Updated: Wattbike Atom

7
£1,599.00

VERDICT:

7
10
Well-built and well-connected smart trainer that's well set up for structured training
Weight: 
44,000g
Contact: 

This review was updated on 08/10/2018

Wattbike's Atom indoor trainer is very much a next-generation device, aimed at the online training community. It has a lot to recommend it in terms of its power accuracy, build quality and adjustability. The electronically-controlled resistance has been through a number of upgrade cycles in the firmware, and is now faster to respond making riding on Zwift more realistic than before, although it still wouldn't be my first choice for Zwifting. Where it really excels is in ERG mode on structured training plans such as TrainerRoad; for that sort of indoor work it's hard to beat, although clearly there's a cost for that, which is higher than it originally was.

  • Pros: Great build quality, accurate power measurement, easily adjustable, great in ERG mode
  • Cons: Virtual gear changes are sluggish, app support is a still a bit patchy, expensive

The Atom is quite a radical diversion from the company's previous bikes, and it's very much designed for the online training market epitomised by the likes of Zwift and TrainerRoad. It's a high quality device with some advantages over a bike-based trainer setup, and it'll work out as a good value investment if you're serious about your indoor training.

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There are some idiosyncrasies in the way it works, but overall it's definitely worth adding to your list if you're planning to spend a significant amount of time training indoors, especially if you're into more structured training, or if your household contains more than one athlete.

The indoor training market has moved on apace in the last few years. Where once you'd be on your rollers in front of the telly with an old Tour stage playing on the VCR (okay, that's a few years ago now), in the modern world you can get access to structured training, multiplayer environments and real-life video via your tablet or laptop. That's led to an explosion in the number of different smart trainers that are available to hook your bike up to. You can get a smart trainer – that will connect to a training app and vary the resistance at the roller according to what's happening on your app of choice – for less than £400, but the meat of the smart trainer market is in the £700-£1,200 range, with big players such as Elite, Wahoo and Tacx offering various options.

The functionality, available resistance and method of drive vary from trainer to trainer, but there's generally one constant: you need to add your bike. If the trainer uses a roller, then there's tyre wear to consider, and whether it's a roller or a direct drive unit, you'll be wearing your transmission. And sweating all over your bike.

The Atom is a self-contained machine, more in the manner of a static gym bike. It's designed to cope with getting sweaty, and everything that moves is kept out of the way inside the case. Because it's designed to fit all riders, it's very adjustable: the bar and seatpost can be moved up and down over a wide range, and there's plenty of fore-aft adjustment for the saddle and bar too. You should be able to set up the Atom to replicate your road bike easily enough, and of course the added bonus is that if there are two (or more) of you using the trainer in your family, it's more trivial to move the bits around than it is to take one bike off and replace it with another. All of the movable parts have graduated markings so it's easy to reset the bike to your exact preference.

It's a heavy unit, at 44kg, and it needs to be plugged into the mains, so it's not something you can easily pack away or move about. Really, you need to have dedicated space for the Atom in your home/garage/shed. The weight means it's very stable in use: the whole thing feels extremely solid, even when sprinting.

Because it's designed to be used with an iPad or tablet, it comes with aero extensions that end in an adjustable tablet holder. The device holder is very good and holds your iPad securely, but the position of the screen means that when you stand up on a climb it can be a bit difficult to see what's going on; you can remedy this by pointing the aero extensions down a bit if you're not actually using them as a hand position.

Power measurement: spot on

If you're spending £1,600 on a training device then you're going to want to know that it's doing a good job of measuring your power. The good news here is that I don't have any doubts at all that the Atom is giving accurate, repeatable numbers.

First comparative test:

To begin with, I picked Zwift on the iPad, using Bluetooth data from the Atom on Zwift versus Vector 2 pedals on Garmin. Both power traces track each other very accurately, and they're easily within the +/- 2% accuracy that Wattbike claims for the Atom. The only exception is a sprint section along the Mall (700-800W) where the Atom registered a higher peak power than the pedals. The difference was about 7% at that point.

Second comparative test

This was a one-hour FTP session on TrainerRoad, using ANT+ FE-C data from the Atom and comparing to Vector 2 pedal data collected on the Garmin. This time there was a discrepancy between the two power traces, with the pedal reading averaging a higher power across the whole hour by about 4%. In the end the TrainerRoad session gave a suggested FTP of 297W, while doing the same calculation from the Garmin data gave 311W, so about a 5% discrepancy.

Which of those two figures is more likely to be correct? Well, it's difficult to say, but the Atom would probably get my vote. Both are believable: my FTP has been a maximum of 320W and a minimum of 290W while I've been training with power, so they're both well within that range. Given that I haven't done much high-intensity work over the summer I was expecting the test to give me a figure of about 300W, so I'm more inclined to believe the Atom in this instance.

I didn't zero the pedals before this test; subsequent power plots comparing the Atom and the pedals – where I did zero the pedals each time – are much closer together. So my conclusion is that the pedals were reading a bit high.

Resistance: works better in some situations than others

The Atom has a controllable resistance unit that's capable of up to 2,000W of resistance. Unless you're planning to take on any world-class track sprinters in the near future, that should see you right.

The Atom has two mechanisms for varying the resistance. On the one hand it's a controllable smart trainer, so if you're riding on Zwift and you head up a mountain, or you try one of the Wattbike app's climbs, the resistance will increase as the gradient does. Similarly, if you're using the Atom in ERG mode in Wattbike's app or TrainerRoad, the app can increase or decrease the resistance as you work through your intervals.

In general that system works pretty well. Resistance changes are controlled by the firmware, and they have been improved in the time since this review was first published. Where the Wattbike Atom works best, I've found, is in a structured training  environment. I've been using TrainerRoad over the last few months on the Atom, in a bid to be fit enough to stay in the winter series crit races in Bath (it probably won't work, but I can hope...) and running through an hour session in ERG mode the Atom is excellent. Resistance changes are quick enough that even really short intervals of five or ten seconds are meaningful, and the connection is stable over either ANT+ or Bluetooth.

On the other hand, the Atom has virtual gears. There's a hood on each side of the bar, and on the underside there are two buttons which allow you to move the resistance up and down, so you can elect to spin up a climb or stand up and give it the beans, independent of what's going on with the gradient, as you would with the gears on your bike.

The up and down buttons work pretty well and they're easy to use but there's a lag between the press and the resistance change. That can be a problem. For example, if you're using Zwift and there's rolling terrain, you might shift up a couple of gears for a downhill but the shift might not finish until you've hit another uphill section, so you find yourself in the wrong gear.

The firmware updates over the testing period have certainly improved things, and the gear changes are punchier than they were, but they're still not the equivalent of dropping a couple of cogs on your cassette on a real bike on an indoor trainer, and I'm not sure they ever can be. The Wattbike app will tell you what virtual gear you're in, but you don't get that information in any other app so you're left guessing. 

This point was hammered home when I swapped out the Atom for the next smart trainer I was testing, a £349 Bkool Go. It's about as basic as smart trainers get, but being able to slam a few gears as soon as you feel the gradient change makes for a more realistic ride experience. The experience with the Atom on Zwift isn't bad, but doesn't feel as much like riding outdoors as other smart trainers. It's certainly not up to the standard of units like the Wahoo Kickr or the Cycleops Hammer.

 

Wattbike app: good, but some areas need work

The Wattbike app has some unique features that you won't find in third-party apps. One of the big selling points is the pedal smoothness graph: this is the 'sausage' that you may or may not be familiar with from the original Wattbike. Basically it's a radial plot of your power, and you can see from the shape of the plot where and when you're putting down the power. If you stand up and mash the pedals all the power will be concentrated in one phase of the stroke, whereas if you try to pedal more smoothly – adopting the 'kick and pull' method that TrainerRoad like to go on about – you'll see the shape of the plot change.

The original Wattbike gave you the graph and left it up to you to work out whether what you were doing was right or not. The app adds a smoothness indicator, a needle you have to try to keep in the green section as you pedal. The green section seems to correlate pretty well with the pedal action that TrainerRoad has been trying to drill into me for the last year.

Wattbike has also teamed up with VeloViewer to offer a bunch of classic climbs. Using VeloViewer's data in the app, you can test your mettle on Alpe d'Huez, Mont Ventoux and the like. This is a worthy addition, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Basically the app presents you with a two-dimensional representation of the gradients in the climb and you work your way from the bottom to the top. As accurate as this may be, it doesn't really give you any kind of feel for the climb. VeloViewer offers both mapping and 3D representations of every climb on its website (see Mont Ventoux as an example) and it's a shame none of this information has made it into the app.

Overall: already good for some types of training but will need to catch up in others

It's not the first time I've had a connected product arriving for testing feeling a little bit like I was part of the development cycle. The Wattbike Atom is still being updated pretty frequently at the moment, as are the apps that do (and will) support it.

Depending on what you want to do with the Atom, it may or may not be ready for you. If your indoor training is on TrainerRoad then it's definitely a recommended trainer. You get the stability of a gym bike and you're not wearing out your race bike or asking the frame to cope with sprint forces while it's effectively bolted to the floor. The resistance changes work effectively and repeatably. Now that TrainerRoad has moved over to using a ramp test to measure FTP – which you can complete in ERG mode – there really isn't anything not to like about the Atom.

At the moment, the Atom isn't quite hanging with the best when it comes to delivering an immersive and realistic ride experience in Zwift. The gear changes are still too sluggish and there's no communication of the current gear between the bike and the app. You could argue that the latter isn't Wattbike's fault but it's released it into production before making sure the app implementations are right, rather than the other way round. And there will be a limit to how quick the gear changes can be, which is likely to be a fair bit slower than a manual shift on your bike. Firmware updates have improved it, but there's a way to go.

> Buyer's Guide: 10 of the best smart trainers

Should you buy the Atom? If you're mostly looking for an structured training tool, and/or there's more than one of you likely to be riding the bike on a regular basis, it looks like an enticing proposition. The build quality is good, the numbers are accurate and the fact that it can be adjusted easily for more than one riding position is a big plus.

If you're more about mucking about in the Zwift multiverse then the jury's out for now, especially if you're in a situation where it's only you likely to be doing any training. The Atom is getting better with each firmware update, which is a good sign, but it's beyond me to tell you how much ground it's going to make up in terms of the experience over other training options out there. For now, I wouldn't recommend it over something like the Wahoo Kickr or Cycleops Hammer for Zwift. You have to add your own bike to those two, and they're not cheap to begin with, but it's a more realistic experience and the positives of having an all-in-one trainer won't currently outweigh the disadvantages of the Atom for many riders.

Since I originally wrote this review the Wattbike Atom has certainly improved. However, it's also got more expensive: it's £100 more than when originally tested. So overall, the score remains the same. It's difficult to give it a blanket score when it does some things so much better than others. It's excellent when paired with TrainerRoad, and it's decent enough on Zwift but still a fair distance behind what I'd consider to be the best trainers if Zwift is your thing.

Verdict

Well-built and well-connected smart trainer that's well set up for structured training

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road.cc test report

Make and model: Wattbike Atom

Size tested: One

Tell us what the product is for

Wattbike says:

Ultimate realism. Unrivalled connectivity.

Cutting-edge accuracy and analysis.

Wattbike Atom is the most realistic, intelligent and effective smart trainer on Earth.

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

From Wattbike:

Real Ride Feel technology replicates the resistance and sensation of riding on the road. Perfected over 10 years working alongside British Cycling, Olympic Cyclists and world-leading sports scientists, it's the most authentic ride feel in the world. So all the pain you put yourself through indoors translates directly to performance improvement where it really matters.

Atom is the smartest indoor bike on the planet. Whether you want to ride with friends on Zwift, download custom training plans from TrainingPeaks, upload your Garmin data or test your mettle with a Sufferfest challenge, Atom makes it simple and seamless.

Improving technique radically improves your pedal efficiency and power output. Our innovative analysis tools, Polar View and Pedalling Effectiveness Score, visualise how you apply force through each stroke so you can optimise your technique. Even the most experienced cyclists can make minor adjustments that can have a major impact on overall speed, endurance and performance.

Tackle bucket-list climbs without leaving your house. Using Strava GPS and simulations from VeloViewer, Wattbike Atom comes pre-loaded with epic climbs including Ventoux and Alpe d'Huez. In Climb Mode Atom's resistance changes automatically to map precisely to the gradient on your virtual ride, so taking on a legendary climb is exactly as tough as it should be.

Targeted, effective training requires precise, accurate data. Atom's power measurement is more accurate than any other smart trainer and the new Wattbike Hub makes it more visible and useful too. Thousands of data points from every session you ride are uploaded to your personal Wattbike Hub page - where you can evaluate your performance and track your cycling goals.

Rate the product for quality of construction:
 
9/10

Solid, well crafted.

Rate the product for performance:
 
6/10

Depending on what you're doing, it varies. But overall it's decent rather than stellar.

Rate the product for durability:
 
10/10

All the moving parts are enclosed, all the external parts are nicely made. Should last for a long time.

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

Heavier is better, right?

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

Easy to get your position dialled.

Rate the product for value:
 
7/10

£1,599 is less than a direct drive trainer and a bike, after all...

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

It varies: for some types of online training it's very good, and for others it's less good.

Tell us what you particularly liked about the product

Really well built, easily adjustable, very accurate power measurement.

Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product

Sluggish virtual gears, resistance problems with sprint efforts, both native and third party apps not quite there with functionality.

Did you enjoy using the product? Mostly, but the niggles can be annoying.

Would you consider buying the product? Not at the moment.

Would you recommend the product to a friend? Probably not over a £1k direct drive trainer.

Use this box to explain your overall score

It's a hard one to score, but overall the Atom's performance is good. As it is, it may work for you depending on your training regime. But currently other trainers work better for some online riding, especially Zwift.

Overall rating: 7/10

About the tester

Age: 43  Height: 189cm  Weight: 92kg

I usually ride: whatever I'm testing...  My best bike is: Kinesis Tripster ATR, Kinesis Aithein

I've been riding for: Over 20 years  I ride: Every day  I would class myself as: Experienced

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

Dave is a founding father of road.cc, having previously worked on Cycling Plus and What Mountain Bike magazines back in the day. He also writes about e-bikes for our sister publication ebiketips. He's won three mountain bike bog snorkelling World Championships, and races at the back of the third cats.

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