Indoor training is highly effective but mind-numbingly dull. Can the latest breed of turbo trainers make the house-bound cycling experience almost as rewarding as the real thing?
On display in the National Technical Museum in Prague is quite possibly the world’s oldest turbo trainer. Built in 1884, it was modelled on a penny-farthing with an enormous flywheel. It even offered controllable resistance in theform of hanging weights. For the best part of the century that followed, indoor training didn’t change much – riders would stare at a wall while a pool of sweat formed on the floor beneath them – but in recent years technology has created ways to escape the monotony of the turbo session.
Increasingly, training for cycling has become about the use of data. Speed, heart rate and cadence started the ball rolling, while GPS and power meters have ushered in an era where the data we can collect on smartphones would put the pros of decades past to shame.
Gaetano Mercante, R&D engineer with turbo trainer manufacturer Elite, explains how that has seeped into the indoor market: ‘People are using Garmin GPS devices and more people are using power meters, generating bundles of data. Customers now want similar feedback from trainers – the ability to track speed, power, distance.’ Indeed, the variety of data now available is not only more effectively put to use in controlled indoor environments but also provides much needed distraction when pain or boredom kicks in. But man cannot live on data alone.
One of the important advantages of power meters is the structure they can give to training plans. A key area of advancement is the use of this data to create training regimes that are interactive, motivational, entertaining and, ultimately, able to replicate real-world rides.
Chip Hawkins, CEO of US-based Wahoo Fitness, says, ‘I got into triathlons five or six years ago, and as a tech nut I was desperate to find something that could simulate courses, but found nothing even marginally impressive on the market. As a designer, I was appalled and decided that somebody had to make something better.’
And that he did. Wahoo Fitness’s KICKR trainer is one of a new generation of smart trainers, delivering reams of data but also able to automatically adjust resistance to mimic real roads. Similarly, the Tacx i-Genius, released last year, is one of the first trainers to simulate the entire cycling experience in virtual reality, right down to steering the bike. Tacx, along with brands such as BKOOL, has created an entirely computer-generated world, with a digital avatar in place of the rider.
Other major players such as CycleOps and Elite have similarly created virtual riding realities, but largely employing live action footage. While that may all just seem like a glorified cycling version of Guitar Hero, the hardware involved is surprisingly advanced.
Advance of the machines
Jesse Bartholomew of CycleOps explains the complexities of creating modern, reactive turbo trainers: ‘The basic braking mechanisms in turbos, whether magnetic or fluid, have no capacity for power measurement. So you have all these more advanced trainers trying to apply resistance in different ways.’
Most advanced trainers use electromagnetic resistance, with fluid and air resistance proving less common among the major brands. With CycleOps, Bartholomew explains the company’s approach: ‘It’s similar to an electromagnetic trainer but instead we have a flywheel that rotates [like every other trainer], and a magnet that sits on a nearby beam. The beam moves in and out relative to the flywheel; the closer it is, the more resistance it produces. We attach a strain gauge to it to measure power.’
Achieving high levels of resistance while also accurately measuring power is the real challenge for the highest spec trainers. Elite’s turbos, for instance, are mainly separated from one another in cost terms by the level of resistance they can provide. Mercante explains, ‘One thing that increases the cost is purely raw materials – bigger magnets, stronger magnets and a bigger flywheel. With our top trainer, the RealPower, we use magnetic powder. That comes from heavy industrial applications where they need to brake huge machines
in motion. This creates the potential to realistically simulate Alpe d’Huez or something even steeper.’
One of the more interesting developments in the market, though, is the emergence of direct mount systems – where the rear wheel is removed and the
bike mounted to a rear cassette that is part of the trainer. Elite has unveiled its first design this year: ‘We’re seeing direct drive becoming more and more popular,’ Mercante explains. ‘That’s because it can generate high peaks of resistance and there’s absolutely no loss in power because there’s no slippage at all.’ CycleOps has similarly unveiled its own direct-mount unit, but all
of these designs follow in the wake of the likes of LeMond and Wahoo Fitness.
The Wahoo KICKR, Hawkins explains, takes full advantage of the direct mounting system: ‘Using a very large electromagnet in combination with the direct mounting means that we can generate high torque at very low speed, allowing us to accurately simulate riding up a steep hill in a low gear.’ This is a challenge to other designs, Hawkins argues. ‘Other trainers generally cannot generate a high load at low speed and instead report a falsely low speed to generate an equivalent load to the incline you are being presented,’ he says.
But resistance is only part of the picture; the real challenge with trainers is the elusive realm of trainer feel. ‘At CycleOps we put a ton of thought into feel,’ Bartholomew says. ‘To a certain extent it’s the holy grail for a turbo trainer and it’s really difficult to achieve. Generally speaking a flywheel with greater inertia [weight or diameter] will produce a more realistic and smooth feel.’
Aside from the inconveniences of a very heavy flywheel, though, the size can be restricting in other ways. ‘We use a unique combination of resistance type and flywheel weight for each of our trainer models,’ says Bartholomew. ‘It’s harder to sprint with a big heavy flywheel but it feels great once you’ve got up to speed. So if all you’re doing is steady state effort, that big heavy flywheel is great, but for sprint work a smaller flywheel with greater resistance may be better.’
Creating a realistic feel goes even further with some hardware – Tacx uses a motor drive to actually spin the wheel during simulated downhill segments. But as much as the hardware is creating very impressive opportunities for more realistic riding, developing software that is capable of making the most of it is where the real challenge now lies.
The brains of the system
The development of hardware that can alter resistance automatically has led to several avenues of interactivity for turbo training. Some have chosen the route of videogame-like simulations, while others prefer a simpler approach.
One of the lowest-tech, but most successful, solutions to interactive training has been the Sufferfest videos. The premise is simple, the videos offer training plans while showing excerpts of races to get your competitive hormones flowing. Sufferfest founder David McQuillen says, ‘Our approach is that we keep you on your trainer by entertaining you. Too many cyclists get bored on the trainer and can’t find the motivation to work hard’.
Sufferfest claims that the visual stimulus can help performance. McQuillen says, ‘Our workouts are designed by elite cycling coaches like Dig Deep Coaching and Apex’s Neal Henderson, who coaches Taylor Phinney, Rohan Dennis and Evelyn Stevens to name a few. The result is that our customers regularly report 8-10% increases in their functional threshold power.’ But despite recently appealing to the UN to recognise Sufferlandria as a country, Sufferfest shows no sign of letting users enter a Sufferlandrian virtual world where their efforts could affect, and be affected by, their surroundings. For that level of immersion, we have to look to the other technology currently on offer.
In terms of virtual reality, there remains a rift between complete artificial computer-generated courses and live-action video based systems. While Tacx and BKOOL side for the former, for some, videogame-like virtual reality is slightly at odds with the gritty nature of training. ‘We always wanted to make a product that was for the serious cyclist, that focused on real videos rather than game-style virtual reality,’ says Elite’s Mercante.
Whether they’re fully virtual experience or live-action based, one of the crucial distinctions between different systems is how easily we are able to set the systems up and actually use them. With tablet computers and phones generally being Bluetooth compatible, third party apps communicating directly with a turbo are proving increasingly alluring compared to some PC solutions that require a sprawling array of wires. Wahoo lives by that principle, and its trainer is primarily compatible with Apple devices at present, but increasingly third party apps are emerging to make the most of the impressive level of hardware on offer.
Kinomap is one such app. ‘Kinomap is sort of our own YouTube, only focused on fully geolocated videos, so every frame is tied to a geographic location,’ says co-founder Philippe Moitty. ‘Around 20% of the contributions are from cyclists, so we had this idea at the end of 2011 to develop a Kinomap cycling training app that’s specifically for indoors.’
Like many of the interfaces on offer by specific brands, the video is set to play faster or slower dependent on your power readings. But the technology is there to automatically adjust resistance on some trainers as well. ‘With certain trainers such as the KICKR or CycleOps PowerBeam we’re able to adjust the resistance to match the gradient profile,’ says Moitty, ‘but other brands have refrained from offering us the data necessary to adjust their systems, probably to protect their proprietary apps.’
Communication between devices is not just a problem for Kinomap either, and is being hindered somewhat by the battle for dominance between two competing technologies. Rival wireless sensors Bluetooth 4.0 and ANT+ are the VHS and Betamax (or for the younger generation – PS4 and Xbox One) of the bike tech world.
‘Bluetooth just isn’t available everywhere yet so we’ve jumped in and started doing both,’ Wahoo’s Hawkins explains. ‘Bluetooth is really great on Apple and iPhone, but is not so good on Android. That will improve though, while I think Samsung stuff all has ANT+. Our greatest challenge is that there’s no single way to talk with all these devices so we have to be really flexible and make the technology work with as many platforms as we can.’
Even within each format, different languages of data are still causing a divide between different hardware and software. Mercante at Elite explains, ‘One thing that ANT+ is working on – and we’re part of the team – is to generate a protocol for turbo trainers that would then become the industry standard.
Kick virtual butt
If indoor training does find its common ground, one of the most fertile avenues of training is likely to be tapping into our competitive impulses, and no one knows more about that than Strava, which has become a unifying field of combat for many cyclists.
‘Many athletes are using Strava not just to document their rides but as a training partner too, to help them improve their performance and have a little bit of fun while they’re training,’ says Michael Oldenburg of Strava. Consequently, Strava now offers Sufferfest videos for free to its premium members. More intriguingly it has begun digitising its segments, to be completed on a turbo trainer.
‘Wahoo Fitness has just released its Wahoo Segments app,’ Oldenburg says. ‘You use the segments app in combination with the KICKR and Strava to ride any segment in the world, whether it be Alpe d’Huez or your local 20km loop, and the KICKR will adjust the resistance to simulate the grade of elevation you’re climbing. That result then goes on a KICKR leaderboard for that segment.’
One of the main driving points behind much of the software is the social side of training, and we may see competition and social interaction become a facet of indoor training as much as group riding outdoors. Hawkins explains his own vision for the future: ‘My dream is, if the weather’s bad the same group is going to be riding at home but they will be experiencing it together through software. There’s always something to be said for riding outdoors, but I think there are things we can do indoors, such as team races, that might make it good enough to almost rival outdoor riding. I think we can get there.’
In an age of data obsession amongst cyclists, and an increasing focus on performance, the indoor arena is one to watch. As Hawkins puts it, ‘When it comes to the technology, you can go a lot further indoors, so to speak.’
The main contenders
A glance at some of the different ‘smart’ turbos on offer…
CycleOps PowerBeam Pro, $1,194
The PowerBeam comes ANT+ or Bluetooth compatible. Because the strain gauges are built into the resistance beam, it offers highly accurate power figures.
Elite RealPower, $1,899
With a magnetic powder resistance unit, the RealPower can simulate 20% inclines, and comes complete with Elite’s video interface system to impressively simulate real-world riding.
Tacx i-Genius T2020 Virtual Reality, $1,373
The i-Genius uses a motor to drive your wheel forward to simulate downhill sections. It can be tricky to set up but has superb software.
Wahoo KICKR, $1399.95
As a direct mount unit, this can generate high resistance at low speeds and accurately simulate conditions and gradient. It’s primarily designed for Apple products but is also PC compatible.