Even without the threat of COVID19 and the country’s lackluster handling of the pandemic, 2020 was always going to have an axe to grind against me and my desire to go cycling outdoors. The biggest roadblock so far has been my current work assignment. While I am grateful to remain gainfully employed during these hard times, one thing I’m not so enthused about is my current shift, which starts late in the afternoon and ends past midnight. It has its perks, but it also means I no longer have a good chance of sneaking in a Sunday morning long ride until the end of the year.
This situation has led to me doubling down on indoor cycling to get my exercise. With my Minoura LR340 turbo trainer currently inoperable after spending half the year on it, I switched over to the Wahoo KICKR SNAP, which brought quite the raft of improvements.
This doesn’t change the fact that I’m still missing riding in the great outdoors, though.
One major benefit to a smart trainer like the KICKR SNAP is that, via Bluetooth or ANT+, its resistance can be controlled by third-party applications. For example, an application could ramp up the KICKR SNAP’s resistance emulating the effort increase needed to climb a hill. Zwift has been the 800-pound gorilla of this particular virtual cycling segment since 2016, promoting the gamification of indoor cycling training by offering various routes around the virtual island of Watopia, and combining it with a huge online community, which you can either train with or race against.
It’s also US$15 per month.
While Zwift has rightly enjoyed its popularity and first-mover advantage, it is no longer the only game in the virtual cycling town. This is where the subject of today’s post comes in.
Road Grand Tours, alternatively called RGT Cycling, is one of the newer players in the virtual indoor cycling arena. Their main claim to fame is their “Real Roads” catalog of routes based on real-life locations around the world, unlike Zwift with its virtual island of Watopia hosting almost everything. As of this writing, it’s also got free membership with some features blocked off, but with all the Real Roads routes available:
- Cap Formentor, Palma de Mallorca, Spain
- Mont Ventoux, France
- Paterberg, Belgium
- Passo della Stelvio, Italy
- Pienza, Italy
- 8bar Criterium course, Germany
- Borrego Springs, USA
- Canary Wharf, UK
To get into RGT Cycling, you will need a power meter and two separate apps. The main RGT Cycling app has all the controls, user details, and device communication with your smart trainer, cadence sensor, and heart rate sensor – and it runs on an Android or iOS smartphone. A separate “RGT Screen” app – available on iOS, Windows, Mac OS, or Apple TV – then handles all the visuals for the immersion, including camera angle switching and visual quality.
So how is it like?
Pairing the KICKR SNAP, my Cat Eye ISC-12 speed/cadence sensor, and my Stages heart rate strap to the RGT Cycling app via Bluetooth was fast, easy, and done after selecting a course.
By contrast, making the RGT Cycling app talk to Strava is somewhat imperfect. After a dozen failed attempts, I got it to work by removing the Strava app from my phone to force it to link up via the web browser, which finally stuck. And even then, activities don’t always automatically upload to Strava on their own.
RGT Cycling does generate .FIT and .GPX files of your workouts. You can send a request to send them to your email address through the app, and those can then be uploaded directly into Strava…as a workaround.
Once past that, though, the RGT Cycling experience has been pretty sweet. All eight Real Roads courses are available right off the bat, unlike Zwift, which forces you into level-grinding, RPG-style, to access its version of Mont Ventoux or its long-climb Alpe du Zwift route. Also unlike Zwift and its bright and cheery motifs, RGT Cycling aims for realism in its environments, much like a simulation racing game does. It doesn’t always get there, as the graphical fidelity hovers around PlayStation 2 levels of quality with a slightly slower frame rate, but I do like its quieter, less game-like ambience.
The routes I’ve tried are the following:
- 8bar Crit: Emulates a fixed-gear criterium course set on an airport in Berlin. Totally flat, but has lots of indicated turns. I use this primarily for warming up.
- Canary Wharf: A simple rectangular night course set in the UK, home to a short sprint segment and a short, abrupt 6% gradient climb.
- Borrego Springs: A simple but long desert time-trial course in San Diego. Most of my time on RGT Cycling has been spent here, as it’s a good venue for interval work. It’s also harder than advertised. Just drafting behind stronger riders can be a chore already.
- Paterberg: This Flemish climbing route is short, sweet, and brutal. While there are a lot of downhill sections, they’re followed up by some steep ascents of 12% to 16%. Great for hill repeats.
- Cap Formentor: After some flats, this is three climbs in one. The first 3 km rises by an average of 6.2%, then a twisty downhill leads you to a gentler 3.3 km of 2.8% average gradient. Past the tunnel, the final kilometer punishes you with 6.6% gradient. I’ll need at least 90 minutes to complete this.
The following features are hidden away behind the subscription fee paywall:
- Structured training workout mode: At first glance, they remind me of what TrainerRoad offers. They’ve got quite a selection. (FYI – TrainerRoad integration is available on free accounts.)
- RGT’s structured workout library and sync-up for daily workouts.
- Magic Roads: RGT’s neatest party trick is it can supposedly take a .GPX file of your favorite cycling route, which it will then attempt to recreate inside the game. I understand the main caveat here (apart from the subscription) is that it has to be either a race or a group ride event. Magic Roads currently do not support standalone, solo rides.
- Customizable event bots.
- Event creation on either standard roads or Magic Roads.
RGT Cycling has its work cut out for it in the community stakes, but that’s to be expected given Zwift has had a four-year head start. I’m not interested in racing, so the relative lack of community activity isn’t a deal-breaker – although they do host a Facebook community group where you can meet riders and organize group rides, if that’s your jam.
All this…still doesn’t change the fact that I miss riding in the great outdoors. At the end of the day, cynically speaking, and to borrow a line from DC Rainmaker, I’m still staring at a wall while pedaling my bike and going nowhere. The challenge and effort brought by RGT Cycling feels pretty darn real to my legs, though, and I think such virtual cycling is a good way to break the monotony of indoor training and make it a little more fun.