(Pocket-lint) - Cycling outdoors is great, right? But not so much when it's pouring with rain. Or freezing cold. Or the wind's hurtling at 30mph. Perhaps all of those at once, just to make it completely unfeasible to be pedalling in the real world (unless you're completely bonkers anyway).
So what's the solution? Serious cycling enthusiasts will consider a setup like this, the Tacx Neo Bike Smart Trainer, a dedicated indoor bike that's an ideal standalone or Zwift controller to help get those miles in without the perils of the outdoors.
Not only that, in these tumultuous times where gym access and training has been somewhat taxing, the Tacx Neo Bike offers a real method to measure and enhance your power training in ways that are otherwise tricky to accomplish on the road.
So even when the weather does perk up, is having a dedicated trainer such as the Tacx Neo Bike on hand to help enhance your abilities worth its pricey outlay?
What is the Tacx Neo Bike?
- Dedicated indoor trainer
- Zwift and other virtual platforms compatible
- Compatible with Tacx training / Garmin Connect integrated
- Towel, sweat-catch, construction tools and water bottle included
Tacx makes a bunch of indoor turbo trainers, such as the superb Neo 2T, which offer a great way to mount your existing bike frame onto a training wheel to measure power, cadence, speed, and integrate with a virtual platform such as Zwift. The bike geometry is spot-on because, well, it's obviously that of your existing bike.
The Tacx Neo Bike, however, flips that concept on its head. It's a dedicated trainer, so you don't need to pin your existing bike frame or anything else onto it - bar buying some pedals, as they're not included - because it's rather like a standalone spin bike.
The seat and handlebars are completely adjustable to adapt to your geometry - which has the benefit of meaning multiple riders can (fairly) easily utilise the one bike setup. It's this point that, for us, would make its considerable cost more acceptable than the prospect of adding/removing multiple bike frames to/from a different kind of smart trainer.
How easy is it to setup the Tacx Neo Bike?
- Dimensions: 1.39 [L] x 0.75 [W] x 1.17m [H] (4'7" x 2'6" x 3'10") / Weight: 50kgs (110lbs)
- Two person setup recommended, Allen & Hex keys included
- 1x mains power socket required
- Crank length: 170/172.5/175mm
- Pedals not included
You do need to build it, though, which is a bit of a slog without the help of a friend - as the combined components weigh 50kg total. Being rather heavyweight, however, ensures the Neo Bike Smart is absolutely solid. There's no flex, no risk of this thing ever toppling over even under considerable pressure once it's all bolted together.
You will of course need the floor space to accommodate it though. Which, realistically, will require a 1.5-metre squared area at the very minimum to have enough room to get on/off the bike, be able to adjust the integrated fan positions, and allow for suitable airflow. It's not as big as some dedicated training bikes that we've seen, such as those with physical incline/decline adjustment.
Setting up the Neo Bike's geometry may take a little fiddling around with, but as everything is marked on a scale so you can remember your specific setup position. Lock-handles can be added for quick release and adjustment (including pull-down handle position adjustment to avoid rotations clashing with the bike frame).
The only thing that's trickier to adjust is bar rotation - we needed this, as the default felt too 'downward' given the position of the gear controls (more on those later) - which requires releasing a panel with hex screws, then loosening four very stiff bolts (which you'll need a separate bike tool for, as they're a different gauge to the provided Allen key sizes included in the box). We've never been able to get those hex screws back into position either, it's just too fiddly.
Adding pedals offers three crank length fittings: 175mm, 172.5mm, and 170mm. These are the typical lengths you'll find on your real bike, although unlike Wahoo's Kickr Bike, Tacx doesn't provide shorter measures (168.5mm and 165mm). You won't need power pedals, of course, as the trainer itself measures power and cadence.
How does Tacx Neo Bike compare to other indoor trainers?
- Virtual chain-ring/cassette: up to 3 sprockets front / 12 rear (with adjustable teeth count)
- Max incline/decline: +/-25%, includes descent simulation (for virtual trainers)
- Output: speed (mph/kmph), power (W), cadence
- Built-in power/speed/HR-adjusted cooling fans
- Integrated information display
- No calibration required
- Max power: 2200W
Integrated into the Neo Bike is a display screen, which when using the trainer standalone will provide various measures, showing your power output, cadence, speed, and gear selection.
The gearing can be setup through the Tacx app, so you can adapt the chain-ring and cassette as suits. Up to three front sprockets are supported, with the teeth per sprocket adjustable between 22 and 53; while the rear cassette supports up to 12 sprockets, teeth per sprocket adjustable between 10 and 40.
That sounds very detailed, but there's some absences. Mainly that Tacx still doesn't have true emulation for SRAM eTap or Shimano Di2 gearing - whereas Wahoo does on its Kickr Bike - which leaves things feeling a little 'off' here. There is full customisation following a firmware update, though, including 10 teeth (it was 11 at launch - which is what the Tacx/Garmin website still incorrectly says at the time of writing).
The way these gears display on the Neo Bike's display is great, though, giving an easy-to-understand visual glance, accompanied by the relevant digits. However, there's currently no way to get these to visually communicate in a virtual platform such as Zwift.
When you are connected to Zwift - which is super easy via Bluetooth, where adding the Tacx as a Smart Controller happens in double-quick time - the Neo Bike's screen limits its display to gear selection only. All the power/cadence/speed visualisations are handed over to the virtual platform instead.
The other standout aspect of the Neo Bike is that it comes with adjustable cooling fans. You don't have to add these onto the build, it's your choice, but we would suggest you do - as you can switch them off via the app anyway.
However, these fans are rather plasticky looking and their adjustment should be integrated in a much slicker way. They adapt based on speed/heart-rate/power - again, select that from within the app - but we would like a way to override this at the click of a button, delivering necessary cooling as and when desired instead. We can see the potential for the next-gen Neo Bike to really up the ante here.
Does the Tacx Neo Bike feel like riding a real bike?
- Left/right gear up/down controls (resistance adjustment)
- Left/right incline/decline adjustment controls
- Brake triggers (resistance adjustment)
Here's where the Neo Bike Smart differs quite considerably to other indoor trainers. The immediate negative is that it's rigid - there's zero motion left/right like you'll achieve when pushing power through a real bike on the road. Even turbo trainers, such as Tacx's 2T Neo, allow for some flexibility. As such, the way you'll learn to transmit power through the Neo Bike is different - it's more 'vertical', much more like a spin bike.
There's also the question of saddle soreness, which is a possibility with any kind of cycling, outside or indoors, but likely more pronounced here given the lack of flex. The Neo Bike's included saddle is comfortable, though.
In terms of power there's a maximum of 2200W, which is an absurdly high measure - 10 per cent greater than even the 2T Neo turbo trainer - and gives stacks of flexibility in ride style, permitting quick adjustments and sudden power sprints (so long as you're in the right gear anyway).
Gear selection is super-quick for the simple fact you're not moving through an actual groupset here, it's all based on magnetic resistance - the wheel resisting your power input as driven from crank by a belt. That means these adjustments can be fast, but they don't feel like real gear shifts do in the real world.
It's less the feeling of these shifts than it is the implementation of the Neo Bike's gear controls. They really are controls, more in a videogame controller-like fashion than an actual shifter style - the latter being what Wahoo opts for in its Kickr Bike, in a much more Shimano-like arrangement.
As the Tacx is for cycling enthusiasts it's this one aspect that feels the most removed from what those customers would likely want. The Neo Bike's gear controls are also far too close together on both sides - changes up/down both feature on the outer sections - resulting in awkward hand positioning. Of course you'll get used to them, as we have, but next time Tacx really needs to emulate a genuine bike setup in this regard.
In addition to gear controls, there are separate buttons for incline/decline (only when using the trainer as a standalone) to adjust the resistance, and even virtual brakes - which we doubt you'll ever want or need to use (the feel of them is far too slight anyway).
As you can see from our points above, then, riding the Neo Bike Smart is actually not a lot like riding a real-world bike. The way you control gears, the way you'll push power through when standing, all of this is different. Not always worse, mind. But, as there's so much control, it's still a really good way of dedicating time to training - and we've thus far used this setup to increase our FTP through Zwift's training programmes, which we wouldn't have been able to achieve out on the road.
It's also worth pointing out the sheer quietness of the Neo Bike. It's not totally free from resonance, but we've found it makes less noise than our Neo 2T - because there's no clunking of chain between gears - and as everything is also integrated that also means there's no oil, grease or mess to worry about (just the inevitable sweat!).
So is the Tacx Neo Bike Smart Trainer worth its pricey outlay?
On the one hand, yes, absolutely. It's super quiet, can cater for considerable power dynamics and so is super for power training, there's no faffing about with attaching a bike frame (like you would on a turbo trainer), the integrated screen and gearing is smart, and the integrated fans are a nice touch for cooling you down.
On the other hand, there are some weak points. The gearing setup is more videogame controller-like than a true shifter setup, which while you'll get used to it just isn't the most comfortable on the hands. There's also no flex in the frame - like you'll get on a real bike or turbo trainer - so you'll need to accept this is a rigid, upright experience is just more like a spin bike. The former issue Wahoo handles better on its Kickr Bike - but that's pricier still.
Take all those points together, however, and it's a case of preference. For us, with two road bike users in the house, the Neo Bike is an ideal solution. It's always indoors, ready to go, easy to adjust geometry for both riders for those power-training moments - not just for Zwift riding when the weather outside isn't pleasant.
So while this Tacx might not feel as 'real' as a turbo trainer (or indeed the real thing out on the road), for sake of versatility it's a better fit - both physically, in terms of space-saving, and adaptably, for multiple users - that for some it'll be worth the money for year-round training. We're already better riders because of it.
Wahoo Kickr Bike
The main competitor is a little pricier, but has better gearing emulation and is a little quieter too. Plus we prefer the free-floating design aesthetic.