Need a Winter Workout Partner to Kick Your Ass? Enter the Wahoo KICKR Smart Bike Trainer

The Wahoo KICKR is a direct drive, smart bike trainer that lets mountain bikers train indoors using apps and services like Zwift.

Timing is everything.

I received a Wahoo KICKR to test about six weeks after getting a brand-new titanium upgrade for my collarbone. Wallowing in misery, Netflix, and carryout hadn’t been kind to my fitness level, so grinding it out indoors was just what I needed. My surgeon gave me his blessing for the exercise, but also told me to be careful not to fall. The man either doesn’t understand the concept of a trainer, or he’s seen some pretty stupid stuff.

Injured? Throw on some Rampage POVs and you’re all set.

Once I got the KICKR unpacked and plugged in, set-up was a breeze. Since Singletracks is focused on mountain biking, I started out by mounting up my Giant Trance.

I’ll confess that mounting a beast of a trail bike to a trainer feels a little odd, but the numerous included adapters mean pretty much anything goes on this rig. In addition to support for lots of rear axle standards, the trainer can also adjust in height to fit everything from 24” road bike wheels to 29” mountain bike wheels.

I’m not sure who invited 29ers to the party.

Direct-drive trainers are an awesome idea, and being able to take the rear tire out of the equation is especially nice for mountain bikers running knobbies. Trying to train with a mountain bike tire on a tire-driven trainer is like riding down a highway rumble strip.

Since the KICKR doesn’t use a SRAM XD Driver Body, I used the 11-speed, Shimano 11-28 cassette that comes with the trainer. Some research (and experimenting) confirmed that this works fine with my 11-speed GX drivetrain.

The KICKR comes with a Shimano 105 CS-5800 cassette (11-28).

Another detail I hadn’t considered was my plush ride. Fortunately, the lockouts that I stopped using ages ago got their brief moment in the spotlight once again. With locked-out suspension, I no longer felt like I was pedaling on an exercise ball, and I could get down to the task at hand: suffering.

Mounted up and ready to rock. Note the adjustable feet so you can level the KICKR on any surface. And note those fly socks.

Getting started on the KICKR is just a matter of downloading the Wahoo Fitness app on your iPhone or Android. Oh, and the Wahoo Utility app to update firmware. Why two separate apps? No clue. Once I turned my phone’s Bluetooth on, the KICKR immediately popped up on the device list in the Fitness app and the instructions directed me to perform a spindown.

The spindown is the trainer’s way of calibrating resistance. You ride for 1-2 minutes and then increase the pace to reach 23mph/37kph, as indicated by the app. Then you coast and let the device, well, spin down. After I hit the target speed, the app let me know and I waited for the flywheel to slowly come to a stop.

Getting up to speed.

Wahoo recommends performing a spindown regularly for maximum accuracy. If you’re very finicky about your data, you might notice a minute power fluctuation following a lengthy period between spindowns, after moving the trainer, or when the trainer is subject to a large change in temperature (maybe you move from a spare bedroom to an unheated garage). I wasn’t exactly stoked to get wildly accurate measurements of just how sedentary I had been for the past 2 months, so I performed the initial spindown and never looked back.

Checking my workout progress. Not sure why my fingers are on the brake levers. You can’t be too safe, right?

Once you’ve added the KICKR to the Fitness app, you can start a workout. There are four ways to control your smart trainer within the app. In the level mode, resistance increases based on how hard you ride, sort of like a traditional fluid trainer.

In resistance mode, you can manually choose how much braking power the trainer applies against you.

ERG mode allows you to specify a certain wattage and the trainer adjusts resistance based on your speed and cadence to ensure you meet this target. For example, if you start sprinting, resistance decreases so you don’t exceed your chosen output.

Finally, simulation mode allows you to enter details like the slope you want to ride, the wind speed, and your type of bike to provide the most realistic resistance possible.

Be careful what you set the power to in ERG mode. The KICKR will adjust resistance to make you do it.

I found the ERG mode to be most useful considering my MTB gearing. With a 30-tooth chainring (and the wrong kind of spare tire), I was woefully unprepared to generate a whole lot of power. Fortunately, the KICKR could throw on the brakes and ramp up resistance, so even with a chainring sized for off-road adventures I could theoretically reach pretty much any target wattage.

One of the most exciting features of the KICKR is the ability to connect with other training apps and services. Historically, indoor biking has been a mind-numbingly dull affair, but software tools such as Road Grand Tours, Zwift, Kinomap, and The Sufferfest are using virtual worlds and recorded videos of routes in the real world to make you feel (somewhat) like you’re enjoying a typical ride outside. There is an incredible array of options available, from those focused almost entirely on entertainment to others at the “bike = life” end of the spectrum. Fortunately, the KICKR is compatible with almost all of them, so you can tap into the program that best suits your style.

The KICKR isn’t a barebones machine, so don’t expect a barebones price. In fact, there are basic trainers and rollers that can be had for less than a fifth of the $1,200 MSRP price tag. If you can push yourself for hours in a dim basement looking at nothing but an ancient, crinkled poster of Eddy Merckx for inspiration, you might not need the KICKR. If your sense of perceived effort has been honed over thousands of trainer miles to +/- 2% of actual wattage output, you might not need the KICKR. If you refuse to let minor inconveniences like blizzards, the absence of the sun, or the occasional familial obligation keep you from getting in your outdoor ride, ever, ever, you might not need the KICKR.

On the other hand, if you’re diligent enough to suffer the occasional sweat session indoors to set yourself up for success in the spring, take note. The KICKR is a powerful tool that you can combine with lots of other apps and services to optimize your training. Because my motivation for indoor biking tends to lag, I tried pairing the KICKR with the virtual biking service Zwift and really enjoyed it. If you’ve been curious about that option, stay tuned. You might be hearing more about my experience in the near future.

Tucked up neatly for storage. Note the convenient handle.

For its intended audience, the KICKR is a top-notch product. It combines the versatile features of a flagship smart trainer with a robust construction that feels like you’ll be passing it down to your grandkids (who will promptly hook up their ebikes). There are tons of advantages to smart trainers: suffering is more appealing with a group ride app, workouts are loaded with metrics to guide meaningful improvement, going to the ride is as convenient as popping in some headphones and pulling out your smartphone, and you don’t ever need to change your schedule because of the weather or your flaky friends.

At the end of the day, the KICKR is never going to replace mountain biking outdoors, but spending some time with a trainer over the winter can definitely augment the experience I have out in the woods.

Buy it: $1200 MSRP, available at REI

Thanks to Wahoo for loaning the Kickr for testing and review.