It’s smart to ride a smart trainer

Winter training time is upon us.  The warm weather is leaving us and many of us are retreating to the basement in hope of maintaining or building on our fitness for next season.  Back in the day we would strap on our heart rate monitors and spin mindlessly in front of the TV watching DVDs of the Tour. We’d simply watch our heart rate increase as we spun along. Yes, our heart gave us a gauge of how hard we were working, but we really had no way to quantify the efforts we were making. Our heart rates fluctuate with warmer temperatures, diet and hydration levels and lack of rest. We can use heart rate to see how our body reacts to specific efforts but it does not quantify how much work we are doing.  Riding with a powermeter does. With so many great and affordable options for indoor training with power, there is no reason to train indoors without power.

To maximize our performance, we should focus on very specific training of each of the distinct attributes that combine to optimize our overall performance ability. These attributes are: 1) maximal force generating capacity or simply Force; 2) pedaling efficiency and speed or simply Speed; and 3) aerobic fitness and endurance or simply Endurance. Force, Speed, and Endurance are the foundations for training and performance. The best way to measure these efforts is with power. Afterall, power equals force times distance divided by time.

Using an indoor trainer that has an ergometer mode (ERG Mode) is extremely beneficial. ERG Mode holds the rider at a targeted power regardless of cadence or gearing.  ERG mode makes training more effective as it helps us pace our efforts and not do too much too early in an effort or an interval. ERG mode also promotes better pedaling technique as it eliminates all of the cycles of acceleration and deceleration that traditional trainers have struggled with over the years.

Some of us might see a powermeter as a something that might take the fun or freedom out of an outdoor ride. The change of scenery and the altering terrain of riding might be compromised with too much data. On the other hand, riding with a powermeter for our indoor efforts will help limit the tediousness and allow you to maximize your time. Being on a trainer for too long can be mentally taxing as the repetition and static nature of indoor cycling can simply break us and turn off riders from riding when weather is actually good. We recommend curbing indoor rides to ninety minutes to avoid mental fatigue and burnout so that when spring comes riding still seems appealing. So why not maximize our time to train in the most efficient manner? Plus thanks to apps like Bkool, Zwift, and TrainerRoad, there are more ways than ever to break training monotony and come out of winter faster than ever. Here are our top power-based smart trainers, perfectly suited for a productive winter:

Tacx Neo Indoor Cycling Trainer - Contender Bicycles

Tacx NEO

The Tacx NEO is heralded by many as the best smart trainer on the market. Tacx has loaded up this trainer with Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ FE-C receivers to allow the NEO to communicate with every application available, including Tacx Cloud. With a maximum simulated hill incline of 25%, max wattage capacity of 2200 Watts, and a power accuracy level of +/- 1%, the NEO is the most full-featured trainer in the shop.

The NEO Smart Trainer comes with more features than just about any other trainer. It can recreate cobblestone sensations during a ride (called road surface simulation), and has perhaps the best road feel as a result. Surprisingly, it doesn’t need to be plugged in to be used (unless you want trainer control features). It is also the quietest trainer of the bunch and doesn’t transmit as many vibrations as the other trainers.

While this power-based trainer offers the most features of the lot, it does come at a cost. At $1599, buying one is a commitment to training and using all of its substantial list of features.

Tacx FLUXTacx Flux Indoor Cycling Trainer - Contender Bicycles

Compared to the Neo trainer, the Tacx FLUX represents a way to get most of the polish and features of the Neo in a comparatively affordable package. The FLUX can simulate inclines of 10%, with a max wattage capacity of 1500 Watts, and a power accuracy level of +/- 3%. These numbers are down compared to the Neo, but this is very much within the realm of what the serious cyclist would ever need.

The Tacx FLUX Smart Trainer is direct-drive, like the Neo and Wahoo KICKR, meaning the bicycle’s rear wheel is taken off and placed on the cassette (compatible with both Shimano & Campagnolo cassettes). This allows for much better feel putting down the power, while eliminating potential slippage issues that might happen when really cranking down compared to a wheel-mount trainer. Road feel is fantastic, especially when price is considered.

At just $899, the Tacx FLUX might be the ideal point that balances value versus price. Again this comes at a price: portability. It is heavier than just about any of the other trainers we have. However, if you expect to “set it and forget it”, then this could be the trainer for you.

Tacx VortexTacx Vortex Indoor Cycling Trainer - Contender Bicycles

The Tacx Vortex represents the most affordable power-based trainer we have. It is wheel-based (meaning riders must mount the bike completely onto the drum), but again offers many of the features of it’s siblings. With a maximum simulated hill incline of 7%, max wattage capacity of 950 Watts, and a power accuracy level of +/- 5%, the Vortex represents an excellent way to gain realistic road feel and virtual training without the exorbitant price tag.

Road feel is good for the price point. While other wheel-based trainers might feel uneven in resistance, the Vortex is surprisingly smooth. The $549 price point is an easy way get into structured training and online-based training programs like Zwift.

Overall execution is very similar to the Wahoo KICKR Snap, meaning it gives you similar training effectiveness to more expensive direct drive trainers.

Wahoo KICKRWahoo Fitness KICKR Indoor Cycling Trainer - Contender Bicycles

The Wahoo KICKR has been a mainstay in the shop for quite some time for it’s reliable power levels, app compatibility and overall responsiveness. With a maximum simulated hill incline of 20%, max wattage capacity of 2500 Watts, and a power accuracy level of +/- 2%, the KICKR is fully competitive with the Tacx Neo.

One of the key tenets of the KICKR is it’s direct-drive interface. This means that users remove the rear wheel of their bike and install their bike onto the included Shimano-compatible cassette. Ride quality again is extremely satisfying, offering a stable base and great road feel. While not the quietest option available, it is still plenty quiet and certainly quieter than most trainers on the market.

Wahoo sells it’s top-shelf KICKR for $1199. It offers excellent features, compatibility across nearly all road and mountain bikes, and is surprisingly portable despite it’s weight. The KICKR is compatible with the new Wahoo CLIMB, which simulates grade changes experienced from an app like Swift, as well as nearly any Wahoo cycling computer.


Wahoo KICKR SnapWahoo Fitness KICKR Snap Indoor Cycling Trainer - Contender Bicycles

The Wahoo KICKR SNAP is Wahoo’s wheel-based smart trainer option in the market. It too features many of the same features of it’s direct-drive sibling, but at a palatable price point. The KICKR SNAP can simulate inclines of 12%, with a max wattage capacity of 2200 Watts, and a power accuracy level of +/- 3%. These numbers are surprisingly comparable to the standard KICKR, and it’s one of the main qualities that separates this wheel-based trainer from the competition.

The KICKR SNAP feels solid in the saddle. It cannot match the road feel of the direct-drive options, but overall resistance feels pretty realistic and fluid. The trump card here is sheer application compatibility. If you already have a Wahoo cycling computer, the SNAP easily delivers all kinds of necessary data. Further, the KICKR SNAP is compatible with the novel Wahoo CLIMB, which simulates grade changes experienced from an app like Swift. At $599, the Wahoo KICKR SNAP does everything one could want from a power-based trainer.


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