Reviewer: David Quigley
Buying a Turbotrainer is like buying a coffin, eventually you will need to use it but you hope that day never comes.
The number one problem with Turbotrainers is that they are boring. To all but the most dedicated of cyclists a turbo trainer is little more than a medieval torture device used to mutilate ones saddle area or cause death by boredom and despair. Hence most turbo sessions last 45mins to an hour. I would personally prefer to be waterboarded by those hospitable folks in Guantanamo bay than spend any time on a turbo.
In 2007, I decided that I would see if throwing money at the problem of indoor training would solve it by purchasing a TACX IMagic virtual reality trainer along with the optional steering rack and several Real Life Video courses. Shortly after I bought it, I rode it. Guess what… it was boring. It was consigned to the dungeon, wheeled out only to show people how cool it was from time to time, but never actually used the way it was supposed to be. It was 3 years before I went back to it during the big freeze at the end of 2010. This is what I found:
First things first. Like all Turbo’s this one eats regular tyres. Buy a turbo specific tyre, I recommend the Continental Hometrainer tyre, they last longer, they don’t make as much noise and they don’t splatter melted rubber all over your nice white walls. Best thing to do (and this is what I did) put an old bike on the trainer on a permenant basis, that way you don’t have the hassle of setting it all up as an excuse to watch Coronation Street instead.
Secondly, put it on a mat. It deadens the sound and catches all the grit and grime that comes off your tyres and chain, not to mention all that sweat you are working up.
Thirdly, buy a fan. Buy two if you can. Large standing fans pointed right at your head. If you are doing a long or hard session on the turbo you are going to sweat a lot. I used to try to deal with the problem of sweat stinging my eyes by wearing a headband like a certain 70′s tennis player and drink lots of water. These sessions often ended early and in nausea, even if it was an easy ride. A fan solved the problem with the added bonus that I didn’t have to go in and mop the floor afterwards.
Fourth, you do not get a heart rate strap with the machine even though the Imagic head unit has a built in heart rate sensor. The good news is that almost any HR strap will be detected, so if you already have a heart rate monitor it is possible that it will work. I had success with both a Polar Wearlink strap and a strap from a €15 Lidl heartrate monitor. Note that I did experience some erratic heart rate readings but this turned out to be interference from the PC speakers (which had a very high resting HR it seems) !
Next on to the machine itself. It is a fairly conventional looking Turbo at first glance (optional steering rack notwithstanding) and is quite easy to set up. Once you have mounted the bike you need to install the cadence magnet on your crank arm (it goes on with an elastic band) and mount the controls on your handlebars (again with an elastic band).
It’s worth pointing out at this stage that you need a reasonably specced computer or laptop to run the Imagic Fortius Software (I am using the older Version 2 rather than the newer Version 3 which apparently can use GPS files from various devices to simulate courses and gradients as well as having better online racing – subscription based – and being somewhat cooler looking). Pay close attention to the specs however, especially of the graphics card – most modern machines (one or two years old) should handle the software with relative ease though. Connection to the PC is simple and achieved via one USB cable. Software setup is also straightforward.
Into the functions, there are 3 main pieces to the Fortius Software (I will disregard the online racing for the purposes of this review as I don’t use it and am unwilling to pay for it).
This is your meat and potatoes. This is the Imagic pretending to be a normal Turbo. In this mode you can define programs and set gradients (much as you would on an exercise bike or treadmill in a gym). The gradients can be set via the control unit that you stick on your handlebars, in fact pretty much all of the functionality and navigation is accessible without getting out of the saddle. Catalyst mode will display the usual variables like Speed, Distance, Time, Heartrate, Cadence and Power. Power is measured via resistance calculated at the electronic motorbrake which provides resistance for the unit (compared to magnetic resistance for most Turbo’s) and it appears to be reasonably accurate if somewhat on the low side. Nonetheless, regardless of how correct the power reading is in absolute terms, it is consistent against itself so you can accurately assess changes in your power output and progress or in my case, lack thereof over time.
This function is basically a computer game. A very painful computer game at that. Graphics are dated but functional (comparable to the Playstation 1 era of consoles perhaps). This is the only piece of the Fortius software that allows you to use the steering rack. The software includes several courses both onroad and offroad and even a velodrome which allows you to ride through a virtual terrain and race against other riders online or more commonly, against computer based riders. The feel is quite impressive and realistic, if the gradient rises to 5% it feels like 5%. Headwinds can make it tougher to pedal and sitting in another riders slipstream makes it easier to pedal. All told, it really is quite realistic and you genuinely do get a kick when you beat some of the computer controlled riders. The steering however is useless. Completely useless. Save yourself €150, don’t buy the steering rack. Steering is over sensitive to the point where it is unintentionally funny. A slight twitch of your bars caused your rider to pull a complete 180 degree turn in the middle of the road and ride into a tree causing you to lose the race. It takes you out of the moment and kills the realism. Athough I will caveat that by saying that there is a newer version with a different steering mechanism available now which is supposed to be better.
Real Life Video (RLV)
This one is the star of the show. The bottom line here is that you are riding whilst looking at a video of a course through the eyes of a cyclist. All of your data is available onscreen and when you hit a hill, it gets harder to pedal, when you go down a hill it gets easier (although you have to keep pedalling – the more expensive TACX Fortius trainer has a motor which actually spins your wheel down a hill thus allowing you to freewheel, whilst the Imagic demands that you pedal down the hill – which is better for training if you ask me). The video adjusts itself to your speed, so if you are ploughing along at 50kph the scenery flies past. If you are going at 10kph it goes slowly – in fact it gets quite jittery like a powerpoint presentation or a series of still images (which at that stage it effectively is). The overall effect however is very impressive and when I demo the machine to people, this is the piece that blows them away. The Imagic simulates gradients up to about 8%, after that it does some tricks with your speed calculations to slow you down, nonetheless it is quite accurate - my actual time up a couple of Alpes in real life being within about 10% of what I would do on the Imagic.
Lots of courses are available most of which are about 100km in length. You can specify segments of the courses to do, or do the whole course. Each course comes on a DVD often filmed on the day or the day before a major race and they are quite varied, my collection would include for example: Alpine Classic (Alpe D’Huez), Mt Ventoux Challenge, Paris Roubaix, Milan San Remo, Training with Rabobank etc… The training with Rabobank DVD is slightly different in that it is an “ergovideo” i.e. you match your effort to theirs. It’s like having your own personal fitness instructor screaming in your ear.
Overall, the RLV’s are the magic piece of the Imagic although the courses are pricey for it at around €30 a piece (anyone wants a loan of any, let me know).
Finally, there is an analyser which is basically your training diary. It stores details of all of your training sessions regardless of whether they are Catalyst, Virtual Reality or Real Life Video. You can graph your details and for example, if you have done the same 50k course a few times you can superimpose all the graphs on top of each other to see the differences between them.
Sounds great doesn’t it ? Still boring, but this winter I figured out how to fix that problem. In fact at one stage I was able to do a 2hr 45 min session on the Milan San Remo course without having an armed man hold my family hostage to force me to do so . The solution in the end was simple, I connected a flat screen TV and a computer screen to the PC. On the TV screen I displayed the real life video, whilst on the computer screen, I played either recordings of cycle races or more often than not, Hollywood movies. I would pick a movie that was the same length roughly as the course I wanted to do and viola, the time would fly. Well, fly is an exaggeration, but it was certainly easier to distract yourself and stay on the turbo.
Here is a picture of my setup (with the top screen showing the road through Bourg D’Oisans on the way to Alpe D’Huez as part of the “Alpine Classic 2007 RLV” and the lower screen showing the movie “Chasing Legends”). The answer to the question you might be asking right now is yes. Yes I did get a red keyboard to match the colour of my bikes frame. I have a sickness you see.
Overall, I would heartily recommend the TACX Imagic if you are serious about your training on those snowy, icy, stormy winter evenings and weekends that we seem to be getting these days. It’s not cheap costing between 400 and 550 for the base unit itself and requiring a semi decent computer to run the software on, but like all exercise equipment if you use it, it will be the best money you ever spend.