My calves are burning and I’m blinking furiously to get the sweat out of my eyes, as it drops unceremoniously onto the floor around me. I cling on to the rear wheel of my training partner just ahead of me, making the most of the slipstream. The gradient suddenly rises and I click up two gears to keep the cadence. The road is perfectly tarmacked, winding its way through rich green, sun-drenched fields. Outside the wind is howling and heavy raindrops are hammering down aggressively on my window. But inside the road is perfectly tarmacked, winding its way through rich green, sun-drenched fields.
“You made the right choice,” I say, forcing myself to concentrate on the screen in front of me once again. Or rather, on the virtual world that’s playing out in front of my eyes, a landscape with its immaculate strip of tarmac and virtual bikes. The sweat is real though. And so is the Spanish rider who claims the climb to overtake our group. The guy I’m tailing gives me a hand signal to take over the lead. I tap my smartphone briefly, and my avatar gestures back: ok I’ll go. I pedal harder, working up the speed to overtake.
Welcome to Watopia – pedaling hard in the world of Zwift
I’m in a world known as “Watopia“ right now, part of the elaborate software from Zwift who have taken it upon themselves to make indoor training as fun as possible. Forget the tedium, their approach is interactive, turning previously isolating training into a sociable online game.
Zwift dishes up a horde of different options when it comes to linking your indoor training with the computer: the cheapest one relies on your pace, and provides you with the exerted watts. Users who have an ANT+-compatible power metre, such as Quarq cranks, will get far more exact data. If you’d really like to dive into the virtual reality, you should invest in a Smart Trainer, costing 500 € and upwards. The advantage of this is Zwift’s ability to not only decipher your performance data but also alter the resistance on the trainer, which can give you the satisfying sense of slipstreaming, or trying to counter an attack.
The hardware: the Wahoo KICKR SNAP
We chose the KICKR SNAP from Wahoo Fitness, to accompany us on our adventure into Watopia. The SNAP fits wheel sizes from 24″ to 29″ and it is compatible with all the current wheel axle setups. Securing your bike onto the trainer takes a matter of seconds, and linking it with the Zwift software on the computer is quick and easy using the ANT+ USB stick (a separate purchase costing around 10 €), which works with both Windows and MacOS.
If you link the KICKR SNAP with the Zwift Mobile Link app (for iOS/Android) via Bluetooth on your smartphone or tablet then you’ll be privy to monitor your current live performance data. The app also allows you to communicate with the riders in your vicinity and guide the camera perspective without having to dismount and go to the computer – pretty clever! During testing the communication between the indoor trainer, the smartphone and computer was reliable and consistent, with just a few minor and infrequent pauses.
Next level: How to have fun on the indoor trainer
After you’ve hooked up your trainer and logged on with your personal account (10 €/month), you’ll find yourself on the street, ready to ride immediately. The world of Watopia can be explored on one 6 detailed routes, which can be ridden in both directions. In addition to that, you can ride on the 2016 Prudential Ridelondon courses (5 routes, 19.9 km of road) and in Richmond at the 2015 UCI World Road Race course. There’s very little chance of being out alone on the roads, especially now in the offseason.
Your bike and outfit can be customized, but to get the real choice of stylish jerseys and slick frames then you’ll need to earn points by riding more, clocking new best times and achievements – what more motivation could we need to jump on the indoor trainer? But even without the added sartorial bonuses, our motivation was sky high and we couldn’t quite believe just how much fun riding an indoor trainer could be. You’re no longer alone, suffering in solitude in your garage or spare room. Arrange ‘online dates’ with your mates, or ride alongside whichever riders just happen to be online, we frequently got hooked on Zwift for entire evenings, forgoing the original one-loop ride in favour of mountain top climbs and head-to-head duels. Success!
One of the greatest accomplishments of this setup is the KICKR SNAP trainer, which is wonderfully inconspicuous – perhaps one of the greatest compliments you could ever give to a indoor trainer. Easy to set-up, relatively quiet and yet super stable, all of our testers were won over by it. As the flywheel weighs almost 5 kg, any acceleration feels genuine, far removed from the clinically unreal spinning bike sensation. Max resistance from Wahoo is a hefty 1,500 watts, which is more than sufficient for even the fittest among us.
Retailing at € 549.991, the SNAP is bang in the middle of the price spectrum for smart trainers. Admittedly it costs more than a less ‘smart’ indoor trainer, but if you consider the actual time spent riding then our KICKR SNAP has already proven a worthier investment than many other trainers that we’ve tested. Mainly because it is still a long, long way from being relegated to the cellar.
Alongside Zwift, there are so many more apps and programmes that are compatible with the KICKR SNAP. Whether it’s performance-targeted interval training (trainerroad.com) or the virtual conquering of Strava segments or Tour de France stages – the list of choices is far longer than the length of the winter.
By uniting a seriously smart training unit and intelligent software, this marks a new benchmark for indoor training. Zwift and the Wahoo KICKR SNAP have shown themselves to be a dream coupling, and each of our test riders raved about the simplicity, well thought-out features and a riding experience that is remarkably similar to real life. Let’s face it; we’ve never been so motivated to train on an indoor trainer before. And that can only be a good thing.
Note: This review was published first in Dec 2015.
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Words: Aaron Steinke Photos: Noah Haxel