When you think of home trainers, the words dull, mind-numbing and boring might spring to mind, well for me it does and I’ve battled through many a session finding it tough to make even an hour on one, but that’s all changed now.
I bought the Tacx Vortex Smart Trainer after scouring the many options in my price range, budget and bang for buck was primarily the decision maker also I knew it was going to be a wheel-on type trainer as direct drive was going to be more than I was wanting to spend, mostly because I wasn’t sure if I was going to get into the whole Zwift, training online thing.
So long story short, a full winter has gone by and I’d say the Vortex has been one of the best bike-related purchases I’ve ever made, the Vortex has just clicked over 1000kms as well.
Being time-crunched, you can slot in workouts or punchy sessions when you can and you can make some serious gains or just keep the winter coat at bay.
Smart trainer vs Regular Trainer?
The Tacx vortex can operate without power just like a standard trainer but the resistance will stay unchanged. With a smart trainer, your computer can change and simulate resistance based on apps or programs automatically without you needing to do anything, a regular trainer usually has a manual resistance control such as a lever to control its resistance.
Smart trainers open up a whole new world of fun and training focus that can be a real game changer for people with limited time, busy schedules, and shocking winter weather.
Also, even if your not a cyclist, it can be a good source of motivation and a fun way to add some exercise into your week by working towards goals and achievements.
Tacx Vortex Smart Overview and Specs
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
- A good value trainer that won’t blow the bank
- A computer controlled interactive smart trainer for use with Zwift, TrainerRoad, Tacx software and other apps
- Can be used without power or connectivity to computer
- The fold-down design retains the usability and portability of regular trainers
- Max simulated slope of 7%
- Bluetooth connectivity built-in or ANT+ with computer dongle (purchased separately)
- Simple setup and adjustment fitting a wide range of bikes (also thru-axle adaptor available separately)
- Calibration smartphone app to accurately set the trainer’s accuracy and baseline power readings
- 1.6 kg flywheel
- 9.08 weight
- Accuracy <10%
Unboxing and Setup
The total time from opening the box to riding on Zwift was about an hour and a half. There was a software update that needs to be done before you use the trainer and I think that took about 30 -45mins, so I would recommend setting aside some spare time to get it up and running.
The Vortex arrived in a relatively small box and I thought there was going to be some major assembly happening, but all you really have to do is screw the resistance unit to the frame (placement is dictated by your bikes wheel size) update the unit and calibrate.
The Vortex folds out and the wheel block is included in the box, also handy because it clips into the wheel clamps and acts as a carry handle. It works like it should and is nice and large with a couple of options for different sized tires.
Also included in the box is a dedicated rear quick release, use this because it’s a nice and heavy steel one and gives a good connection to the trainer’s adjustable mounts and if your bike has thru-axles there are separate adaptors available as they are not included in the box
The calibration of the Vortex
Unlike a direct drive trainer, you need to calibrate your trainer to your bike, this is done by turning the blue tension dial to set the rear wheel pressure on the roller.
This is a critical step when you set up your Vortex for the first time it”s something I recommend you do at least once a week, or at least just checking the calibration quickly with the app.
How to perform the Tacx Vortex Calibration:
1. Download the Tacx Utility App for your trainer, I’m using Android but the IOS version is much the same.
2. Activate Bluetooth on your phone then connect to your trainer in the app
3. Under the menu are at the top left where the three horizontal line is, click calibration
3. Follow the instructions on screen, you pedal up to 30 km/h then coast to a standstill
4. If you fall within the two vertical bars you are good to go, if not re-adjust the tension depending on your reading and repeat the process.
Tip – I like to set the tension around halfway between the midpoint and the maximum for better grip on the tire for sprinting while not overworking the roller, also if you’re out of the adjustment areas you may get an error message. Also, set your tire pressure between 100 and 120 psi, and warm up your tire first by riding for a short while. See the excellent article on Zwift Insider regarding tire setup.
After my initial calibration was done I quickly checked it at the end of every second or third ride with the app, when the tire was warm, the trainer didn’t move or show any discrepancy in reading. This is important if you’re sticking to a structured training plan, you need the repeatability and consistency of your power values in your program to match the consistency of your trainer otherwise your workouts may be too hard or too easy.
Unfortunately I don’t have a standalone power meter so I don’t have anything to compare the power accuracy to but Tacx state an accuracy of <10%, and reading other peoples experiences with the Vortex, it may read slightly on the high side but the power tracking was consistent with other power meters and for the cost of the trainer I wouldn’t grumble about it.
I was more concerned with power consistency and repeatability and so far its been excellent.
With the flywheel being 1.6 kg, the general feel and realism are actually not too bad, of course, the trainers nowhere near as grunty compared to the other higher priced Tacx offerings but it gives a good in-game experience for Zwift and TrainerRoad, which is what I have been using it with.
Out of the saddle efforts and hard sprints are good, but you just have to focus a bit more on smoothness so the trainer doesn’t move around too much. With punchy, small climbs you can muscle it up in a bigger gear to amplify the effort and the response of the resistance unit to gradient change and in-game features works really well.
The 950 watt (at 40 km/h) resistance top out can be achieved but since it’s not as stable as the heavier, direct drive trainers stability becomes an issue when you’re hitting these figures, also the bigger wattages are better tackled in a heavier gear to help combat this.
The 7% gradient simulation is not as high as other trainers and how Zwift gets around this is by slowing your avatar once the gradient goes above this, this forces you to pedal at a higher cadence, and power still making you hurt but in a different way. Some of the roads can be up around 20% so you are really driving it at a high cadence and power to give rider in-game speed.
Overall I have been really happy with what it feels like, especially since the trainer is lightweight and more of a value model.
The two large legs do a good job keeping the Vortex stable considering its lightweight in trainer terms. The white legs are steel and the grey back legs are also steel and they have a couple of large rubber pads to grip the ground.
The adjustable wheel clamp works well but its a bit fiddly to set up and you have to lock the blue plastic retainer quite tight to stop it vibrating loose.
One thing that was an issue is uneven ground, this would go for most trainers if your floor is uneven the trainer can rock around. The area where I set it up is in an older garage with a pretty uneven floor, I had jack up one of the legs to keep the unit stable. This is no fault of the trainer, but just something to be aware of when you are deciding on a space to set it up.
Is it noisy?
The short answer is yes, but not too bad. The roller is a two-layer unit with an elastomer core and a metal sleeve, also its 30mm in diameter (the larger they are the quieter they are)
It’s not as quiet as the direct drives, but using it just cruising along it’s unobtrusive but gets noisier as the watts go up. I have found either putting carpet or rubber underneath the legs really helps reduce noise further.
Connectivity and accessories
The Vortex talks to your smartphone and computer via Bluetooth, although my preferred option is through the use of an ANT+ dongle.
If you intend to pair multiple devices with Zwift or other apps, Bluetooth will only carry the trainer signal and not allow another signal, say from a heart rate monitor. By plugging in an ANT+ dongle to your pc, the trainer will connect with it, also all other devices will automatically hook up to the dongle, easy.
Tacx does make a branded ANT+ unit but I bought a low-cost, generic dongle and it’s been great. The consistency of signal and reliability of connections on startup has been faultless so far.
Final thoughts and Bottom Line
Entering the smart trainer world has been an interesting experience, it’s changed the way I view winter cycling and I have used TrainerRoads targeted programs for prepping for a race with very good results.
For value vs performance, the Vortex is hard to beat. Also if you’re curious about the whole smart trainer thing and not sure how much you think you would use one, its a one of the better lower cost options.
Do you have experience with smart trainers or are you looking to upgrade soon? share your thoughts below, it would be great to hear from you.