It wasn’t always like this. That is to say, just over a decade ago, there was no such thing as 3rd party trainer apps like Zwift or TrainerRoad. Or for that matter, even 3rd party trainers. Nor were there communication standards for trainers, or even halfway open protocols. Nor were there direct drive trainers.
But all of that changed on August 30th, 2012 when Wahoo Fitness announced their first Wahoo KICKR trainer. That trainer would single-handedly change the entire indoor trainer industry, and ultimately lead to the explosion of not just indoor training and apps like Zwift or TrainerRoad, but also dozens if not hundreds of smaller indoor trainer apps. Further, it’d lead to an overhaul of the entire indoor trainer industry.
You see, back a decade or so ago, the indoor trainer industry was mostly four companies: RacerMate (with their famed CompuTrainer – of which I bought two), Tacx, Elite, and then CycleOps (now Saris). Lemond was somewhat a sideshow with their new Lemond Revolution Pro direct drive trainer. Wahoo’s entire existence at the time was simply selling iPhone adapters that connected to ANT+ accessories, followed soon by heart rate straps and cadence/speed sensors the same year the KICKR was launched.
So where the heck did the Wahoo KICKR come from? Well, Wahoo Fitness founder Chip Hawkins’ annoyance with his CompuTrainer he bought from RacerMate to train for triathlons, just like any other athlete would. Specifically, the CompuTrainer had a small wired control panel that you screwed onto your handlebars. It was functional, but clunky and used (wired) technology from the 1990s (and earlier). Connecting to an analog chest strap required even more cables (same goes for the wired cadence sensor using Velcro). As one who used one for many years, it was always a bit finicky.
At the time (mostly pre-Bluetooth Smart), Chip simply wanted to make a better handlebar controller that connected to ANT+ sensors instead. He offered to make the controller for free to RacerMate, so long as Chip could ditch the annoying wired handlebar controller. Again, this was basically just a personal frustration with the handlebar controller, and the inner-engineer’s desire to make a better widget.
The only problem? RacerMate wouldn’t play ball (any ball, in any way). Which, was entirely par for the course then. RacerMate was not known as being a flexible or forward-focused company. Instead, it was mostly a company that created a bombproof trainer design a decade or two earlier, and just kept milking it for every last cent.
Frustrated by RacerMate’s lack of willingness to entertain his ANT+ adapter idea, Chip did the only logical thing: Built his own smart trainer, then open trainer protocol, sold a few million or so of them, and then ultimately put RacerMate out of business.
If you want to turn back a bit of a way-back machine for you, 6 years ago at Eurobike I tried one of my first ever livestreams from the Eurobike parking lot in my rented Eurobike road trip RV. It was with Chip, spending an hour chatting all things Wahoo, taking live questions from the internet. In 2016 this was super challenging due to crappy cell signal in that area, combined with on the fly livestreaming tech being a bit hit or miss. In any case, at 5:05 in the video he discusses the whole situation that led to the Wahoo KICKR. Also, the audio is occasionally horrible. The below is set to start playing at 5:05.
(If you manage to make it through the audio on this, there’s tons of interesting Wahoo tidbits, including other garage projects like making his own electric car.)
What’s important to understand though is just how industry-changing the Wahoo KICKR was. To begin, back then, there were no industry standards for how trainers would talk to apps, because there were virtually no apps. Instead, each manufacturer had their own apps. For example, Tacx had their Tacx Training Suite platform (see my 2011 review of that here), which was a collection of all sorts of different training components. Some virtual world stuff, some ERG mode stuff, some real rides – even multiplayer mode! It was arguably quite advanced for the time, but I always found it a bit finicky. But again, this all only worked with Tacx trainers.
CompuTrainer had their RacerMate training app (in various forms), but that only worked with CompuTrainer computers. And Elite had their training app as well, all of which only worked with Elite trainers. CycleOps had a variety of things, but eventually CycleOps Virtual Training, which some years later would become Rouvy.
But even worse, each of these companies had a slate of trainers. I once joked in a post that going to the Elite stand at Eurobike 2015 was like going to the grocery store and buying all the ice cream container flavors. I kid you not, this was the Elite trainer lineup for the 2015-2016 season – some 16 flavors:
But rewinding back to 2012, when the KICKR launched, there was only a single direct drive unit from Lemond (which actually did launch an ANT+ adapter, though it took a year or two for it to show up, during which time Lemond went out of business…and then back into busines). Point being, all other trainers in 2012 were wheel-on. That meant you had to deal with tire slippage and constant roll-downs every time you put your bike on the trainer (and after 10-15 mins of warm-up), otherwise it was wildly inaccurate.
Wahoo’s idea was simple: One trainer, direct drive, and with an open protocol/SDK that any developer could use to create apps that worked with the trainer. Within weeks we saw plenty of apps starting to come to fruition. Up till then, each of the handful of apps out there (like Kinomap), had to manually code each trainer on the market (electronically or via power curves). At which point I reference you back to Elite’s lineup. And only a portion of those had any connectivity at all.
The day Wahoo announced the Wahoo KICKR, they also showed off a Strava Live Segments app. This app would let you race Strava Live Segments on your Wahoo KICKR Trainer, showing progress on a map, including the leaderboard. While that concept seems commonplace today, it was unheard of then. And the real, well, kicker? It was developed in two nights by one of Wahoo’s engineers a few days before the KICKR was announced at Eurobike. Granted, it’d take a year before it released. Here’s a video I shot in 2013 showing it off. Also, you can hear just how loud those original Wahoo KICKR’s were.
While that app would eventually find challenges when scaled up to the entire world’s worth of Strava segments and eager customers (due to the inaccurate elevation data it relied upon), it served as a starting point for the rest of the industry.
Within merely a few months there were plenty of indoor trainer apps for me to test for my first Wahoo KICKR In-Depth Review, including apps like TrainerRoad, Golden Cheetah, Kinomap, and iMobileIntervals. Zwift? It didn’t exist for another two years.
Now, this isn’t to say every standard started from Wahoo. Take for example the trainer control protocols, starting first with the ANT+ FE-C standard. While that had strong roots from Wahoo’s efforts, it wasn’t Wahoo that pushed that over the finish line. It was actually companies like BKool (who made trainers then), Tacx, and Elite. All of which supported ANT+ FE-C a year before Wahoo ever supported it across all their trainers. And then the same would also occur on the Bluetooth FTMS side (where Wahoo lagged behind for many years).
Following that, we saw the entire industry had begun falling apart when it came to formalizing standards in the trainer industry. That included things like steering, WiFi/Ethernet connectivity, and in-game controls over the last 3-5 years. But, I’m seeing strong indications this year behind the scenes that the winds of change are finally in alignment between all the major trainer manufacturers (and major apps) for standards that should hopefully spur not just the next generation of software, but also the hardware that can take advantage of that.
Of course, the creation of the Wahoo KICKR wasn’t just Chip Hawkins. At the time, Wahoo had about 15 employees. Two years later it was 35 employees. Today it has 300. Of course, now the company makes sensors, bike computers, desks, fans, power meters, incline simulators, pedals, multisport watches, software trainer platforms, smart bikes, and has had plenty of other flirtatious business ideas along the way (such as making smart watches for Magellan).
It’ll be interesting to see where Wahoo takes the company and their products over the next 10 years. The competition in this space has never been stronger, competing with companies worth billions of dollars, and producing millions of units per year in the same categories of products that Wahoo makes. Trainers are no longer a niche product, and neither are GPS bike computers. Both are commonplace, found in many, if not most cyclist’s arsenals these days. So while nobody knows where the road is going to take us, it’s clear where the road mostly began.
With that – thanks for reading!
What a beast! I bought one in October and 10 years and >40k virtual Kilometers later, it’s still in heavy Rotation. It has seen quite some bikes come and go and worked well with all of them. Unbreakable in my case. And playing a big part for getting & staying fit. So much kudos!
Very interesting to see the major “evolution” over this pretty short time span!
In this context, is there any information on whether we can expect a new version of the kickr or neo in the next months?
I’d love to know that as well =D All those xx% off are saying so but…
I’m a happy wahoo customer with many of their products:1 kickr core, 2 bolt, 1 desk, pedals and some other sensors and I hope they keep pushing hard to continue making great products!
Thanks for the reminder history lesson (even though I lived it). I hope Saris/Clycleops stays in biz. (FWIW, they’re selling their great H3 hammer for 20% off right now- solid deal on a fine, quiet direct drive trainer.
I just wish WAHOO hadn’t killed off Speedplay x-series cleats. I won’t forgive them for that.
Ha! Just yesterday a friend dropped off his Computrainer Setup since he didn’t want it any longer…I’m thinking I might try to figure out how to couple the load generator to an old LeMond Revolution I still have hanging around…both of which you touched on above. I must have a bit of “Chip” (engineer/tinkerer) in me as well 😉
Amazing to see how far we’ve come in 10 years. It seems like both “yesterday” and “a lifetime ago.” (heck, a full quarter of that was during a pandemic)
One bit of trainer history I’d love to see you go down the rabbit hole on: “mule bikes.” More specifically: the idea that you can buy a smart trainer and put an actual bike on it, or you jump right to a smart bike, but nobody has offered a “trainer-only frame”.
There’s a post on the Zwift forum that hints at the evolutionary dead-end: link to forums.zwift.com
The trainer bikes were built up with 105 10 speed running gear from a heap of low spec Giant road bikes and then the unused frames were sold off.”
I would love to see a company offer such a thing as a standalone product. I feel like there’s a market for it.
Like you, I assumed bike manufacturers would recognise there was a market for a “trainer only” bike. When I bought my TACX Neo about 4 years ago I contacted several “build to order” bike companies in the UK asking if they could supply a bike with a Shimano 105 drivetrain but no brakes and no rear wheel. Probably not a huge saving but why buy them if you don’t need them? Every company I contacted told me it was “not possible” to supply a bike with only a front wheel and treated me like an idiot for even suggesting it. As it clearly is possible the only explanation is that they couldn’t be bothered to consider it. So, I decided I didn’t want to do business with any company that had so little regard for a fairly simple customer request and I bought a nearly new road bike off eBay.
It’s only simple if you ignore the reality present. For one, unless they develop a fully adjustable frame setup, they’d need to offer this “trainer bike” in about 4-6 sizes like you see in a typical bike model. That is needed to cover a range of rider sizes at the very least, so you need new SKU’s for each model.
Then consider the reality of getting components for the bike with the exception of the brakes, rear wheel and anything else you’d rather not have for this use case. Shimano and SRAM don’t offer kits like this so the bike company would end up with “extra” parts that would presumably need to find a home to justify their related cost that is part of a complete group. Trek & Specialized are getting these complete, in bulk more than hand picking ala-cart.
And then shipping would require at least a bit of change since you’d not include a rear wheel (presuming wheel-off trainer use here, but that’s not entirely certain or absolute either). Most bikes are shipped partly assembled with the rear wheel on, and front wheel off. This might be the exact opposite or something unique. In any event, their already established packing protocol would need a change.
All that is far from ‘simple’ when you get down to real details. I get it… people just want a stripped down bike and it seems that leaving a few parts of seems like an easy option, but it’s not.
At that point you’d be better off with an integrated wheel stand instead of a front wheel too. I think mine’s been flat for several years on the old road bike I use for the trainer.
Yup, I agree that a stand instead of a wheel would be appropriate.
I know that one euro builder offered a size adjustable “dumb bike” that had the option for adding just a drivetrain. Fixed fork and bar that was more like a spin bike than anything, but shaped more like a regular bike. Cool concept, but from the feedback I read, the maker did not do a great job of providing or supporting the product.
I think there is an opening for something in this market, but nailing it in a cost effective package may be a challenge. It’s a bit odd to sell a bike that’s not a bike and totally incomplete until you add a trainer. If it’s not priced well, there may be limited advantage vs a cheap road bike. Key in this idea for me, would be making a single frame widely size adjustable so one bike fits all. That is a selling point for the smart bikes and would make sense to include in this not-a-bike bike idea.
Chad, this is the internet! You’re not allowed to be logical, rational, sensible, etc.. 😂
That said, I reckon the easiest way to get a super cheap trainer only bike is probably a garage sale!
LOL, curse my Vulcan-like engineer brain 😛
Indeed, the cheap option is a used bike via CL, FB and any other local resource. I like the idea of a stripped bike for sure, but it’s just a new direction the industry may not see yet.
So, what would be your best guess about how many Kickrs have been sold over the course of this decade?
Napkin math I’d put it between 1.5m and 3m, maybe as high as 4m. Numbers are a bit fuzzy once we hit peak COVID times, and then the last year with the ensuing pullback. Also contributing to fuzz is exact breakout between KICKR/CORE/SNAP.
My first Wahoo product was my fitness key (2014). Soon after that I bought a Gen1 Kickr, the original ELEMNT, then the first of several BOLTs, then a Gen2 KICKR, RIVAL, ROAM, Gen2 Bolt. My only disappointment was the bezel width on the ROAM. My Gen2 kickr had some issues but was replaced every time, no fuss.
I have recommended and given away many BOLTs – people just prefer them to Garmin.
Congrats to Chip and team on this anniversary. I am really looking forward to a narrow bezel ROAM 🙂
As someone who worked with Greg on the LeMond Revolution (and watched him put out major watts while tuning it), I’m glad it was included in this recap as it was the start of both direct drive technology and real road feel (but defiantly not the quiet trainer trend).
It was fun to take a blast into the past and read your thoughts a from back then. My favorite parts was the line near the end that said “the trainer itself is $499, which is admittedly a bit steep for a trainer.” At the time, anything over a couple hundred dollars was unheard of.
I moved from the CompuTrainer to the Kickr mainly for direct drive – too many trainer flats before then. Haven’t looked back – I still have that original Kickr (used with TrainerRoad).
The one thing I really miss from CompuTrainer were the Real Course Videos. I trained for St. George using one, and don’t understand why nobody else has really come out with an equivalent. That habit is probably why I couldn’t ever get into Zwift despite being an early beta tester – the fact that their interval efforts didn’t line up with their graphics just never made sense to me.
I am not tri route expert, but Rouvy has at least a few of those pre-ride videos. I also think that FulGaz does and will likely add more since Ironman bought them a while ago.
Both of those offer the option to control the trainer and match the effective grades of the course.
Worth a look at those at the very least and maybe someone else knows of more options.
I’ve also never really caught the Zwift game bug. I prefer real videos myself, although rarely use them as I mostly do ERG using my Garmin Edge.
I’ll second Chad. I did several Ironman VRs and trained for St George using the Rouvy app last year. It did not have the exact route used for St George 70.3 in 2021 but whatever, close enough.
Haven’t keep track much lately, but since Ironman bought Fulgaz they have been adding courses to Fulgaz.
I’d still love to buy a direct drive computrainer. The wired interface was annoying, but more reliable and responsive than my kickr/kickr core. And my computrainer was still functioning when I eventually tossed it, where every wahoo product I’ve owned has failed at far too early of an age.
I liked my wheel on BKOOL trainer. I was disappointed when they never launched their next generation. The BKOOL software was also innovative in that one could upload a Strava file and create a route.
I wonder.. what would it take for a similar revolution to happen in the fitness side of the world (the various peloton, ifit, spinning, stationary bikes etc)?
What did you have in mind? Peloton seems to be that revolution from a distance. You’re thinking maybe more open standards with people free to use Peleton’s workouts on some other manufacturer’s bike or vice versa?
I’d agree, Peloton certainly hits that when it comes to the consumer experience. After all, they make more bikes (and still do), each quarter than the entire Wahoo/Tacx/Wattbike/Stages SB20* continent has in total, ever.
That said, assuming your talking open standards for bikes. I actually think that might be reasonably close. Peloton has very openly talked and more recently (like, months into days) about running their platform on 3rd party bikes, and being about the platform/subscription, rather than the hardware it’s running on.
Wes Salmon from Zwift jumped over to Peloton a few months ago, and Wes was in charge of hardware partner integration at Zwift. Basically, the guy that deal with all the 3rd party platforms and having it all work as a ecosystem. He was always a bit limited by management on what was possible, but if there’s anyone who can complete that nudge for Peloton, it’s Wes.
The cool thing is that Peloton bike’s already support ANT+ today (for HR). And they support other non-power open standards (Cadence BLE for app, and HR on BLE/ANT for everything). So really, this comes down to power.
I could see the case easily made that it’d be a heck of a lot easier to just integrate the app with existing trainers/bikes using the existing power spec. Because again, that’s literally what their CEO keeps saying in interviews, investor calls, etc…
Now, perhaps there’s some internal hill to die on being against this. But Peloton’s CEO has made it abundantly (if not painfully) clear that there are no hills left that are sacred. I’m pretty sure he even said exactly that in one interview. So, I’d say there’s a reasonably strong change Peloton could adopt power standards in some way. And if they do, just like with Wahoo, the flood gates open.
*Stages also sells to gyms and has forever, but that’s an entirely different beast of a bike, so set that aside.
I would have thought the anniversary would be a nice moment to launch KICKR V6. It was already on sale on a Dutch webship (futurumshop) last weekend but they removed it beginning of this week (embargo I guess).
From the description it did not read as having many changes to V5, just addition of Wi-Fi direct connect.
But I am sure a detailed DCR review will be up as soon as embargo is lifted 😉