Tech: Indoor training

Indoor training is one of the most dynamic sectors of the cycling market and it’s getting more advanced by the minute. Cyclist looks at how far it has come, and where it goes from here

indoor training
Zwift Hub One


Considering that it is a mainly static pursuit, indoor training has come a long way in the past 10 years or so.

‘Traditionally, indoor training was a necessary evil for committed cyclists to get in shape for spring,’ says Mattia Gomiero of Italian turbo trainer company Elite.

‘It was the whole “pain cave” culture. Trainers were expensive even though they were rudimentary, sessions were monotonous, and it was a solitary activity.’

Over time, aspects of this started to change as technology developed. Trainers got interactive and companion software was introduced, improving user engagement.

The ‘pain cave’ started to morph into the ‘ecosystem’, where connected devices spiced up the experience in terms of interest and variety. Then Covid happened.

The pandemic affected almost every area of the cycling market, but for indoor training in particular it was perfect.

‘Due to factors such as work-from-home and the lockdowns, demand was unprecedented,’ says Chris Snook, Zwift’s PR director.

‘Pre-Covid we’d seen strong growth year on year and had just had our biggest winter to date.

After Covid hit we repeated those winter figures again, but during the summer.’

New beginnings

Covid triggered adjustments in how indoor brands did business and shaped their future plans. ‘We could have grown even more,’ says Snook, ‘but we were hamstrung by trainer availability.

They were sold out everywhere. We’d already started work on our own hardware before Covid, but it was for a high-end smart bike and high-end trainer.

Covid shifted the market and there was a huge influx of customers looking to start their relationship with cycling indoors, which was previously unheard of.

indoor training
Wahoo Kickr Move

Price was an issue for them, as was complexity, so we introduced our [lower-priced] Hub in response.’ Gomiero says Elite had a similar experience, which was even affected by Zwift’s move.

‘Prices were coming down but were held slightly higher due to market desire for accuracy and functionality.

The core indoor riders were committed and experienced, so demanded top-level equipment.

Covid stimulated an influx of new riders who just wanted to exercise and weren’t concerned with more nuanced performance.

Zwift’s Hub catered for these riders and disrupted the market, causing all other brands to respond with similar designs.’

Despite demand having tailed off after lockdown, and oversupply now being the most pressing issue for brands, people are sticking with indoor training thanks to even more advanced software and accessories that create a more engaging environment than ever before.

‘The convenience and efficiency of training indoors has become a much more normalised way to train,’ says Tyler Harris, product manager at Wahoo.

‘We’ve seen a large increase in four-season use, as riders are understanding how focused and regular training indoors throughout the year can help them become a better rider outdoors.

Before the boom, it was common for riders to see a decrease in their fitness during the off-season, but with indoor training you can actually see an increase in winter fitness.’

The training game

While hardware has certainly played its part in improving user experience, it’s software that has played the biggest role in driving the increase in indoor training.

Where there used to be just a handful of basic training programs that didn’t do much more than alter trainer resistance and provide data, now there is a plethora of options.

Some attempt to mimic outdoor riding byusing video footage of famous routes, while the likes of Zwift are now more interactive, having ‘gamified’ the process of training by introducing unlockable upgrades and avatar power-ups.

No one thinks one type of software will unilaterally dominate in future though. ‘Gamification will not go away as it effectively lets the rider accrue a type of visible capital, which some cyclists are motivated by,’ says Wahoo’s Harris.

‘However, this isn’t something that floats everyone’s boat.’Gomiero agrees: ‘There are still so many riders committed to the purer training side of indoor riding that, market shifts notwithstanding, gamification will not be universally accepted.

‘Elite’s customers are generally 30-45 and aren’t into playing around. However, over the long-term this may change as young riders grow up with it as a norm. As for real video software, though, I don’t know about you, but that just makes me miss the real thing.’

indoor training

Even Zwift, having just released bar-mounted games console-esque controllers, won’t be fully committing to it. ‘We’re looking to get the right mix,’ says Snook.

‘You can’t entirely gamify indoor training for the traditional cyclists; it still needs to provide a platform for training to increase fitness.

What we want to do for that customer is gamify it to make it more engaging, but not less valuable.

The controllers aim to make cycling more appealing for the new general fitness audience we now have.’

Intensifying that appeal are the social and competitive elements the latest software has introduced, which seems to be where the future lies for further app development.

‘It will be more and more about offering users options,’ says Gomiero.

‘Games, e-racing, rigid training, social rides… for example, WorldTour teams struggle with engagement. Software has the potential to generate more fan interaction through virtual rides with team members.’

‘Peloton dynamics will continue to improve in Zwift, as will the social side of the platform,’ says Snook.

‘You can make program graphics and training setups as immersive as you like, but social interaction is the key to continuing indoor training’s development.’

Back to reality

Just as the combination of technological development and Covid affected the type of cyclist who participates in indoor cycling, recent times have affected the physical products.

Direct-drive trainers are now so accessibly priced that the wheel-on trainer proposition is looking increasingly outdated (see box on p98 for more on the various types of indoor trainer).

‘They’re dead in the water,’ says Gomiero of wheel-on trainers. ‘They consume a tyre, they’re noisy and their power accuracy is bad.

Their saving grace was price, but the modern market has eroded that advantage.’ Both Zwift’s Snook and Wahoo’s Harris are a little more circumspect, however, suggesting they still have a place for those who find taking a wheel out of their bike intimidating.

Ironically, a similar sort of customer that prompted direct-drive’s drop in price might also sustain the wheel-on solution for now. A platform with far more encouraging prospects is the smart bike.

They have the advantage of not requiring any setup and being easily adjustable between multiple users, but the disadvantage of being bulky, expensive and requiring dedicated space.

‘While the space issue is harder to solve, I do see their prevalence increasing because cost will come down over time,’ says Gomiero.

Wahoo’s newly launched Kickr Shift, the brand’s cheapest bike to date, is evidence of this trend.

That said, the cost is still substantially higher than the modern direct-drive trainer, which has the advantage of being able to be packed away too, so this will continue to be the dominant solution for some time to come.

Helping direct-drive’s case are some recent innovations as well, such as rocker or motion plates that permit the trainer to move while being ridden.

It’s an attempt to make the bike behave more like it does outside. Dutch company TrueKinetix promises it is bringing something new over and above even that, having just launched a motor to generate resistance instead of a flywheel.

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Elite Justo

‘By doing it this way, we’re able to better replicate the forces muscles experience outdoors,’ says founder Bas van Rens.

‘A flywheel prompts different fibre recruitment patterns because it doesn’t accurately simulate rider-plus-bike weight. It means we can virtually alter resistance accurate to real gear shifts too.’

This is pertinent, because it contends with Zwift’s latest direct-drive update, the Cog.

The trainer is essentially the same as the Hub, but with a single sprocket, which removes the need for a cassette because the trainer uses a bar-mounted remote to change the gears virtually.

‘The Cog is an extension of the rationale that prompted us to release the Hub in the first place,’ says Snook.

‘It makes things simpler: inexperienced users don’t need to know what cassette they need, and more advanced users can use multiple bikes with different drivetrains without having to change anything.’

The Cog system has been welcomed as a genuine step forward for direct-drive trainers, and other brands have confirmed they are working on similar products.

Both Elite’s Gomiero and Wahoo’s Harris raise questions around how authentic it makes the indoor experience, though, so the consensus is that it won’t become the de facto design any time soon.

Broadly, though, while it has been a turbulent journey to get to where indoor training is today, and there remains plenty of debate over the best way forward, things have never been simpler, more effective or better connected.

We may have seen significant development in recent years, but the indoor training market doesn’t show many signs of slowing down any time soon.

Sam Challis is a tech editor at Cyclist who is also showing no signs of slowing down


Cyclist Australia/NZ