$899; Wahoo KICKR CORE Official Website

It seems like a sin against nature to spin away on a smart trainer while the sun is shining and birds are singing. Indoor cycling has traditionally been a logical reaction to winter’s early sunsets and snowy landscapes. And as soon as spring blooms anew, bike trainers are often exiled to hibernation.

Wahoo’s KICKR CORE is here to make a case for year-round indoor riding.

The evolution of smart trainers has transcended the prime directive of indoor cycling—maintaining fitness that translates to real-world cycling power. Smart trainers offer data-driven training, gamification options, and even social interaction through a myriad of apps. And for cyclists who are serious about simulation, Wahoo offers optional components like the KICKR CLIMB (a fork-mounted device that raises the pitch of your bike during climbs) and the KICKR HEADWIND, a fan that syncs with apps to mimic wind speed.

Or to put it simply: smart trainers reduce tedious training with personalized modifications that translate into making indoor cycling (gasp!) a lot of fun.

What Exactly is a Smart Trainer?

Before jumping into the CORE, a brief explanation about smart trainers is in order. Basic cycling trainers use rollers to allow the rear wheel to spin and an internal mechanism (such as a magnetized flywheel or fluid) to create resistance. This setup is fine for simple spinning, but not all that fun.

Wahoo’s KICKR CORE wheel-off smart trainer uses a cassette-mount to improve data accuracy and reduce noise.

By contrast, most smart trainers use a flywheel with a mechanized device that controls resistance—if an app increases resistance, the trainer increases pressure and the rider feels that through the drivetrain. These devices can be wheel-on using rollers, or wheel-off using an integrated drivetrain. Smart trainers sync with apps (like Zwift) to create resistance and track data via Ant+ or Bluetooth wireless connections.

Wheel-off trainers use a rear cassette, either from your own bike or in some models, built onto the trainer itself. Riding resistance is more accurate and responsive with the added benefit of being much quieter than wheel-on trainers. The loudest noises will come from the shifting of gears and your own powerful grunts.

Cycling data can be transferred seamlessly to fitness trackers like Strava to archive workouts and help understand progress. Additional metrics can be recorded by adding in cadence and heart rate monitors.

Justifying the Investment

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: price. At $899.00 the CORE is in the middle price range of smart trainers—but also one of the most affordable wheel-off trainers. As someone who often waits for simple items like energy gels to go down 50 cents before buying, I’m hyper-conscious about cost. I don’t mind investing in quality equipment but I vet my purchases with Consumer Reports-like diligence. My mindset when considering a smart trainer goes something like this:

  • $899 is roughly the same price as a year’s membership at a gym. The fact I can ride anytime (and avoid spin classes lead by annoyingly perky instructors) is a huge plus. And let’s admit it, those gym memberships are often a big waste of money.

  • I’m primarily a mountain biker. Most of my road riding outdoors is simply to get in shape for mountain biking. To this end, a trainer saves me time, effort, and potentially getting flattened by an SUV.

  • I love gaming as much as the outdoors. The variety of apps available for smart trainers means I could have fun, focus on training, or team up with far away buddies at oddball hours to “ride” together.

  • I ride a few endurance mountain bike events every year. Training options within apps can be tailored to the terrain and power needed to improve my performance. I could measure my improvements against myself as well as other riders, all in the comfort of my own home.

A final bonus point for my personal style of training—I can listen to audiobooks or music during the entirety of my virtual rides. Because wheel-off trainers are quieter than wheel-on trainers, this is a nice plus, especially since I’d prefer not to wear headphones while riding.

Set Up Out of the Box

wahoo kickr core
The KICKR CORE set up in my humble office.

The CORE comes in a few parts, all of which are easily assembled using the tools provided (or your own hex keys). The weighted flywheel attaches to two sturdy stabilizer bars with basic bolts and nuts.

Adding on the cassette will require a chain lockring tool, a chain whip, and an adjustable wrench—about $30 worth of tools. Wahoo provides spacers, if needed, to mount your bike onto the trainer itself. My 11-speed cassette easily mounted to the trainer. My bike (a Kona Essatto DDL) didn’t require any spacers.

Using my Windows-based PC, I opted to set-up the CORE with a USB Ant+ dongle (not provided), though it’s possible to connect with Bluetooth as well. Because I had a lot of other devices running through Bluetooth on my PC, I went with Ant+. Both wireless protocols are accurate, so this was more of a personal choice. Note that you can run the CORE exclusively through smartphone apps, though many users prefer to use an iPad or laptop. Many apps can be broadcast to televisions as well.  

The CORE requires power (the power supply is included), so it must be plugged in before starting. One nice touch here is the power supply connector on the trainer is stiff enough to connect with one hand. This seemingly minor tweak is good design, as it can be tricky to finagle the power cables depending on where you set up your bike.

Once you’re up and running, Wahoo provides a calibration app (Android and iOS) to accurately set up your bike. There is also a basic tracking app for your workouts if you’re not interested in investing in a third-party app. For a bare-bones experience, these apps will do the trick.

Integration with Apps

Zwift is one of many apps that work with smart trainers. Photo courtesy of Zwift.

There are many apps that work with smart trainers. As of 2019, it’s a bit of a “wild west” as developers continue to improve functionality, metrics, and virtual worlds. My preferred app was Zwift ($14.99 a month), thanks to immersive virtual worlds, respectable training programs, and progressive gaming rewards. Zwift also offers races, monthly events, and at any time, I can virtually ride with my real-life friends.

Though this isn’t an article about cycling apps, two others are worth mentioning. Trainer Road ($15 per month or $129 per year) is an all-business, structured training app that eschews virtual environments for deep-dive data geared towards Type-A cyclists. Rouvy ($6.25 per month) is a promising app that aims to use augmented reality to recreate real-world rides using ride footage and GPS data. Rouvy is still a work-in-progress, but they do offer a free 2-week trial and seem to improve with every new version of their app.

Performance

Running the CORE with Zwift, my setup consisted of my PC (to run Zwift) and my Android smartphone to run the Zwift companion app, which I used to message friends in-game and take alternate routes during my workout. I used the USB ANT+ dongle (with a USB extension cable) to connect to my PC. After initially finding the dongle, my PC connected seamlessly every time I used Zwift. I used Bluetooth on my smartphone to calibrate via the Wahoo app every two weeks or so.

I’d alternate between training rides and free rides in Zwift and the CORE responded beautifully. For structured training rides, Zwift uses an ERG mode, which basically means the resistance the trainer uses automatically regulates itself no matter what gear you are in (no shifting required and the trainer limits overpowering—you’ll get crazy legs if you try to ride harder than the setting). Non-ERG mode, optionally available at all times, is “real world” riding. Steeper sections of road will automatically be felt in your trainer and you’ll need to shift accordingly.

Wheel-off trainers are nice n’ quiet.

I was impressed with the true-to-life sense of resistance on hills (both up and down), as well as the lack of pronounced lag between my pedal strokes and the effort of my avatar on-screen. When I stood up to hammer out sprints, the trainer remained safe and stable. Throughout three months of riding 3 – 5 times a week, I’ve yet to have data signal drops. Most of my rides have been 45 minutes – 1 hour, though nearly all apps have programs that can simulate any distance of riding (including centuries).

The CORE has remained smooth, responsive, and stable since day one. It’s worth noting that calibrating via the Wahoo app and oiling your bike chain are both good ideas as you start to accrue miles. After my initial set up, rides were seamless and enjoyable. The trainer was quiet enough that my wife often didn’t realize I was riding until I came downstairs for a drink, looking like I had been standing out in a downpour—you will sweat a LOT!

Conclusion

When it comes to performance, ease of use, and reliability, the CORE exceeded my expectations. Beyond the product itself, Wahoo’s customer service reps were readily available and helpful for minor tweaks and improvements to my set up. The ability to interact with a variety of apps means we’ve fully entered into the brave new world of smart training. This is a major advantage versus all-in-one bike trainers that are confined to a single workout app (such as Peloton). Most importantly, I’m seeing improvement in my real-world riding—and having fun doing it.

You don’t need to be a hardcore cyclist to invest in a smart trainer, but it’s worth factoring in the cost of the trainer and your app of choice (and your bike). Wahoo also makes a roller-based, wheel-on smart trainer, the entry-level SNAP ($599.00) which is slightly less precise and a bit louder than the CORE, but is a nice alternative if you don’t mind sacrificing a marginal bit of data accuracy and adding in little more noise.

Wahoo makes a solid product that is a gateway to addictive fitness fun. Even as spring’s long days and dry roads beckon, I anticipate year-round virtual rides after the sun has gone down or on days when I only have 30-40 free minutes. Or to put it simply: the novelty has not worn off. I anticipate keeping the CORE in my workout rotation throughout the year.

Maybe I’ll (virtually) see you out there.