Let’s face it; most of us have a love-hate relationship with indoor training. Generally, we’ll use work, illness, prior commitments, or any other excuse under the sun to avoid it. But sometimes, when the weather is bad and friends aren’t around, we just have to ride vicariously as Contador or Froome indoors.
Fortunately, WattBike, a UK-based company has developed an indoor trainer, in conjunction with British Cycling, that it hopes will have you scrambling to get inside to get your training fix.
The WattBike comes in two models — the Trainer and the Pro. This review covers the Pro, which only differs in its resistance range, providing what WattBike calls medium to hard resistance, ideal for Cat. 3 or better men, Cat. 2 or better women, and sprinters.
Like most of you, I look to indoor training for two purposes — to do structured interval work and to get some extra time when the roads are sloppy. The question is: Does the WattBike do these two things well enough to justify the hefty $3,130 price tag?
The spin on WattBike
WattBike’s Polar Cadence feature is what sets the WattBike Pro apart from the many trainers collecting dust in our closets.
With a 100-time-per-second sampling rate, and a power meter built into the bike, the WattBike gives highly accurate cadence and power data confirmed by several peer-reviewed studies of the WattBike’s accuracy.
This allows the WattBike to display a real-time spin scan including left-right balance, angle of peak force, and even a graphic representation of your pedalling technique.
I tested the WattBike during the snowiest February on record in Boulder, Colorado, preparing myself for the usual “10 minutes feels like an hour” pain of indoor training.
Watching the spin scan and focusing on my pedal stroke became surprisingly addictive. It even stole my attention from my usual indoor survival tool: “Rocky IV.” It’s not often that something wins out over Ivan Drago.
More importantly, I noticed that once I was back on the road, my work with the Polar Cadence feature had really helped my pedal stroke.
The spin scan feature isn’t unique to WattBike. Computrainer also offers the feature and at half the price ($1,650). But the Computrainer requires a connected PC and it does not have the depth of data nor the simplicity of the WattBike.
To brake or not to brake
WattBike put a lot of research and time into creating a realistic “road” feel. Certainly the large integrated flywheel made the WattBike Pro feel better than most trainers I’ve ridden. But it’s still an immobile bike in your living room. Better than most, but it will never be the real thing.
The WattBike uses a dual braking system — both wind resistance and magnetic resistance. The combination allows for high cadence/low power on one end and low cadence/high power on the other.
WattBike claims the “air brake” is similar to changing gears while the magnetic system emulates climbing. In reality, while I liked the ability to fine tune resistance, it wasn’t that different from putting a road bike on a mag trainer. The air brake just proved a lot noisier than the mag brake.
What surprised me was that, in this era where Tacx, CycleOps, and Computrainer all offer an electronic brake, the WattBike did not. An electronic brake allows the trainer to control the wattage, constantly adjusting to the rider’s cadence.
WattBike explained that this exclusion was a philosophical choice: “the WattBike is a feedback tool measuring precisely the power you are creating rather than the bike dictating the power. This is a better representation of what the rider is doing.”
WattBike focuses on improving technique and said, “If you aren’t a smooth rider, the watts will fluctuate.” This isn’t the case with an electronic brake.
After years of using an electronic brake, I initially found it cumbersome dialing in the resistance manually. But I will admit that after a few sessions it became motivating to try to control the cadence and power myself.
Basic interval workouts can also be programed and stored on the WattBike computer, but I found them a little cumbersome. I ended up letting my Garmin 800 control my interval timing.
Ultimately, while I had to get used to the lack of an electronic brake, it proved less of an issue for interval work than I thought.
What was an issue, however, was the resistance range in the Pro model. Many cyclists, especially sprinters and track riders, use trainers for high-cadence work at low wattage. At even the lowest resistance, to ride 130 RPM a rider would have to put out 360 watts. A track rider will often do cadence work upwards of 160 RPM, which would require riding above a prohibitive 500 watts.
Low power cadence work is possible with the Trainer model.
Measuring up or just out for a ride
WattBike emphasizes competition and testing, offering a variety of time- and distance-based tests that you can upload to see how you compare against other WattBike users.
It’s also possible to download and race against tests from WattBike elite athletes, race your own past workouts, or even hook two WattBikes together to race.
Unfortunately, the standard ramp-test protocols on the WattBike can be cumbersome requiring the rider to constantly change cadence and even adjust the resistance in the middle of the test.
Compared to Zwift or virtual software from Tickr and Computrainer, the WattBike’s racing system is very basic — just two bikes at the bottom of the screen showing their distance apart. However, the WattBike does transmit live ANT+ data allowing it to connect to the Zwift virtual platform.
But this is where you may miss the electronic brake. Riding a virtual 3D hilly course, there’s no way for the WattBike to adjust the resistance as you hit that virtual nine-percent grade.
Data export and analysis
Where the WattBike appears to be second-to-none is in its wealth of data and analysis both during and post-workout. Over 40 variables are monitored from basic power, heart rate and cadence data, to efficiency, time-to-force peak, angle-of-force peak, and left-right leg balance.
Workouts can be downloaded to the PC-based Expert software for an in-depth analysis of both individual rides and a variety of trends over time.
Currently, workouts stored on the WattBike computer can only be exported to WattBike’s proprietary format or to TrainingPeaks. However, the WattBike can transmit power, cadence, speed, and heart-rate data live to any ANT+ compatible phone or device such as a Garmin 510.
WattBike confirmed to VeloNews that they are currently Beta-testing apps for Bluetooth and ANT+ compatible phones and tablets that will allow users to receive, analyze, and share data, and automatically upload workouts to popular sites such as Strava.
The WattBike’s clear advantage is its simplicity. There’s no need to use a dirty winter bike or special tires, check pressure, or deal with the multitude of factors that prevent most trainers from giving accurate power data. The Pro is factory calibrated and WattBike claims it never needs to be re-calibrated.
Starting a workout is as easy as slipping on your shoes and pressing the “Just Ride” button.
The WattBike allows you to quickly match your road bike position, though you’ll want to use your own saddle and pedals. You have to use their handlebars, which aren’t as adjustable as I’d like. The built in aerobars didn’t seem very useable but they did make a great stand for my tablet.
The handlebar-mounted computer is well placed and provides a wealth of features and the PC-based software, with a great graphical representation of your pedal stroke, is just a USB cable away.
The price for this simplicity may be the largest barrier.
Suggested retail price: $3,130
We like: Spin scan feature, accuracy, ease of use, sophisticated handlebar-mounted computer, level of data and analysis, ANT+ data transmission.
We don’t like: Lack of an electronic brake, inability to do high-cadence work, simplistic interval and ramp test system, large footprint if you have limited storage space.
The bottom line: Simplicity, accuracy, and a great spin scan feature, but at a steep price.