The War For Indoor
From issue 90 • Words by William Tracy
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There’s a war brewing. Its battlefields are unconventional: rec rooms, basements, garages and virtual islands the world over. And its armies are outfitted in skintight Lycra. This is the fight for indoor training supremacy.
Just a few short years ago, indoor training was a detested activity reserved only for the most uncooperative weather. But with direct-drive trainers that connect straight to a bike’s drivetrain and tools like Zwift that provide a virtual world to ride through, indoor training has started to offer a realistic enough alternative to multiple-hour sessions on the road without going insane.
Some cyclists are drawn indoors by the relatively short time it takes to get a good workout versus outdoors. Some like being able to ride safely at night, while others now find riding outside too dangerous at any time of day. And some seem to enjoy the indoor experience so much that they are all but ditching riding outdoors.
The biggest brands in trainers and power meters are all betting big that more people will follow suit. Dedicated stationary training bikes have been announced by several companies, including Wahoo, Stages, Tacx and SRM—with others likely on the way.
Wahoo expands on its excellent KICKR trainer line with the KICKR BIKE. It offers more accurate power data (+/-1 percent) than the KICKR trainer, and even more climbing and descending adjustability than the KICKR CLIMB, at +20-percent and –15-percent gradients. Other features include the ability to mimic the shifting style of any of the big three component manufacturers, Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, and the use of standard handlebar and saddle mounts.
Though it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing of the new bikes, the KICKR BIKE offers excellent adjustability. Using Wahoo’s app and a phone camera, you can scan your current bike’s fit and then recreate it in minutes on the KICKR BIKE. Wahoo claims a typical set-up time of less than 10 minutes. The ability to swap in your preferred handlebars and saddle makes the fit even better and the transition more seamless from outdoors to indoors.
Building upon its experience making power meters as well as studio spin bikes, Stages is tossing its hat into this fight as well. With the STAGESBIKE, the company is focusing on proper fit and adjustability. It has the ability to micro-adjust bike position (though without the aid of a phone app), swap out handlebars and saddles, and includes four different crank lengths from 165mm to 175mm for further fit refinement.
For accurate power data, it features Stages’ Gen 3 Dual-Side LR power meter, rated at +/- 1.5 percent. As a bonus, it can handle 3,000-watt efforts, which is nice but may be a moot feature for all but the Olympic track sprinters out there.
Tacx’s Neo Bike Smart is outfitted fairly similarly to the Wahoo and Stages machines. It offers fine tuned adjustability down to the crank length, swappable components like saddles, 1-percent power accuracy, simulated shifting and a maximum incline simulation of 25 percent (though without actually moving the rider up and down like the Wahoo). Setting the Tacx apart, two fans at the front respond to changing conditions experienced during workouts. Tacx also claims it has the most realistic climbing feel available thanks to large resistance when cycling at low speeds.
One of the intriguing features of these bikes is their ability to increase speed on descents and brake while riding in virtual worlds like Zwift. It could be enough reason for some indoor training enthusiasts to go all in on one of these bikes. It also signals that they are built for taking full advantage of the new virtual worlds. But these bikes also expect riders to provide an external display. For products designed to work best with these third-party programs, it seems like a no-brainer to include a screen. Glancing around the high-end general fitness spin bike world, other companies seem to have figured that one out.
Missing on both the Tacx and Stages bikes is the Wahoo’s climbing and descending feedback that actually raises and lowers the rider. But otherwise all these bikes are remarkably similar, differentiated only by minor features and slight differences in power accuracy. The biggest deciding factor for cyclists may come down to price.
Another common theme with all of these bikes is the steep price. The Wahoo costs $3,500; the StagesBike will retail somewhere between $2,600 and $2,800 when it releases in early 2020; and the Tacx falls in between at $3,200. SRM’s bike is, typically, in a stratum of its own at €5,000 (about $5,500).
Saris is also trying to enhance the indoor training experience. It has rebadged its CycleOps trainers under the Saris name, and is releasing new products like the MP1 Nfinity Trainer Platform, a birchwood board that adds fore, aft and side-to-side movement to a trainer. A traditional bike and trainer strap to the top of this board. Beneath it, a steel framework of rollers and a peened leaf spring with adjustable spring rates provides enough movement to mimic riding out on the road. The result is pretty impressive, but like the stationary bikes, it does not come cheap. Saris is asking $1,200. For comparison, its H3 smart trainer sells for $200 less.
For many cyclists, a stationary bike, or any indoor training device, is not going to replace a road bike; it is going to be an additional training tool—a training tool that costs as much as a decent bike or top-tier race wheels. We have to wonder how much extra cyclists are willing to pay for what appears to amount to a modest increase in ride feel over already excellent smart trainers, and some additional convenience of always having an indoor bike ready to go.
Many of the features these bikes sell, like a realistic fit and shifting feedback, are standard on a real bike attached to a direct-drive trainer. And, on paper, Wahoo’s most expensive KICKR trainer paired with a KICKR CLIMB offers a pretty similar setup to the KICKR BIKE, with only a 1-percent difference in power accuracy. Plus, at $1,800 for the pair, it does so at about half the cost. Those slight increases in power accuracy and virtual ride feedback cost a pretty penny.
But for a growing group of cyclists, these bikes may be the training tools of the future. For some, the increases in convenience, safety and quality of training time they offer are well worth the high cost.
We suspect these bikes may just be the start, and that there will be more advances in accurate indoor training on the horizon. What we can’t figure out is just how many people will want to join in, and whether any one bike will reign supreme in the indoor trainer wars.