Indoor trainers – Which is best?

In this issue Dr Mike Posthumus reviews the Tacx Neo and the Wahoo KICKR in a head to head battle.

As many of my closer friend and colleagues may know, I am a great proponent of indoor training. Yes, it is not as stimulating as riding outside, but when time is a limiting factor, you are able to condense a lot of work into a short amount of time. It certainly is one way I am able to balance my personal career, family life with two children and still trying to be semi-competitive on the bike.

Wahoo, a US based tech fitness company, launched their revolutionary smart trainer in January 2013. This device, the Wahoo KICKR, has really set the standard very high, resulting in other traditional indoor trainer manufacturing companies scrambling for a piece of the growing market. Smart trainers (or virtual trainers) connect remotely (via Bluetooth or ANT+) to you phone or computer. They are also able to automatically recreate slope and resistance to create a ride, which feels as if you are riding outside. Although there were other direct drive (bike mounts onto trainer without rear wheel) trainers on the market before the KICKR, the KICKR has made direct drive the convention among top-end smart trainers. Until recently, there has not really been a product that has challenged the KICKR. Dec 2015 saw the launch of the Tacx Neo. Tacx is a Dutch company, which has made indoor trainers since 1972. The Neo is unlike any of the previous Tacx trainers and you can see that Tacx really put a lot of effort into the development of the Neo. They introduced something very innovative, including novel features such as road feel and isokinetic mode (more on these later).

Being a coach, I often get asked about training equipment choices and trainer recommendations. Since the launch of the Neo I have had several queries asking me about the Neo and which trainer, Neo or KICKR, is the best offering. I personally own a KICKR and therefore managed to get my hand on a Neo to be able to do a head to head comparison to help you choose the right smart trainer for yourself.

Look and stability

Out of the box, the Neo looked like something out of star wars, at first I didn’t know what to think of it, but after a while the shape and aesthetics grew on me. The neo and the KICKR stood next to each other in my “man cave” for a few weeks and the neo looked tidy, albeit a lot bigger than the KICKR. The key difference however was when comparing the stability. With the bike mounted on the units, the Neo is designed to be less stable. When pedalling on the Neo there is a distinct, yet small, rocking side to side as you pedal. I can only think that they tried to design something that feels like riding outside. Whereas on the KICKR, your bike is completely stable without any ability to move side to side. The bike I had mounted on the Neo had a slightly off-centre rear triangle, resulting in more rocking towards the drive-side, compared to the non-drive-side, creating a feeling as if I was leaning more to the drive-side. I suspect this was however only due to the geometry of my bike. Jumping between the two, I must say that I personally preferred being completely stable as I was on the KICKR.

NEO

**** (4)

KICKR

****1/2 (4 ½)

Feel on the road

Each trainer tries to recreate a road feel. One of the most important factors when trying to simulate this road feel is the size of your flywheel. With a large flywheel you get large inertia, which makes the feel similar to the road. The Wahoo KICKR has a heavy flywheel. The Neo has opted for a virtual flywheel instead of a heavy one. This means that when inertia is required, i.e. when going downhill, the Neo propels the flywheel forward by mean of a motor, instead of using its weight to propel it forward. This downhill drive of the Neo provides a very similar feel than the KICKR with a heavier flywheel when going downhill. When using a smart trainer there are normally 3 settings you could ride to: (1) gradient / course, (2) a % resistance and (3) .erg mode. I personally spend 90% of my time on the indoor trainer using .erg mode. This mode pre-sets the power you would like to maintain and varies the resistance to allow you to maintain that power. When using .erg mode I find the ride feel better when  having a larger flywheel, as opposed to a virtual one, which feels as if it is constantly being braked. For this reason I do prefer the feel of the KICKR. As previously mentioned the Neo has included some very innovative features. When using the Neo on the Zwift Island, or other courses which are road feel enabled, the trainer shakes and rattles to make it feel as if you are really riding on gravel, wooden slats, etc. This was quite a surreal experience and a very entertaining and smart feature, but purely from a training perspective I don’t see much benefit. My ratings below are based purely from a training perspective, based on the way I like to train on indoor trainers. If my use were predominantly to ride virtual reality courses, my rating would be exactly the opposite way around and favour the Neo.

NEO

****

KICKR

****1/2 (4 ½)

Deep in the cave

Inevitably, you are going to use your smart trainer to perform specific interval training sessions. As mentioned above, the .erg mode is my preferred mode when performing intervals. For this, it is important that the trainer power measurement is accurate and reliable. From the tests both others and myself have performed, both trainers have shown to be exceptionally accurate and reliable. Smart trainers have been criticised for not ramping up to the selected power (on .erg mode) fast enough. I personally didn’t see the slight delay in both trainers an issue. Both the Neo and the KICKR ramps up the specified power over 2-3 seconds and at similar rates.

Both Neo and KICKR also integrate well with your chosen software. ANT+ control (from Garmin devices) are enabled through FE-C protocols and both devices are FE-C enabled. Each trainer also has smartphone software, which makes controlling the trainer very simple and easy to use. Both also sync’s effortlessly with Zwift and other software platforms.

NEO

****1/2 (4 ½)

KICKR

****1/2 (4 ½)

Bike Compatibility

An important difference between the Neo and the KICKR is that the Neo can only fit standard quick release bikes. It is able to fit either 130mm or 135mm rear axles. It does however not fit rear thru axle mountain bikes. The Neo trainer was also not designed to accommodate disk rotors. Several new disk rotor equipped road bikes do not fit the Neo. I was lucky enough to fit my Cannondale Synapse with disk rotors without a problem (only had 2mm clearance between the flywheel and the brake calliper), but have read a few reports of others being less fortunate. Therefore, if you do not have a road bike to fit on your trainer and want to use you mountain bike with a rear thru  axle, you are better off with a KICKR. The KICKR thru axle conversion is however an aftermarket offering.

NEO

*** (3)

KICKR

**** (4)

Price

Without quoting exact retail pricing, the RRP of the Neo is currently more expensive than the KICKR. A further difference is that the KICKR comes packed with a 11 speed cassette, whereas you will have to buy a cassette for the Neo, unless you do not mind swopping the cassette off your wheels each time you want to use the trainer.

NEO

*** (3)

KICKR

***1/2 (3 1/2) 

Conclusion

The exciting feature of both the Neo and the KICKR is the fact that they both have open communication protocols for developers. This enables developers to continually develop exciting software, which integrates with the devices. An added benefit to future Neo users is what they are calling isokinetic mode. Although this feature is currently available to developers, no one has yet incorporated the feature in their software. The feature will enable users to set the cadence, thereby allowing you to push as hard as possible without changing the cadence. With the increased popularity of low cadence strength intervals, I am really looking forward to testing this feature in the future. My dealings with the Wahoo support team have been excellent and they are very forward thinking and open to adding features based on customer feedback or suggestions. Both the Neo and KICKR are therefore getting better and better with each firmware update. With the increased popularity of online virtual reality experiences, such as Zwift, owning a smart trainer is becoming more and more appealing to those busy middle-aged men trying to juggle many balls. Although I have given my honest appraisal of the two trainers within my selected categories, you really can’t go wrong with any one of these trainers. They are both excellent devices.

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