Tacx Flow Turbo Trainer Review

I got around to buying a turbo trainer and my new Tacx T1680 Flow Turbo Trainer arrived the other day. A nice quick delivery as usual but I was out riding in the real world so didn’t get to play with it until about 10pm. Just enough time to set it up which only took about ten minutes. Just a couple of screws and a bolt to attach the motor to the frame. It comes with a ‘Skyliner’ support for the front wheel which helps put the bike in a better position and all the fixings you need to attach the computer display, cadence sensor etc.

Old road bike becomes turbo trainer

Old road bike becomes turbo trainer

Yesterday I got my old road bike out of the shed and put it on the turbo trainer. I didn’t have time for a proper workout on it as it was windy so I was off for a windsurf session in the sunshine, but I did have time to calibrate it and give it a quick test.

Setting up the computer is easy, first you enter your weight and your preferred units for the readout. For me that was miles rather than kilometres, Watts for power output and Kcal. It then goes into calibration mode where you simply pedal until you reach a certain speed and then stop pedaling. It then measures the braking effect on the rear wheel as it comes to a halt and calibrates the machine for you.

The computer readout is clear and the buttons easy to use. There is also plenty of information on the screen so I will be able to train using a variety of parameters. The computer does display your heart rate as well, but the machine doesn;t come with a heart rate monitor chest strap, you have to have your own already or buy one separately. I think it is compatible with the Polar chest straps. I have a Garmin chest strap and it isn’t compatible with that so for now it looks as though I shall have to wear my Garm HRM whilst on the turbo trainer in order to record my heart rate. This is actually better for me anyway because the software I use on my Mac for recording training sessions syncs really nicely with my Garmin Forerunner. [Click here for a Review of Mac Training Software].

Tacx Flow Computer

Tacx Flow Computer

This will obviously only give me my heart rate data over time and not distance, speed, power output etc, but I can enter the distance in manually and that will have to do for now as the Tacx Flow computer doesn’t have the ability to connect to a PC to download a training session, and it certainly doesn’t have an interface with a Mac! I might get a speed and cadence sensor for my Garmin Forerunner at some point so that I can add that data to Ascent.

The other thing I tried to do was to compare it to the figures I had from Jon following my Sports and Exercise Science lab tests over the past few weeks. These figures were my Gas Exchange Threshold (GET) and my Critical Power (CP). I had these in Watts,  but I had also had a go on the bikes at the Sports and Exercise Science department to try to convert these in approximate Heart Rates.

GET = 120 Watts (or 100bpm)

CP = 251 Watts (or 140bpm)

So, in order to try to see how accurate the Tacx Flow was I decided to set it first to 120 Watts and pedal for a few minutes and see what my heart rate was and then set it to 251 Watts and see how it went. It wasn’t the best conditions to try this as it was very hot but i thought it would be good to compare. It was easy to do as the Tacx Flow has an ‘ergo’ feature that allows you to set a predetermined power rate in Watts and it will automatically adjust the resistance to keep you at that power output whatever your cadence. This feature seems to work really well. It seems to hold the power pretty well, OK, it isn’t as good as the ones at Sports and Exercise Science, but those are 50 times the price! It doesn’t hold the power output perfectly simply because it can’t adjust the resistance quite as quickly as it needs to but once you’re into a rhythm it holds at the set power well allowing you to work at that rate. Any increase or decrease in cadence in quickly compensated for, the power output may increase or decrease for a second or so but the resistance is soon adjusted and the power output goes back to the correct setting.

As far as testing the outputs with the machines at SES goes, at the lower 120 Watts it was pretty much spot on. After 5-6 minutes at that level my heart rate was steady at 105 bpm. Slightly higher than at SES but it was pretty hot. However once I increased the power output to 250 Watts (it is adjustable in steps of 10 Watts), things were a little different. At this level it was actually pretty hard work and my heart rate was soon up around 160bpm and I didn’t really fancy sticking at that level for too long. I think I need to play around with the calibration settings a little.

However, how well it matches other machines (especially those costing 50 times the price) doesn’t really matter, what is important is that it remains consistent with itself so that workouts and intensities are repeatable.

Overall it’s a great piece of kit for the money. Quiet and stable which are two of the most important things, easy to set up and it has enough functions and information on the computer to keep me happy for a while. It’ll take a while to work out what settings I need to work at and some suitable interval sessions but hopefully it will prove to be a good training device and help me improve my speed an endurance out in the real world.

27 Responses

  1. Alan Cole Alan says:

    Oh, and I didn’t say that I’d forgotten how much hard work a session on a turbo trainer is… They should call them ‘sweat machines’, I may need a large fan to help keep me cool.

  2. Alan Cole Anonymous says:

    Had another go yesterday after a bit of calibration and got things spot on.

    120 Watts for 5 mins and my heart rate was steady at 100bpm
    250 Watts for 5 mins and my heart rate was steady at 140bpm

    Cool!

  3. Alan Cole Alan says:

    Looks like I need to work out how to recalibrate it again. I’ve ha a couple of months off and now that I’ve had another go, maintaining 220 Watts was next to impossible.

    I wonder if I can remember how I did it.

    Al.

  4. Alan Cole nick popham says:

    hi looking at getting this trainer asd of the display got a polar hr monitor but this doesz not work with my apples just looking at software that can help how u finding trainer know
    nick

  5. Alan Cole Alan says:

    Hi Nick,
    I haven’t used it for a while because I was ill and then the room it lives in is being decorated, but I still rate it highly.

    As far as software for use with your Mac goes, then take a look at this: https://www.alananna.co.uk/blog/2008/mac-training-software-review/

    I’m using Ascent with my Garmin Heart Rate Monitor and my Tacx Flow Turbo Trainer and it all works really well together.

    Al.

  6. Alan Cole Alan says:

    I’m back in action and using the Turbo Trainer again. Its great having it set up ready to go in the spare room and a quick half hour here and there can produce quite a good workout.

    Here’s the results from an interval session I did last week on it:
    https://www.alananna.co.uk/blog/2009/interval-training-on-tacx-flow-turbo-trainer/

    Al.

  7. Alan Cole Carlos says:

    Hello,

    you are confusing power with force. Power is force per TIME UNIT.

    At a same wattage you can pedal faster, decreasing the force on each pedal (because ergo mode fixes the power) or pedal slower and apply more force on each revolution (to keep power constant).

    Just remember school times: Power = Force / time. If you decrease time (pedal faster) you have to decrease Force so that Force/time keeps the same.

    So, if you want to replicate your bpm at CP you need to know the cadence you used on your test.

  8. Alan Cole Alan says:

    Hi Carlos,
    Thanks for the physics lesson! 🙂

    I don’t think I mentioned force though and realise that the power output is kept the same so I can therefore pedal at a higher cadence with less force to produce the same amount of power.

    I do know what my cadence during the tests were so I should be OK there. Although, knowing the physics doesn’t make it any easier when it comes to actually doing the workouts!

    Thanks,
    Al.

  9. Alan Cole Alan says:

    A friend of mine has just recently bought one of these. he came around last night so that I could help him put it together. An easy 5 minute job involving two bolts, but it was good to catch up with him and helping him out earned me a bottle of wine!

    I had planned a turbo trainer session for later that evening, but after chilli and a bottle of wine I decided not to bother!

  10. Alan Cole Ruud says:

    Hi,
    Great review. I was thinking of buying one myself. Unfortunately the info on the tacx site is not much.
    I was wondering what the functionality is of the ‘computer’ ?
    As you said, you can’t connect it to the PC. But are there any pre-programmed training programs? Ideally I don’t want to bother changing the slope/resistance all the time, it would be nice if it has some programs to choose from.
    Thanks,
    Ruud

    • Alan Cole Alan says:

      Thanks Ruud,
      The ‘computer’ doesn’t have any preset programmes and it isn’t possible to program it yourself either. Unfortunately you have to change either the slope or resistance yourself. This is however easy to do and although it can be a bit of a pain it also gives you something to do and something to concentrate on which can help reduce the monotony of being on a turbo trainer to a certain extent.
      It would be nice to pre-program things though.

      Al.

  11. Alan Cole tony says:

    Hi
    Just to say I’ve had one of these for 4 yrs and it’s always been a good bit of kit & works well with the polar HRM – mine is set up in the shed with TV, DVD & sound system to fight the boredom longer sessions – although it’s a bit cold right now so the fan isn’t used. Enjoy

    • Alan Cole Alan says:

      Hi Tony, glad to hear its been working well for a few years. It sounds as though you have a good set up there. I’ve got mine in the ‘beach room’ with its new en suite shower room with views out over the Welsh Hills. I usually listen to podcasts whilst I’m on the turbo trainer and catch up with things. I need a new (larger) fan though as the one I’ve got at the moment just isn’t powerful enough. It’s certainly a useful piece of kit whilst snowed in like we are at the moment and there’s little chance of getting out on a bike in the real world!

      Al.

  12. Alan Cole tony says:

    Hi Al – yes, a turbo is a godsend when the weather is like this. mine only gets used November to March as a rule – Any other time and I overheat – so I also need a better fan set-up.

    I’d be interested in any links / info you might be able to share on interval programs on the TACX – My usual workouts are primitive 1 – 1:20 hour bashes with 10 mins warm up (on -4), 40-60 mins @ around 140bpm (around 80% my max HR)& 10 mins cool down (-4) – all at 90-95 rpm. It keeps me fit but not probably isn’t the most effective training. I know I need to get into intervals & have been looking around for any simple regimes (Tacx have some on their site but they appear to involve gear & resistance changes) – it was searching for interval examples which got me to your excellent site
    Cheers

    • Alan Cole Alan says:

      Hi Tony,
      I have posted a few of the interval sessions I do elsewhere pn this site, I’m sure you’ve seen them. I too have tried some of the session from the Tacx site, but as you say they involve gear and slope changes rather than having anything based on power output. They also seem overly complicated with lots of changes to the slope, gearing and rpm all at the same time which I don’t like as there doesn’t seem to be much of structure to them and I can never seem to get into a nice flow with them.

      I haven’t tried one of their interval sessions yet, just their hill climb and aerobic endurance sessions, but when I look at my heart rate trace after them there doesn’t appear to be much of a pattern.

      I did some gym tests on a bike for a friend doing a PhD in Sports and Exercise Science last year and got some good figures from him such as my Gas Exchange Threshold, VO2 Max and Critical Power Output. He also gave me a few sample interval sessions. The calibration between my Tacx Flow and the machine at the lab wasn’t spot on so the power figures weren’t directly transferable, but with a bit of experimentation I was able to work out a good level to work at for these interval sessions.

      The basic one that I do is a 10-15 minute warm up. I usually use the Wattage setting on the Tacx Flow and have it at 140 in an easy gear for the first 5 minutes, then up it to 180 for the next 5 minutes and around 200 for the next 5 minutes, by which time I’ve gone up a few gears too. I’ll then do 1 minute at 140 Watts to prepare for the intervals. The intervals are 1 minute each in which the hard effort is at around 90-95% of your Max HR (162-172 for me). This works out at about 350 Watts for me at the moment. The rest period is then 1 minute at 100 Watts. I’ll do seven of these, followed by a 10 minute cool down.

      Apparently once you can do 7 of them the idea is to increase the wattage rather than increase the number of repetitions. The intervals should feel really hard and you may not be able to do all of them the first few times. I’ve now done them at 350 Watts a few times and I’m thinking of trying to up the wattage to 360 Watts next time. Although I did try that a few weeks back and had no chance of completing them!

      It may be hard work but I like it as it is a nice structured set, the heart rate trace (see here) I get looks really ‘neat’ and it doesn’t take too long to do. I am planning to do some others soon too such as 1 minute really hard and 4 minutes rest or 3 minutes hard, 2 minutes rest. I also do some pyramid sessions now and then.

      It seems from the comments as though people quite like reading the sessions I do so I’ll start posting some of the more structured ones here as and when I do them.

      Thanks for reading!
      Al.
      Oh…. And I’m going to buy one of these: A 16″ oscillating fan from Amazon for £11.00. Cheap and cheerful and hopefully ideal as spring approaches. Feel free to buy it from the above link as I’ll get a little bit of commission then! 🙂

  13. Alan Cole chris says:

    Hi Alan and to all following this thread. I too have a Tacx Flow and I’m using it to complete the interval workouts as per Chris Carmichael’s training plan. (Lance Armstong’s coach)I do most of my Endurance training out on the road, there is more to occupy my small brain, especially at this time of year, pot holes, new born lambs, wind, rain etc!

    Turbo Trainer intervals are so intense, that there is no chance of boredom or needing computer software to spice it up. I’d recommend you guys carry out some sort of Field Test or Ramp Test rather than just noting anecdotal power outputs that you see during workouts. In this way, you can really focus on what you are doing and spend more time with the missus or whatever?! 60-90 mins on the Turbo is all you need to make some big gains, say 3 days per week.

    Carmicheal Field Test
    You warm up for 15-20 mins do some high cadence in an easy gear towards the end to get your HR high but without stressing your legs/lungs too much, then recover for a few minutes. It’s then 2 x 8 min time trial efforts with 10 mins recovery in between. Take a couple of minutes to build to maximum effort just as you would in a real time trial and aim for a cadence of around 85-95 rpm. Use your gearing to find your own optimum cadence within this window. You take the highest average power and/or your highest average HR. This test approximates your LT or maybe its your Vo2 max, I’m not too sure which, it doesnt really matter (to me) Establishing the benchmark is important and individual, its free and its repeatable. I repeat this every 6-8 weeks except in the off season.

    Or do a simple Ramp Test. Warm up as above and then (dont use the ergo function for either test, it wont produce the desired result) start at say 160 watts and hold for 3 mins. Cadence 85-95 rpm. Increase by 20 watts every three minutes. So 160,180,200,220 etc. Maintain Cadence between 85-95 rpm using your gears. Keep ramping up until you fail. The final three minutes completed in full is your Ramp Test Power output. If you fail halfway through at say 320 watts, then 300 watts is your result. You’ll be doing about 20-30 minutes in total. (Unless you’re Bradley Wiggins) Again this is repeatable and a good indication of how you are progressing. Obviuosly you cant constantly improve, but you might hang on to some of the gains during the winter months and start from a higher base for next year. You can repeat this test about every 6-8 weeks. Leave it alone in the recovery weeks, its too intense an effort.

  14. Alan Cole chris says:

    Training with Power. Meant to recommend these excellent publications that are worth reading on this subject. The Flow is an ideal (and the cheapest) way to reap the benefits of training using power (rather than just HR). You just take your observed HR and RPE (eg how it feels @ 95% ) from the Flow out onto the road.

    Have a look at Chris Carmicheal Time Crunched Cyclist and Joe Friels Training Bible. Amazon have some good deals on both. Buy the most recent copies to benefit from up to the minute methods.

    ps I find that my Flow replicates road riding (flat and little/no wind) with the slope set to -1. I can use the same gear/cadence/HR on the road as the trainer. ie I cant push 53×12 for long!

    For those of you that struggle with hills, try this workout.

    Climbing Repeat Intervals. Put a 6″ block under the front wheel (to replicate the same muscle usage as the real world) and the Flow set to a slope of +6 to replicate a moderate hill. Any greater slope than that and my tyre slips on the roller. (But you might try +4 to start with as long as the power/cadence is within zone)

    Get some techno or whatever on your ipod, put Alpe d’Huez from 2001 on the dvd player and do 3 x 10 mins close to 100% of your field test power @ 70-80 rpm with 5 mins recovery at the bottom of end your endurance zone. (50% of FT power) If you get out of the saddle, allow your HR to rise a few beats as you’ll be using more muscles. That’s a hard 60 min workout inc warm up and cool down and it does help with the hills. (I can now climb steadily and catch other riders that might have started out too quickly)It’s rare that I get dropped as I used to do. Do this twice a week for 2 or 3 weeks and you will notice an improvement. Lose a few lbs, do some power intervals as your 3rd interval session in the week and you’ll begin to follow in the wheel of the better climbers. That’s the best feeling ever for a very average cyclist like me ;-). Of course they then think you are challenging them and they’ll go a bit faster…………….but at least you made them work for a change!

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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