(Pocket-lint) - Lockdowns around the world led to a boom in indoor cycling, with training and virtual racing taking off. For many this has meant buying a smart turbo trainer - such as the excellent Wahoo Kickr or Tacx Neo 2T Smart - and hooking your bike up to it before riding off into the virtual sunset.
However, if you have the space and the money there's another option: the indoor smart bike. This is where the Wattbike Atom - here the 2020 model, described as the 'Next Generation' product by the maker - comes into play. But, at 10 times to price of a 'dumb' exercise bike, is it worth the outlay?
Much like mobile phones, there's a big difference between budget and flagship. The Wattbike Atom 2020 uses top-of-the-range internal components, while it looks like a thing of relative beauty compared to a clunky budget spin bike. But more important than that, it's designed to integrate seamlessly with third-party apps such as Zwift to allow training, social riding and racing in the virtual world.
So how does the Wattbike Atom 'Next-Generation' stack up in the world of dedicated indoor trainers?
Design & Setup
- Footprint: 1.24 x 0.5m (4' x 1'7") / Weight: 40kg (88lbs)
- Connectivity: Bluetooth, ANT+, FTMS
This is the second-generation Atom, arriving 3 years after Wattbike's first foray into the smart bike home market. Out of the box the Atom is pretty much ready to go, which is not the case for its competitors that require a larger degree of assembly.
The only things you need to do are attach the pedals - a flat pair are included, but you'll most likely be installing your own - clip in the aerobars (which double as a tablet holder) and, if you're so inclined, add the aerobar resting pads. Once you've heaved it into position (it's very heavy, but has two small carriage wheels at the front which are helpful when you need to move it), you'll need to fit the bike to your geometry.
Anyone who's had a professional bike fit will be a step ahead of the game here, but Wattbike's website will take you through what you need to do if you haven't. The saddle and handlebar height and forward/backward position are fully adjustable, as is the tilt of the saddle, meaning that the vast majority of riders will be able to replicate their road bike position.
However, it's not possible to adjust the crank length at all, so you're stuck with 170mm - which for most people won't be a major issue, but it won't please everyone (as typical setups are usually 172.5mm or 175mm - both of which you can match on the Tacx Neo Bike Smart, for example).
As we've already mentioned, the Wattbike Atom comes complete with aerobars that double as a tablet holder. They're fairly rudimentary, but they provide a snug fit for your tablet and there's no worry that it's going to slide out mid ride.
Rather frustratingly, there is no USB port at the front of the bike to be able to plug your screen into though, which is an annoying oversight on Wattbike's part and means you end up trailing an extension socket to the front of the bike when you need a power boost.
On the frame there are two water bottle cages, which is practical given how hot riding indoors can get.
Under the hood
- Resistance: electromagnetic
- Gears: 22
The mechanics of the Wattbike Atom are where the major upgrades over the previous version have happened. In particular the electromagnetic drivetrain that allows for super-quick gear changes and smoother variations in resistance to simulate climbing/descending or interval training.
Linked to this are the electronic gear shifters that you press to simulate changing gear by changing the resistance to the motor. The gear shifters are battery operated by a coin cell, which of course means you'll have to change these periodically, but more irritatingly it means they don't offer any vibrating feedback when you change gear - which we felt would have improved the overall experience.
Coupled to this, there is no way of telling which gear you're in when you're on the bike - except in compatible apps, of which there are few - and an LED display of this would be useful.
All in all, it feels as though there have been some compromises made with the gear system, perhaps as a consequence of trying to achieve the relatively low price point of the Next Generation Atom. Go up the ranks to the priciest-of-the-lot Wahoo Kickr Bike and you get a much more true-to-life (well, Shimano) gear shifter setup.
On the (virtual) road
- Maximum power: 2500W
- Power accuracy: +/-1%
Our time on the Atom started well. Wattbike provided us an iPad with Zwift, Sufferfest and the Wattbike app all preinstalled and ready to go - and we found our first ride on Zwift, a gentle noodle around Watopia, to be as smooth as we would hope. The Bluetooth setup worked flawlessly.
The resistance changes as we hit the slopes felt good, gear changes were near instantaneous, and there was a useful gear indicator shown in the top corner of the Zwift screen. Similarly, we found Wattbike's own app to be seamless, providing a range of interesting and helpful data on pedalling dynamics, as well as a range of interval training workouts.
The power data was accurate and consistent when we compared it to our Garmin Vector 3 pedals, as was the cadence.
But the Atom isn't a bike for gently cruising around the great indoors on, it's a thoroughbred racing machine, so we decided to put it through its paces in a Zwift race. As you might expect, race conditions expose the differences between the Atom and the turbo trainer/bike setup that we're used to using.
The first thing we noticed was that finding the correct gear was not as intuitive or easy as we would have liked, particularly in situations where you might want to drop a few gears in quick succession. That lack of feedback from the button press gear changers is noticeable.
There is an option to change from the standard 22 gear set up to 11 gears, but rather than recreating a well mapped out 1x11 set up, the Atom just gives you every other gear from the 22 gear set up. This is disappointing, as is the fact that you can't customise the gears through Wattbike's app to create your own ratios - we would like to see Wattbike make customisation an option through firmware update.
The other thing that became more obvious as we pushed the bike hard was that it's rock-solid stability was, well, rather too rock solid in some ways. The bike was literally rooted to the spot and, try as we might, it didn't offer even the slightest feedback during all out sprints. On the one hand this is reassuring - we don't want to be wobbling or worrying about stability during a race - but on the other, many riders want a little side-to-side movement to give a more realistic ride feel, to relieve fatigue, and to avoid a numb rear!
To some extent this is about personal preference, but we found that this rigidity made the Wattbike Atom better suited for jumping on and doing a 30 minute or hour-long interval session, rather than anything longer. A bit like a spin bike session, really.
Furthermore, we found that the Wattbike wasn't quite as quiet as we had expected. Compared to the whisper quiet high-end turbo trainers we've tested, the Atom is definitely a little more noisy, giving a similar level of hum as a washing machine on a mid-speed spin.
Another niggle that that we found with the Atom - and this must be a huge frustration for Wattbike - is its integration with third-party apps. When we linked the bike up to our own Zwift account on our laptop, rather than using Wattbike's pre-loaded iPad version, the Bluetooth kept dropping out, meaning we'd repeatedly lose power for 20-30 seconds every few minutes. Then something went very wrong and the bike wouldn't connect properly to anything on the laptop or the iPad, which was only solved when we reinstalled the Wattbike app on a third device.
When speaking to the people at Wattbike about this they explained that resolving these problems is a priority, but they are also reliant on the app developers to work with them to do this. So it should happen, but it's a bit of a waiting game.
From then on we stuck to using the iPad, but still some minor issues remained. Using both the Trainer Road and Sufferfest apps, we found that at the beginning of each interval the Atom would "surge" - demanding more watts from us for a couple of seconds, then drop below the target, before it started to stabilise. This same effect happened when riding in Road Grand Tours, with the start of every incline feeling tougher than it should, which, combined with the slightly difficult-to-master gear shifting, could be frustrating.
At first glance the idea of paying the price of a mid-level road bike for one that goes nowhere might seem a little indulgent, but the market for this technology is growing, and Wattbike has put out a really solid offering at a price point quite a bit below the competition.
This means there are a few compromises - but nothing that would stop us seriously considering the Atom from a hardware point of view. There are some software integration issues with third-party apps, though, which we've found frustrating.
Overall, the smart bike market is continuing to grow and evolve. Some people may think that a smart turbo trainer is still the better option for indoor training at the moment, whereas others will see the benefits of a dedicated training bike like this one.
Wattbike has created a good offering in the Atom and it's priced a fair bit less than the key competition, which certainly makes it a contender if you want to take this next step in your indoor training.
Tacx Neo Bike Smart
The Tacx Neo Bike Smart is an obvious rival to the Wattbike Atom. It's more expensive, and you'll encounter similar shifting and rigidity issues with it. But third-party software integration is no problem at all, which makes it a more stable offering.