A few weeks ago, one of my local bike stores posted a video about interactive or Smart trainers on their Facebook page. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about Smart trainers. I used to ride rollers and for the past several years I’ve been riding a Cyclops Magneto over the winter.
Let’s Face it No One Enjoys Riding a Trainer
I find riding a trainer tough. Every year I start with good intentions, but as the winter drags on, my time on the trainer gradually tapers off. I usually watch tv or a movie to make the time on the trainer go by a bit faster.
When I saw the video about Zwift, an online video game/cycle simulator/training tool, I thought it was brilliant – turn indoor cycling into a video game that allows you to interact with other riders. I went down to Kelowna Cycle after work to check out their Smart trainers.
Smart trainers like the Tacx Vortex Smart or the Wahoo Kickr Snap are very much like standard trainers except they have some electronic gadgetry like speed, cadence, and power sensors built right in to them. Many also have variable resistance so when you come to a hill in Zwift, the resistance on the trainer increases to make it feel like you’re climbing. You can also draft other riders in Zwift so the resistance on the trainer backs off and you can maintain your speed with less effort. Very cool.
Spend a Little, or a Lot
Some Smart trainers are more advanced (and expensive) than others. Several companies make “wheel off” trainers that are supposed to most closely simulate the feel of riding on the road. You remove your rear wheel, mount your bike on the trainer, and your chain runs over a cassette mounted on the sensing and resistance unit. Very quiet and quite expensive. Some trainers can even vibrate to make it feel like you’re riding over cobblestones.
Smart trainers start at about $599 which really isn’t a lot of money when you consider how much a good quality conventional trainer costs. After seeing one in action at Kelowna Cycle, I decided that $600 or $700 was a small price to pay if an app like Zwift would motivate me to use the trainer more over the winter.
Please can I Buy a Smart Trainer?
I went home to ask my wife if I could get one and the conversation went like this. . .
“Sweetie, I want to get a Smart Trainer.”
“You already have a trainer.”
“But it’s not Smart.”
“What’s a Smart trainer?”
“It allows you to connect to the internet and ride with other people all over the world. I’ll ride the trainer a lot more, be healthier, and probably live longer.”
“How much is it?”
“No, N – O, No.”
Smart Training Doesn’t have to be Expensive
I pleaded for a while but she wouldn’t give in. I was going to buy one anyway but decided to do more research on trainers to make sure I was getting the right one. After a while, I discovered that you don’t actually need a Smart trainer to use applications like Zwift or Trainer Road. You can use any trainer – you just have to add a few sensors to your bike. However, unless you have a dedicated Smart trainer, you won’t get the variable resistance when you climb hills. You can still get most of the benefits of riding a Smart Trainer without the cost, however.
So, I started to do some research on what I needed to convert my existing Cyclops into a Smart trainer. First, you need a speed and cadence meter. A power meter that shows how much power in watts you’re generating is also useful. However, power meters that are built into hubs, pedals, or chain rings are really expensive. It’s probably cheaper to just buy a Smart trainer. Zwift will estimate your power output based on the trainer you’re using, your speed and cadence, and I think your weight. It’s probably not the most precise measurement but if you’re not a professional cyclist, does it really matter? It will still allow you to monitor your power output over time to see if it changes. When Zwift tells you to increase your power output to 600 watts during an interval, you can also see if you’re hitting the target.
I figured out that I could get by with a speed and cadence sensor and a dongle that allows the sensors to communicate with a laptop. Most sensors communicate via Bluetooth, Ant+ or both. They can communicate with most Smart phones without any other equipment required. However, in order to connect with a laptop, you need a dongle that plugs into a USB port and acts as a receiver.
I went on to Amazon and ordered a Wahoo Blue SE speed and cadence sensor for about $60. I also ordered an Ant+ dongle for another $20. I have an ancient Polar heart rate monitor that isn’t Ant+ or Bluetooth compatible so I bought a Garmin heart rate strap for $50 at MEC.
It took about 10 minutes to mount the speed and cadence sensor on my bike. I already had a Zwift account and had installed the Zwift app on my Smart phone. The sensors connected immediately. Next I plugged the dongle into my laptop and logged on to Zwift. It took a minute for Zwift to pair with the sensors on my bike and then it was time for a test ride. I connected my laptop to a tv with an HDMI cable so I could get the full visual experience.
Riding through a Virtual World with Zwift
When you use Zwift, you pedal through a virtual world which is quite detailed. I was worried that my older laptop would run slow or wouldn’t be able to render the backgrounds properly but it worked just fine. You can adjust the resolution depending on your graphics card or computer. You see other riders around you and the screen displays a bunch of information like speed, cadence, power output, and heart rate if you have a heart rate monitor that’s Ant+ or Bluetooth compatible. When you come to a junction, arrows start flashing and you can use your Smart phone or laptop keyboard to turn or keep going straight. Zwift has text chat, and some riders have figured out how to use voice chat apps so they can talk to each other while they ride.
After you’ve logged on to Zwift and your sensors have connected, you can choose a ride and a route. You can choose from several pre-configured rides or you can create your own custom workout. There are even multi-week training programs that you can use to kick start your fitness or get ready for an event. There are also regularly scheduled group rides that you can join.
Riding on Zwift is a lot like riding in the real world. When you see a rider ahead of you, you can’t help but want to chase them down – just like in the real world. When you see someone coming up behind you, it’s hard not to increase your effort to stay away from them. When you reach a milestone you get a notification on screen. Reaching milestones or achievements unlocks configuration options that allow you to customize your bike, jersey etc. You can also connect Zwift with your Stava account so your mileage is recorded there.
There are a lot of users on Zwift so you’re never alone. Along with the regularly scheduled group rides, there are races and even world record attempts. A lot of pro riders use Zwift and you might even run into someone like Jens Voigt out on the virtual road.
I’m finding that even with my basic trainer setup, I get a much better workout and the miles go by a lot faster. Even though my trainer doesn’t have smart resistance, when I come to a hill and see my speed and power output dropping and other riders closing in on me, I automatically start to ride harder to keep ahead of them. Power output increases and my heart rate goes up so it accomplishes the same thing as resistance.
Smart trainers are becoming incredibly smart. There are bicycle treadmills now and trainers that pivot so you can throw your bike from side to side while you climb a hill. If you already have a trainer and you don’t want to spend a fortune on a Smart trainer, you can start using Zwift for less than $100. When you first sign on to Zwift, you get 14 days or 50 kms free. After that, it’s $10 US per month. While Zwift is called a “game,” it’s anything but and I think it’s well worth $10 a month.
If you want to make indoor training more enjoyable and probably a lot more effective, you should be using Zwift. Time will tell if the novelty will wear off but for now, I look forward to my next Zwift session because it’s just so darn cool.
Get Everything you Need Here
If you’d like a Smart trainer, or you’d like to retrofit your existing trainer so you can use it as a Smart trainer, everything you need is available on Amazon. Just click on a link to view or purchase.