Most of us cyclists would prefer to be pedaling switchbacks up a mountain road with a real Tyrrhenian Sea breeze boosting us from the backside. Of course, the current pandemic makes such outings impossible. We can all hope that one day soon we may be able to feel the fresh air of the Italian countryside, or wherever you happen to ride. Until then, however, the next best thrill is to hop on Garminâ€™s Tacx Neo 2T smart trainer.
For cyclists, smart trainers rank right up there with toilet paper on the list of â€œmust havesâ€ during a quarantine. These machines ease stress and encourage aerobic fitness. The terrible beauty of smart trainers, however, is they are sophisticated entities that must simultaneously do four things: seamlessly attach to your own bike; communicate with other smart devices in order to give accurate readings of measurements like heart rate and wattage; integrate in real time with a riding platform thatâ€™s an accurate facsimile of outdoor riding (added bonus if itâ€™s also entertaining); and do all these things quietly enough to avoid driving your housemates so crazy they come after you with their bread-dough rolling pin. If the trainer is too loud or too glitchy or too cumbersome, you can kiss your precious kid-, partner- and work-free hour of cathartic sweating goodbye.
Thatâ€™s why the Garmin Tacx Neo 2T is a particular blessing in these Covid-19 times. The newly updated trainer, which debuted last fall, meets all of those requirements and delivers them in a package thatâ€™s easy to fold up and store in the closet when life gets too claustrophobic.
To achieve this, Garmin, in conjunction with Tacx, a Dutch company it acquired in 2019, made a few substantial upgrades from the previous iteration of the trainer. First, they redesigned the rear axle, which makes the trainer compatible with a wider variety of bikes. Second, they redesigned the magnets on the fly wheel, which increased the overall stiffness of the Neo 2T, which in turn helped reduce the noise during use. Third, they redesigned the motor to deliver more power (2,200 watts, up to 40K per hour) and higher resistance levels, while also being able to measure data within a 1 percent margin of accuracy.
They also added new sensors to the trainer that can accurately measure leg position. This is important because the trainer is also equipped with ANT+ technology that lets you analyze your pedal strokes on external devices that sync wirelessly, including Garmin’s own Edge bike computers, as well as devices running third-party software. Finally, the trainer has been programmed to instantly react to speed, inclination changes of up to 25 percent grades, and even surfaces like cobblestone. The result is a ride that is almost spookily like the outdoorsâ€”you can actually feel the vibration of the cobblestones underfoot and on your handlebars.
Via Bluetooth (and ANT+ FE-C, the technology that allows one device to control another fitness device), the Neo 2T is compatible with all the popular apps like Zwift and TrainerRoad, both of which drop you into virtual worlds that you can explore as you pedal through a photo-realistic countryside that zips by on the television, iPad, or computer screen in front of you.
After setting up the trainer, I was excited to sign on to my go-to ride in Watopia, one of Zwift’s virtual lands dotted with jungles and volcanoes. But in the spirit of thoroughly testing, instead I signed on for a free month trial of Tacxâ€™s own riding platform. I may never turn back. I was taken by its impressive library of over 150 videos of the mostly classic European ridesâ€”from the cobblestone, bricks, and boardwalk of the 49.6-kilometer â€œFlanders, Izjer Frontâ€ ride to the seaside reverie of the 88.9-km â€œCorsica-Cap Corse-Cyle Tourâ€ route. These days Iâ€™m yearning for as many earthly scenic vistas as I can get, even if they happen to be on a screen.
There are a few minor downsides to the Neo 2T, one of which is uniform to most trainers: The setup requires a lot of physical adjustments, and unless you are a bike mechanic, it takes some time. Also, two other testers and I all found a shortage of helpful instructions for how the Tacx platform works.
About a month into my time with the trainer, it took me half an hour to figure out that, before I could ride, I needed to update my firmware, which required downloading Tacxâ€™s Utility App, which is different than its mobile Training app. To that end, some of the fine-tuning adjustmentsâ€”found under Settings on Tacxâ€™s desktop appâ€”are not as intuitive as they could be. For example, riders can set their own Difficulty level on a sliding scale from zero to 200 percent. But I couldnâ€™t find the standard in any literature by which the â€œdifficultyâ€ is measured. After fiddling around with the adjustment, I came to the conclusion that about 30 degrees of difficulty was the most accurate facsimile to riding outside, which means that I have the room to improve up to 170 percent of my current abilities.
The upside, however, is that if I nudge that percentage up a little every day, I will crush my outdoor rides when I’m free to hit the road or trail once again.