Riding in Place Gets Smart

Riding in Place Gets Smart

“We need this. Every drop, we need it”.

That’s what I told myself as I peered out of my garage, watching rain drops bounce off the driveway. El Nino was finally delivering drought busting storms. This round of clouds and precipitation washing out hundreds, if not thousands of training rides. But the water needs of this parched state certainly out-weigh the base training goals of sun-spoiled, California cyclists. It’s time to pay up for what has been four years of nearly uninterrupted, outdoor riding. The winter of 2015-16 would be the season of the stationary trainer.

“Wait a second, I need this. Every pedal stroke, I need it”.

That’s what I realized as I churned out a session on the Tacx Vortex Smart trainer. I love efficiency and few things in training are more efficient than clamping a bike into a resistance device and rocking a set of intervals. There are no “gimme” pedal strokes on a trainer. If that back wheel is spinning then work is being done. An hour on a trainer is like two on the road. The El Nino way of getting in a workout; the leg storms are frequent and have a stronger punch.

drive side front

I’ve never treated myself to a nice trainer. Just doesn’t get enough use here in SoCal. My indoor equipment comes down to a Minoura, magnetic resistance circa 2000, and a set of rollers from the same company and just as old. So when the Tacx Vortex Smart trainer showed up it was like Xanadu. Pretty, futuristic, rock-solid. If Olivia Newton-John ever left disco roller skating for the solitude of a garage spin, she would be well equipped on a Tacx Vortex.

out of box

Setup takes some patience and a little muscle. The Vortex will accept several wheel sizes. It requires the assembler to line up hash marks prior to bolting on the resistance unit to the stand. This took a few attempts to get right. The markings are small and wrestling with the resistance piece was a bicep workout in itself.

non drive side

The trainer has two quick releases: one for mounting and one for rear wheel contact.  The tab on the non-drive side makes for a quick engagement on supplied chromoly skewer. Rotate a half turn to lock in or release the axle.  A flip tab on the resistance unit engages the rear wheel. Much easier than turning a large knob to bring the magneto wheel in contact with the tire. Both are nice touches.

rear tacx

The Smart side of the Vortex means it is software controlled. Plugged in, the trainer produces both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart signals. The cheapest and easiest way to control resistance is to download the free app to a smartphone or tab. The Smartphone app is very basic. Resistance can be changed by adjusting power, heart rate or incline. The app records activities. Speed, distance, power, time, and heart rate are logged (heart rate requires a blue tooth compatible transmitter if using the app).  Again, basic stuff. Workouts can be created but only on the tab version of the app. Once created, the workout can be accessed and controlled with the phone app. Courses can also be accessed on the tab version of the app. The Vortex, like all Tacx Smart trainers, can be controlled by third party software. Zwift, Trainer Road, Bkool and Kinomap are all compatible. Tacx does make an advanced program that installs on a computer. It is not free.

To be “Smart” the Vortex needs to be plugged in. An A/C cord is included. The Vortex will function if no juice is available. Unplugged it will behave like a fluid trainer, providing progressive resistance as speed and/or gears are changed. Tacx does not play up this option but recognizes that few race promoters are providing A/C and extension cords at a local TT or Crit. Race warmups are normally off the grid.

The heart and soul, and what I really liked about the Vortex was the way it felt. Smooth under power and it offered at least some coast when I stopped stomping. Key to this are the Electro Brake and the flywheel.

The brake has 16 magnets and electro magnets positioned near a rotating disc. An opposing magnetic field is created. Nothing comes in contact with the disc. The result is an elimination of that sluggish, bogged down sensation. Tacx says it also means a maintenance free operation.

The flywheel weighs 2kg. It’s one reason the Vortex is tough to move around. The upside is the rollout. I could let off the pedals and not have the wheel come to a stop. This is really useful when doing intervals that call for a quick change of pace. Over-unders or sprints in between lactate efforts are treated with respect.

wheel block

The Vortex is the trainer for most of us. Andre Greipel and Nairo Quintana need not apply. It has a max, 10 second resistance of 950 watts.  On incline mode, it offers up a climb of 7 percent.  Power and slope for mortals.

The Vortex sits mid-pack in the Tacx trainer lineup. It is their cheapest Smart trainer at $530. More watts, steeper inclines can be had at a higher price.

A funny thing seems to be going on; the lowly trainer is getting some love. Padraig and I have heard on a number of occasions how much our Paceline co-host Fatty loves to spend time on his trainer. He prefers it to riding outside when old man winter begins to breathe cold air on his Utah home town. Training articles written for the rider with limited training time have touted the trainer as a fitness savoir. And manufacturers are doing their part by bringing to market trainers that integrate software control and competition and provide a more road-like feel. Is it a renaissance? That seems a bit lofty. But we’re glad companies like Tacx recognized that something needed to be done. In a world of riding in place there’s no need to stand still.

Final thought: The trainer that does not offend

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  1. Waldo

    “Tacx does not play up this option but recognizes that few race promoters are providing A/C and extension cords at a local TT or Crit. Race warmups are normally off the grid.”

    Why not add a rechargeable battery? Or do more sophisticated/expensive Tacx models have this option?

  2. Noel

    At least two of the more sophisticated/expensive Tacx models (the Bushido Smart and Neo Smart) don’t have batteries but rather are powered by the cyclist turning the pedals. The Bushido can’t be plugged it at all. The Neo can be, but all the plug does allow the trainer to spin forward during coasting to try and better simulate a road ride.

  3. BTO

    How is the noise level on this trainer? I have found that the Wahoo Kickr is fairly loud, and tend to do my training during “off” hours (i.e. when the family is asleep – and they want to stay that way!).

  4. Author
    Michael Hotten

    The Vortex is an entry level, software controlled trainer. Tacx has more expensive Smart trainers that function without a power cord.

    Thanks for bringing up noise. I should have included something. On second thought, the thing was so quiet its noise never left an impression. Doe that answer your question?

  5. FIJIGabe

    Great article. I recently purchased mine (from Germany) and can say it has completely revolutionized the way I ride during the week. I live in Texas, which has nice weather most of the year, but I find myself skipping outdoor rides for the convenience of my trainer and Zwift.

    With regard to noise, it is pretty much silent. I was hearing some noise the other day, but once I cleaned and lubed the drive train, the noise went away.

    One thing to be careful of is how you position the bike. If it is not perfectly aligned, you will chew through your rear tire pretty quickly (even a trainer tire). Take time to properly position the bike on the trainer, and it will reward you with a quality ride.

  6. TA

    Maybe I’m dumb, but can someone tell me which direction to turn the knob to tighten or loosen the resistance on the tire? I need to know which direction to turn the knob while looking down on it facing toward the front of the bike and while the lever is not on the tire. I keep unthreading the knob from the internal bolt and it’s very frustrating. This is got to be the simplest thing and I can’t find an answer for it

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