Turbo 22km – testing turbos for Triathlete’s World

PM. Cycle/turbo 22km, Brisk, HR 147(171)

I’d answered Jim McConnel‘s plea through the Oxford Tri club for people to test some turbo trainers for a future Triathlete’s World article. I’ve ridden a fair few in my time  – in the winter when the weather’s bad, and in the spring when I need to get down to some intervals – so I thought I’d give it a go. I could feel like I was coming down with a cold all day, but I took a couple of Anadin and just got on with it.

Chris Smith was also doing the testing. He’d already commuted to work and back (!) so I gave him a lift over to Iffley road grandstand for the testing as I was driving over with my fan, extension lead, spare turbo wheel, kitchen sink, etc. etc.

The test
After a bit of hanging about and some banter (where I discovered that Fit2Run near Abingdon sell Nike Free trainers – thanks Jared) while the photographer took some “studio shots” of the turbos, we did two structured half-hour interval-type sessions on a couple of the turbos each and then had a bit of a play on the others if we wanted to. We did some seated and out-of-the-saddle efforts to test the turbos all-round ability. Results and photos are going into the February issue, which seems a bit late in the year to be doing such an article, but what do I know? It was great to be able to compare the “feel” of turbos one after the other – something you normally never get the chance to do.

What we found out:

Tacx “Speedmatic” and “Flow”. We had a basic variable magnetic “SpeedMatic” (or maybe it was called “Speedbreaker”? where do they get these names from?) and a fancy “Flow” to test. The SpeedMatic was very good – a smooth roller and a sturdy triangulated frame (you’ve just got to watch you get the feet the right way round). Pretty easy to just pop the bike on and go. The resistance lever was a bit clunky to fit – oversize bars work better with it, and only resistance positions 2-6 out of 10 provided road-like feel, but this one was a real bargain (although it didn’t come with a riser block). The Flow was also excellent  – smooth and progressive as you might expect with a mains-powered turbo, although the heaviest guy didn’t like the way the non-triangulated frame flexes slight (I preferred it). It took a small bit of fiddling with the controls to calibrate the resistance, but Chris knew the drill as he’s got one at home and we were good to go in a couple of minutes.

Minoura. We had a rim-turbo to test (the wheel’s clamped between two “jaws” either side of the rim although the resistance only works off the left-hand side). No-one liked it – even our smallest rider felt the frame flexed enough in hard efforts that he was only getting a workout with his right leg! Probably quite useful for warming up at knobbly-tyre cyclo-x or MTB events, but for the £180 that this unit cost it’d be cheaper to use a spare rear wheel with a slick tyre on another model.

CycleOps Fluid 2. The only (dare I say old-fashioned?) fluid turbo of the test. It had the same steep resistance curve that my bog-standard “Classic Mag” one has at home – the usable speed range is quite limited. Perhaps the guy who builds and tests CycleOps trainers is a monster powerhouse rider with legs of steel? Only the strongest riders were comfortable pedalling in the big ring on this one. One commented that it had the same feel as his own Kurt Kinetic – they look VERY similar, so maybe it’s the same unit (he also said it was a bit like pedalling into a headwind all the time, so that makes me feel a bit better about my inability to do more than 1h30 on mine at home!). The frame itself was good and stiff but we struggled to get some bikes stable in the rear wheel “jaws”, even with them done up ‘ffing tight.

Blackburn Tech Mag 6. I didn’t get a chance to ride this one, but I gather it was good and stable (nicely adjustable feet), with a reasonable road-like feel. It was a bit squeaky, but that could’ve been the tyres the riders were using on it (or maybe the tyre contact was tricky to set up). Another basic turbo like the Tacx SpeedMatic that just does the job, no fuss.

Elite “Mag Speed” and “SuperCrono”. We had two to test –  a basic “Elite Mag Speed Alu Team Sky Trainer Kit” (compete with Team Sky bidon, natch) and a slightly fancier “Elite SuperCrono Power Mag ElastoGel Trainer”. The surprise of the test: considering how many turbos this company sells, no one was entirely happy with them. Noisy and flexy. The “Mag Speed”  was OKish, and had a good road-like feel and was fairly easy to set up, but it had a crazy buzzing sensation through the roller. It was a bit wobbly. The “SuperCrono” relies on rider body weight to stick the tyre to the roller – you clamp the wheel axle and the frame just pivots it onto the roller. It’s a bit fiddly to set up the tension on the rear wheel clamp and in action it never really held the wheel consistently enough on the tyre/roller. It was also the noisiest of the lot – you had to speak up quite loud next to someone going full-pelt on it. The U-shaped frame flexed very badly out of the saddle, especially if you set it at a high resistance (although you’d be daft to train that way for long)- it’d slip-and-grip all the time. It was, if anything, worse to ride than the cheaper one! Its only saving grace was that it came in Oxford City RC orange-and-black ;-). Those who’d owned Elite turbos in the past had had one sort of problem or another (most commonly – the fluid heating up and the resistance changing wildly), so perhaps we were already slightly biased against them. Maybe their very high quality ones are better?

In conclusion
I’m gonna sell my CycleOps! (or keep it for event warm-ups – although the SpeedMatic would be better for that – such a brilliant turbo for the money) and buy a Flow. Both the Tacx turbos had a really good progressive feel as you ramped up the effort – something you’d maybe only notice when you compare turbos back-to-back, but which becomes important if you’re using a turbo a lot. When you consider all the read-outs you get off it and that it was little more than £100 more that the others here, the Flow represents top value-for-money. It made me regret selling my Grand Excel years ago when I moved into a flat and needed the space (although that model was a bit of a faff to set up).

The Trip
When I’d got home  and showered and changed we settled down (with a glass of wine to ease my aching throat) and watched the last episode of the The Trip on the iPlayer. What an unexpectedly great series this has been. From the lead-up to it I was expecting a Steve Coogan ego trip – it seemed like a somewhat contrived set-up – but it was much more than this. Some lovely moments of pathos at the end of each episode kept us coming back for the next.