I never thought it would happen. As a ‘hardcore’ commuter the thought of a turbo made me shudder. Sitting in the garage when you could be out there. After all, rule 5 and all that. The thing about Rule 5 is that it doesn’t take account of stuff other than the weather, time, family, etc. So having something you can hop on and do stuff quickly, all out, or just spin the legs, isn’t actually a bad thing. And, the perennial question, do turbo miles count? Count for what? Some machismo measuring of yourself against those who are out there on the road? Does it really matter? A turbo is a tool. Not an experience. Though, as I’ll go on to show, it can be.
Choosing a turbo is a minefield. Do you go Smart? Ideal if you can afford it. Or dumb and save some cash. What platform do you use? Can you actually Zwift on a budget, for example? Because none of it is straightforward. I liked the idea of Zwift so I went about thinking about what could run it and what the ‘experience’ would be like. Indeed, it was Zwift, really, that pushed me in the direction of what kit to buy.
You can do Zwift on a budget, apparently. Except you can’t. Because what you have, or don’t have, determines how much, or how little money you have to spend. Because it doesn’t matter if you just choose which dumb trainer to ‘put up with’ if you don’t have something to WATCH it on, because the buying of something to watch it on can actually get a bit expensive. And that’s the case whether you spend £100 on a cheap turbo or £1200 on a TACX Neo. It’s also something that no one really talks about. There’s an assumption that everyone has a PC, Laptop, iPad, Tablet, or compatible phone. And that’s just for Zwift. Choose ‘A N Other’ platform and things change again. But I’ll concentrate on Zwift here and also reference another favourite of mine as well, Fulgaz.
So, what turbo did I choose. Well, this was early September and there were deals to be had. Evans price matched Wiggle, I took their cheap finance, cancelled the gym membership and stumped up for the Tacx Neo. And on that fairly warm late summer day I carried it from Evans a mile back to my office. Needless to say, that day I avoided any other training. It really is an absolute beast of a machine. I’ll return to how I set it up in a moment but, given the raison d’etre was Zwift (at the time) let’s have a look at those minimum specs.
The first thing you’ll note is that there’s no Android. It’s still a work in progress. So whatever mega spec Samsung tablet you have, it won’t work. Android mobile link does work however, allowing you to control your actions on screen. More of that later.
A quick look at the specs of the PC and Mac shows your first problems. If it’s a windows PC (and this does include windows tablets) it needs to be 64 bit. Anything less is a no go. Indeed, it’s that that’s the hurdle. If you’re on a lesser spec but have 64 bit give it a go. That’s if you have a PC or Mac or laptop version at all. A lot of people are getting rid of non tablet devices now. And, of course, a desktop PC or Mac isn’t exactly portable and getting to train in front of it might not be ideal, having something portable is better. So that’s where an iPhone or iPad comes in. And that’s not plain sailing either. Your iPad has to be 64 bit too. That rules out loads of the old ones. You will need iPad air or higher, iPad mini 2 or higher etc. Sure, you can run iPhone SE or 5S and higher too, it will work but it’s a bit of a stretch at that screen size. No, personally, iPad mini 2 is about as small as you’d want to go. There’s a better way though, and I’ll come to that later.
Then you have a the choice of trainer and it’s a little bewildering to be honest. There are smart trainers, that is to say, they alter their own resistance just like riding in the real world, so you need to change gear. And there are dumb trainers, so you need to change gear to make it harder for yourself (or use the attached magnetic resistance etc). And then there’s wheel on or wheel off. If you do keep your wheel on then you really should be looking at a turbo trainer tyre or, perhaps, even putting a different wheel on there to stop you having to swap tyres all the time. Hell, sticking a cheap 80’s racer that fits you on there might actually be the better option. Cos there’s nothing that stops you training like having to spend 15 minutes swapping stuff over. Getting in, getting on and getting it done is important. Then there’s the additional complication of what sensors you need if you have a dumb trainer. So, you’ll need speed and cadence to allow Zwift to use virtual power to figure out what you’re doing. Some are ANT+, some are Bluetooth (BLE) and some can be both.
Why a smart trainer? Because, for me, the effort involved in a dumb trainer was too much. With a dumb trainer you have you to adjust how you ride because it’s not done for you. Let’s assume you’re riding in a particular way. Your Garmin says that you’re ‘doing’ 15 mph but Zwift says, based on its own algorithms, you are doing 18 mph. That’s on the flat, you’re merrily chugging along. Get to a gradient, keep the same ‘power’ and it all goes pear shaped. You’re Garmin will say 15 mph but now, virtually, you’re doing less. There won’t be any resistance from your trainer, it’s just more difficult to make progress on the screen. You can make it harder, of course. With a smart trainer, it’s pretty easy, the hill is real, the resistance changes, you have to change gear to make it easier to get up that hill. Of course, the hardest part is the outlay. Getting the simplest option, i.e. riding like real life, costs a fair wedge. But it does make making sense of what you are doing that little bit easier. And it you want to train for the real world, replicating as much of the real world makes sense.
So, my setup started off like this. On day one I brought it home, set it up in the kitchen and stuck my iPad on the kitchen table. Installing Zwift on the iPad was a piece of cake and then I set about linking the Neo to it. And, it, just, worked. There was zero faff at all. The Neo provides the power, cadence readings directly to the Zwift app on the iPad by BLE. And, in addition, my Wahoo Tickr HRM strap also connected flawlessly. I set my weight, etc, and off I went. I’ve set a lot of electronic stuff up over the years and this was about as easy as it gets.
There were more than a few reasons for choosing the Neo. The shortlist was the Neo, the Flux, the Wahoo Kickr and and Snap and, at that point in time, that was about it. The Elite models were in pretty short supply. If I’d been looking today the Direto etc would have been in with a shot. The Flux did have problems, according the interweb, so the Neo it was. With that came the ability to cope with 2500 watts of power (I’ve not even managed to do over half of this yet) and, crucially, 25% gradients. That meant that every hill I rode would be realistically dealt with. By contrast the Flux ‘only’ goes up to 15% so if you meet a 17% gradient on any given app you’re into the realms of compensating again rather than a real simulation. There were other bonuses too, such as the road feel setting of the Neo. Basically, through some clever cassette wobbling it replicates what it might feel like pedalling over cobbles, dust etc. It does not work if you freewheel as the effect is felt through the drivetrain rather than the bike.
The initial rides went well but the kitchen is way too warm a place to carry out any meaningful turbo excursions. I was literally dripping wet. So, into the garage the turbo went and initially the iPad sat in front of me, a crappy old ipod with a dock did the music duties. If I wanted to watch a film or something, there was simply no ability to do that. Zwift plus music = good. But it’s not really enough. So I set about sorting the garage out, tidying it all up and coming up with a bespoke ‘pain cave.’
First things first was the need for a mat. Yoga mats are cheap but not wide enough. Tacx official mats etc are silly money and unnecessary. So a tenner down at B&Q got me the foam mats above. They are fine, easy to lock together and sufficiently hard wearing. If they do wear out another tenner should see another set last a year or so. It’s a neat solution if not the absolute best one. The next step was to consider how to hold stuff in front of me. Eventually I wanted to move up to a TV in there too, but let’s come to that story in a bit. As you can see below I pressed some old floorboards into service on some £10 brackets from B&Q. This should be sufficient to hold even the heaviest of TV’s.
So, I was left with the issue of connecting the iPad to the TV. There are two choices there really. The first is to get a lightning to HDMI adapter. Apple will sell one to you for many millions of pounds, or you can get a chinese knock off from Amazon. It may or may not work and may or may not stream Netflix etc. In addition it won’t necessarily provide you with fullscreen as the iPad screen is not widescreen. So, there is a better option and that’s mirroring your iPad to the TV using an Apple TV. You can see that lurking off to the right hand side in the picture below.
However, if you can be bothered to buy an ATV then there’s no need for mirroring Zwift at all because the ATV4 onwards allow you to run Zwift via an App. And what an app it is. Again the Neo connected (along with HRM) to the ATV seamlessly. A word of caution, the ATV will only allow 2 sensors to connect and only via BLE and not ANT+. So, I run the Neo as my power (which also deals with cadence) and a separate strap. That’s fine. IF I wanted to connect speed, cadence and HRM BLE sensors one would have to go. But there’s a way round that too. If you also download the companion mobile app (Android is present as well as iOs) you can connect other sensors via the app. And, as I’ll come to later, you really do need the App.
Oddly, assuming you have no existing kit other than a spare TV, Apple TV can work out the cheapest option of running Zwift at all. The box itself is about £160-£180 depending on whether you get the normal or 4k version (the latter has a better processor by all accounts so could be a better experience). But, hunt around. I picked up my A grade boxed mint version from CEX for £95. It was literally as new. The ATV does Wifi or ethernet. If you can’t get a good wifi signal in the garage then homeplugs could be the answer. I bought a TP Link £35), hooked it all up and it worked flawlessly. In addition the plug is a Wifi repeater to the iPad and mobile phone can have a better signal in the garage. The TV was cheap in that it was free, a deal between me and a neighbour involving a fridge. Sound was provided by a UE Boom 2 which is more than good enough. So, ignoring the Neo, the total outlay to get an immersive experience was less than £200. Compare that to even the most base spec iPad or laptop and it’s a very good method indeed. Even if you were forced to buy a TV you could still do this very easily for less than an iPad Mini 2.
And you don’t want to be arsing around with sorting your music out either. So my Echo Dot got moved into the garage, connected to the UE Boom 2 and music provision is all sorted. During exercise I can now ask Alexa to play the works of the Prodigy and Firestarter kicks up straight through the UE Boom 2. Alternatively the iPad sits on that silver holder and I plough through Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series (the depression that the series causes being offset by the exercise endorphins). Again the iPad can connect to the UE Boom 2 for better sound.
Controlling Zwift is easy. You either use the Apple Remote and it’s touch technology or the mobile app. The latter is infinitely preferable.
The App provides you with everything you need. It shows you where you’re going, your power, HRM and allows you to select the all important direction changes, give thumbs up to other riders, select your boosts etc. The integration between the Apple TV Zwift and Android App is seamless, which is quite surpising. They’re not linked to each other, working independently on the network, but it all just works.
Do I enjoy it? Well, yeah, pretty much. It’s very useful for maintenance and ticking over. It makes choosing which day to ride outdoors easier, if it’s good you go out, if it’s not, just crack on here. Having a smart trainer means that, rules aside, it can be as hard as being outside. The resistance and gradients are real and, in the case of the climb to the radio mast, brutal. There’s no wind or rain (though it does rain) so it means you’re not a badass for being well, in there, but it’s pretty good. Strava integration is a given and, now, they’re allowing such things to count towards challenges. This has irked some people who say, for example, that it devalues the Rapha Festive 500. I can see their point, but, arguably, 3 rides in Malaysia over Xmas is infinitely less badass than 6 or 7 in the UK at that time of year so there’s already a disconnect. And sitting in your garage racking up 500k is actually pretty hard work.
Anyway, that’s that. But it’s not all that I’ve tried. There are a few others. I’ve ruled out Tacx’s own stuff, it’s just stupidly expensive. I’ve signed up to Big Ring VR but, so far, I’ve not been able to try it because it only sits on an ‘desktop’ and I don’t think the Mrs would allow me to bring the Tacx indoors. The same goes for Road Grand Tours, a kind of upmarket real world graphical simulation (where Zwift is a ficticious world). I’m going to give Rouvy a go too. And then there’s the Sufferfest and Traineroad which are superb training tools. Thing is, once you add them all up, you’re looking at a load of cash. Though, less than a Gym membership still.
But, here’s the thing. What if you could train for the Marmotte and know what to expect from the grand Cols? Do you want to? Because, with an app called Fulgaz, you really can. Let’s once again ignore wind and weather. If you have a smart trainer than can replicate all of the gradients then you can find out exactly what climbing the Galibier is like. And I have, and, as a one off mountain, it was ok. Ditto the Glandon, Alp D’Huez and Telegraphe. All, ok. Of course, stick them together and you’re in for a world of pain. But it’s good to know that, at least in isolation, they are all just hard, long climbs. You can find a link to the Fulgaz experience here.
Fulgaz is iOS only at the moment. There’s an active Facebook group and Mike, who runs it, is constantly updating and tweaking, adding support for new trainers and constantly adding to the courses. The great thing is that the courses are real and can be submitted, subject to quality control, by just about anyone. Mike is looking to add Apple TV support shortly and that will be the icing on the cake. Again, having a smart trainer gets the most out of it. The GPS data matches the video of the ride and, as each gradient changes, it gets easier or harder.
You can have a look at the type of ride (and one of my favourites) here. That’s Cap Formentor in Majorca and it’s a bit of a brute overall with just short of 3000ft of climbing in only 21 miles. Still easier than the Alps but a challenge nonetheless. There are now an enormous amount of rides to choose from with the bonus that most of them are done in some perfect weather conditions. It won’t boost your Vitamin D but it may boost your soul. Essentially you ride at your own pace. The pace of the rider that has filmed the ride is, of course, the pace that the ride was done at. If he’s doing 10mph and you are doing 9mph the video will run at 0.9x. You get all the data you want, power, heart rate etc and, at the end, it will all upload to Strava of course. Provided that you stay within a decent range of the rider who filmed it the video will always look clean and fluid. Drop to 0.4x and it will start to look a bit odd but the rides are done with fairly average in mind so it shouldn’t be all that hard to keep within a decent range. If you’re a mega rider upping it to 1.2x for example won’t make it look to comedy either.
The subscription model changes according to how much you stick upfront. It’s in dollars, so three months will cost you the equivalent of $8.99 a month, 6 months the equivalent of $7.99 and 12 months $5.99. It’s a one off payment so, for the 12 months, that’s a payment of $71.88 and, at today’s exchange rates, that’s £50. Which is substantially cheaper than Zwift, particularly if you are a new user on that platform. Sure, you lose out on some features but if riding indoors is your replacement for riding outdoors, rather than bespoke training programmes, this is just about the best replacement for that. Experience it on a bigger screen though as it’s much more realistic. But if you do want to better yourself, Mike has dealt with that too and has a range of suggestions on this link.
My current view is that Zwift and Fulgaz complement each other very well. The former provides the basis for racing, FTP testing, weekly segments to improve and the latter is all about the riding. The cost of paying for both is very reasonable. Indeed, having access to both of them can be a little self defeating. If the weather is just a bit off, you might prefer an hour or two in the garage. So you have to be careful with your self control, there is no replacement for real road miles.
So, we’re getting there. I still need to do some stuff like FTP testing and really pushing myself harder but I’m in a better position than I would otherwise be. Still 5 months to go, need to rack up the hard miles on the weekends, but it’s going mainly to plan. I’ve lightened the bike more than a bit too. See what you think…………
Oh, and, green. Did I mention that, on the London Zwift course, on one ride, and for all of that ride, I was in the green jersey? #power