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Direct drive vs wheel-on smart trainers - is it "worth it" to spend more?

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Direct drive vs wheel-on smart trainers - is it "worth it" to spend more?

Old 12-03-20, 02:17 PM
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msu2001la
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Direct drive vs wheel-on smart trainers - is it "worth it" to spend more?

Title pretty much sums it up: Assuming I can find a smart trainer to purchase right now, is it worth spending the extra money to get a direct drive vs wheel-on?

I've never used a smart trainer before. I have been riding an old Cyclops wheel-on fluid trainer for years and sometimes I also ride rollers. Mostly I've been doing simple interval types of workouts in my basement when the weather is crappy, and just zone out while listening to music or watching Netflix, but recently I got into Zwift. I have a crank arm power meter on one of my bikes, so Zwift seems to work pretty well on the dumb trainer. I just pay attention to the gradient and when it goes up I add gears to make it harder.

The idea of a smart trainer sounds cool and seems like it would make Zwift even more fun to ride. Going into a long winter with my gym closed, and few other workout alternatives, I'm thinking of upgrading my indoor trainer setup (like pretty much everyone on the planet).

The trainers I've seen recently include the Kickr Core and Tacx Flux 2 (both $900 direct drive) and also the cheaper wheel-on Kickr Snap ($500) adn Tacx Flow ($370). REI has both Tacx models in stock at the moment. My LBS has Kickr Snaps.

$370-$500 sounds great to me. I'd rather spend money on other cycling related purchases instead, but also if there's a dramatic upgrade in performance by going direct drive, I'd be inclined to just bite the bullet and spend it now as opposed to buying something cheap and then wanting to upgrade in a year.

I read a lot about "road feel", but I'm not clear what that means. It's not really possible to test these things out right now either, so I'm hoping for some input from people who've ridden both versions. Any thoughts are appreciated.
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Old 12-03-20, 02:39 PM
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I don’t have any answers, but I am in a similar situation to you so I am subscribing to this thread.
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Old 12-03-20, 05:20 PM
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So I did try the first gen kickr snap when I was first considering a smart trainer. I ended up returning it because it was consistently over reporting on power compared to my powertap hub(long story short I wanted to keep the powertap with a road tire and use a dedicated trainer wheel with tire).
I soon got the Hammer and itís been maybe the best thing Iíve ever gotten. Funny enough, I thought getting a high end direct drive trainer would get me more immersed in zwift, but it turns out it drove me more fully into trainerroad and using erg mode for workouts. Having an 8 speed drivetrain made it tough for me to really enjoy structured workouts. With erg mode I no longer had to care about shifting and dialing in the right gear combo to get the power at a comfortable cadence.
For me, having the big flywheel the hammer provides really does provide a good feel. Iím not going to claim itís just like the road but itís pretty great. Anyhow, Iím all about my direct drive trainer and I used it 5 days a week nearly year round.
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Old 12-03-20, 06:26 PM
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Some general pros of going direct drive: quieter, capable of more resistance, less faffing with calibration, easier to switch bikes without aforementioned faffing. These may or may not be important to you compared to the savings of going with a wheel-on trainer.

The Snap is an interesting option, because on specs it's not that much of a step down compared to direct drive, and it works with the Kickr Climb accessory that I find adds a lot to virtual riding. The Flow is a bit weak (800W max resistance, 6% max simulated grade), so it feels riskier to get if you want to avoid the desire to upgrade a year later.

I skipped the wheel-on trainer tier and went from rollers w/PM to a Kickr, so I don't have a direct comparison between wheel-on vs direct smart trainers. I will say that at least personally, the road feel of the Kickr doesn't wow me into forgetting that I'm riding indoors, but I appreciate all the pros I mentioned in my first paragraph plus I can't imagine riding without a Kickr Climb anymore.
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Old 12-03-20, 09:30 PM
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I rode a Computrainer for a winter season. if you don't know it is a wheel on trainer and one of the first i think. it was my first time using a trainer. (i don;t count the rollers i had years ago) personally i did not find it loud but i was using it with 7 others with relatively loud tunes playing. pretty sure mostly what i heard was bike. we could talk at a normal speaking level. it needed to be calibrated every time it was used. when we were done riding we removed the resistance wheel from the rear tire to prevent deformation of the tire due to heat. it did heat up a bit. don't know if deformation was a real thing or not. i used a regular tire but you can get a trainer tire to make it last longer. were i to go that route i would just use an old tire. to me the ride felt fine, pretty natural i thought. it was smart in that it was controlled by a program and we rode an elevation profile. i don't know what the max grade was on it. the computraier was a pretty old machine but it was built like a sherman tank, very sturdy. i see them on ebay from time to time.

now i have a wheel off trainer. i don't have to calibrate each and every time which is nice. also i can jump off and run inside to shower without worrying about tire deformation. it has a built in power meter and provides speed too (duh!). it came with a cadence sensor. it simulates up to +/- 20% grade. in zwift i only know of one section with that sort of grade, that little hill in yorkshire, but that is short lived.

when i bought my trainer i was looking at a wheel on trainer that did not apply resistance to the wheel directly but used a magnetic field to apply resistance to the aluminum rim. mine wheel set would not work because the rim was assembled with a steel pin and that was a deal breaker. i forget the maker but i think it was bought by 4iiii. i was looking very closely at this due to the much lower cost.

i got lucky and bought a new 2018 model year Kicker Core back in mid 2019 for a very good price from an outfit in NY. i am very happy with my trainer and use it a lot. used far more this summer too because of the severe smoke situation we had here due to fires. it is controlled via ANT+ or Bluetooth. my laptop was made long ago so no bluetooth. i bought an ANT+ dongle for $20. once the winter riding season began to taper off i decided to write my own program to control it because i knew i would not be paying for zwift during the summer only to use it once or twice a month. that is what i used during the summer.

if i knew then what i know now i would still buy a wheel off smart trainer. it cost more but i think it is better in that it takes the manual part out of compensating for grades. i don't think i would have put as many "miles" on it if i had to gear up to compensate for the dumbness. if you are already putting some time riding on a trainer then this will just be more immersive for you. i am sure you will like it.
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Old 12-03-20, 09:42 PM
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I balked a lot at the cost of the direct drive smart trainers and 2 years ago bought a wahoo wheel on smart trainer. It was ok, really no different then the old mag trainer but at least I could follow a course. We needed a second trainer and the hammer 3 was being priced down for surplus inventory for 650 so I got one. Two weeks later I bought a second to replace the wahoo. Total difference in how they work and feel. Ended up putting my gravel bike on to make some of the climbs due to the higher resistance levels. Where 15 min on the old style was just monotonous 25 min on the direct drive can be more challenging physically but less challenging mentally. Still prefer not to ride the basement but I'm way more willing to do so.
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Old 12-04-20, 02:28 AM
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On "road feel", two things:

#1 The general road feel that most people talk about is often related to the size/weight/momentum of the flywheel, and what happens when you coast on your bike. A trainer with better road feel would behave closer to how riding outside would - on a climb, the wheel grinds to a halt faster than on a flat, where you will roll much longer before stopping. The Tacx Neo series goes even further, by keeping the flywheel spinning continuously when going downhill whereas most other trainers will just slow down and stop as if you were on flat roads.

#2 This is also Tacx Neo-related, it has a very specific-to-Zwift-feature that lets you feel the vibration of the road from your pedals/legs when you are riding the virtual cobbles and wooden planks (and, to a very minute/subtle effect, on dirt paths).

Most of this mainly adds to the experience and does not really impact training or performance... except maybe a small impact your ability to hold power on cobbles. It's nowhere near actual cobbles, of course, and only affects the feeling on the pedals but not on the saddle and handle bars for full effect. (Now this makes me wish Tacx would make their own version of the Wahoo Climb with added road feel effect, just to destroy your hands on cobbles )

But if we want to take about the value of these gimmicks, I think the Wahoo Kickr, when combined with their Climb, has more significant impact in Zwift than Tacx Neo, simply because the Climb forces you to change your bike position or posture on climbs and descents. I've tried placing an additional rise on my front wheel when doing Alpe du Zwift before, and it certainly feels very different from just doing a climb with the bike in normal/flat/horizontal position.

Last edited by atwl77; 12-04-20 at 02:34 AM.
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Old 12-04-20, 03:26 AM
  #8  
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I used to have a Kinetic Road Machine and now use a Wahoo Kickr Core and for me it is fully worth it.
First of all you can get any trainer to work and as long as it provides resistance you will get a work out.

The improvements I found with the direct drive smart trainer are:
  • No training wheel needed.
  • Doing structured workouts in ERG mode is just great. You only concentrate on the cadence required and resistance works itself out.
  • The nice real life experience is not so much because how the wheel keeps spinning when you stop pedaling, you are not supposed to stop pedaling anyway in a workout. Where you experience it most is really how during the pedal stroke you can apply most of the force on the vertical movement and ease off during the horizontal movement without being slowed down a lot. This might not be so much of an issue when pedaling at 65 RPM, since when climbing out of the saddle you are supposed to be slowed down as soon as you stop applying pressure on the pedals. But when your are flying at 95+ RPM it feels so much more natural and allows you to work on pedaling efficiency drills that translate well to outside.
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Old 12-04-20, 05:03 AM
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Been using a Kickr SNAP wheel-on trainer on Zwift (and a few other online services) for 4 years now. It fits my needs, has been very reliable, etc. The only advantage of a wheel-on trainer for me would be not having to put new tires on every year (if I just reuse tires I replaced on my road bike) or every few years (like now, after I bought a trainer tire.)

I use my 24 year old Trek bike as a dedicated trainer bike in the SNAP. One issue: that 24 year old Trek 520 has a 7 speed rear cassette that none of the wheel-off trainers support directly, I'd have to mess around with spacers.

The "better road feel" doesn't matter to me because I'm riding in my basement - if I left my bar-end mirror on, I would see a hot water heater always wheel-sucking behind me.... I don't use power meters on my road or gravel/touring bike, so the power accuracy isn't a real need. I'm not going to put out super high wattage or need realistic simulation on 20% grades.

So, for me it didn't make sense to spend the extra money for the wheel-off trainer and a cassette. I've been having a blast on Zwift for over 8,000 miles now. But, if you want realistic road feel, more accurate power and higher levels of resistance, you might want to spend more.
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Old 12-05-20, 04:15 PM
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IMO, yes. I had a wheel-on trainer, and, well, they eat wheels. After I toasted the second wheel I sold it and bought a direct drive model. So, yes, get a direct drive and save your wheels and tires.
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Old 12-05-20, 04:16 PM
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Originally Posted by jpescatore View Post
Been using a Kickr SNAP wheel-on trainer on Zwift (and a few other online services) for 4 years now. It fits my needs, has been very reliable, etc. The only advantage of a wheel-on trainer for me would be not having to put new tires on every year (if I just reuse tires I replaced on my road bike) or every few years (like now, after I bought a trainer tire.)

I use my 24 year old Trek bike as a dedicated trainer bike in the SNAP. One issue: that 24 year old Trek 520 has a 7 speed rear cassette that none of the wheel-off trainers support directly, I'd have to mess around with spacers.

The "better road feel" doesn't matter to me because I'm riding in my basement - if I left my bar-end mirror on, I would see a hot water heater always wheel-sucking behind me.... I don't use power meters on my road or gravel/touring bike, so the power accuracy isn't a real need. I'm not going to put out super high wattage or need realistic simulation on 20% grades.

So, for me it didn't make sense to spend the extra money for the wheel-off trainer and a cassette. I've been having a blast on Zwift for over 8,000 miles now. But, if you want realistic road feel, more accurate power and higher levels of resistance, you might want to spend more.
Water heater wheel sucking. Damn, that's classic.
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Old 12-05-20, 05:37 PM
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You're going to spend an awful lot of hours on an indoor trainer, and no matter how much you love riding, hammering, sprinting, listening to music, sweating profusely, getting jelly legs, and then looking forward to doing it again tomorrow and the next, day, at SOME point you're going to have to dig a little deeper to find the motivation. Having a truly great trainer and training program makes the perceived obligation seem like a good justification for climbing on the bike again. Also, direct drive is much better than a wheel-on trainer in my opinion, as it saves on tire wear, wheel/hub wear, and noise. 2019/2020 winter/spring was the last year that I will ride a wheel-on trainer. Sooooo many hours, soooo many painful memories... it worked great, but a direct drive trainer is just so much quieter and TO ME it feels a lot more like riding outside. I love my Kickr. Wish I had thrown down a couple years ago. It should last several years, which makes the average price per year get pretty darned reasonable after 3 years compared to the things that I mentioned were lacking in my experience. Opinions on trainers are like hydration plans: everyone's got the perfect one for themselves. But again, you're going to spend a lot of time on your indoor trainer. Why not spend a little more $ to get the best one you can afford. (NOT the most expensive one made, but the best one you can AFFORD.)
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Old 12-08-20, 11:44 AM
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Thanks for the feedback. I'm still not really sure which direction I will go, but right now I'm leaning towards getting the Kickr Snap. The direct drive models do look pretty awesome, but it's a lot more money.

A big part of this for me is that I've been riding a wheel-on trainer for years and most of the downsides mentioned in this thread (noise, tire wear, wheel/hub wear) aren't things I've really noticed to be a problem. I'm sure the direct drive setup is better, but if I don't know what I'm missing...
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Old 12-08-20, 12:02 PM
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Originally Posted by dmanthree View Post
IMO, yes. I had a wheel-on trainer, and, well, they eat wheels. After I toasted the second wheel I sold it and bought a direct drive model. So, yes, get a direct drive and save your wheels and tires.
When you say it eats wheels, do you mean tires? Or did it damage the wheel itself too?
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Old 12-08-20, 12:11 PM
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Originally Posted by msu2001la View Post
Thanks for the feedback. I'm still not really sure which direction I will go, but right now I'm leaning towards getting the Kickr Snap. The direct drive models do look pretty awesome, but it's a lot more money.

A big part of this for me is that I've been riding a wheel-on trainer for years and most of the downsides mentioned in this thread (noise, tire wear, wheel/hub wear) aren't things I've really noticed to be a problem. I'm sure the direct drive setup is better, but if I don't know what I'm missing...
Be advised, as with any wheel on trainer, you need to ensure your PSI is exact (100-110psi) every time and your roller is adjusted properly (correct tension), prior to warming the machine up (10 min) and doing a spindown. That is if you want your power to be as accurate as you can get it. It's not jump on and ride....I mean you could, but your power is not going to be as accurate, if that is important to you.
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Old 12-08-20, 12:27 PM
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Originally Posted by caloso View Post
When you say it eats wheels, do you mean tires? Or did it damage the wheel itself too?
The wheel itself. I ruined two rear wheels when the spokes began to pull away from the rim. The metal actually tore at the connection point. Never had that happen until I started "sprinting" on Zwift. I've moved to a wheel-off trainer.

Strangely enough, the tires were never a problem. I rode Conti GP 4 Season tires at 110PSI and never ruined a tire. They wear, but never had a blowout.
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Old 12-08-20, 12:42 PM
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Just my personal experience, but it may be helpful to your decision making process. When we moved North almost 2 years ago, it became clear I was going to be doing a lot more indoor training than was the case back in Kalifornica, so I decided to upgrade my old Kurt Kinetic hydraulic dumb trainer. At the time I too "couldn't justify" the cost of a direct drive trainer. So I opted for Kinectic's "smart" Road Machine Control unit. That trainer has been a major PIA since I bought it. No 2 workouts are comparable because the effects of tire pressure and roller tension are too variable. Sometimes the trainer would respond to input from Zwift, sometimes not so much. And so far, the thing has been bricked because of a failed internal PCB no less than 3 times. Kinetic just keeps sending me new PCB's while refusing to replace the whole thing. The last new card got it back to it's "maybe, maybe not' status, but it's still not any better than my old, dumb trainer. At this point I realized I could continue to flog a dead horse or I could bring the who;e charade to a halt and spend the $$$ for a good direct drive trainer. Problem solved. Zwift works as intended whether in ERG mode for a workout or SIM mode for a free ride and my power readings are much more consistent.And the thing fires up properly whether I'm holding my mouth right or not.

So here's the trouble. That expensive Tacx trainer ended up costing me an extra $450 because I tried to go cheap the first time around.

Bottom line; Get what works right the first time. Even if it means waiting a while to secure adequate resources.

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Old 12-09-20, 01:20 PM
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Throwing my 2 cents in the as well.

My wife gave me a Tacx Flow Smart as an early Christmas and Anniversary gift; I had been struggling with training with the lack of evening light. It's honestly a good, cost effective way to get into Zwift, SufferFest and TrainerRoad. You have to think about what you intend to use the trainer for if you're considering a wheel on vs. direct drive.

I'd say if you're serious about training and want the best experience, spend the money on a direct drive. If you're going to be more casual and realistically looking to spend most of your time enjoying Zwift group rides, the wheel on will be fine. The Tacx Flow is limited to 800w and a 6% grade so high intensity workouts and sprints will over power it. There is also a delay when in ERG mode as it changes resistance. I'm using a 4iiii power meter in conjunction with it and makes a better experience than relying on the trainer's calculated power.
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Old 12-09-20, 01:59 PM
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When I bought my Kinetic, it was an upgrade from a 20-year old Nashbar fluid trainer. I have a Quarq, and I'd already been using Zwift, but my main consideration was warming up for (actual, outside, pin-on-a-number) races and I didn't want to deal with anything I would have to plug in. The In-Ride sensor was just a bonus that allowed me or my son to get on Zwift without the PM.

Of course, between the pandemic and the wildfires this year, I've never spent so much time on the trainer. I suppose I could justify using unspent race reg fees on a smart wheel-off trainer now....
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Old 12-09-20, 02:04 PM
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Originally Posted by oris View Post
Throwing my 2 cents in the as well.

My wife gave me a Tacx Flow Smart as an early Christmas and Anniversary gift; I had been struggling with training with the lack of evening light. It's honestly a good, cost effective way to get into Zwift, SufferFest and TrainerRoad. You have to think about what you intend to use the trainer for if you're considering a wheel on vs. direct drive.

I'd say if you're serious about training and want the best experience, spend the money on a direct drive. If you're going to be more casual and realistically looking to spend most of your time enjoying Zwift group rides, the wheel on will be fine. The Tacx Flow is limited to 800w and a 6% grade so high intensity workouts and sprints will over power it. There is also a delay when in ERG mode as it changes resistance. I'm using a 4iiii power meter in conjunction with it and makes a better experience than relying on the trainer's calculated power.
i am curious to know what kind of delay you are talking about. i have a kicker core and have measured delay in erg mode at about 3 seconds. pretty consistent too. the message gets to the kicker in a timely manner but it takes some time before the resistance changes.
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Old 12-09-20, 02:56 PM
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Originally Posted by spelger View Post
i am curious to know what kind of delay you are talking about. i have a kicker core and have measured delay in erg mode at about 3 seconds. pretty consistent too. the message gets to the kicker in a timely manner but it takes some time before the resistance changes.
That's actually what I mean. I'll notice a change in the grade and topography on the screen but it takes a few seconds for the trainer to adjust. I'm casting Zwift to my TV from my MS Surface through a Chromecast so there's also about a second delay there. The Tacx Flow is magnetic so it is also sometimes the resistance changes are a bit notchy or abrupt.
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Old 12-09-20, 06:31 PM
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Originally Posted by oris View Post
That's actually what I mean. I'll notice a change in the grade and topography on the screen but it takes a few seconds for the trainer to adjust. I'm casting Zwift to my TV from my MS Surface through a Chromecast so there's also about a second delay there. The Tacx Flow is magnetic so it is also sometimes the resistance changes are a bit notchy or abrupt.
I'm not noticing a resistance lag on my flow but I'm still on my free trial of the Tacx training app. Currently using a laptop cabled to the big screen tv. One nice feature is the ability to download the film/routes so no streaming issues.

I am enjoying the indoor option so far but admittedly consider it only when inclement weather and darkness prevent riding the road, which is pretty much weekdays for the next 3 months. The resistance and performance would satisfy most riders, at least I am finding most elevations challenging. I was looking for value but the question I ask myself is paying 3 times the price or more going to give me three times a better ride?

Last edited by kayakindude; 12-09-20 at 06:36 PM.
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Old 12-09-20, 07:45 PM
  #23  
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I switched from a KK fluid trainer to a Kickr Core a few weeks ago. Prior to Mar this year I had commuted 8-10 hrs/wk year round so had plenty of outdoor riding. Working from home now and it's taken me a while to get back into a training 'rhythm' but I seem to have found something that works. I now ride the Kickr every evening for 60-80 min. I either do a couple 20 min SST intervals or just ride one of the zwift courses. It's kind of fun to ride a couple of laps with 2-3 sprint sections trying to figure out how to climb the leaderboard. I never sprinted with the KK as I would end up with wheel slippage. I ride about 1/2 the time in Erg mode which works fine for intervals. Erg mode also supports one silly feature which I never thought of: When on the trainer I usually stand for 30 Seconds every 5 minutes or so. With Erg mode you can stand and synchronize your cadence with the beat of any song while maintaining target power. Doesn't seem like much but I like it and ended up standing for 2-3 min at a time yesterday.

I also bought a Kickr for my son who's been living in a different city since Mar and we do meetup rides at least once a week. You don't need a smart trainer for that but both of us prefer the Kickr to riding the KK trainer.
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Old 12-10-20, 11:15 AM
  #24  
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Originally Posted by oris View Post
That's actually what I mean. I'll notice a change in the grade and topography on the screen but it takes a few seconds for the trainer to adjust. I'm casting Zwift to my TV from my MS Surface through a Chromecast so there's also about a second delay there. The Tacx Flow is magnetic so it is also sometimes the resistance changes are a bit notchy or abrupt.
I think you have to be careful about considering the lag when it comes to grade. The UI might be ahead of the grade. my measurement comes from a very detailed log file inspection. i can see when my program instructs the kicker to target a specific power level and i can see when the power output finally changes to that new level. it is most noticeable when going from say 50% to 90%. that i can clearly feel. i cannot feel any grade lags. i don't think that the changes in grade should be so abrupt that you would notice a lag.
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Old 12-10-20, 04:31 PM
  #25  
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Yeah, I haven't looked at it in that regards as to the log files and you are most likely right. I'm not faulting the trainer or program in any way; it's not going to be exactly like riding outdoors. I honestly still love the trainer and set up as it allows me to keep training as the evenings are now dark.
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