Setting Up A Smart Trainer

Earlier this year I had a crash and broke my hand. Riding on the road was out of the question since I was unable to operate the brake or change gears and so I decided to organise a smart trainer. I chose the Wahoo kickr since it has the broadest software compatibility and works properly. Mine also has the new firmware that permits control from the Garmin 520 which was something I specifically wanted.

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The kickr can be controlled with increasing levels of sophistication from:

  • Garmin 520
  • Smartphone/tablet
  • PC

The Garmin is a no frills way to run training sessions and Strava segments. Load up a training session, strava segment or garmin route, Mt Mee for example, and off you go. Crude, effective. You’ll need what is currently beta firmware which has the ANT-FEC wireless protocol to permit the Garmin to talk to the kickr. The ride is only as good as the underlying data but generally good enough.

There are a range of smartphone/tablet apps that also control the kickr. I’m going to skip right over those since in my experience, they seem a complete waste of time. Yes they work, but you’re not realising the full potential of your smart trainer with apps. Zwift has smartphone/tablet integration so you can give people a virtual high five as you ride by or change direction as you roll along among other things. Kind of cool, but hardly essential.

The PC is where my interest lies since you can have a fully immersive virtual ride experience and there are plenty of options. My preference is Velo Reality which syncs geolocated video with your ride. The software is free, you pay 10 euros or so for each segment of about 30km. It’s pretty good value. You can find rides that closely match your local roads for training, or some iconic roads/climbs, and ride them whenever you feel like it. You don’t need an internet connection to do the ride as the videos are downloaded to your local machine. There is no recurring monthly charge. This application is the most realistic of the ones I’ve tried, almost a simulator actually.

You can easily set up training sessions and these work especially well. This is my pick for those reasons.

I’ve just started looking at bkool which has a huge variety of rides and tools to create your own rides. And it works well enough with a good internet connection. However, it’s somewhat complicated, the support material is weak, it’s expensive at usd $10 a month and not as compelling as Zwift in use lacking the Zwift social experience. You can still ride with others with a bit of effort but its not as engaging as Zwift in this respect.

Finally the cult of Zwift. Everybody is doing it so it must be “the one” – right?? Maybe, depends on what you are setting out to achieve with your time on the trainer. Where it shines is the social aspect which makes it an option worth considering if you want to participate in vrides from the comfort of your bike cave. Behold, the Zwift Oz hump day ride, currently one of if not the biggest virtual ride on the planet. Over 200 riders recently and its awesome fun. There is an increasing number of good training programs as well as racing – its all happening on Zwift.

It’s also usd $10 a month but offers better value than bkool – if the social aspect is important to you.

What do you need to get started? I’ve gone with a PC, ANT+ dongle, large screen TV and the kickr of course. The ANT+ dongle provides the connectivity from the trainer to the PC. I got mine from ebay, $40-00.

You can use any old PC you have lying about or build one specially. It needs to be able to connect to the internet, accept two USB dongles and have a HDMI port for your gigantic TV screen. That’s it – although it does need to be able to handle the game graphics comfortably. One of these is a good idea so you can operate your PC remotely: Logitech K400R wireless keyboard.

What is becoming clear is that for MGR (massive group rides) you will need a reliable and preferably wired internet connection and a decent video card to cope with the graphics. And you need to ensure a reliable ANT connection since dropouts may well trash your ride. To this end the Jaycar active USB extension cable is highly recommended to move the ANT dongle close to the kickr. Pro tip, put the dongle in a ziplock bag to protect it from sweat – really.

Of course if it’s not in Strava it never happened. Velo Reality lets you upload files manually, bkool has strava integration in the pro version, Zwift also has Strava integration. If you use the 520 alone, you will get a session recorded with speed, cadence, power and if you use a hrm, hr – but no map. Training sessions in velo reality also records stats which you can put into Strava but of course there is no map.

A final consideration – the trainer mat and fan. Turns out you will sweat a lot more than you thought possible. A trainer mat is essential to contain the mess and simplify the post ride cleanup. You will absolutely need a fan to help keep you cool. Check here to see which fans the Lama recommends and why. Bigger is not better and there are good reasons why his recommendations work.

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