– By Matt McNamara –
A Little History
The CompuTrainer system, manufactured in Washington state by RacerMate, Inc., has been the gold standard for indoor cycling units almost since its introduction in 1986. In fact, the company website states that CompuTrainer developer Wilfied Baatz was actually responsible for the first-ever indoor wind trainer all the way back in 1976! That’s a long time focused on indoor performance.
Perhaps more impressive is the longevity of the original software. Think of your personal computer, chances are you’ve updated it several times over the last decade, yet the CompuTrainer has remained largely unchanged since its introduction. There have been several notable updates along the way including the introduction of SpinScan in 1988, 3D graphics in 1996, coaching software in 1998, and multi-rider capability in 2003. For 2012 they debuted an all new interface and we’ve got a sneak peek.
Mr. Baatz set out to create a true indoor ergometer that could be purchased by the general public, but carry enough legitimacy that scientists would use it too. Both the CompuTrainer models (Lab and Pro) are repeatable to better than +/- 1% when calibrated correctly, a standard of universal acceptance. The Lab model provides absolute accuracy of +/- 2.5% with the Pro model close behind.
The standard features list is largely the same between the two models and includes nice touches like a 1500 watt capacity, support for grades up to 15%, a Polar wireless heart rate receiver, and a cadence sensor. For the ambitious rider or coach CompuTrainer was the first to offer both a custom course building node and the ability to create courses from a Topo USA Course Creator software, available separately. Within the past few years they also added the ability to import an existing GPS file to create courses, or to directly import a power file of a favorite race, ride or performance. I actually imported the entire 2008 Tour De France and have been working my way through the course one stage at a time.
In addition to the stand alone 3D course option, CT’s include a coaching node that gives riders and coaches access to a full ergometer complete with high quality testing protocols and the innovative SpinScan analysis tool. We’ll look at these elements a bit more in depth below. Suffice it to say that the original CompuTrainer system set the bar pretty high for athletes and coaches across the board.
The New RM1 Software
Over the past few years several companies have sought to emulate the CompuTrainer model of an indoor, watts based, training platform. Offerings from Tacx to LeMond, to the near omnipresent “Tour De France bike” (20 degrees down angle!) of TV infomercial fame, have attempted to capture the attention of a marketplace that is progressively influenced by gaming technology.
At the outset this seems a logical extension of the platform. My age group (40+) was the first to really embrace computer games and we’ve come to expect ever more lifelike realism, so why not have that cross over to one’s training? Unfortunately, the reality is that the demands of a computer game and a scientifically accurate ergometer are more than a little divergent and expensive to co-mingle.
Recognizing that it would be cost prohibitive to be “all things to all users” CompuTrainer instead went back to basics and sought to answer a list of essential requirements of the end user. Among these was the ability to create map-quality courses from a variety of sources, including from an athlete’s existing power file, from third party vendors, and from the vast library of existing CompuTrainer courses. This flexibility is one of the reasons they opted out of the ‘game like’ experience…it was simply unrealistic to offer real-course rendering and backgrounds at the price point they were targeting. In addition they wanted to retain their scientific significance and robustness without compromise, offer the end user a wide range of custom options to personalize the experience, and support their existing customer base by being immediately compatible.
The first challenge on order was to create a single piece of software from what was once several different applications. Pragmatic. As soon as you double click the software you enter a new experience.
Unlike previous editions, RacerMate One immediately asks if you want to calibrate the system. This new standard is a nice addition the first time or two that you use it, and should form the baseline of most every use if you are looking for that lab quality experience, but if the 10-minute warm up protocol (minimum) becomes a nuisance for everyday users who continually pull their bike on and off the trainer, you can bypass the calibration step if you want to ‘get on the road” faster and always revisit the calibration step later in the warm-up or workout.
Once you have calibrated the system you arrive at the following screen:
To current CT users this screen is both familiar and new. Familiar via the previously seen “3D” and “SpinScan” nodes, now conveniently accessible from a single screen. It is new thanks to the addition of nodes for “Real Course Video”, “Classic MultiRider”, “Power Training”, and “ErgVideo” options. To me this simple integration of the varying tools is itself worth the effort CompuTrainer put in.
I don’t have to open and close applications time and again. They even upped the ante by allowing you to move backwards from an open course file via an additional set of commands on the head unit. That saves a ton of time and helps create a seamless experience when I warm up an athlete on 3D and test them on the coaching side.
Set Up Options:
Like many of you, the first place I went was to the “options” tab to see what I could play with and what a treat to find a myriad of easy access options and customizations starting with the rider:
Here is where you recreate yourself in digital form. New elements include the ability to customize training levels for heart rate and a refined two-step threshold that starts at Aerobic Threshold (Aet -typically the point at which lactate levels move from baseline), and Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is most associated with what’s called “Onset Blood Lactate Acumulation” (OBLA) and is often called the “coaches threshold” as it represents the athlete’s highest sustainable power for approximately 60-minutes. You can also customize the look of your cyber-self, including time trial/triathlon versions.
Perhaps more significant is the ability to create multiple riders, what Racer Mate calls “smart pacers” that can act as both competition and reference points. The software actually allows for up to 8 different racers on a course at the same time, so it’s essentially a built in multi-rider studio that can be made up of a wide selection of metrics (pace, heart rate zones, percentages of threshold power, etc) or actual riders on their own CompuTrainers. A nice perk is that the “smart pacers” can be linked to an individual rider and will set their pace off of that rider’s efforts. In the old version you would set a pacer – say 300W – and when you hit “GO” they took off at 300 watts, never to deviate. The new software caps their lead and asks the pacer to stay in much closer proximity, so there is always someone to chase. You can also match pacers and real riders within the workout, so it’s possible to have four real riders matched to pacers with different individual metrics and still have an interactive race experience.
Moving to the next tab, we have Hardware…
Hardware integration is fairly straight forward. When first fired up it immediately searches for your computer, and finds it in about 20- seconds. The hardware set up for integrating multiple machines in a quasi multi-rider approach is also much less arduous than in the past as the software immediately searches for systems without having to manually link to COM ports. There are a variety of other options as well.
Display options include a wide range of choices, allowing for full customization to your individual tastes. In the end these are largely the same options as before, just displayed in a more user friendly location and manner
The final set up screen shot is for file saving:
Again, a host of options are presented in an easy to use format that allows you to mix and match your reports to suit. I particularly like the ability to simply save all performances or receive a prompt to do, instead of saving every file in the old version. This is handy as not every performance that is undertaken needs to be saved, nor does every possible metric merit inclusion. Perhaps most significantly CT files are now fully compatible with external software like WKO+, Training Peaks, and others. This is a dramatic improvement and allows for quick uploading of your workouts to that all important analysis software.
Rubber, Meet Road…
Upon returning to the main screen you can choose which of the six nodes you would like to use. Let’s look at the new interface in depth starting with the 3D Interface.
The first step is to select the course you want to ride, and here Racer Mate has made some notable improvements. The first is to include the course profile as part of the home-screen. Previously you had to soft load the course to see a profile, but now it not only loads the profile, but you can scroll across the course and get details like gradient and distance quickly. Perhaps more significant is the ability to customize the course start and end points via simple sliding tabs:
You can also create loops of a specific part of the course, so if you want to do repeats on the final climb of the Morgul-Bismarck (the infamous “wall”) you can. Thankfully, you can also do repeats on descents as well.
Once you launch the course you’ll see that the new version gets several subtle upgrades. Screen quality is much improved and there are many more background options to select from, including cyclocross and mountain bike versions of most roads. The metrics are housed in a nice shadow box that now includes Training Stress Score, Intensity Factor and Normalized Power…sweet.
RM1 Spin Scan offers a new take on a familiar platform. The integration of the polar view (the round one on the left below) is pretty smooth and scales up nicely as you pedal harder. The bar graph is essentially the same as in the previous edition, but you can now see both views at the same time. A nice addition is a background shadow that appears on the bar-graph and represents the average values for the entire workout as a reference point. This is especially useful for athletes new to the Spin Scan learning process – what I think of as almost a bio-feedback session. By seeing a rolling average of their spin scan values it helps the rider to more quickly “learn” what a good pedal stroke feels like and to compare and contrast their immediate experience with the workouts trends. The addition of the course profile is a nice complement to the work being done by the rider.
Classic MultiRider links you to the multi-rider software that allows for multiple users on the same course. This is most used by indoor cycling centers and coaches who work in small group classes, but since you can now link up to 8 systems on the basic software, this will likely be only moderately developed over the next year. Here is the placeholder in use until the new version is available:
This is the re-badged Coaching Software that was previously stand alone. Now fully integrated, here you will find the variety of stock testing files and can easily access any custom files you may have created. Once activated the new screen looks, as with much of the new software, familiar and new at the same time. Here is the new view…
A cleaner look to be sure, but I’m still not used to the new placement of information. Previously I could easily que my riders to try and match the green Watts they were generating with the green LOAD number that the computer was providing. The two metrics were inline and only a few inches between. With the new look it is less intuitive and requires more searching. Here is the old one for comparison:
The “Erg Video” option is a simple link to the Erg Video website. The Erg Video concept takes the real course video idea a step farther by replicating real power data from actual performances. You can launch an Erg Video file and it will automatically scale the workout to your individual threshold power, you just ride along (or try to!). This is the closest thing to real racing indoors and may be further developed by Racer Mate in the future, possibly to include an easy-purchase option and direct download.
RacerMate has had a long standing hit with their CompuTrainer, a leader of the pack for over two decades in the realm of indoor performance training. Their CT Pro and Lab versions are the gold standard of excellence, used by more of the top 15 professional triathletes than any other. With the rise of new competitors offering a more game-like experience CompuTrainer sought to re-establish its role as a leader in the performance realm, but rather than trot out a bunch of bells and whistles that don’t support their core function, RacerMate sought to reinforce their position as the leader in scientifically stringent performance. There are a host of new offerings, including a myriad of pacing options, a cleaner hardware interface, support for up to 8 users at the same time without separate software, and easy drag to scale course profiles that allow for true customization, among others. I’m still learning the ins and outs of all the elements, but from where I sit it’s a solid improvement on a stalwart.
• Price: US$189.95
• See the website at RacerMateInc.com