on training plans tailored to achieve very specific goals. The trade off is much less visual and social engagement.
Training sessions involve delivering the power output and cadence required by the app – you simply have to make your output line follow the target as closely as possible. Until recently, that was literally the only visual interaction available. But TrainerRoad have just added a group sessions function, allowing you to do a workout synchronized with friends.
The training plan starts with a ramp test to estimate your FTP: Functional Threshold Power – the power level you can theoretically sustain for an hour. FTP is used by most of the apps listed here – either as a benchmark to set training goals, or to categorise you for group rides and races.
You can then build a 4 – 12 week training plan around your specific goals. This can be a generic goal – such as improving your FTP, short burst power or sustained power. You can then go more granular – setting up a plan designed for a criterium race, 40km time trial or 160km gran fondo for example.
Other virtual rides and outdoor rides can be integrated into your training record (via Strava or a similar app), so every ride is taken into account. The minimum commitment in a training plan is for three sessions a week – so if you can’t manage that most of the features will be wasted.
Overall, the user feedback is excellent, with the vast majority of users reporting significant improvements in performance.
You can only buy the product in dollars. It was already expensive and the sinking pound has made it more so. But signing up for a full year saves you 20%.
|£16 / month ($20)|
£152 / year ($189)
|PC, iOS, Mac, Android||Deep analysis for performance improvement||Not much to look at, no gamification expensive|
Sitting somewhere between Zwift and TrainerRoad comes the Sufferfest. Rather than watch your avatar ride around a virtual world, you get to watch real-life cycling clips (often from the riders point of view). The video narrative works in time with the workout you’ve chosen; so a high intensity effort might be paired with a clip of someone attacking from the peloton, or a final big push with a be paired with a sprint finish. One of the downsides with the platform is the limited number of videos (and associated music tracks), meaning they can get repetitive.
Sufferfest’s USP is its 4 Dimensional Power Profile (4DP). Rather than measuring performance and setting targets based solely on FTP, you’re assessed on 4 different measures: Neuromuscular power (sprinting); maximal aerobic power (very high power for a few minutes), FTP, and anaerobic capacity (extremely high levels of effort for attacking).
Once you’ve completed the brutal Full Frontal test to assess your 4DP, you get assigned a rider type – Climber, Rouleur, Sprinter etc. Then you can choose a training plan to improve in a particular area – i.e. work on your climbing if that isn’t already a strength. Similar to TrainerRoad you can set up a training calendar over a number of weeks, ranging from 5 hours to 10 hours per week.
You can include outdoor rides in your training schedule (and analysis), along with strength sessions. The Sufferfest subscription gives you access to yoga and strength workout videos, to help improve your core strength.
The Sufferfest also offers a $139 full custom training plan option, which includes a 30-minute consultation with a coach. You get a personalised 12-week training plan;
There’s a money-back guarantee if you follow the plan to the letter and you don’t see an improvement in your performance.
|£12 / month ($15)|
£104 / year ($129)
|PC, iOS, Mac||Unique 4DP assessment, not just cycling workouts||Videos and music can be repetitive, not on android|
4. Road Grand Tours
RGT has been branded a Zwift competitor – offering rich virtual worlds and a gamified experience. There are 8 “real” roads to choose from: Some more famous (such as Mont Ventoux or the Paterberg), than others (Borrego springs in San Diego).
RGT’s features are similar to Zwift with group rides, races and training sessions all on the menu. RGT has the bonus of the Magic Road feature – upload a GPX file (up to 100 km long) and RGT turns it into a course to ride.
RGT has built a decent following since launching in late 2018, thanks to the basic offering being free. Races and the Magic Roads feature are normally reserved for paying subscribers. But RGT has temporarily suspended its paywall – meaning all those features are now free – with the aim of building a user base while we’re all under lockdown.
As you might expect with a relatively new offering, users have reported a few tech issues, but fewer than Bkool (see entry 6 on our list) it should be noted. And most reviewers love the look and feel of RGT.
|Currently free, normally|
£12.99 / month
|PC, iOS, Mac, Android||Create your own course, realistic visuals, free||Some software problems|
The standout feature for Rouvy is the Augmented Routes software. This combines high quality GPS based road videos with animated rider avatars on the road for a realistic outdoor experience.
The Platform includes over 3000 geolocated routes with synchronized videos, workouts, multi-rider mode for group rides and online races. You can ride the entire Tour de Suisse or famous climbs such as the Passo Gavia. You can race against friends or computer generated bots.
Similar to RGT and Bkool, you can create your own course from a GPX and video upload. The structured workouts feature links up with Trainingpeaks to deliver 4,000 workouts that customised into a training program.
Rouvy has two unique features, firstly: Career mode. You can advance through the Rouvy rankings by completing training exercises and competing in races. Prizes are awarded as you progress – with up to $10k of prizes on offer per year; Secondly, you can add up to two extra members of your household to your subscription at no extra cost – helpful if you want to get the whole family involved.
So overall, this package has a comprehensive set of features – covering everything offered by the other 5 apps on this list. The problem is, none of those features are quite as good as the top 4 apps on this list. User reviews on the Apple store are positive, but more mixed for Android users.
|£9.68 / month ($12)|
£96.88 / year ($120)
|PC, iOS, Mac, Android||Most comprehensive set of features, unique career mode||None of the individual features beat the competition|
6. Bkool Simulator
Bkool combines many of the elements we’ve already mentioned. You can ride with and race against riders all over the world, your efforts on the turbo control your on screen avatar – similar to Zwift. But the visuals are more life-like than Zwit – using real life footage as the backdrop for your avatar.
There are also training programmes and workouts similar to TrainerRoad or Zwift. Bkool have added some additional features to differentiate them from the competition: There is a huge variety of real-life courses to ride, including famous routes like Milan-San Remo, Mont Ventoux and the Stelvio pass.
Bkool’s big selling point is the ability to upload or create your own courses. You can upload a gpx file and/or a video to replicate your favourite rides.
This is also the cheapest option (ignoring free trials) on this list at just €9.99 per month (£8.84 per month). So far, so good? The problems with Bkool begin with the reviews. Many users have reported technical issues and the app scores 3 stars on Google play and just 2.1 stars on the Apple store. Those that can get the software to work seem to love it, so it’s probably one to try before you buy.
|£8.84 / month (€9.99)|
£87 / year (€96)
|PC, iOS, Mac, Android||Create your own course, realistic visuals, value||Frequent software problems|
Virtual cycling apps are a great way to make your indoor training more fun, challenging and structured. One app may not be enough. If you can afford it, using Zwift for racing and TrainerRoad for structured training will provide a good mix. All of them have free trial periods – so why not try them all before you buy?