PM Approved: Kickr Smart Bike Trainer
There are cheaper bike trainers out there, but none will feel as much like riding a bike as this.
Jan 29, 2019
Whether you’re a serious cyclist or not, the Wahoo Kickr indoor bike trainer will make you one.
The experience of using the Kickr is as close to biking outside in the winter as you can get without putting on three pairs of socks and all the neoprene you own. It ascends from the world of indoor cycling trainers, or fitness equipment, into the various worlds of virtual reality and social media, all while creating that feeling of wanting to get back outside on the bike, even if it isn’t actually outside.
The future of fitness looks a lot like the Wahoo Kickr paired with Zwift. To say this is the partnership of a stationary bicycle with a fitness app would be the undersell of the century. These two technologies can’t be thought of as just training aids for serious cyclists, or workout gear for those unwilling to exercise in subzero temps. Sure, they meet those needs, but the setup moves into the realms of gaming, social media, hanging out with your friends, getting lost in a workout, and exploring new places.
Kickr Smart Bike Trainer
The Wahoo Kickr Smart Trainer is a serious piece of equipment for a serious price, but you get what you pay for.
The Kickr is what is known as a direct-drive bike trainer. That means that though you are going to need your bike to use it, you will not need the rear wheel or your cassette. Pop your back tire off, attach your bike to the trainer with your rear axle (through axles work as well), and loop your chain over the Kickr’s 11-speed cassette. Now you’re ready to spin, and since it’s direct drive, you don’t have to worry about your wheel slipping on the trainer or wearing out your tire.
Every watt you put into the pedals will go to the trainer, and you can pedal hard because the Kickr is supremely stable. The heavy carbon-steel structure feels bulletproof, and legs that fold out for extra stability (and fold in for easier storage) keep you balanced and solid, even on uneven floors (with the help of screw-adjustable feet).
The weight and solidity continue in the actual drive mechanism of the Kickr. When you spin your pedals, you are actually spinning a 16-pound flywheel that spins with the cassette. The flywheel gives pedaling a realistic sense of inertia. So, when you are pedaling and you ease up on a few pedal strokes, the flywheel keeps going, like a bike coasting, until it slows down to your speed.
Similarly, from a dead stop in the wrong gear, it takes a lot of work to get the flywheel spinning. It is almost eerily like being on a bike. The flywheel helps give a sense of motion that doesn’t seem possible for a stationary bike. What is more, the trainer can use that flywheel to give resistance to your pedaling, as much as you would experience going up a hill with a 20 percent grade.
Then there are the measurable elements: Kickr can tell you how fast you’re going, how far you’ve gone, and how much power you are putting into the pedals (measured in watts, a standard metric in the cycling world). The Kickr can do all of this by pairing via Bluetooth with your computer, tablet, or bike computer, but it can do much more.
To get the most out of the trainer, pair it with a training app—I love Zwift. You can set workout goals, use Zwift coaching to set up a workout plan, and track your workouts over the weeks and even export them to fitness apps like Strava. The real strength, though, is the immersive experience of the five separate “worlds.” Wattopia, Richmond, London, Innsbruck, and New York City, that you can ride through. Within each of these worlds are a few courses that you can select as you ride. What you see is a cyclist avatar on the screen scooting around with other riders, buildings, trees, rivers, and landmarks.
You can choose to take turns, change your course mid-ride, and when your avatar approaches a hill the resistance in the Kickr automatically goes up. Zwift sets the schedule for which world you can ride in on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. So, if your buddy is out riding on Zwift you can be sure they’ll be in the same world.
You can also enter a group ride or race to ride with others at a set time. This comes with many of the benefits that you’d get in real life: The ride leader can send encouraging messages to you, you can draft off of other riders (to make pedaling easier), and you can chat with those around you. Zwift is even smart enough to know a rider’s weight, so when you hit a hill in a group, if you’re putting in the same effort as another rider, the lighter person is going to shoot off ahead.
The view of Zwift and the feel of the Kickr trainer make it easy to fall into a world of suspended disbelief. It doesn’t feel like riding a bike trainer. You have to pay attention to hills and shift through your gears in preparation for inclines. You push ever so slightly to tuck in behind another rider, a stranger even, and when they pull away, that competitive flame lights up, and you pedal hard to catch up, as if they can hear you breathing behind them.
Then there is the social aspect of it. There are riders all around you from around the world; they can chat with you, they can cheer you on. Plus, you can organize and ride with your own friends. A friend of mine often rides with his father on the opposite coast.
The physical ride is also great. The trainer is stable and moves smoothly. Unlike other trainers it also operates nearly silently. I’ll train after one of my roommates has gone to bed, and even though he is just one room over, the loudest sound is my breathing and the shifting of gears, not the whirr and clanks of most bike trainers. It might not seem like a big deal, but if you live with others or in a space with thin walls to the apartment next door, this will vastly increase the amount of time you can ride.
If you want an even more immersive experience, Kickr has a few add-ons you can use. The Kickr Headwind is a fan that will blow air in relation to how fast you are riding. Ride faster, harder wind; slow down, softer wind. This has the dual benefit of simulating a ride and cooling you down as you push for that last mile. The pattern of the fan is targeted to specific areas, like your legs and head, to give the cooling forces where you need them most.
You can also pair the Kickr with the Kickr Climb. Remove your front wheel and mount your front fork to the climb. When your rider approaches a hill, the Climb lifts the front of your bike to make you feel as if you are angling up a hill, up to 20 percent. And it will do the same downhill to 10 percent. It’s another immersive aspect that can make you feel like you’re out on the road, and it’s stable enough to let you hop out of the saddle and drive your legs to push that much harder.
All in All
Kickr combined with Zwift is the absolute closest you can come to riding outdoors while staying inside. It feels like riding a bike, it looks a lot like riding a bike, and it gives you the fun of riding a bike that is hard to find in a basement or side room. It’s not a grueling training session, it’s going for a ride.
This is great for serious cyclists but also for the relative novice looking for something that will get them to stick with exercise goals. There are less expensive trainers out there, and surely they will meet the needs of many cyclists. But if you can afford it, with the Kickr you are getting an experience, a video game, a workout, and a way to stay in touch.
Plus, it’s fun as hell.