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The Smart Trainer Annual Recommendations Guide–2018 Edition
It’s that time of year again: Indoor trainer season.
Though in reality, that’s actually not terribly true these days. With indoor training apps and the entire experience becoming more and more immersive, more and more people are using them all year round. And the new trainer announcement season itself has stretched from late spring to just this morning (with two new entrants in the last 24 hours)
Now in the past I’ve covered all trainers, from $70 units up to $1,600 trainers. But with so many new (and really good) trainers coming out this past year, I’m narrowing that focus a bit. Instead of all trainers, I’m focusing on smart trainers. Specifically ones that transmit some sort of ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart signal (dual/concurrently), and allow control of the trainer itself.
The reason is relatively simple: While I occasionally briefly try non-smart trainers at trade shows or the like, I just don’t ride them these days. As such, all my recommendations are old there (though, the tech and trainers themselves in that category frankly haven’t changed any). You can reference last year’s post though to see some of those cheaper suggestions.
In any case, we saw new smart trainers from virtually every major brand this year, as well as some smaller brands. Some of them made big jumps, while most made more incremental bumps in specs and features. Evolutionary – not revolutionary.
While not everything that’s been announced is shipping, most things are. And those that aren’t are within 2-4 weeks of shipping. Generally speaking, I’m not going to recommend something unless I have a unit in the DCR Cave (exceptions are noted as such). So for things that are still outstanding, it’s tougher for me to recommend them at this time. I have notes at the bottom of this post for all my caveats and why-nots.
Finally, for those looking for general sports technology recommendations (watches/action cams/activity trackers/scales/etc.…), I tend to publish those late the week of Nov 12th. My goal being to wrap up all the outstanding new wearable reviews by that timeframe. There are no further watches to be announced by any mainstream wearable company this year. Trainer reviews will happen as final versions of trainers come in. I’ve already posted many such reviews this fall.
How I make trainer recommendations
First and foremost, I only recommend trainers I’ve actually used. Certainly, there are some trainers that were announced this year that aren’t yet available – you won’t find those recommendations here unless I have a unit on-hand.
When I look at recommendations across all products I make, I try and recommend products to you in the same way that I’d do to friends and family. I keep it simple and explain exactly why I feel a given way.
My goal is NOT to make a roundup of every trainer on the market.
Though I will briefly discuss why I didn’t include some trainers in this piece at the end. This is, again, my *recommendations*, not the holy grail of everything ever made by everyone. Still, I’m lucky enough to have been able to try almost everything made by all the major trainer companies this year, at least at the mid to upper end (I don’t tend to review the 183 different models of trainers from $75 to $200).
Price Ranges & Currencies:
Over the last few years we’ve continued to see major shifting in price vs feature-set combinations. For example, functionality and accuracy that used to be reserved for $1,200 trainers has slid down to $900 trainers. I had to change my price bucketing last year to account for this, and once again I tweaked things a tiny bit this year. My purpose isn’t so much moving the goalposts, as it is making the groupings more logical. Meaning, someone looking to spend $599 is probably OK spending $699, and someone teetering at $529 might be OK spending that $699 too if the benefits make sense.
Meanwhile, someone looking for a $599 trainer isn’t likely the same person as one looking at a $1,199 trainer. So, here’s the 2018 buckets, aligned to the trends of trainer pricing in 2018:
Budget – Sub-$500: These tend to be basic in functions, and lack automated controls, but some do still have some electronics. Most apps support these in a basic manner.
Mid-Range $500-$700: These are where we see electronic resistance control, as well as the majority of features and full app integration. Most of these are wheel-on trainers, except one…the new Elite Zumo.
Mid-High End $700-$1,000: This category exists because there’s a clear line in the sand between the flood of sub-$599 trainers, and the flotilla of $700-800 trainers. I just don’t think it makes sense to put them in the lower priced category, though the case could easily be made that they compete with the $1,000+ trainers (and are almost universally a better buy).
High-End $1,000+: These are the high-end trainers, and primarily distinguish themselves from the mid-range by increasing durability, reducing noise, incline/wattage increases, or just being expensive for the heck of it (i.e., legacy branding/marketing).
Now – you’ll notice the dollar signs, which in this case is implying US pricing. I call this out specifically because the whole pricing business has gotten kinda wonky, especially in the differences between US and European markets. There are specific cases where something may have a price gap in one market (i.e., KICKR vs. NEO in the US), yet be nearly identical in other markets (some European countries). Similarly, the European markets generally get a better deal on European-made products (Tacx/Elite), while US consumers tend to get better pricing on US-made products (Wahoo). All of which ignores the reality of MAP (Minimum Advertised Pricing), which exists in the US and doesn’t exist in Europe.
Next, be wary of purchasing trainers outside your home country (meaning, if in the US, buying from a retailer in Europe). This is because if you have a problem, you’ll be on the hook to pay for shipping of the trainer back across the pond for service. As one who does that regularly, it’s @#$#@ expensive. If you don’t believe me, go and look at the older 2015 trainer recommendation post, and see the river of tears for folks who have had to deal with cross-Atlantic shipping of cheap trainers they bought when things went wrong. By all means, if you understand the risk – buy where it makes sense. But do understand it’s a very real risk.
And finally, note that I tend to focus on trainers that have some element of technology in them. It’s not that I think that all non-technology trainers are the same (cause they aren’t…well…except that most are), but it’s because that’s just what I happen to review the most here.
Things to Consider:
There’s a lot of things to look for in a trainer – but some are applicable across the board from a sub-$100 unit to a $1,500 unit.
First and foremost, it needs to be sturdy. The more plastic involved, the less likely it’s going to last over time. Take for example, the old CompuTrainer, otherwise known as the rock. A tank really. I’m certain I could throw that in front of a semi-truck, and it’d probably be fine. As such, those units last 10-15 years (or more). In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s ever broken a CompuTrainer frame (ok, ignore the flywheel). Some electrical components eventually wear out, but the frame is astoundingly sturdy. I find the Wahoo KICKR in that same camp. It’s a beast component-wise. In many ways, the KICKR SNAP frame is the same way – as are the Kinetic frames too.
Second, look at the attachment point to your bike. I’ll start with the ones that leverage a skewer of some sort and don’t require removal of the wheel. In these cases, try to find one that has a ‘quick-release’ mechanism for quickly locking the trainer into place. One that doesn’t require you to endlessly spin the tightening lever and try to find an exact spot each time. See below for an example of a quick-release lever on the mid-range Tacx options:
In the case of trainers that you attach your bike directly into a cassette mounted on the trainer – called ‘direct drive trainers’, be sure that it’ll be compatible with your bike frame. There are only a few edge cases where an incompatibility occurs (primarily higher end bikes, usually of the triathlon or disc variety), but just be aware of them. Many trainer companies have printouts on their support sites where you can double-check frame compatibility on your bike.
Third, look at how stable the platform is. The smaller the base of the trainer, the more likely it is to tip over (and you along with it). And while tip-overs are extremely rare – they are a problem on lower end trainers ($50-$150) where the base is really small. This can be further compounded when the trainer mounts the wheel higher up – meaning a higher center of gravity. It’s not hard to get a situation where you try and reach for a TV remote control, or something off to the side, and fall over. None of the trainers I’m recommending have this issue, but in general, keep it in mind.
Fourth, direct drive or wheel-on? If you went back 3-5 years ago, only the most expensive trainers were direct drive and the rest wheel-on. But these days direct-drive smart trainers are down to $699, and that’s great for consumers. Wheel-on trainers mean that you mount the entire bike, inclusive of your back wheel, to the trainer. Whereas direct-drive trainers mean you remove the back wheel and attach the bike directly to the trainer (via a cassette on the trainer). This means that you generally don’t get any tire slip on direct drive trainers, and for many models you can also get away without having to do calibration/spin-downs.
These days my preference is overwhelmingly direct-drive, but I also totally get that such a trainer may be out of the ballpark of one’s budget.
Ok, we’re almost to the recommendations. But we need to all be on the same table when it comes to some of the technical terms that we’re going to talk about. Notably, the protocols and communications side of how trainers talk to apps.
In the sports world there are essentially two camps: ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart. Virtually all devices use one or both of these low-power technologies to transmit and capture information such as heart rate, power, speed, cadence, and more.
In the trainer realm, that means trainers tend to support two types of things over these protocols. The first is simple broadcasting (one-way) from the trainer to the app/device that you’re using. This is done for the following on trainers:
ANT+ Broadcast: Power, Speed, Cadence
Bluetooth Smart Broadcast: Power, Speed, Cadence
Compatible devices, such as a Garmin/Suunto/Polar/Wahoo unit can pick up these signals and record them. The same goes for apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad, or Strava. Almost all trainer companies now broadcast dual on both protocols concurrently. No trainers in the 2018 guide fail to meet this requirement, to me it’s considered a baseline specification.
Next, for control there are basically two semi-standards that allow trainers to be controlled via apps:
Open/Standard Communication Channel: Via ANT+ FE-C (all trainers use this today) or Bluetooth Smart FTMS (most trainers have this today as well).
Private communication channel: Prior to FE-C and and FTMS there wasn’t a standard. So each company did their own thing. Wahoo, CycleOps, Tacx, Elite, etc… Most of these companies now support the ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart standard versions, but some of them also support their older variants to help out older apps. Heck, there’s even wired in some rare cases like the Kinetic trainers for certain apps.
For ANT+ FE-C, devices such as the Garmin and Wahoo cycling units support controlling the trainer straight from your head unit. This also means you can re-ride your outside rides (elevation changes and all) without any other software.
Meanwhile, for Bluetooth Smart there’s FTMS, which is basically the same thing as FE-C when it comes to trainers. It’s not quite as widely adopted yet by trainer companies, but is by app companies. On the trainer company side only Elite and Kinetic support it across the board, with CycleOps, Tacx, and Wahoo all having it on their to-do list (but all support private Bluetooth Smart with all major apps anyway).
Ultimately, almost all major apps support all companies’ Bluetooth Smart implementations (whichever variant they’re on). Where the issue matters more is smaller apps that may not have the time to implement all the variants. Nonetheless, here’s where things stand.
CycleOps: ANT+ FE-C on all smart trainers. Gives developers access to private CycleOps Bluetooth Smart control.
Elite: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2018 smart trainers.
JetBlack: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2018 smart trainers.
Kurt Kinetic: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2018 smart trainers.
Minoura: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2018 smart trainers.
STAC: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2018 smart trainers.
Tacx: ANT+ FE-C on all ‘Smart’ branded trainers (except Satori). Gives developers access to private Tacx Bluetooth Smart control. Very near-term plans for Bluetooth Smart FTMS rollout.
Wahoo: ANT+ FE-C on all smart trainers. Gives developers access to private Wahoo Bluetooth Smart control.
This all matters when it comes to apps – but the thing you need to know is that you want your trainer to be dual capable, and it should ideally support if you want resistance control across a broad number of apps. But ultimately, if you buy any trainer from this guide, it’ll be some variant of dual.
Budget Smart Trainers (sub-$500):
There’s been almost no appreciable shift in this category this year, so things stay basically the same as last year. And, there’s really only a few entrants in this category anyway. Only Tacx, Elite, and BKool compete in this realm from a legit smart-trainer standpoint (ones where you can control resistance).
But let me be clear – there are TONS of trainers out there for less than $500 that don’t have any smart electronic gadgets in them and work just great. Really, there are. But there’s only a few units in this price range (again, looking at USD MSRP) that have ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart broadcasting of speed, power, and cadence…AND…control of the incline/wattage.
Lastly, this is the one category I don’t have a ton of riding time on either of those units. Both of them have been at trade shows or the like.
The two options that I can recommend are as follows:
Tacx Flow Smart – 239EUR/329USD: This is without question the least expensive smart trainer on the market, though it mostly is only available in Europe (some European companies may ship to the USA). This tops out at only 6% inclines and 800w. The 800w piece probably isn’t too challenging for most people, especially triathletes, but the 6% gradient may be tricky (of course, if you leave defaults on Zwift, you’re unlikely to notice). GPLama/Shane Miller has tested this in a video, and it’s definitely worth a watch. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this for heavier riders, but it might work well for lighter riders that are mostly doing ERG work (structured workouts). Finally, the accuracy spec is only +/- 10%, which is the least accurate unit of the entire bunch. Still, for the price, as Shane says – you get what you pay for – but definitely watch his whole video.
Oh, and the Flow supports both ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart and all the goodness you’d expect.
BKool Smart Go – $399USD: This is two years old now, but still a unique option. The unit replicates up to 8% grades and 800w, so pretty similar to the Tacx Flow, but with an oddly unstated (or findable) accuracy specification. Most others have found it fairly variable. I haven’t done a full review of the Smart Go, but have done the other BKool trainers and have things a bit variable. Since it’s ANT+ FE-C controllable, you’ll be able to have 3rd party apps control it like most of the higher end trainers. Note that I do get mixed reviews from folks on BKool service, so I’d probably be more likely to recommend this to someone that’s confident in their retailer (and their return/support policies). Also note that I’ve ridden it at trade shows, but haven’t spent a ton of time on it outside of those venues.
Mid-Range Trainers ($500-$700):
While this is a very specific price bracket, it mostly captures the entire mid-range market. And to be perfectly clear: They’re all about the same, except one. There are minor nuances between these trainers, for which you’ll want to look at closely, depending on your needs. Specifically, look carefully at these four areas:
A) Maximum incline
B) Maximum wattage
C) Which protocols/standards/types they transmit on (i.e., power, but not cadence, etc…)
D) Flywheel weight
That’s about the only real tangible differences between them. They all have about the same road feel (and each company will tell you their road feel is better). They all have ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart control, and they all work with Zwift and TrainerRoad. Seriously, it’s mostly a wash.
Oh – and with the exception of the Elite Zumo, none of these have changed this year (well, technically CycleOps gave the Magnus a new name and paint scheme, called the CycleOps M2 now).
The flywheel weight, in theory, gives a more road-like feel, but the thing is, at these weights, it’s all kinda wimpy to begin with. I know a lot of folks want the most road-like feel, but my brain can’t really separate out the fact that I’m still inside looking at a wall going nowhere. I’d rather have greater accuracy and more app support than the mythical road-like feel.
There are also very minor differences in how you mount your bike to each one in terms of the clasp/lever, but that’s too a wash. About the only notable difference here is that the CycleOps Magnus/M2 has a nifty resistance knob that makes it easy to ensure your bike is at the same resistance setting each time. It’s actually kinda brilliant. Note above/below photo is of the Magnus, the M2 actually just arrived as I was proofing this, so I’ll add a refreshed picture of that shortly.
But no matter, all of these will require calibration about 10-15 minutes into a ride to ensure accurate numbers. With that in mind, here are your five lower priced options:
CycleOps M2 – $599
Elite Rampa – $599
Kinetic Smart Control Road Machine 2018 Edition – $569
Tacx Bushido Smart – $619
Wahoo KICKR SNAP – $599
I know a lot of folks will want some sort of concrete answer on which of the four aforementioned trainers to pick, but the reality is that they are just so darn similar. That’s obviously on purpose, the companies have largely modeled them after each other, and thus the end-state is basically the same. I’d be happy with any of these four trainers. I think the KICKR SNAP is probably the most robustly built of the bunch, whereas I think the Magnus/M2 is the most accurate of the bunch (plus it has up to 15% incline resistance, which along with the Bushido is the most of the bunch). The Rampa is the lightest of the bunch, thus the easiest to move around.
The Kinetic Smart Control (Road Machine or Rock & Roll frame) has a slight caveat on it in that I’m still in the process of my in-depth review. I’ve had a few hiccups, but I think I’m past those now. Note that I’m very specific in that it must be the 2018 edition and NOT the prior ones, as those don’t have ANT+ in them. (Note: I know I don’t have a picture here of it, it was temporarily across town in the wrong place and the wrong time earlier today, I’ll add one tomorrow.)
Oh…and then there’s the dark horse that none of you know about yet: The Elite Zumo
Yup, how’s that for a product announcement for you. It’s a $699 direct drive trainer, effectively a mini-Elite Direto. It has max 12% grade, is +/- 3% accuracy, and supports up to 1,150 watts. Here’s the comparison chart versus the Direto. Oh, and I’ve been riding it the last three weeks. In fact, my entire Zwift NYC post and video was done on it.
It’s a really solid trainer. But it’s not in this guide (yet) due to two unanswered questions I have on it. The first is a minor thing where it’s broadcasting target power instead of actual power in ERG mode (seen here). That should be a trivial software fix. The second though is a weird fake power spike issue I’ve seen on a few workouts (the power doesn’t actually spike on my legs, it just does in the transmitted signal). This may totally be WiFi interference on my part (really, very likely for this particular room), but, it might not be. So I’m trying to sort that out first. It’s not every workout, so it’s tough to narrow down and is why I didn’t release my review as planned on it this past Wednesday night.
If those things can get sorted, then this easily finds it’s way into the guide with a very solid recommendation. Outside of those two minor issues, it’s an awesome trainer. It’s surprisingly accurate, better than Elite claims (which is usually the pattern), and it also has built-in power match features like Wahoo does now. Oh, and there’s no other direct drive trainer under $749 either. I’ve got a full in-depth review ready to go (post and video), once I get clarification or fixes from Elite on it. Availability starts next week for certain retailers in the US.
Update on Zumo – Feb 11, 2019: Some of you have asked what the deal with the Zumo is. In short, Elite is still trying to sort out the firmware issues around accuracy that I noted. Specifically around the spikes I saw. The broadcasting of power issue has long since been addressed by them, but the spikes are turning out to be more complex. When I checked a week or two ago they were hoping to have it resolved by the end of February. In the meantime they’ve removed listings for Zumo in most places until they can be confident it’s resolved. Once I get a firmware update that addresses the issues and the units are back on track for sale, I’ll drop a review.
Here’s some nifty tables that might help narrow it down. Remember, you can make your own comparison tables here.
|Function/Feature||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated December 18th, 2020 @ 7:43 am New Window|
|Price for trainer||$569||$599||$619||$499||$699|
|Trainer Type||Wheel-on||Wheel-on||Wheel-on||Wheel-on||Direct Drive (No Wheel)|
|Available today (for sale)||October 2018||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Wired or Wireless data transmission/control||Wireless & Wired||Wireless||Wireless||Wireless||Wireless|
|Power cord required||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes (no control w/o)|
|Flywheel weight||12lbs/5.45kg||2.3KG||1.2kg, but simulates up to 60kg||10.5lbs/4.8KG||4.2KG/9.2LBS|
|Includes cassette||N/A||N/A||No||Resistance||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Can electronically control resistance (i.e. 200w)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Includes motor to drive speed (simulate downhill)||No||No||No||No||No|
|Maximum wattage capability||1,800w||1250w @ 25MPH||1,400w||1,500W @ 40KPH||1,150w @ 40KPH|
|Maximum simulated hill incline||10%||10%||15%||12%||12%||Features||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Ability to update unit firmware||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Measures/Estimates Left/Right Power||No||No||No||No||No|
|Can rise/lower bike or portion thereof||No||No||No||With KICKR CLIMB accessory||No|
|Can directionally steer trainer (left/right)||No||No||No||No||No|
|Can rock side to side (significantly)||Rock & Roll Variant||No||No||No||No|
|Can simulate road patterns/shaking (i.e. cobblestones)||No||No||No||No||No||Accuracy||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Includes temperature compensation||-||No||-||Yes||Yes|
|Support rolldown procedure (for wheel based)||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supported accuracy level||+/- 5%||+/- 5%||+/- 5%||+/- 3%||+/- 3%||Trainer Control||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Allows 3rd party trainer control||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports ANT+ FE-C (Trainer Control Standard)||YEs||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports Bluetooth Smart FTMS (Trainer Control Standard)||YEs||YEs||Yes||Yes||Yes||Data Broadcast||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Transmits power via ANT+||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Transmits power via Bluetooth Smart||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports Multiple Concurrent Bluetooth connections||No||No, just one||No, just one||No, just one|
|Transmits cadence data||Yes||No||Yes||Purchase||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
|Wiggle||Link||Link||DCRainmaker||Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)||Elite Rampa||Tacx Bushido Smart||Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)||Elite Zumo|
Mid-High End ($700-$1,000):
Up until this year, this category was basically a tie between the Elite Direto and Tacx Flux. Two years ago the Tacx Flux came out at $899 and dominated the scene. Then Elite joined the crowd a year later and it dominated things for the past winter. Wahoo saw this eating into their lunch (and dinner, and desert, late afternoon snacks, and beer money), so they announced the KICKR CORE at $899.
The KICKR CORE basically took a full 2017 KICKR and made it silent, then lopped $300 off the price. This meant that you got what up until July 2018 was one of the best trainers on the market that was loved by most, for $300 cheaper – and now it didn’t make any tangible noise.
Obviously, that pretty much decimated the value prop for the Elite Direto at $899 or the Tacx Flux at $899. Elite dropped their price to $849, though I’m not really sure that helps much. Tacx meanwhile tweaked one item and changed the name to the Flux S, and dropped the price to $749. Tacx also introduced the more powerful Flux 2 at $899, though it’s not ready yet – so no inclusion here. And honestly, I’m not sure it really competes with the CORE anyway.
Wahoo KICKR CORE:
There’s really no surprise this trainer is here. In reality, if I were to pick one trainer of the year out of all of these and assign it ‘best value’, it’s the CORE. Just like last year it was the Elite Direto and the year prior the Tacx Flux. But the value is outsized on the CORE compared to those, given how much power is behind it.
Ultimately, it’s essentially a 2017 KICKR that’s been muted. If you had told someone last (2017) summer that they can buy a quiet KICKR for $300 less, albeit with no ability to adjust height – people would have scrambled for it. And frankly, that’s what’s happening this year. The sales figures I see show the CORE dominating others in the same way Elite’s Direto dominated last year.
The fact that the CORE is compatible with the KICKR CLIMB means that you can get a CORE + CLIMB for $1,500, versus just a KICKR FOR $1,200. Said differently, you can justify to your significant other that you’re saving $300.
Now one minor caveat of the CORE is there have been some teething issues. A few people have had their Wahoo chevron stickers go flying off the CORE’s flywheel, and some have had some weird internal sound issues. Wahoo support has been atop that, and given there’s likely more than a thousand of these units going out each week – I think the impacted numbers are incredibly small. Ultimately, I haven’t seen any trainer manufacturer in recent years release a perfect trainer in the first few months. This would follow that pattern.
Tacx Flux S:
Sitting at $150 cheaper than the CORE, the Flux S is basically just the 2016/2017/2018 Flux 1 with a bunch of internal changes and support for longer derailleur cages. And by basically, I mean, that’s all it is. But that’s OK. The Flux 1 was incredibly popular and for good reason. It was the first direct drive smart trainer below $1,000 when it came out, and supported all the apps people wanted. Thus, it’s an easy pick.
Had Elite found a way to reduce their Direto price to $749, they’d be in this category as well. But ultimately at $100 higher, I think at that point there’s little reason to not just get the silent KICKR CORE.
Neither the Flux S or Elite Direto is silent in the same way the CORE is. But ultimately, all those trainers make some amount of noise once you put a bike on it. After all there’s still a drivetrain of metal on metal. No doubt the CORE is very quiet, but once you turn on a fan – all of these trainers are quiet in comparison.
(Note: Above gloriously orange photo is of the non-interactive model, since that’s all I had on-hand in a functional state. Physically they appear almost identical.)
The STAC Halcyon is the unique trainer that is both silent as well as wheel-on. There’s no roller or secondary flywheel, instead, your wheel interacts with magnets to create resistance. It’s a pretty cool concept, and is neat to watch work. It can deliver the wattage that most people need (and the silence), and supports all the major ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart protocols (so apps like Zwift and TrainerRoad) and control it easily.
But there’s some notable catches. First off, it requires a bit of fiddling to get right. Both in terms of initial setup as well as general usage. Next, if have carbon wheels it won’t work with those. And finally, it’s limited to 7% grades, which is a bit low. So this is somewhat better for structured training (like TrainerRoad) rather than lots of climbing in Zwift.
The price is down to $749 today, which means it’s better pitted against the Flux S than it is against the KICKR. So essentially you’re trading off ease of setup (Flux S) for quietness (Halcyon). I’d say in general if you’re more of a gadget person/tinkerer, the STAC will appeal to you. Whereas if you just want a simplified out of box experience, go Flux. And if you have more money, go KICKR CORE.
|Function/Feature||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated December 18th, 2020 @ 7:44 am New Window|
|Price for trainer||$749||$749USD/€599||$899|
|Trainer Type||Wheel on (but wheel doesn't touch)||Direct Drive (no wheel)||Direct Drive (No Wheel)|
|Available today (for sale)||Yes||YEs||Yes|
|Wired or Wireless data transmission/control||Wireless||Wireless||Wireless|
|Power cord required||No||Yes||Yes|
|Flywheel weight||2.3KG/5lbs||6.7kg (simulated 25kg)||12.0lbs/5.44kgs|
|Includes cassette||No||No||Resistance||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Can electronically control resistance (i.e. 200w)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Includes motor to drive speed (simulate downhill)||No||No||No|
|Maximum wattage capability||1,500w||1,500w @ 40KPH||1800w|
|Maximum simulated hill incline||7%||10%||16%||Features||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Ability to update unit firmware||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Measures/Estimates Left/Right Power||No||No||No|
|Can rise/lower bike or portion thereof||No||No||With KICKR CLIMB accessory|
|Can directionally steer trainer (left/right)||No||No||No|
|Can rock side to side (significantly)||No||No||No|
|Can simulate road patterns/shaking (i.e. cobblestones)||No||No||No||Accuracy||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Includes temperature compensation||N/A||Yes||Yes|
|Support rolldown procedure (for wheel based)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supported accuracy level||-||+/-3%||+/- 2%||Trainer Control||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Allows 3rd party trainer control||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports ANT+ FE-C (Trainer Control Standard)||Yes||Yes||YEs|
|Supports Bluetooth Smart FTMS (Trainer Control Standard)||Yes||Yes||YEs||Data Broadcast||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Transmits power via ANT+||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Transmits power via Bluetooth Smart||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports Multiple Concurrent Bluetooth connections||No, just one||Yes, 3 Concurrent|
|Transmits cadence data||Yes||Yes (with Sept 2019 firmware update)||Purchase||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Wiggle||Link||Link||DCRainmaker||STAC Halcyon||Tacx Flux S||Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
High-End Trainers ($1,000+):
Ahh yes, the vaulted space of the super expensive trainers. While the upper-mid tier of trainers gets closer and closer to these units in specs, the distinguishing aspects of the high-end trainers tends to be road feel and resistance ceilings (and to a lesser extent these days, accuracy which is equal/better than +/- 1%).
This category has largely remained the same for three years now (both winners and non-winners alike). And this year the two winners got even closer in specs. Previously the NEO was the silent one, and the KICKR the loud one. But now both are silent (save your drivetrain). Essentially, you’re left with comparing some minor nuances in features (and entertainment/experience/distraction ‘features’)
By that, I mean that we’ve got what I’m going to call the ‘Move it’ addendum. With the Tacx NEO that’s the ability for the trainer to simulate cobblestones and other road surfaces. It’s pretty cool in a geeky way, albeit without a ton of specific training value. Meanwhile, with the Wahoo KICKR (and KICKR CORE/SNAPv2) you can add their $600 CLIMB accessory, which simulates climbing by lifting the front of your bike up.
Like the previous category, the remaining contenders (Elite Drivo II, CycleOps Hammer/H2) are fantastic offerings. Seriously, you won’t go wrong with any of them. Period. It’s just that for most people the conversation becomes why would you purchase a Hammer/H2 over a KICKR (since the KICKR can connect to the CLIMB, and is silent), and since they are priced the same…well…yeah. For Elite’s Drivo/Drivo II, that’s a fantastic trainer with what is probably better road feel than either Tacx NEO or KICKR – and as good of accuracy as the NEO. But again, it’s tricky to recommend that to friends/family with the silent Tacx NEO 1/2 and Wahoo KICKR+CLIMB options are there.
That said, my recommendation is that either one of the below are awesome – it just depends on what you want…and what you want to spend.
Tacx NEO (1 or 2):
Above you’ll see both the just announced Tacx NEO 2 (left), and the previous Tacx NEO 1 (right). Frankly, had Tacx not announced the NEO 2 yesterday, this section would be identical. Nothing included in the NEO 2 impacts my recommendations here. Which inversely means that you can apply all of this logic for either model depending on what kind of deal/availability you can get.
Obviously, with the NEO 2 however you’ll get new internals that down the road Tacx says will unlock new features on the NEO 2 specifically. But those features aren’t known yet (nor timelines). Meanwhile, the NEO 1 is past any new trainer teething pains and is fantastic.
Ultimately the NEO is the trainer I turn to when I’m not testing other trainers. It’s my go-to. And for good reason: It requires no calibration, it’s really damn accurate, and it just works. Oh, and it vibrates. Everyone likes good vibrations. Technically they’re cobblestones or what-not on Zwift, but you get the point.
Still, I think I value most the accuracy pieces. I just don’t have to think about it. There’s not even an option to calibrate it – and nobody has seen any reason for them to include one either. It just works. It also folds up relatively small, though the lack of a handle is fairly awkward in the event you’re trying to move it frequently and for long distances. Did I mention it also looks like a ship from Star Wars? Cause seriously, that design is worth something (though, slightly less so with the new blue bottom on the NEO 2).
But of course – its biggest asset it just how quiet it is. It’s silent. About the only sound you’re going to hear is your drivetrain and a slight hum. If you want both the quietest and most accurate trainer on the market (and most powerful), this is it. If you want the most road-like feel…this might be it. It’s debatable. Everyone who has ridden this and the KICKR differs on which is more road-like. I could put 10 well-respected cycling journalists in a room and blindfold them and ride both trainers and they’d likely even have differing opinions ride to ride.
Wahoo KICKR 2018
Now here’s the thing. I consider both of these top two options somewhat equal, albeit at different price points and for different people. If you’re planning on buying the KICKR CLIMB, then obviously, get a Wahoo unit. The CLIMB doesn’t work with non-Wahoo trainers.
And yes, the CLIMB is fun to ride. I’ve been riding it on and off since February or so, albeit mostly since mid-summer with the KICKR CORE instead of the KICKR.
The KICKR 2018 got an increased flywheel size over the KICKR 2017. Additionally, the KICKR 2018 became silent over the previous models. I suspect most people can’t feel the flywheel size difference, I know I can’t. And GPLama/Shane Miller has said the same. Perhaps in certain scenarios it’ll manifest itself, but I haven’t seen said scenario. And as such, I don’t notice any difference in feeling between a KICKR CORE and KICKR 2018.
Still, if you want the ultimate in upwards indoor trainer movement, the KICKR 2018 + CLIMB is where it’s at. Not to mention the fact that unlike the more expensive Tacx NEO, you actually get a cassette included here. Why on earth the NEO doesn’t include a cassette is beyond me.
|Function/Feature||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated February 4th, 2021 @ 8:20 am New Window|
|Price for trainer||$1,198||$1,369||$999|
|Trainer Type||Direct Drive (No Wheel)||Direct Drive (no wheel)||Direct Drive (no wheel)|
|Available today (for sale)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Wired or Wireless data transmission/control||Wireless||Wireless||Wireless|
|Power cord required||Yes||No||No|
|Flywheel weight||16lbs/7.25kgs||SIMULATED/VIRTUAL 125KG||Simulated/Virtual 125KG|
|Includes cassette||Yes (11 Speed SRAM/Shimano)||No||Resistance||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Can electronically control resistance (i.e. 200w)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Includes motor to drive speed (simulate downhill)||No||Yes||Yes|
|Maximum wattage capability||2,200w @ 40KPH||2,200w @ 40KPH||2,200w @ 40KPH|
|Maximum simulated hill incline||20%||25%||25%||Features||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Ability to update unit firmware||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Measures/Estimates Left/Right Power||No||No||Yes|
|Can rise/lower bike or portion thereof||With KICKR CLIMB accessory||No||No|
|Can directionally steer trainer (left/right)||No||With accessory||With accessory|
|Can rock side to side (significantly)||No||No||No|
|Can simulate road patterns/shaking (i.e. cobblestones)||No||Yes||Yes||Accuracy||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Includes temperature compensation||Yes||N/A||N/A|
|Support rolldown procedure (for wheel based)||Yes||N/A||N/A|
|Supported accuracy level||+/- 2%||+/- 1%||+/- 1%||Trainer Control||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Allows 3rd party trainer control||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports ANT+ FE-C (Trainer Control Standard)||YEs||Yes||Yes|
|Supports Bluetooth Smart FTMS (Trainer Control Standard)||No, but supports most apps||Yes||Yes||Data Broadcast||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Transmits power via ANT+||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Transmits power via Bluetooth Smart||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Supports Multiple Concurrent Bluetooth connections||Yes, 3 Concurrent||No, just one||No, just one|
|Transmits cadence data||Yes||Yes||Yes||Purchase||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Clever Training - Save with the VIP program||Link|
|Wiggle||Link||Link||DCRainmaker||Wahoo KICKR 2018||Tacx NEO Smart||Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
The why I didn’t include it list:
First and foremost, this isn’t a list of bad trainers. If you take that away from this section, then you’re mistaken. In fact, there are some awesome trainers in here. Instead, this list is to save me time answering the same question 327 times below for each trainer as to why I didn’t include them. I’m keeping these explanations short and sweet. In many cases, I’ve detailed out longer answers in posts related to those products.
CycleOps H2: This is almost the same story as the Elite Drivo II, though I think the Drivo II is both more accurate in real-world testing, and certainly more quiet.
Elite Direto: Look, this is a great little trainer – and the *only* reason it’s not in the above list is purely because of pricing. At $849, it sits $100 more than the basically equal Flux S (in terms of specs), while the far more capable (and silent) Wahoo CORE sits at $899 – a mere $50 more. Obviously, in Europe the pricing game shifts a bit. But it’s hard for me to track Euro pricing as it shifts about every 8 seconds based on whenever a given retailer decides to go even lower. So ultimately, I’d say you can kinda figure out what you value here in terms of price to features. But certainly don’t shy away from a good deal on the Direto – it’s solid.
Elite Drivo II: This is a fantastically accurate and relatively quiet trainer. Really, it is. The only challenge is that it’s up against two also-accurate trainers that aren’t just ‘relatively’ quiet, but actually silent (Tacx NEO 2 & KICKR 2018). Also, they’re up against two trainers that both have unique features (CLIMB compatibility for Wahoo, and road-feel/no-calibration for Tacx NEO 2).
Jet Black WhisperDrive Smart: Essentially they’re in the same bucket as the Elite Drivo and CycleOps Hammer. Yes, it may be quite capable, but pricing wise it’s competing against the Wahoo KICKR CORE that has more features, better accuracy, silence, and better worldwide support. Note that I do plan to have a refreshed review of this out by the end of the year based on the updates they’ve made since my preliminary review. It sounds like they’ve made some good headway, but I don’t know if it’s going to shift the overall value ratio here.
Kinetic R1: This could potentially make the list, maybe in an update later in the year. Right now I don’t have one though (they just started shipping yesterday), and so it’s hard to say for certain. The core thing that’ll be the tipping point (get it?) is the software side of the house. Kinetic has shifted platforms this year to a fully dual ANT+/BLE setup, and the underlying chipsets they are using offer some super unique indoor-training features that nobody else is doing (or even talking about). But, these are also new and going through some teething pains too.
Minoura Kagura DT (Not Direct Drive): While this almost made the cut for the mid-range trainer bucket this year, the accuracy was just a bit beyond the price point I’d expect. I think they’re getting closer on it, and depending on where you are (specifically, Japan), this may be a very good option based on the costs of other trainers being more expensive.
Minoura Kagura DD (Direct Drive): This was shown at Interbike this year, and looks really cool. But, it’s not out yet. So…yeah.
Wattbike Atom: Yes, it’s great. But it’s not technically a trainer. And while I wanted to include indoor bikes in this year’s roundup, there frankly isn’t a reason to. Tacx hasn’t released their bike yet (shipped it), and BKool’s bike seems like…a bust. Elite’s bike is 14,000EUR – so most don’t care about that unless you have a yacht big enough to play tennis on. I do like the ATOM though, and I need to re-visit it since last fall. I’m hoping to get a unit back again soon to do so, in time to do a showdown between it and the Tacx NEO Smart bike by the end of the year.
CompuTrainer: They went out of business (or at least stopped making them) two years ago. I generally don’t recommend products that don’t have a sustainable support path. I do think if you can get a used unit under about $500, and know exactly which apps you’re using and if they’re compatible – then go forth.
LeMond Revolution Pro: The company has folded and ceased operations many years ago. Like CompuTrainer, they’re out of business.
Most of this is from years past, but I wanted to repeat it for this year. I’ve tweaked things where appropriate and/or where they’ve changed.
What about trainer tires?
I commented on trainer tires a long while back in a Weekly Mailbag post, so here’s what I said then – which still applies today.
I train every day on the stock wheels and tires that came with the bike. Just normal tires and normal wheels. In fact, I don’t even bother to swap out for a separate trainer tire. Why? Well, my thinking is that I spend 3+ days a week on a trainer, and the last thing I want to deal with is swapping tires or wheels every time I go inside to outside or the inverse (I’m kinda lazy that way). Further, when you step back and look at the total cost of triathlon or cycling, and the total cost of simply getting a new tire each year due to wear – the new tire is pretty low (between $30-45).
Now, if you’re riding race wheels with expensive race tires – you’ll have to balance the much higher cost of most race tires.
Do trainer tires make it quieter?
Nope, actually, not at all. And I proved this as part of my Tacx Genius review – some actually make it louder. I’ve then further confirmed this with a few other tire companies as well. Most of them kinda silently laugh at the fact that people actually buy expensive trainer tires. Hint: Just use last season’s tire and toss it at the end of the winter.
The only benefit of trainer tires is that some tires will slowly shred tire specks over the course of the winter, depending on both the specific tire and the specific trainer. Not ideal in a carpeted living room, but not even noticed in a garage.
Why didn’t you recommend XYZ trainer or software instead? It’s waaaaay better!
As noted above, it’s likely because I haven’t used it. I’m pretty strict in that I don’t recommend things I haven’t used or know a lot about. I know magazines love to, but I don’t. Sorry!
Any tips or suggestions on where to place remote controls/jelly beans/bike computers/etc. while on a trainer?
Yup, you’re in luck. I’d recommend either a simple 4-cup OXO measuring cup (silly, I know, but it clips onto almost all road bike bars and triathlon bike aerobars – awesome). Or, you can build your own like I did here in this post.
What about that desk you use on the trainer?
Ahh yes, that desk is awesome. More on that here in my in-depth review.
Do you use a trainer pad/mat (floor protector)?
Sometimes. You can find endless numbers of them online or at your local bike shop – usually around $30. You can also just use a towel, just be sure that if you’re on carpet that you change the towel regularly, otherwise it’ll eventually stain the carpet below (sweat going down into it). Here’s the thing, don’t overspend on this – that’s silly. You don’t need a $70 trainer mat. As long as it’s waterproof (thus, sweat proof) and offers some padding to lower sound profiles, that’s really the key thing.
What’s the quietest trainer?
It’s basically a wash between the STAC Halcyon/Zero trainers, the Tacx NEO 1/2, and the Wahoo KICKR/KICKR CORE.
What about generic rollers, any thoughts?
I don’t have a ton of experience on rollers unfortunately. And there’s really only a handful of units I’d recommend – namely the Inside Ride rollers and Elite’s variant of almost the same thing.
In any event, I find that the cross-over between people who really like riding rollers and the people who really like the technology aspect tends to be rather small. Said differently, roller people tend to be more purists who don’t want technology in the way (not all of course, but most).
What about one of those bike protective thong cover things?
No, sorry, I don’t cover up my bike. I’ve spent A LOT of time on my bike, pouring a lot of sweat – many multi-hour rides. But you know what? I’ve never seen any adverse issues due to it. Perhaps I’m lucky, perhaps it’s not normal. Either way, I don’t use one. That said, Tacx released a cool one that actually has a cell-phone holder built in (with a protective plastic cover). Kinda neat.
Found this useful? Support the site!
If you’re looking at any of the above devices, you can support the site by purchasing through any of the below links. Here’s a handy table of everything mentioned above that I have a review on.
|Kinetic Smart Control 2018 (Road Machine/Rock & Roll)|
|Tacx Bushido Smart|
|Tacx Flux S|
|Tacx NEO 2 Smart|
|Tacx NEO Smart|
|Wahoo Fitness KICKR CORE|
|Wahoo KICKR + CLIMB Bundle||Wiggle|
|Wahoo KICKR 2018|
|Wahoo KICKR SNAP (Current edition)|
Thanks for reading! And feel free to drop any questions below, I’ll be happy to answer them.