Bkool Pro Turbo Trainer and Simulator

9
£488.00

VERDICT:

9
10
Excellent smart turbo for sensible money, with full-featured simulation package to keep you interested
Weight: 
11,600g
Contact: 

Bkool has updated its original smart trainer to bring this, the Smart Pro, to market. It's a well-made unit with resistance controlled from the software on your laptop or tablet, matching that of the virtual climb you are tackling. There are several significant improvements from the original 1.0 version that Liam reviewed in 2014, making this a really solid option for a pretty reasonable price.

This newer offering from the Spanish outfit effectively breaks down into a software and a hardware component. You don't need to use both, so you could use this turbo with other third party online training platforms such as Zwift, and equally you could use the BKool software with a competitor turbo trainer (with a controllable resistance unit or without). Here I'm focusing on the hardware, but also talking a bit about the simulator software that goes with it.

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Some turbo manufacturers have taken to flagrantly misusing the "smart" designation, appending it to machines that merely come with an app for your mobile phone, for example. I'd consider that the term applies to a turbo whose resistance can be computer controlled, as opposed to manually adjusted (Tacx Satori Smart) or progressive (Kinetic Road Machine Smart). 

The current BKool range includes a lower cost unit with progressive resistance (the £164 Bkool One) and this Smart Pro, which allows control of resistance from a variety of software platforms not just the Bkool simulator package, thanks to ANT+ FE-C compatibility. That also lets you control it from a Garmin Edge 520 or 1000.

Whether you need a smart trainer largely depends on how you use the turbo. For the hardcore indoor masochist who uses it purely as the most efficient means of getting the required structure to their power training, it may not be essential. If you're someone who needs distracting or entertaining while riding indoors, then Bkool's excellent library of video climbs might be just the ticket, and the varying resistance does make it feel a bit more like a real ride.

Hardware

The basics of the BKool Pro are carried over from the earlier 1.0 model, which Liam found offered a good ride feel, replicating the sensation of actual riding remarkably well.

As with the 1.0, the Smart Pro is a chunky steel-framed device which feels pretty bombproof.

It's great to see that several of issues which were flagged up with the 1.0 have been addressed here. The stability is improved thanks to the use of extending legs, which telescope out to the side to offer a wider footprint (810mm).

If you do get out the saddle for some sprinting practice, it is now more stable – though still no match for something like the Kurt Kinetic Rock and Roll, which is several centimetres wider still, with a pivot to allow it to swing sideways. On the Bkool, you can get out of the saddle without feeling like you're about to topple over, but I felt more comfortable riding seated.

The original Bkool was notable for the amount of black rubber dust it harvested from your rear wheel. Oddly, it didn't seem to eat tyres significantly faster than any other turbo, but like a two-year-old, it made a real mess as it did it. With this Pro model, BKool has switched the smooth black roller for a lightly knurled chrome steel finish, and despite looking more abrasive, the additional grip it offers dramatically reduces the amount of fine debris generated.

Unlike a lot of turbos, the bike's rear wheel isn't clamped against the roller. The rear axle is clamped in a swingarm and your weight pushes it down against the roller. Liam outlined some of the consequences of this on the unit's ability to estimate power in his review of the 1.0. Unlike some turbos, there is no calibration procedure, so the power figures are best viewed as an estimation rather than a measurement.

Something I found pretty annoying on the original version was that when you opened the clamp lever to release your bike, the heavy swingarm would just crash down clumsily, sometimes with the clamp actually landing on the casing of the resistance unit. Things are much better on the Pro: the swingarm is totally redesigned, with its lower end now resting on the ground, generating enough friction on a suitable mat that it just gently rotates downward when uncoupled from the bike's rear axle.

It'll cope with wheel diameters from 20 to 29 inches, and I found it pretty straightforward to fit the bike. It copes with standard road dropout spacing or disc-brake bikes.

There are several other worthwhile mechanical improvements over the first version. The resistance unit is more easily separated from the main frame, with a couple of little sliders used to retain it where previously the two were bolted together. This makes it easier to move around, and also means that the whole thing doesn't require too much space to store when not in use. The flywheel is now fully enclosed inside the resistance unit rather than exposed to the outside. BKool has redesigned the lock-nut on the axle retention system, making it much easier to adjust.

In use

In use, I found the Bkool smooth and pretty realistic. The resistance changes take a second or two so you'll see the gradient change on screen before you feel it underneath you, but that's not really a big deal. Bkool quotes an impressive sounding maximum resistance of 1200W, which is more than most of us mere mortals can achieve, but it doesn't specify a speed/power curve and I suspect that this power isn't available right across the speed range.

> Check out our guide to the best indoor trainers here

As an example, I noticed that when riding up something steep in a low gear with a power of about 300W, there was very little tangible difference when the slope changed from 10% to 15%, suggesting that at low speeds the maximum resistive power is rather less than the quoted maximum.

At lower speeds it's a quiet device. Bkool claims 75dB at 30kph, although this will depend on whether it's on a solid or suspended floor. Once you reach higher speeds, if you've chosen a route with flat or downhill sections, it gets noisier but not more than most other turbos apart from direct drive units.

Software

The simulator software will run on a PC, Mac or a tablet (Android or iOS). It's a slightly odd setup where you need to use both an internet browser and the downloaded simulator software in tandem. The website is used for creating or "scheduling" rides that you want to do, and once you've done that you can fire up the software and do your workout. If you skip the website bit then you can still pick a workout from a selection of 20 other rides that other users have scheduled, play a velodrome game or re-ride something you'd previously recorded for real on Strava (you can pair the two things up).

Generally, I went on to the website where (with a paid subscription) you've got the full selection of first-person video rides to choose from. For the uninitiated, these are videos of roads shot from the perspective of a rider (or, more likely, a camera mounted on a car) which you can ride. The harder you pedal, the faster the footage plays, and if you have a smart turbo like this one, the resistance will vary with the gradient of the hill.

It's pretty neat, giving an immersive experience that I personally found more diverting than the computer-games feel of Zwift, for example. Obviously it looks best if you've got a nice big telly set up in front of you, and a decent internet connection is also needed.

In Zwift, a lot of the appeal is the competition against other athletes, and there is some of that available here. If another user jumps on your ride once you've scheduled it then you can try to beat them, but for obvious reasons they don't appear on the road in front of you like they would on Zwift – it is just a video recording, after all. Your progress, and that of your rivals, is shown via indicators that travel across the bottom of the screen in a video session, or with other 3D cyclists in a 3D session.

In addition to other users, you can also compete with "bots" and "ghosts", respectively computer-generated opponents with varying characteristics, and other real riders who've done that route in the past.

To be honest, I wasn't that bothered about on-screen competition – for me, the appeal of riding up a hill is in measuring yourself against the hill itself.

There's a good selection of video rides including many famous Alpine climbs and quite a number of bits of Vuelta stages. Finding a specific one isn't always easy – there's a keyword search, which works if you get the exact words used in the ride name, and there's also a "find on map" browser which I found ran incredibly slowly and was generally pretty frustrating – it's a lot less slickly coded than Strava's segment finder, for example. I found I generally just scrolled through the rides until I found something that caught my fancy, rather than looking for something specific.

I had a trip out to the Alps with my wife while I was testing the Bkool, to ride some of the famous Alpine cols. She found it really helpful to ride video sessions of them a few times on the Bkool before doing them for real, both to become familiar with what lay ahead and also to convince herself she could actually do them.

Make your own

You can create your own video session if you've got something like a Garmin Virb, although I didn't try this. It's a nice feature if you want to train on something that isn't already in the library.

If you don't want to do that, you can create a session by importing gpx data – from a ride you've recorded on Strava, for example. This will give you an overhead view of the route while you're riding, akin to the terrain option on Google maps, or alternatively the software can generate a three-dimensional view of the route. Bkool claims it uses satellite data to produce realistic representations of the terrain and roads where your route goes, but browsing the list of 3D sessions created previously suggests a limited number of generic terrains simulated.

There are one or two interesting features of the 3D rendered routes. Firstly, the simulator will apply the current light and weather conditions from the location – so if you're doing a route in Switzerland when it's dark and rainy there, you'll see a dark and rainy simulation. It won't look that much like Switzerland, but it'll be dark and rainy. There are groups of people standing alongside the road at regular intervals, too. Supporters, I suppose, although when they loom out of the dark it looks more like the creepy dead people in Les Revenants. Like on Zwift, you can get a benefit from drafting another rider in the 3D routes, and you're also assisted or hindered by prevailing wind conditions.

Importing gpx files wasn't always straightforward – I sometimes needed to run them through the converter on www.gpsvisualizer.com to get Bkool to accept them. What is missing from the Bkool interface is the ability to trim just a bit of a ride; if you import a long ride, you can't just pick an interesting segment of it and ride that without using a third party tool to crop the gpx data. Nor can you skip forward in a session, so if the ride starts with a 50km flat section before things get interesting, that's what you've got to do.

Intervals

If you want to do intervals training, there are various ways you could do this. You can create a custom elevation profile in Bkool comprising sections of different gradient, or you could use the likes of Zwift (or even a compatible Garmin) to vary the resistance to suit your requirements.

Besides the video or overhead display, the software also shows your speed, estimated power and something that purports to be your cadence, but didn't seem to be. If you've got cadence and power sensors then you can hook these up and get the real data, which more serious users would undoubtedly do. There's a nice display of gradient, showing the current slope, what's coming up next and a little bar showing how long until the next gradient change.

You can use a basic version of the simulator software for free, with two-dimensional and map routes, but not 3D or video.

The package

If you buy the Pro trainer, it comes with a generous one-year trial period of the premium software. After that it's £8 per month or £78 if you pay for a whole year up front. As mentioned above, the software is compatible with a range of other turbos, with and without variable resistance. If you're on an annual subscription and don't use the software at all during a calendar month, this will be added to your paid period, so you're not penalised for not using it in the summer months (up to three months).

The Pro model is supplied with a front wheel block, compatible QR, and the ANT+ USB dongle. Unlike the original version, it doesn't include a heart rate monitor or cadence sensor. A mat is an extra £37 – I just used an old foam camping mat.

Bkool offers a try-before-you-buy deal on the trainer, where you can pay a measly £1 and they'll send it to you for a month before taking your payment.

In summary, I found that there was a lot to like about the Bkool setup. The turbo itself is well made and rides well. The software has its idiosyncrasies but there are some really nice features such as the video sessions, which are great for those who struggle to maintain an interest in riding indoors.

Verdict

Excellent smart turbo for sensible money, with full-featured simulation package to keep you interested

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road.cc test report

Make and model: Bkool Pro Turbo Trainer and Simulator

Size tested: n/a

Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?

High-end smart trainer

Magnetically controlled

Controlled by the simulator

The Bkool Smart Pro recreate the gradients from the simulator

Includes Bkool simulator

Compatible with ANT+ FE - C simulators

Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?

570 x 610 x 412 mm

810 x 610 x 412 mm (arms extended)

Weight 11.6 Kg

5-cm diameter roller

Traction adjustment. The wheel adjusts to the roller.

Maximum power: 1200W

Noise: 75dB at 30kph

Rate the product for quality of construction:
 
9/10

Solid without being as heavy as some. Some real useful improvements on the mechanical side since the original Bkool turbo.

Rate the product for performance:
 
8/10

Offers smooth and realistic ride feeling. Improved stability from the first version. Easy to fit and remove the bike.

Rate the product for durability:
 
9/10

Should last for ages. The first generation Bkool road.cc reviewed saw a really high mileage without any issues and I wouldn't expect any here.

Rate the product for weight (if applicable)
 
8/10

A reasonable weight – light enough for my wife to take it with her on the plane. Yes, I know. She's nuts.

Rate the product for value:
 
7/10

A decent price for a computer-controlled turbo.

Tell us how the product performed overall when used for its designed purpose

The trainer is a good 'un, with impressively smooth and progressive variation of resistance. It struggles to replicate really steep slopes at low speeds, presumably limited by its power curve, but I didn't really feel this was an issue. There is no real attempt at accurate power measurement, so you'd need to use a suitable power meter if you wanted this.

The simulator software is a great distraction to keep you motivated and interested if indoor cycling doesn't excite you – the video climbs are a nice feature – and can be used even if you don't have a Bkool turbo, you just need the premium subscription.

Tell us what you particularly liked about the product

The thought that had gone into improving the first-gen trainer. The video sessions of climbs I knew – and those I wanted to do for real – helped keep my interest. The ability to familiarise yourself with a big climb (and convince yourself you can do it) before going there for real. Cross compatibility with other turbos and other sim software.

Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product

The software interface can be a little clunky, particularly the need to schedule a session on the website before running it using the app – it would be much nicer to be able to do everything in one place. For some the lack of accurate power measurement would be an issue, although you can use it with a power meter.

Did you enjoy using the product? Yes

Would you consider buying the product? Yes

Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes

Use this box to explain your score

The hardware is a definite step forward from the first generation, and offers a really convincing ride feel. The video workouts are really visually appealing, and good enough to recce real climbs before you do them. Full compatibility with the likes of Zwift rounds out a pretty impressive package and at a decent price too.

Overall rating: 9/10

About the tester

Age: 37  Height: 188cm  Weight: 78kg

I usually ride: On-one Bish Bash Bosh  My best bike is: Rose X-Lite CRS

I've been riding for: Over 20 years  I ride: Most days  I would class myself as: Expert

I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, fixed/singlespeed, mountain biking

Jez spends his days making robots that drive cars but is happiest when on two wheels.  His roots are in mountain biking but he spends more time nowadays on the road, occasionally racing but more often just riding. 

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