Smart bike or top-end turbo: What’s the ultimate setup for Zwift racing?

If money were no object, what would be the ideal arrangement for maximum performance?

If there’s one thing which remains identical between racing indoors and out, it’s the unquenchable desire to optimise your equipment for the best possible performance.

But just like choosing a bike or a set of wheels, there’s no obvious best choice for every situation—a whole multitude of factors come into making the decision one way or another.

So, to shine some light on these considerations, we spoke to two eminent Zwift racers from the UK racing scene about their preferred setups.

But although we’re looking at the most expensive setups here, it’s worth remembering that one of the best parts of eRacing is its accessibility. Now, £269.99 certainly isn’t a drop in the ocean, but with that you can get a power-reading Tacx Flow Smart Trainer or a 4iiii Precision Power Meter Crank and take part in as many online events as you could possibly wish.

While lockdowns are still in place—and for the many people who simply don’t have time to travel to races even when they do lift—Zwift, and platforms like it, can present a cost- and time-effective way to get that competitive fix.

But if you're looking to spend? Well, there's a clear choice: smart bike or direct drive trainer? It's worth noting that smart bikes are more expensive, starting at £1,899 / $2,599 for the Wattbike Atom vs a direct drive turbo costing between £500 / $700 and £1,199.99 / $1,400.

Smart bike

Smart bike

Tacx
(Image credit: Tacx)

Harry Mustard, 22, is a student at Edinburgh Napier University and something of an old hand when it comes to Zwift racing—having gotten started back in December 2018.

Currently ranked 24th in the UK standings, he and his team have won the Platinum League of the WTRL Team Time Trial—within which the best Zwifters from around the world compete—for a total of 10 times on the trot, a truly astonishing achievement.

But although Mustard certainly has a large engine, able to push over 400 watts for 20 minutes, his set up is geared toward maximising his sprinting potential—which currently stands at a peak five second power of just under 1,400 watts.

He said: “I used to have a CycleOps wheel-on fluid trainer, which was great at the time, but switching to a smart bike was a complete game changer.”

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Now racing on a 44kg Wattbike Atom, Mustard’s approach to sprints has been transformed.

“I can get out of the saddle and completely hammer it without worrying about any bouncing or flex from the front wheel. I feel like all my power is going straight through the pedals and it really helps with focusing on the effort.”

Alongside the more obvious benefits of a smart bike include being always set up and ready to be ridden as well as the reduced maintenance of not having an exposed drivetrain to keep clean and gears indexed, Mustard has found the ability to easily tweak his on-the-bike position an unexpected aid.

“I did start off initially mimicking the setup of my road bike exactly, but after a while I raised the handlebars up a little bit and pulled them closer in towards me. I find I’m able to get a bit more power out in a sprint if I’m a bit more ‘compressed’”.

Turbo trainer

Turbo trainer

Wahoo Fitness
(Image credit: Wahoo Fitness)

Hywel Davies, 46, has a background in Ironman Triathlon but has turned his attention to Zwift racing and is currently ranked 3rd in the UK and 32nd worldwide. With a packed racing schedule, competing on five days a week you’re quite likely to have brushed virtual shoulders if you’ve been entering the pens.

When it comes to sprints, Davies agrees that smart bikes—in all their solidity—do offer a palpable benefit. But for longer efforts and races, he feels that the balance tips in favour of a road bike and turbo trainer setup.

He said: “For long race, like ones that go up the Alpe du Zwift (12.2km with an average gradient of 8.5%), I much prefer a turbo over the relentlessness of a smart bike. That little bit of movement, that side to side flex, it makes the ride a little more familiar—a bit more natural.”

Davies continued: “There are little things that just play on your mind in a long effort, such as the Q-factor of smart bikes tending to be a little wider than on a standard road bike.

“The ergonomics of the shifter hoods and the tactile feeling of changing gear, rather than pressing spongey a button, I find makes a huge difference to how comfortable I feel.”

A bike and turbo set up also makes it easier to keep your power numbers consistent between riding indoors and out. Recording using the same set of power meter pedals cuts out any concerns about power meters in different locations providing different readings.

Of course, would be possible to swap pedals between a smart bike and your road bike—but that would be introducing more faff than it is to simply take a bike on and off a turbo, which negates one of the benefits smart bikes are supposed to bring.

Is a smart bike the ultimate setup ?

Yes—Harry Mustard

A smart bike really helps in the sprints, the rock-solid platform makes it a lot easier to put out the watts. The ability to easily change my position has really helped me maximise my power on Zwift, while still keeping the setup of my road bike optimised for aerodynamics. It also makes it a lot easier to commit to sessions when the smart trainer is always set up and ready to go.

No—Hywel Davies

For longer, more sustained efforts, the familiarity of my road bike attached to a smart turbo trainer really helps in terms of comfort—which in turn enables me to put out more power. The combination of the contact points and Q factor all being exactly the same, coupled with that little flex from side to side, all really makes a difference.