Bicycle Trainer Shootout 2008
While everything from fans to magnets are used to create resistance in cycling trainers for 2008, fluid or centrifugal force are much better methods. At around $300, these three units offer some of the smoothest and most progressive resistance available; regardless of price, they are the heart of the value equation in trainers for most riders. Here is a comparison:
Centrifugal Trainer Defined:
The Blackburn TrakStand Ultra resistance unit consists of steel ball bearings that move outward in angled tracks via centrifugal force; as the wheel spins faster, the bearings move further outward in the tracks, thus applying pressure to a flywheel that contacts a high friction outer plate. The more pressure created between the flywheel and the outer plate, the more resistance the rider feels. The system provides almost instantaneous feedback as the bearings quickly return to their starting position, allowing the flywheel to continue coasting down freely, as soon as pedal power is no longer applied or is reduced.
Fluid Trainer Defined:
Both the CycleOps and Kurt units use fluid based resistance systems. A fluid based trainer is simply defined as any trainer that uses a viscous fluid, like liquid silicone, in the unit to create resistance.
Durability and Resistance Unit Design:
First, the fluid units: While the premise behind the Kurt and CycleOps is very similar, their internal construction is quite different. The CycleOps depends on a thru-shaft that is sealed by an O-ring that keeps the fluid in its reservoir. As the rear unit heats up, friction increases; this can allow any imperfection in balance between the flywheel and the shaft to increase the wear on the O-ring seal. Eventually, the wear could cause the O-ring to wear out and the fluid unit to leak and fail. When this happens is dependent on the speed the rider uses the trainer at and the number of miles it receives – the average will probably be somewhere in the 5000 mile range (3-5 years for a rider who rides the unit regularly). While CycleOps has improved the tolerances and their quality, this is still a potential weak link in their design.
The Kurt uses a well designed and thought out magnetic coupler mechanism to eliminate the highest wear area on the fluid resistance unit – the O-ring fluid seal. In the Kurt resistance unit, there is a completely sealed and independent housing unit that holds the silicone fluid. This unit attaches to the spinning impeller shaft from the rear wheel via twelve magnets (6 on each side). As the impeller rotates off the rear wheel, this magnetic coupler revolves instead of depending on an O-ring seal like most units. This keeps the fluid completely sealed and independent of the rotating impeller shaft.
The Kurt Road Machine resistance unit has 80 cooling vents and an over-sized flywheel for a wattage range from 20 to 2500 watts.
Right: The TrakStand Ultra’s “CentriForce” resistance unit.
Next, the centrifugal unit: The TrakStand Ultra uses Blackburn’s “CentriForce” design and thus does not use any fluid. What most people need to know is that the design is based on mechanical resistance that is generated from ball bearings that slide in angled ramps against resistance plates. Similar technology has been used since the 1940’s in clutch applications and other industrial parts – so, it is a great idea that has been proven to work. Centrifugal units work off the premise that the faster they spin, the more centrifugal force there is to slide bearings down angled ramps. As the bearings slide down the ramps, they push the flywheel against the resistance plate and this creates the resistance you feel when pedaling. Blackburn offers a nice schematic and description of how it works at http://www.trakstandultra.com/centriforce.html.
Blackburn licenses the design from a company called “1Up” who has produced trainers under their own name for a few years. However, this is the first time a major distributor like Blackburn, who has a national support base and dealer network, is offering the design. We were very excited about this trainer initially as the design is very well thought out and our test unit offered a very good resistance range and was very quiet and smooth. However, while we feel that the design of the Blackburn TrakStand Ultra is very good (if not the best of any trainer on the market), the execution has proven inconsistent. While our test unit worked fine, since its release, we have unexpectedly found that other TrakStand Ultra units stick and others become rougher and noisier with use. Blackburn has been very good at replacing the units, but we hope that they improve the consistency of units for the future as this is really the only thing that is holding back this otherwise excellent trainer.
Durability and Stability of Stand:
All three stands are well constructed. The Kurt unit uses the largest diameter tubing and thus is initially very stable feeling when you install the bike or when you are riding. The Blackburn has the widest tail stabilizer, but the narrowest legs, and is the easiest to set-up. The TrakStand is also the most adjustable as it uses a creative adjustable height leg (see image near bottom of review) to allow for multiple wheel sizes without the use of a riser block. The CycleOps gets the job done safely, but is the least stable feeling when sprinting or under heavy load.
Bike Securing Mechanism:
All the units use a securing system that is based on rear wheel skewer pressure. The CycleOps unit is the quickest to use as it uses a simple lever that slides until it engages the skewer. However, because the CycleOps is not as stiff as the other two, it does not have as secure a feeling. Kurt uses a threaded engagement system that is big, beefy, and full of machined aluminum (which is no surprise as Kurt’s primary business is in machining for aerospace and medical applications). It is not quite as quick and easy to use as the CycleOps, but it is extremely solid, secure and very stiff. Blackburn uses a straight-forward rotating knob design that is reasonably simple and feels quite solid. While the CycleOps’ unit seems to work a little better on a wider range of skewers than the other two, none of them work well with the majority of skewers found on bikes today and you should replace your skewer with a basic steel unit (included with all three) when using the trainer.
The intuitive and easy to adjust Blackburn mechanism.
The super quick CycleOps sliding clamp.
The nicely machined and very secure Kurt clamp.
All the units tested offer plenty of resistance for the vast majority of riders. Kurt and Blackburn claim to be tested to 3000 watts without thermal failure. and the CycleOps Fluid2 offers tested resistance from 20 watts (about 5 mph) to over 725 watts. This is not to say that the CycleOps cannot work up to the 3000 watts the other companies claim to have tested to, just that they have not released any test data at these speeds. As the wattage increases, so does the heat demands on the unit and testing to 725 watts is a realistic test for most use as your average strong athlete averages between 200 and 250 watts.
For watt junkies that want to put in really heavy duty endurance miles, Kurt and Blackburn offer options. Kurt offers a “Pro” model that triples the weight of the flywheel from the standard 6 lbs to 18 lbs. with an add on flywheel weight. While this makes the trainer significantly heavier and adds to the cost, it also increases spin-up resistance and increases the time it takes for the wheel to spin down to zero again by over three times. This creates huge resistance and additional realism for endurance workouts on slowtwitch muscles.
Without buying additional parts or adding weight, the TrakStand Ultra offers three different wattage profiles that can be set based on the users preference. The base setting out of the box provides 350 watts of resistance at 25mph with a very smooth and controlled feel. For those wanting even more resistance, the unit comes with an extra set of steel ball bearings that can be added in two different configurations to increase the resistance by applying additional pressure to the flywheel. When set to its maximum setting, the Ultra provides a consistent 795 watts of resistance at 25 mph – a dramatic increase in wattage that is great for those cyclists that do lots of intervals. If you want even more resistance, just pedal faster than 25 mph and even greater resistance will result – good luck getting to the unit’s claimed maximum of 3000 though…
Ride Quality and Noise:
All three trainers are far quieter than the average magnetic or wind unit. Out of the box, the quietest of the bunch is the Blackburn, which is virtually noise free except for the hum of the tire. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that the Blackburn more than holds its own in regards to ride quality too. This is primarily due to the fact that the flywheel spins freely of the resistance plate when not under load, thus allowing the system to coast down smoothly and consistently. Likewise, as power is applied, it also transitions the resistance smoothly with no spikes or slippage. In our inaugural trainer comparison in 2003 we described the Kurt Kinetic unit as follows: “It holds its speed best and reacts to rider input naturally, allowing the rider to sprint, shift and change position while maintaining speed smoothly.” A properly functioning Blackburn meets or exceeds this description in all regards and would win this category. However, in more long-term experience, it has been shown that not all Blackburn TrakStand Ultra trainers are created equal and while some units are great, others are not.
The tolerances that the Kurt Kinetic units are built to are some of the tightest on the market and their experience in aerospace quality machining shines when it comes to ride quality. Kurt units are consistently balanced and are the smoothest and most progressive fluid unit available and they are also very proven.
While not riding poorly at all, CycleOps Fluid2 trainers seem to vary some in regards to the ride quality from unit to unit. Some seem to be a little rough and others are a bit smoother. We think that this is because of the alignment of the thru-shaft not being perfect on all units. A well aligned and properly functioning standard Fluid2 is the slightly quieter of the two fluid units.
Ease of Set Up and Environmental Impact:
The Blackburn TrakStand is the quickest to set-up and start riding of the bunch as it is ready to ride, no assembly required, out of the box. The Kurt and the CycleOps require minor assembly that only takes a few minutes. Trainers are not real packaging friendly. We are not a big fan of the styrofoam used by Kurt and the cardboard that Blackburn and CycleOps both use seem to work fine and make for a more compact package
Warranty and Country of Origin:
When fluid trainers were first introduced by CycleOps in the mid to late ‘90’s, there were leaking issues that almost destroyed the category and that did lead to CycleOps almost going out of business before being purchased by Saris. Saris saved fluid trainers by solving the majority of the quality issues and the units are far more reliable now. One change Saris made was to offer a lifetime warranty and now both Kurt and Saris are covered for life against manufacturers defects (different from just being “worn out” from use…). The Blackburn has a five year warranty.
CycleOps is the only one still made in the USA while Kurt and Blackburn are both now made in China.
All three units can be folded up compactly and stored easily in a closet or corner. If you are planning on hauling the trainer around with you, the CycleOps Fluid2 is the lightest of the bunch at 18 lbs. and the Kurt Kinetic is the heaviest at 23 lbs. To the Kurt’s defense, the weight is because it has the beefiest frame tubing and a heavier flywheel – both of which play major roles in why the Kurt feels so solid and stable. The Blackburn splits the two at 20.5 lbs and is the most compact unit when folded due to its telescopic legs.
The MSRP of the CycleOps Fluid2 is $330, the MSRP of the Kurt Road Machine is $350 and the Blackburn is $300. We sell them for less than this and often have additional promotions going that bring the price down further (call or e-mail)….
Options and Accessories:
Electronics: Kurt Kinetic offers a small electronic head unit that computes power output (+/- 8%) based on the unit’s consistent power curve.
Kurt Wheel Adapters and Rock & Roll: Kurt offers an adapter that allows 16-24” wheels to be used in the trainer, an excellent choice for children’s bikes or non-traditional designs. Kurt also offers a unique add on base called “Rock & Roll” that allows for natural side-side motion while training to promote balance and core work.
Included Extras: All three units include a steel skewer that we highly recommend using. The Blackburn includes the bearings to change the resistance profiles and the Kurt and CycleOps include an introductory training video.
Tires: Continental is now making a trainer specific tire with a rubber compound designed to minimize noise and maximize wear on trainers. Regardless, we do not recommend using your nice Kevlar race tires…
Other Accessories: With the Kurt or CycleOps, you will also want to consider getting a front wheel block ($9-$17) so you do not have to use an unstable phone book to keep your wheels reasonably level. The Blackburn’s adjustable leg design (see below) eliminates the need for a riser. A good collection of training videos from Spinervals or CTS ($30-$40 each) helps you stay focused and make the most of your training time inside.
The Blackburn TrakStand Ultra uses an innovative telescopic leg design to eliminate the need for riser blocks. By turning the knob on top of the leg, you can increase or decrease the leg height to accommodate different size wheels without needing a riser block to keep the bike reasonably level.
Our Top Pick:
All three of these companies make produce good products – we would not carry them otherwise.
The CycleOps Fluid 2 started the whole fluid trainer revolution and we give the design a lot of credit for changing the way we all look at trainers and showing just how smooth and progressive a trainer can be. It was the Model T in a world of horse drawn carriages and is a proven performer to this day
We have always really liked the Kurt Kinetic Road Machine as it is proven, rides smooth and progressively and gives one heck of a workout. The Kurt still has the most stable base and frame design, the closest manufacturing tolerances and it remains the best fluid trainer on the market.
This brings us to the Blackburn TrakStand Ultra. We are really impressed with the overall design, how easy this trainer is to set-up, how smooth and quiet it rides, and how versatile it is. We were impressed enough at the end of 2007 to give it our highest performance and design rating overall and to name it our new champion. However, after the first year on the market, it is apparant that Blackburn has some work to do to improve reliability and consistency unit-to-unit before they can be called the overall best.
You won’t go wrong with any of these trainers and what works best for you may be determined by how well one unit does in one of the above categories compared to the others. However, if we could only carry one trainer to meet the needs of the most athletes best, the Kurt Kinetic is still the best of the best because of its proven record of durability and overall performance.
If you have any other questions about trainers, or are interested in picking-up or having us ship you a new trainer please contact us or stop-in.