With direct-drive smart trainers now breaking the £1K barrier the Tacx Vortex Smart looks positively cheap – can it still compete in the virtual-reality cycling world?
The Tacx Vortex is the Dutch brand’s original interactive smart trainer and is considerably cheaper and lighter than the range-topping direct-drive Tacx Neo Smart.
At only 9kg compared to the Neo Smart’s 21.5kg the Vortex, which is a ‘wheel-on’ type of trainer rather than direct drive, could arguably do with a little more heft for sprint efforts. However, whereas Tacx claims 2,200 watts of resistance for the Neo, the Vortex is rated at 950W so it’s not one for the burliest track bullies anyway.
There’s no denying with the lower weight that it’s much easier to move the Vortex around if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to leave your turbo in place. And compared to the Neo, which has hinged wings that threaten to trap your fingers every time you activate them, the Vortex’s straightforward folding legs make it nice and simple to put up and take down.
The Tacx Vortex comes boxed with a front wheel riser and a Tacx skewer for standard QR axles. Tacx adaptors are available for thru-axle bikes, sold separately.
Like the Neo, the Tacx Vortex plugs into the mains and pairs via ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart with third party indoor cycling apps such as Zwift or TrainerRoad, which control the electromagnetic resistance. There’s also a Tacx utility app that can be used for updates and calibration.
The Tacx app is useful for letting you know whether you’ve got tyre-roller contact pressure correct initially, but I’ve been using the Vortex mostly with TrainerRoad, which has its own in-app spin-down calibration that it recommends you carry out before each workout.
Pairing the Tacx Vortex is very easy and reliable: I’ve never had a single instance of it not being ‘seen’ immediately by the iPad or iPhone I use with it. There are LEDs on the side of the resistance unit’s casing that blink green when it’s paired – slightly irrelevant since you’re usually sitting on a bike in the turbo and you only see them if you crane your neck down and sideways.
When not plugged in the Vortex can still be used in ‘erg’ mode, which means you can use it for pre-race warm-ups.
Tacx says the Vortex’s power measurement is accurate to <10 per cent, but as long as you calibrate it ahead of each ride you ought to get better than that, which is what we found comparing its power curve to those of Garmin Vector pedals and a PowerTap G3 hub. More importantly, power measurement is consistent. Although it’s not practical to compare it to a power meter ever time you ride, 250W does feel the same each time.
Tacx Vortex Smart ride
Since the flywheel is relatively light compared to the bigger, heavier direct-drive trainers – 1.6kg actual; effective resistance via electrobrake 11.8kg – ride feel is inevitably not as realistic. Higher resistances are better tackled in a higher gear where the momentum of the bike wheel helps keep pedalling smooth and linear. Tyre slip can also result if you use too small a gear for high resistances or faster accelerations – despite adhering to the Tacx guidelines for tyre contact pressure. The Vortex is rated to a maximum slope of seven per cent, which explains this.
The Vortex is noisier than the Neo Smart and, as you’d expect, gets louder the faster the rear wheel is spinning. However, the noise level is ballpark for the electromagnetic wheel-on type of trainer and besides, as soon as you start changing gear, the resulting clunks are what will make the most noise no matter how quiet your turbo.
Compared to the much more expensive direct-drive trainers, the Tacx Vortex Smart does have its limitations – the main ones being the lack of weight in the flywheel, the possibility of tyre slip at high resistances and the higher noise level.
You don’t get the depth of interactive functionality, either: no simulated descents and no vibration on virtual cobbles or boards, for example.
However, being lighter the Vortex is much easier to lift and doesn’t require you to index a rear mech specifically for it. So, bearing in mind that it has pros as well as cons compared to a direct drive trainer, and bearing in mind that it costs a third the price of the Tacx Neo Smart, the Tacx Vortex Smart is very good value.
If you compare it to the more expensive direct-drive smart trainers, the Tacx Vortex is a lightweight both in terms of its mass and its interactive functionality. But if you're prepared to sacrifice a bit of realistic ride feel and VR 'immersiveness' for a convenient, user-friendly, straightforward smart turbo that gets the job done for less than half the price, the Tacx Vortex is it.