Simon Schofield, freelance cycling journalist & creator of the Zwiftcast, talks to us about his life in cycling, his discovery of Zwift and his plans for the future of the much loved Zwiftcast.
Z: More and more Zwifters are becoming familiar with the Zwiftcast, but tell us about the man behind the microphone.
S: I live in Leeds (UK) and ride with my local club, Alba Rosa. I like to get stuck into things (a bit like on Zwift) so it’s probably not a surprise that I’m also on the club committee, looking after communications. Aged 56, I’ve always ridden a bike but more for fun and getting around in my younger days. Like many people, when I started a family and started getting serious about a career, the cycling was put to one side. Again it is a very familiar journey, I got into my forties and things, fitness wise, had taken a bit of a slide. A few pounds had gone on.
Then came my cycling renaissance beginning with training for a big European sportive called the Etape du Tour in 2006 (I was ahead of the MAMIL curve) and to cut a long story short, since then I have done 4 Etapes, a Marmotte, a Maratona [dles Dolomites] and last year I did the [Schwalbe] Transalp, a multi-stage race starting in southern Germany and finishing on Lake Garda. Now I do a very small amount of real-life criterium racing and road racing, but my main form of semi-competitive cycling is riding chain gangs with my local club.
That’s me really, I try to hit 200 miles a week in summer and I have been a long time enthusiast for indoor cycling in winter. As I’ve got older I’ve become softer, it has to be said, and I do find cycling in really awful weather increasingly difficult and, to some extent, pointless. It’s very hard to train effectively when you’re freezing cold and soaking wet. I’ve always gone for the short, sharp, hard ride approach in winter and the turbo is just a great place to do that.
Oh, and I’m also a freelance cycling journalist...it’s this background and a love of Zwift which brought me to our conversation today!
Z: So, being a long-term advocate of indoor cycling, what software were you using pre-Zwift and how did you find out about us?
S: There was a very old program called Netathlon, which, alongside Tacx, was the precursor to Zwift, in that it tried to incorporate competitive and social elements. But they weren’t perfectly executed and they never really got critical mass. Their small following of dedicated riders had to get used to putting up with software glitches and hardware incompatibility. Like many committed indoor riders, I was ready for Zwift and strangely enough, I spotted Jon Mayfield’s very first post on Slowtwitch and I even wrote to Jon, saying “keep going, this is what the world needs”.
Since that moment I was waiting for Zwift. I’ve always known that there is a place in indoor cycling for something that’s social, competitive, graphics driven, using technology to allow people to ride together.
Z: You touched on it a little there, but why do you think Zwift has created such an upheaval in the indoor training market?
S: Without being rude about Zwift, I think what Zwift is done is quite like what Apple have done, in that they’ve not had any startlingly new ideas, but what they have done is brought together the potential of social indoor cycling that already existed, but executed it superbly, a bit like Apple. It’s all in the execution.
Z: How has Zwift changed your riding habits?
S: I suppose the biggest effect it has had on my riding habits is on my ability to compete on the platform. The thing which motivates me to get on Zwift is the racing and group riding. Ideally, my riding would take place in a social atmosphere with some competition involved, it’s just the way that I work. I need some motivation to work harder and the best possible motivation for me is chasing a faster wheel. I can probably do my 3-minute intervals at 325W, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy that interval very much. When I race in the ZTR, I probably end up doing similar short, high wattage intervals without noticing it, because you’re intent on not losing a wheel or being the first to the top of the climb. So for me, it has allowed hard efforts to be disguised. However, in answer to the question, the riding habit that has most changed is that I probably ride competitively more often than ever before.
Z. You’re a regular in the Zwift Training Race (ZTR), a long standing event organized by the Zwift community. What do you make of racing on Zwift and the events being organized by the community?
S: I wouldn’t like to single out any one particular race series as a favourite. For me, it’s a scheduling issue, I’ll often be on a rest day on a Monday, so I’m ready for a race on a Tuesday, which makes the ZTR ideal for me. Although I do think it’s an extremely well run series, the reason for my taking part is down to timings. Something I really like, a relatively recent addition which Zwift HQ also had a team in on Monday night, of which I’ve only ridden once, is the Team Time Trial series. I think that is a superb idea for racing and I’ve always loved watching TTTs in the big grand tours. There’s something so poetic about the movement and the fluidity of them and to see that, repeated on Zwift with a pretty high degree of accuracy, is exciting for me. I hope we see more TTTs on Zwift because I think they make for really good events.
Z: So, why create a Podcast about Zwift?
S: Because I was so excited about the development of Zwift, I was lucky enough to be rider number 10, which I think is probably the first rider after Eric and the Zwift crew. That was because I contacted Eric pretty early just to say how excited I was about it. I was also doing some writing for the cycling press, writing for Cycling Weekly and other magazines, and I was very keen to get a review of Zwift up in beta. So Eric very kindly set me up, and I think I was the was the first civilian, i.e. non-Zwift employee, on Jarvis Island.
That was way back in November 2014. I popped onto the island from time to time during the beta, but once the program came out of beta and we started to see a critical mass of riders, and I started to see the development of this community based ecosystem, I thought there might be space for a podcast. My professional life started in writing and then I spent 30 years working in television, but despite working in that industry, I have always been a huge, huge fan of radio and audio. It just seemed to me that audio and Zwift was a really good fit.
Clearly you can listen to something and ride Zwift at the same time, so it struck me that audio might be a good forum. In Autumn 2015 I decided there might be space for a podcast and that people might possibly enjoy it whilst Zwifting. As it turns out, a lot of people do listen to it whilst Zwifting, but a lot of people don’t. Some listen to it on their commute, whilst walking their dog, etc.
Z: How has the Zwiftcast grown?
S: Perhaps I am guilty of undermarketing it somewhat, I have only ever really talked about it on the Facebook groups, and even then I’ve only ever said that there’s a new episode out and followed it up with a reminder a couple of weeks later. Having said that, I have been absolutely delighted with the speed with which it has gathered momentum. When I released the first episode, there was a spike in downloads of 800 on the first night of release, which was a Sunday night, that quickly grew to 2,500. The last episode was downloaded 5,000 times and I think I’ve had a total of 25,000 downloads. The feedback, although it’s difficult to say this without sounding immodest, has been relentlessly positive. Everybody who has been in touch has said how much they’ve enjoyed listening to it.
Z: Tell us a little about the options you are now considering with regards to the future of the Zwiftcast
S: I need to be honest about this, and I have been honest when speaking to the Zwiftcast Listeners group [on Facebook]. What I’ve said to them is that if it’s to keep going, to develop, improve and become more frequent I need to find a way of raising some revenue. That’s partly to fund equipment, hosting costs and those kind of things which actually contribute to the product becoming better. But I would also like to see my time recompensed, not necessarily fairly, I don’t expect a fair market rate for that time, it’s more of a gesture and a contribution.
So, with that in mind, I’ve got to look at ways of doing that, and it comes down to two ways: charging people to listen, or persuading people to sponsor it. That was the outcome of a very lively interchange I had on Facebook with people. I’ve decided not to charge people, I don’t think enough people would pay and I think it would limit the size of the audience and the distribution of the podcast. In the end I’d prefer people to listen to it. A couple of really interesting conversations have come out of the community itself, although I don’t want to say more about that right at the moment. To cut a long story short, I am actively seeking sponsorship and I have irons in the fire. I would hope things could turn out positively for the Zwiftcast.
Z: Excluding Jon Mayfield, Zwift’s Head of Game Development, is there anybody you would give your left leg to have on the podcast?
S: Do you know what? Jon Mayfield is my number one target. I’ll tell you why: Eric is fantastic because he’s so visible and he is a brilliant ambassador for Zwift and similarly for Steve [Beckett] and Charlie [Issendorf]. Jon also has some visibility, but there is a fascination with Jon because it was his idea and because he is clearly the creative genius behind the platform. There is also some mystery with Jon because you don’t actually hear that much from him. So, no, he is definitely my number one target really, because there are just so many questions that I know people would want me to ask of him.
I think it is going to happen. Jon has said he will give me a good, long, detailed interview. But, for the moment, Jon is still my number one target!
Z: Every podcast eventually comes out with a “best-of” episode; is there any single interview which really stands out for you as a highlight of the podcast?
S: There is. The interview which really stands out for me was with a guy called Marcus Neil [Episode 3]. The reason that I so enjoyed talking to Marcus was that he had such a fantastic story about how Zwift had kind of rescued him a bit from depression. It wasn’t only Zwift, it was cycling in general, but Zwift was a big part of it. It helped him lose a whole load of weight, gain confidence and introduced him socially to other cyclists.
It was such an uplifting story, told so articulately and so modestly that I finished the interview and thought: ‘what a fantastic bloke and how much he has got out of cycling and Zwift and what it has done to his life’, and for me that was such an inspiring interview and I still rate it as one of the best. That was a superb interview. Really, really uplifting.
Z: You wake up in sunny Long Beach, California, and discover that you are Jon Mayfield. You have free reign over game development, which are the first features you implement for the next Zwift update?
S: Okay, well that’s dead easy for me really. I would want to see a race-specific module and top of my wishlist would be the ability for all the other riders on the island to disappear if they weren’t racing. So, not only being able to see time gaps to the guys who are really near me, but also seeing time gaps to the guys who are chasing me down but are two minutes back, and the guys I am chasing down who are two minutes ahead.
So, a race-specific module including the ability to make non-racers disappear from your field of view for the duration of the race and, added to that, a really quick, accurate results service [for lap/sprint/KOM times].
Z: Which courses (real world or virtual) would you design for Zwift?
S: I’m in two minds about seeing more “real world” courses in Zwift. One of the program’s big benefits for me is the entry it grants into another world, crossing the portal into Zwiftland. So I think I’d like to see most of the company’s resources focused on expanding Watopia. I was a bit dubious about the “undersea” sections, but they work perfectly, much better than I expected. I think everyone agrees that the mountain extension is a bit of a triumph. So I’d challenge Jon Mayfield and his team to keep up the good work and extend their imaginations to bring us more and better courses in Watopia.
Being completely selfish, if I could snap my fingers and make it happen, I’d opt for a real world course based on my club chaingang route, to the north of Leeds in Yorkshire. It’s not especially pretty but I could train incessantly on it to see if I could find the solution to getting dropped at the spot I always get dropped by the faster riders!
Z: Given your affinity for TTTs, select your 5-rider TT dream team & directeur sportif using riders from the Zwift community
S: Man One would be Frank Garcia – a Zwift elder, super-strong rider and level headed enough to be road captain.
The second member would be JT, aka Jernst Tempelaar, probably the fastest man on the island. Who wouldn’t want him in their team?
Rachael Elliott is a national TT champion in real life and ace Zwifter. We can have mixed teams in the virtual world!
Alex Kidner is a clubmate of mine in real life for Alba Rosa CC. He has improved massively since starting Zwifting and is now a real fast man.
Eric Min, our dear leader, has to be in there both because he’s handy on a bike and with some skin in the game. He travels a lot and probably doesn’t ride as much as he’d like to, so we’d let him stay 5th wheel!
My DS would be David Lipscomb of CIS Coaching, the go-to guy for virtual coaching and an experienced race coach live in Zwift (the virtual coaching feature is included in the Zwiftcast compilation episode – so you can hear more how this works by tuning in)
Z: Sum up Zwift in 5 words
S: You will never ride alone.