Hands-on with Road Grand Tours and their new update: Is it a viable Zwift competitor?

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(This is the second post in the ‘Is it a viable Zwift competitor’ series, the first being VirtuGO earlier this year. Like Disney’s Star Wars plans, this titled series may continue until the next millennia without any real plot twists).

Like with the first installment of this series, my goal here is to find out where each of the growing number of Zwift competitors stands from a features, usability, and just excitement perspective.  After all, one of the things that makes Zwift so successful isn’t hardcore features like structured training, but instead, the fact that it’s fun to use. Engaging and addicting.

Which isn’t to say that other platforms aren’t.  In fact, while TrainerRoad is certainly a competitor to Zwift for your wallet, it’s not a competitor in the specific sub-genre of trainer apps that I’m looking at here, which is more of the gamification type.  The massive multiplayer worlds where you pedal around in an empty room in real-life, only to be joined online by thousands of others.

While my look at Road Grand Tours may be the second in this series, they’ve actually been around quite a while, I believe almost two years now since I first met them at Eurobike.  And today, they launched a bunch of new features, including some new courses.  I took a look at all the new features, and the new courses over the weekend.  And then I drew on post Road Grant Tours trainer rides I’ve done since it’s inception to fill in my experiences.  With that – let’s dig in!

Road Grand Tours Basics & Options:

The first, and probably most important thing to know about Road Grand Tours (RGT) is that it’s free. And, it’s also technically still in beta.  One day it’ll undoubtedly leave both of those realms, but for the time being you can dive into the platform without paying a cent.  You sign-up to get an invite via their beta form and then a short bit later they’ll send you setup instructions.  My understanding is they’re looking to open the flood gates to another 3,000-4,000 people this week.

Installation is easy, though only available at present on a PC or Mac computer.  So if you’re primarily a tablet, Apple TV, or Chromecast kinda person, then this isn’t the solution for you unfortunately.  Also, you’ll need an ANT+ USB stick, because they don’t support Bluetooth Smart accessories quite yet. All of this pretty much matches what Zwift was like for the first year or two.

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Once installed you’ll login and be brought to the home page.  It’s here that you’ll see the ability to pair your sensors or trainer, as well as choose your course.  Starting with the pairing process they support all of the standard ANT+ sensors: Cadence, speed, heart rate, and power.  Plus of course smart trainers via ANT+ FE-C.  Given that everyone supports ANT+ FE-C, this makes it easy.

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In my case, I paired up a Wahoo KICKR3 plus the Wahoo KICKR CLIMB.  The KICKR CLIMB is supported because the app doesn’t have to know anything about it, it’s simply passed along the gradient from the KICKR itself.  So app tells KICKR 6% grade, and then the KICKR tells the CLIMB 6% grade. It’s like being a coached athlete, just do what you’re coach says.u

Next, I went in to customize some of my avatar stuff, merely so my screenshots wouldn’t be quite so boring.  While there’s potential here, it’s pretty slim overall. Perhaps some things unlock as I ride more, but the UI doesn’t make that evident.  Nobody seems to top the insane level of avatar customization that VirtuGO has.

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With that done I hit up some of the app settings, primarily around graphical user interface.  I decreased the resolution slightly from 5K down to 4K, and then ensured the rest of the options were at max.  One of the things I really liked about this interface is that you can see in real-time the impact of your graphics choices, as it’s got a small preview pane behind it.  Going from 5K down to 4K made things pretty smooth, while I was still able to retain max detail.  The system I was using this on was a fairly recent and well spec’d out iMac 5K.

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With all the config pieces done (which of course, you only need to do once), it was time to select a course.  You can see these along the top edge.

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The courses in total are:

– 8BAR Crit (Germany)
– The Stelvio (Italy)
– Mont Ventoux (France)
– Canary Wharf (London)
– Pienza (Tuscany, Italy)
– Cap Formentor (Spain)

The two newest additions to the app came this past weekend, and are the new 8Bar Crit course in Berlin, and then a complete overhaul of the Canary Wharf (London) course.

Before we start riding, also note that there’s some camera options we can get into mid-ride, but essentially you just press the numerical keys (1-6) to iterate through them.  Also, there’s ‘Events’ as well, but nothing is currently slated – so it’s not something I can dig into in this post unfortunately.

Riding It:

Now it was time to select a course.  While there is the newest addition (the 8Bar), I decided instead on the Italian course in Pienza. It looked the most fun. I’ve previously done the Stelvio course a few times, but I wasn’t really in the mood to just climb mindlessly for a long time. I wanted some action!

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You’ll notice when you choose a course it displays the length of the course up top as well as the number of riders in the course.  It’ll also show you both the portions/routes within the map as ‘Landmarks’, and the Strava-specific segments there too.  Within the landmarks you can start from the different listed ones, in case you want to vary where you begin the ride.  You can see for example within the Stelvio course that I can start at the switchbacks.

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With that all settled, it was time to hit the green ‘Ride’ button and begin!

A few seconds later I was good to go and started pedaling.  As you ride you’ve got a few display panels (which you can turn on/off as you see fit).  In the upper left corner you’ve got a metric dashboard that includes your current power, cadence, and heart rate.

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Also in that panel is your drafting benefit (if you were drafting), as well as your power history, so kinda like a little chart of your output and savings.

Whereas on the upper right corner you’ve got course-specific metrics, including the distance, slope, distance remaining on the loop, speed, time, and total ascent (climbed). There’s also the graph in the middle showing the upcoming/recent elevation

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I actually like the distance remaining on the loop, as it gives me some tangible target for how much more I’d have to do to make things nice and tidy for a given loop. Its a tice touch.  Meanwhile, floating above each player is their name, current watts/kilogram, as well as any drafting benefit.

Like Zwift you can change views by pressing the keys (1-6), which simply shift to various angles on/off the bike.  You’ll notice that the horizon has a much stronger depth of field. This is within the settings and is intended to add to the realism.  I’m not quite sure it hits home exactly, but I appreciate the effort.  I’d also note it does show frames per second in the upper left corner, I was probably overextending on maxing everything out, as getting closer to 30FPS or beyond would have looked more fluid in the video.

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As noted earlier there are specific Strava-themed segments within the app.  Unlike Zwift where these are just general timed segments (not explicitly Strava themed), here they are tied very directly to Strava:

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Once in a given Strava Segment, you’ll notice the sideboard banners have a rather orange coloring to them as well.

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In addition, up top you’ve now got a real-time Strava Segments board, showing you the distance remaining and completed, as well as your time and the KOM time for that Segment.

All of this is roughly equivalent to Zwift in terms of leaderboard and such. There’s not as much nuance as Zwift for things like 30-day PR’s, etc… But the base concepts are here.

Where you start to notice the gaps is actually just the world around you.  In the case of Road Grand Tours they’re primarily aiming to let the natural scenery of that area/city/etc show itself off.  Whereas in Zwift there’s tons of ‘extras’ along the way in the courses to keep you distracted.  The trick with the RGT approach is that what might be (and probably is) beautiful scenery in real life, doesn’t necessarily translate to emotionally moving scenery once put in a computer game, such as this field here.  In this case, it’s just kinda boring:

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One of the other challenges with the platform is some of the graphical bugs. Sure, it’s a beta, but these bugs have been there for at least a year now.  For example you’ll frequently see what I’d describe as ‘tearing’ in the road, like below, where portions of the scene are missing.  I’ve seen this on both Mac and PC.

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And finally – the biggie – just the lack of people out riding.  In my case on Friday, there were exactly zero other people.  When I asked the RGT folks, they said that was because I was on a beta site that hadn’t been rolled out yet.  Here I am on Monday, and the platform is live…but at 2:30PM Central European Time (8:30AM Eastern Time, 5:30AM Pacific Time), there’s still exactly zero people in all the courses.  You can see this up top with the two little human heads in the text of each course.

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I’m sure that’ll change once they open more beta users…but for context, as of 2:33PM there are 1,399 currently riding inside Zwift.  Given this time of day is probably the single lowest point in the entire week, you can see even in that case Zwift is dominating in user counts.

Finally, I did jump into the 8BAR Crit course, which is one mile long and sits on an airport runway.  Given I was just by myself, it was pretty boring.  I’m not sure this course would honestly be that exciting even if there was 30-40 people.  Partially because the key element that makes a crit interesting is the twists and turns and cornering.  While this course has plenty of turns, there’s no skill element to cornering in this game.  You just keep pedaling like you always pedal.  Thus, any of the tactics related to cornering (of which, there are tons) all go out the window.

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So, with that bit of overall context, let me give you some general bulletized thoughts here, just like I did with VirtuGO:

A) In general, the graphics are pretty good, and I enjoyed specifically the downhill sections in Tuscany through the trees, which were awesome on the CLIMB to actually be going downhill.

B) The number of worlds is simply too many. Yes, choice is great, but only when you have thousands of active users.  Otherwise, it’s riding through a ghost town.  Unlike Zwift in the early days, there are no ghost riders here.  If it were me, I’d have only 1 or 2 courses active on any given day.  Moreover, if there’s any courses in development, I’d immediately halt that and focus on adding functions and features that enrich the current courses.

C) There’s a cool leaderboard of sorts near the Strava Segment finish lines, it’s a neat touch and is well executed.  You can see it within my video a bit as I approach it.

D) While having PC & Mac builds is key, the reality is more and more people want to use other platforms like an iPad, Android tablet, or Apple TV.  Same goes here for a companion app, I didn’t realize how much I used/depended on that until I didn’t have one.

E) Did I mention the fact that it’s free is great? Just want to make that clear. While that’ll eventually change, it’s a huge reason to at least give it a whirl these days.

F) While not really app-specific, the fact that the KICKR CLIMB seemed to mesh pretty well here was cool.

G) The updated nighttime Canary Wharf course is visually pretty darn impressive.

H) There’s gotta be people. I get it, it’s a chicken and the egg thing.  And undoubtedly posts like this can help change that dynamic.  But as if now, it’s…well…boring without other people.

Ok, that summarizes my main thoughts in terms of riding with it.  And don’t forget to check out the video, as I dive through a bunch of the details there too (and you can see it in real life)!

Wrap Up:

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There’s no question that Road Grand Tours shows promise in the Zwift competitor space. It’s got the core of what Zwift had at the beginning in terms of features, and now they just need to ensure that both the user base and feature base grows.  The environment from a graphical standpoint is by and large pretty good, and those that prefer their virtual world have some real-world basis will enjoy the well known spots like the Stelvio.

There will no doubt be many who love the fact that you can choose which course to ride, unlike Zwift which gives you no choice to ride Richmond some days.  But at the same time, RGT I think has gone too far in that direction. Having six courses means riders are too far distributed between worlds, resulting in lower users per world. It’s the same reason that so many other cycling virtual world apps before Zwift have failed, to few users in a given world means it’s boring.

Instead, the company needs to focus on adding ways to get you more engaged.  While some might complain that Zwift has too many aspects gamified, it’s again, another part of why it’s so successful. It’s interesting and engaging.  Same goes for graphical elements like how the bike turns around corners, or the graphical ‘tearing’ that I’ve seen for a year now on both Mac and PC.  These take away from the experience, even if you don’t immediately realize it.  And of course, no structure workout support is a tough pull to swallow.

Of course – it’s also free.  So if you don’t know what platform you want, you can try this for not just a short 30-day trial, but seemingly a long time (they haven’t specified when they’ll cutover to paid memberships).  That’s especially notable going into the summer months where you may not want to keep your Zwift membership auto-renewing each month. By giving other apps a whirl these months, you’ll be better positioned to decide what trainer app you’ll bring home from the dance next fall when the goin’ gets serious.

With that – thanks for reading!

Source: dcrainmaker

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