Indoor trainers (or turbo trainers, for our friends across the pond) are a standard part of any competitive cyclist's toolset. That fact of the matter is that a racing cyclist is training nearly year round, and in areas of the world with a climate like we have here in the Northeast of the United States, that means a lot of cold, dark and wet miles. A good trainer allows you to ride indoors and will keep you warm, dry and workout accurate. At the beginning of this year, Team Sixcycle-RK&O was lucky enough to get our hands on Wahoo KICKRs, a new breed of trainer, and they've been serving the team well. Continue reading for a high-level overview of our experiences and see below for an interview with Mike Stashak, Chief Marketting and Sales Officer over at Wahoo Fitness.
Wahoo KICKR Review
It wasn't long ago that CompuTrainer was the gold standard for indoor trainers. The CompuTrainer was the first viable, albeit expensive, solution for indoor training that allowed the rider to specify a precise intensity, expressed as a number of watts, at which to ride. This control allowed for a previously unattainable degree of workout accuracy, and ensured that the specified intensity was adhered to for the duration of the workout (as opposed to a standard trainer on which the rider is unknowingly drifting around various intensities). To put it simply, power/intensity-controlled workouts are harder, more honest and more effective.
A CompuTrainer was, and indeed continues to be, an incredible addition to one's training, and while there are certainly a number of ways in which it can be critiqued, over time two primary complaints made it to the forefront:
- Price - CompuTrainers are expensive. They currently retail for between $1,600 and $1,900 depending on the model - a figure that puts them out of reach for many athletes.
- Evolution - While the CompuTrainer has been a reliable solution, it's not evolved much since it's release. The device itself remains largely unchanged, as does the clunky feeling software that goes along with it. RacerMate, the maker of the CompuTrainer, simply hasn't innovated.
As the years went buy, a number of companies offered up competitors to the CompuTrainer, but no-one ever managed to dethrone it. That is until now…
Late last year, Wahoo Fitness, a company known for it's ANT+ Sport and Bluetooth sensors and developer ecosystem, released what has proven to be the first viable competitor to the long entrenched CompuTrainer - the Wahoo KICKR.
The KICKR is a power-controled indoor trainer much as the CompuTrainer is, but there are a few important differences:
- Instead of adopting the standard method of resistance whereby a drum is pushed against the rear tire, the KICKR replaces your entire rear wheel in a fashion similar to the LeMond Revolution. There are multiple advantages to this approach (as well as a few disadvantages, of course), but most significantly it:
- Eliminates the need to either have a dedicated training wheel or be constantly switching tires (to avoid excessive wear on tires you use outdoors),
- Eliminates any variability associated with the affect of tire pressure and temperature on resistance, and…
- Provides a mostly smooth, road-like feel.
- Aside from the power cord, the KICKR is completely wireless. You control it via your iPhone, iPad or computer.
- As with all of the hardware Wahoo sells, Wahoo makes the KICKR accessible to 3rd party software developers. Unlike CompuTrainer, who offers only their own (arguably antiquated) software, KICKR users are able to choose different software solutions from different developers for different needs. While there are only a half dozen or so options right now, the list is growing and the possibilities are exciting.
- TrainerRoad - Select structured workouts from a library, or design your own, and have your KICKR controlled automatically
- Kinomap - Select GPS routes and play location synch'ed video as your KICKR adjusts resistance to match the changing grade
- PerfPro Studio - Network KICKRs (and CompuTrainers) for group riding in trainer labs
- Wahoo Fitness App - Use your iPhone or iPad to control your KICKR in every way possible and to record your workouts
- Wahoo Segments - Ride Strava segments on your KICKR
In addition to these significant advantages, the KICKRs build quality is exceptional, it feels sturdy and it doesn't "walk" like many other trainers - an important quality for those high intensity workouts. Of course the trade off is weight. Coming in a 45lbs is not light by any stretch, but for such a high quality device, it feels like a small price to pay.
Perhaps most impressively, the KICKR is currently retailing for $1,099. That's $500-$700 cheaper than a CompuTrainer, and represents a rare instance where it certainly feels like you're paying less for more. It's here where the KICKR's 3rd party development model is most valuable. As 3rd party software developers continue to release new and innovative applications for the KICKR, the device takes on new functionality. Compare that to the feature fixed CompuTrainer and it's stale software platform and you have a winning solution.
Of course, $1,099 certainly isn't cheap, and probably won't steal a ton of business from the $200 trainer market, but for an athlete looking to train with precision and effectiveness the KICKR is a game changer.
I was lucky enough to score a brief interview with Mike Stashak, Chief Marketting and Sales Officer and "number two!" over at Wahoo Fitness:
Matt R: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about the Wahoo KICKR today Mike. Team Sixcycle-RK&O was lucky enough to receive some of the first KICKRs available last winter, and it feels like since then Wahoo has taken the high end trainer market by storm. As a company originally focused on training accessories and software for the iPhone, you must have seen an opportunity to bring a superior trainer to market. What brought you guys to develop the KICKR?
Mike: We saw a hole in the market not filled by any current products. The current offerings, especially the Computrainer, are all great but aren’t taking advantage of today’s technology – tablets, smartphones, wireless technology, internet connectivity, etc. We really wanted to build a product that was simple to use and provided consumers, specifically hardcore cyclists and triathletes, what they were looking for - ability to train with power, controlled resistance for structured workouts and virtual riding, and a great real road feel.
Matt R: What were some of the more significant hurdles you faced during development?
Mike: What hurdles could we face going from building heart rate straps and bike cases at $50 to a $1100 trainer with electronic resistance and a power meter? HA! We went through 3 or 4 designs before we even had a prototype. We met with 5-7 manufacturers to find someone who could reliably make the product. Once we got prototypes, we spent months on the firmware and software to provide a great user experience. We probably had 10 attempts at the electronics to make sure they were robust enough to handle the abuse. This was 18 months of living and breathing trainers. Last, we had to come up with a name, which was pretty contentious – half the office wanted to call it ASS KICKR!
Matt R: Perhaps you can talk a bit about the industrial design of the KICKR. The materials used in it's construction result in a very solid, well made product. That said, it's not light. How did you balance your decisions about how to build the KICKR against it's resulting weight?
Mike: We wanted to have a solid product that worked – period. The weight of the product wasn’t really a factor. A trainer takes abuse and we wanted it to last a long time.
Matt R: The KICKRs wheel off design has already saved me a few trainer tires, but there's more to it than that, right? Why go direct drive as opposed to the more traditional method of simply applying resistance to the rear tire?
Mike: The wheel off design is key for two reasons. The first is accurate power measurement. By using a wheel that is cranked against the tire, you introduce noise into the power equation through how tight you crank the roller and the pressure in your tire. It is almost impossible to have consistent power readings from one session to the next with a tire and a roller unless you spend 10-15 minutes warming up the tire and performing a spin down, which takes away from your training time. Second – feel. We can provide great feel with this design.
Matt R: The KICKRs combination of a large flywheel and electromagnetic resistance are unique. What does this bring to the KICKR?
Mike: Again, feel. The combination of these two features is what makes the KICKR feel like you are riding outdoors. The transitions in grade are smooth, the inertia is great, and the coasting feels authentic.
Matt R: New York City apartment building dwellers are pretty sensitive to trainer noise levels. Reports indicate that the KICKRs noise levels are comparable to the competition (except for very loud wind trainers, of course). How much effort did you guys put into limiting noise, or is this a lower priority characteristic?
Mike: Noise was a secondary concern. We couldn’t make it as loud as the other wheel off trainer but knew that if we were at the level of the quieter fluid trainers, we would meet acceptable standards.
Matt R: The KICKR is measuring power in real time at the hub. Is the internal power meter one of your own design, or did you partner with someone on that?
Mike: It is original Wahoo design.
Matt R: Do you have a power meter in the works?
Mike: We have the technology to build a power meter if we want to, but we are currently partnering with several power meter companies on other projects so it really doesn’t make sense. Also, it is getting to be a fairly crowded market and Wahoo typically is best at developing new categories vs. playing in existing ones.
Matt R: While the KICKR is still pretty new, if you look out a few years, how do you see the hardware of the KICKR evolving? Are there things you'd do differently if you could go back to the drawing board, or new directions you hope to explore?
Mike: We are pretty happy with the KICKR. We are taking customer feedback to develop new models and hope to ultimately have a line of KICKRS with different value propositions at different price points to meet different consumer needs.
Matt R: When the KICKR was first released, demand was high and it was hard to find available units. How are sales now-a-days? How's availability?
Mike: Sales and availability is great. The product is working well and our manufacturing is keeping up with demand (barely!). We are definitely in a great place on production.
Matt R: What's the best way for someone to get a KICKR? Is your retail distribution growing?
Mike: Please go to your local bike shop. We have invested heavily in supporting the IBD channel by limiting online sales of the KICKR. If you local bike shop does not have a KICKR, urge them to order one from Wahoo or order direct from Wahoo.
Matt R: Wahoo established a 3rd party developer centric model early on. Was this a part of the original vision for your first products, or did this come about over time?
Mike: The API and partnering was our strategy from day 1. We believe in an open model and in this type of model, consumers win.
Matt R: What was your motivation for this approach?
Mike: The motivation was two fold. One – everyone has a favorite App and we cannot provide every feature to every consumer out there. Partnering allows us to build more features faster for consumers. Second – by partnering we can tap into large groups of consumers and let them know about Wahoo products.
Matt R: Do you see any drawbacks to this approach, as compared to the traditional model where Wahoo would create the KICKR software exclusively?
Mike: We love our partners. With partnering, everyone wins – Wahoo gets to focus on product, the Apps have an additional piece of functionality and revenue source, and the consumer has more choices.
Matt: Were you ever concerned that in allowing other parties to write software for your products that you'd be relinquishing too much control? If so, how is that mitigated?
Mike: We were never worried. We’ve seen it all – from Apps that track your heart rate during sexual intercourse to Apps that allow you to ride the ups and downs of the stock market on the trainer – and we love it all. Our API is really solid and clearly shows what is possible and not possible for App developers. Consumers ultimately win because they have more choices based on their needs.
Matt R: Apparently there are some apps out there I haven't seen... How do you see this developer/software ecosystem maturing over time?
Mike: It will grow. We have 5-10 downloads of our API every day.
Matt R: What are the most significant challenges you face(d) in establishing a developer ecosystem around your product(s)?
Mike: Building the initial API was the most difficult. There are probably 1000-1200 man hours in the first build. We were the first company to apply to Apple for connecting to an external device – it definitely was a learning curve!
Matt R: Have you managed to involve any of the larger market players in the development of KICKR software? We noticed that you guys built the Strava app as opposed to Strava doing it themselves. Is this indicative of a larger struggle to get major players to invest in the KICKR, or something else?
Mike: You are reading way too much into the Strava App! Wahoo works really close with the major players in the industry. Our hardware, software, and API is being used by all of the major players in the industry – just look at the catalogues and the App store. As for Strava, we work really close with Strava and they have a great API that allowed us to build the Segments App. Segments was just the start of full Strava integration across all Wahoo products. As of this month our RFLKT Smart Bike Computer is also Strava compatible.
Matt R: Does Wahoo have plans to continue the development of it's own software for the KICKR, or should we be looking to 3rd party developers for new solutions from here on out?
Mike: We will continue to update our App to make the KICKR out of the box experience better by adding new features but we could never match the depth or breadth of our partners. Ultimately, this category will grow and consumers will have more choices to match their specific needs. In our opinion, the ironman athlete that wants to ride an ironman course does not necessarily have the same needs as a Category 2 cyclist.
Matt R: In terms of other products, where are you guys directing most of your time and energy?
Mike: We see heart rate as a big category and we are spending a ton of time developing the next innovations in heart rate.
Matt R: We saw the Kickstarter project page for the new RFLKT with the ANT+ Sport bridge. How's that going, and do you expect to bring this product to market?
Mike: The Kickstarter project was a success. We raised over $115,000 and launched the RFLKT+. The RFLKT+ is now in the market and available at your local bike shop or at Wahoo Fitness’s own website.
Matt R: What are your thoughts on the transition from ANT+ to Bluetooth? Is this is positive change for hardware manufacturers? Do you think it's a good direction for consumers?
Mike: Options are always great for consumers. ANT+ has its advantages as does BLE. I don’t think its as much as a one or the other scenario as some think. Right now there is room for both and a need for both. Some cyclists out there already have an ANT+ ecosystem set up, so we wanted to make sure the KICKR fit in with that system. At the same time we wanted the full iOS / App experience integrated and BLE is currently the way to make that happen. While the iPhone is working its way into the cyclist’s setup, currently there is still heavy adoption of ANT+ sensors and we need to make sure our gear fits with that setup. That’s why we’ve launched things like the ANT+ compatible RFLKT+ Smart Bike Computer which also uses BLE and ANT+ technology.
Matt: Any chance you guys are working on a Bluetooth footpod for runners?
Matt: What are your thoughts on the health tracking / wearables / quantified self-movement? Do you have any interest in bringing a product to market to compete in this space?
Mike: There is a lot of noise in this category and a lot of meaningless data tracking. What good is it to know how many steps you took while walking in your office all day if you don’t use that data properly? We want to provide consumers data to hit their PR, data to bike faster, run longer, and plain get fitter, healthier and faster. Most of the fitness trackers out there fall short in producing usable/informative data. We are always looking to innovate in the health/fitness/data space, so stay tuned….
Matt R: And of course we'd be remiss not to ask, do you have any new products in the works you can tell us about?
Mike: Wahoo Fitness focused on connecting the iPhone to cycling, running and workout out. We will continue to focus on the cycling market – whether indoors or outdoors. We will certainly extend our line of apps, trainers, and bike computers in cycling plus continue to focus on heart rate and motion analysis outside of cycling.
(For an immensely detailed review of the Wahoo KICKR, check out DC RainMaker's writeup)