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If your indoor rides are maintenance sessions rather than training sessions, Bkool’s Smart Pro trainer can help you stave off boredom as you ride in place. As a training tool, it’s less precise, but it hits a good price point for a stable and fun smart trainer. With a good internet connection and a premium subscription to Bkool’s simulator, you can ride with friends (you’ll have better luck if your friends live in Spain, where the company is based, and where most of the live riders in the virtual setting are riding) or race against ghost competitors. We like the Bkool to stave off winter spinning boredom, but it’s easily hindered by sometimes-clunky graphics, especially if your internet connection is weak.
Let’s start with the hardware: The trainer itself is compact, and it’s easy to stow behind a couch or in a closet. Set-up is quick and easy, and we had no problems connecting a bike at the axle. The rear wheel rests against the roller that self-adjusts, so you won’t have to fiddle with wheel placement. Two telescoping arms jut from either side of the base to provide lateral stability. At moderate cadences the trainer stays put, but during hard efforts, particularly out of the saddle, the telescoping arms don’t seem to do much to prevent wobble and tipping. We were never in danger of tipping over, but there’s enough movement to make for an unbalanced feel.
Resistance adjusts automatically as you climb, speed up or slow down, and put in varying levels of effort. Bkool claims the trainer simulates slopes up to 20 percent, and resistance up to 1,200 watts. The noise level was pretty minimal at a claimed 75 decibels. The ramp-up is pretty smooth, especially for a wheel-based resistance set-up (units like Wahoo’s Kickr are direct-drive, which means you remove your rear wheel and mount the dropouts directly to the trainer).
Setting up your account is pretty simple, and Bkool includes one year of a premium subscription with purchase, so you have access to the full suite of the simulator’s capabilities, like different camera angles and a greater breadth of scenery and ride options. The user interface got a makeover too, so now it’s much easier to navigate, though you’re still going to have to sit through some buffering due to the internet-based system.
Speaking of the internet, if your connection is slow, you’ll run into some problems, like disappearing scenery or other visual anomalies. When your connection is strong, the graphics can be a bit ho-hum, but if you’re more focused on riding with the competition, this doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s simply a subtle reminder that you’re indoors, riding in a virtual world.
That said, it’s very cool to be able to ride anywhere in the world and get a sense of what some of the most famous routes are all about. You’ll even get real-time weather conditions, so if it’s raining on Galibier, it will be raining in your virtual world. The on-screen data is also handy for tailoring your workout: the basics like power, heart rate, and speed, along with post-ride analytics and more.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Bkool is the ability to ride with friends. If you’ve got a mic hooked up to your computer, you can even chat with your riding buddies. But if you’re looking to join a group of strangers, and you live in the U.S., you might find your options limited. Bkool has caught on in Spain, where the company is based, which means many of the virtual riders are on European time.
At this price, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better smart trainer that offers a complete virtual world to keep your indoor sessions fresh. But if you’re looking for a more consistent resistance unit for real training sessions, and price isn’t a big deal, a direct-drive system like the Kickr from Wahoo is a better bet (it offers up to 2,000 watts of resistance). But if you’re looking to stave off boredom while you get a workout, the Bkool is a stellar choice.