Zwift is not my natural habitat. Neither are any of the similar virtual training platforms that provide stationary runners and cyclists with on-screen routes through fantastic landscapes. As a Gen Xer whose formative years included the uninspiring video gaming of Intellivision’s Astrosmash, I spent most of my play time outside. When it comes to exercise, I still prefer the outdoors to any virtual world, but I also live in a northern climate where winter temps often dip below zero. It’s possible to ride in sub-zero air, but it might not be everyone’s idea of fun.
Zwift is here to help you fight for your right to stay cozy. The company is best known for its virtual worlds—like the tropical archipelago of Watopia and its subsequent 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 entered the hard goods space, offering its first-ever smart trainer, called the Hub.
Direct-drive smart trainers have been around for almost a decade. These devices attach to your rear drivetrain, replacing the rear wheel. As you pedal in a stationary position, they transmit your real-world effort to the virtual training environment displayed on the app running on the phone, computer, or television in front of you.
The experience of riding on a smart trainer has evolved to the point that many of the frustrating connectivity kinks that originally defined the experience have been worked out. Most of today’s smart trainers provide a seamless, realistic-feeling ride. The most high-end smart trainers arguably provide a more calibrated environment than could ever be replicated outside. They can accurately measure your power output to within a percentage point, and they can register a maximum power output of more than 2,200 watts. They can provide such smooth connectivity that your brain almost fails to register that you aren’t really in the world displayed on the screen. Some even bump and shake as you ride over virtual cobblestones. These trainers cost in the realm of $1,400.
The new Hub costs $500. So what are you giving up by paying so little? And more importantly, what do you gain with the Hub, other than the hundreds of dollars that are still in your wallet?
One big difference: The Hub comes with a preinstalled 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, or 12-speed cassette to match the cassette of the bike you’ll use on the trainer. This is a huge advantage, especially for someone like me whose indoor bike is a decade-old Specialized S-Works Amira SL4, which is a ten-speed. Most other trainers come with a preinstalled cassette or a multitude of options for more modern groupsets. But if your bike (like mine) has an older cassette that may not be compatible with the trainer, you’d need to first buy a cassette yourself and then secure it in place with a chain whip and cassette-locking tool. Either that or lug the trainer to the local shop and have them install the correct cassette for you. With the Hub, you can just select the right cassette option without installing anything.
Setting up a smart trainer can be mind-numbingly frustrating. While the Hub requires some wrenching, namely attaching the rear and front feet to the rear and front legs of the trainer with included nuts, washers, bolts, and a wrench, it’s a five- minute process. All the parts are color-coded, and the instructions are concisely spelled out in the accompanying manual, with some explanatory videos accessible via a QR code. After the legs are attached to the trainer and you take the rear wheel off your bike, the next step is to attach the bike by following the directions for quick-release or thru-axle 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 the trainer in and waiting for the status LEDs to flash blue, which means that it’s ready to pair to Zwift so you can start exploring some virtual terrain.
One important note: The Hub does not lock you into using Zwift exclusively. It also works with virtual training platforms like TrainerRoad, Wahoo SYSTM, Wahoo RGT, and Rouvy. All of these are subscription services priced between $12 and $20 per month; Zwift charges $15 monthly, and a subscription is not included in the cost of the Hub.