Is a $3,500 Indoor Bike Worth It?

When I first began bike racing a decade ago, I quickly discovered the particular horrors of indoor training. I bought a set of InsideRide rollers, taped a training plan to my handlebars, and spent much of that dark winter’s night of the soul staring at the wall while trying to hit 300-watt intervals as a raging chorus of metal pulsed through my earbuds.

When the online racing and training platform Zwift debuted in 2014, it felt like a revelation. No more solitary penitence—now I could suffer along with others, on what looked like actual roads, albeit on a screen. I leaned in pretty hard. It was a bit Black Mirror but vastly better than before.

Meanwhile, my equipment was in transition. From rollers I switched to a Wahoo Kickr Snap, a “wheel-on” trainer—basically a smart roller for your bike. Then I upgraded to the Wahoo Kickr, in which the rear wheel is removed and the bike is attached to the trainer’s cassette. I later added the Kickr Climb, an indoor “grade simulator” that’s attached to the bike’s front forks—goodbye front wheel.

I’d gone from riding a whole bike, intact and free but on rollers, to a semi-attached setup to, finally, a fully attached rig, in which my bike had been reduced to its frame, resting on peripherals. Like some kind of natural selection, it was slowly shedding vestigial organs.

And so when Wahoo’s new Kickr Bike was delivered to my house recently, it seemed like the logical next step: a machine purpose-built for indoor training.

At $3,500, it costs more than many decent road bikes. Heck, it costs a grand more than a Peloton bike. The idea of spending that much on a device designed to go no farther than my spare bedroom might have seemed risible a few years ago. 

And yet, as indoor training, largely for reasons of convenience and efficiency, has become more important to me (I’m now a level 40 Zwifter, which basically means I’ve been riding indoors a lot for several years), the Kickr Bike suddenly seemed an attractive proposition. Instead of constantly trying to domesticate my outdoor road bikes, why not ride something that had been bred for the specific requirements of its native environment and not have to switch between them? 

Indeed, an entire market has rapidly emerged to meet this seemingly surging demand: there’s Garmin’s Tacx Neo smart bike, the StagesBike, the Wattbike Atom

As I’ve been living in the Wahoo ecosystem, I was drawn to its product. But would the Kickr Bike actually be better than my existing setup? And could it remotely justify the cost, which was about $1,700 more than my current setup?

I headed to my pain cave, where the Kickr Bike now had pride of place. Setup was fast and intuitive. Via the Wahoo app, the user has several options: you can import your fit data, if you have it, from one of several established systems, you can take a set of pictures of your existing bike, or you can simply input your body measurements.

After taking a few snaps of my current setup with my phone, I was given measurements for my saddle and handlebars (all of which have clear centimeter markings on them), as well as the overall frame geometry. Unlatching the quick-release levers, I slid everything into its proper place. Next I attached my pedals, then fired up a Zwift group ride and was ready to roll.

My first impression was the smoothness of the pedal stroke. It didn’t seem jumpy or glitchy, and shifting felt quick and fairly natural. Shifting happens via traditional levers, and the rider can choose, via the app, any of the leading systems (Campagnolo, Shimano, SRAM), as well as any number of gearing configurations. You want to push a 53/39? Go ahead. Feel better with a compact chainring? You’re a button push away.

The Kickr was comfortable but, more importantly, it felt like a road bike. You not only coast on downhills, but the bike pitches down—which feels strange the first time, as, with no front wheel, you’re essentially dangling into empty space.

The next thing I noticed was the sound, or lack thereof. A few years ago, I had a sound-engineer friend drag his equipment to my pain cave, and we measured the audio signatures of several trainers. The main takeaway was that while some were quieter than others, they all make a different sound; some kick out a rumbly bass, some emit a high-frequency whine. By informal poll (i.e., my wife and daughter), the Kickr Bike was my quietest setup to date. 

Early in that first Zwift ride, I suddenly became stuck in one (fairly low) gear. It happened again during my next event, a Zwift race. I ended up doing 24 hard miles at an ultrahigh cadence, an experience I’ll not soon forget. I got someone from Wahoo on the phone, and we walked through various possible problems. He concluded it must be some hardware issue (in all fairness, the bike was a demo unit and had been shipped to many different testers over a period of weeks). He sent a new set of handlebars, and the next day, the problem was gone.

I was sold after a week of testing. I’d completed a number of Zwift rides and races with the new bars with nary a hitch. The power numbers I was hitting seemed true and consistent. I didn’t have to do any time-consuming “spindowns,” the process of calibrating your trainer’s power settings to Zwift, and I didn’t suffer any dropouts. I no longer had a chain to worry about slipping or lubing, and as I powered through 1,000-watt sprints, I didn’t fret that I was somehow damaging my expensive road bike. (It’s a source of ongoing debate whether trainers can be bad for your road bike.)

And it didn’t just benefit me. The bike’s sheer range of size parameters meant my wife and daughter could each ride the bike after just a few minutes’ tweaking. Logistically and aesthetically, the Kickr Bike has a slightly smaller and more attractive footprint than my previous trainer-bike combosalthough it’s still not quite living-room worthy.

There were also a few flaws. The shifting display, which lurks to the right of the top tube, is not so easy to see—especially when I drape a towel over the bars in a vain effort to mop up the torrent of sweat I produce. There’s nowhere to hold a phone or an iPad, which are as important as a water bottle when it comes to indoor riding (though an accessory is said to be coming). And the wires coming out of the handlebars are a tad unsightly.

So: Is it better than what I had before? Absolutely. Rather than trying to get the best out of a machine designed to be ridden outdoors, I felt like I was on a high-fidelity device that seamlessly interacted with a virtual world indoors. Honestly, it’s been a bit hard to go back. My demo unit was returned to the company, but I’ve since been plotting to buy one. Do I want to pay $3,500? That’s more complicated. Like any proper cyclist, I subscribe to the notion that the ideal number of bikes is n plus one. If you are dead serious about indoor training—if, say, you ride nearly half your miles under artificial light—maybe it’s time to sell one of those other bikes and embrace the great indoors.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Wahoo Fitness/Graphic by Mary Mathis

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