The mighty atom
In 2008 the Wattbike arrived to set a new standard in indoor trainers. Nine years later, the all-new Atom is reinventing the game all over again
‘You can warm up on Box Hill, then ride up Ventoux,’ says Wattbike’s managing director Richard Baker by way of introduction. ‘And that’s just one new string to the Atom’s bow.
‘The idea has always been to make a home training tool that rides as much like a real world bike as possible, but captures the kind of data you’d normally only find in a performance lab – everything from power to pedalling technique. The Atom builds on that and then some.’
Developed with input from British Cycling’s Peter Keen – Chris Boardman’s coach and the architect of a national programme that has produced the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Jason Kenny – the Wattbike quickly became a crucial weapon in British Cycling’s arsenal.
‘Peter wanted the data accuracy, the training and testing abilities and all that, but he also wanted a tool that could help talent-spot potential champions. Lizzie Deignan and Laura Kenny were both talent ID’D on a Wattbike, and there are many others.’
Virtually overnight, Keen and his team were able to test promising individuals remotely and, crucially, in a repeatable fashion. A Wattbike in London could be depended upon to serve up data congruent with a Wattbike in Manchester. Word soon got out, and a tool that was initially developed for the very sharpest end of cycling became a ubiquitous sight across gyms, clubhouses and living rooms.
More to give
So why not stop there? After all, if it ain’t broke... ‘Simple,’ says Baker. ‘Our customers were demanding more, and with new technology we have a lot more to give.’
As a result, the Atom is an entirely different beast to its predecessor. Its footprint is smaller, its aluminium frame lighter, its resistance unit
‘Our customers were demanding more, and with new technology we have a lot more to give’
quieter, and visually it wouldn’t look out of place nestled between a time-trial bike and an Eames chair. Crucially, it’s also cheaper than before – a full £750 cheaper, in fact.
As well as pedals and saddle, riders can now swap in their preferred road bars too, onto which the Atom’s Bluetooth shifters are bolted – à la Sram etap – to control 22 virtual gears and in-app features.
It’s here, at the centre of this informed aesthetic and realistic setup, that beats the Atom’s true heart: highly advanced connectivity. The old screen is gone, replaced by bar extensions that double as a holder for your tablet or smartphone. From here, the Wattbike Hub app pairs to the Atom via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), while connectivity for third party apps using both BLE and ANT+ opens up access to a whole host of new features courtesy of the FE-C (Fitness Equipment Control) protocol.
‘Connect the Atom to Zwift, for example, and when the virtual road goes up, the resistance increases and it gets harder to pedal; when it goes down, it gets easier,’ explains Atom engineer Andy Mccorkell. ‘Or in something like Trainerroad, the Atom’s resistance will automatically change dependent on where you’re at in the training session, like having a virtual coach shouting from a car window.’
The integration between the Atom and third party cycling apps is boundless. It’s future-proof too, as the Atom supports both the current industry standard, ANT+ FE-C, and the emerging Bluetooth variant, BLE Fitness Machine Control. However, when it comes to unleashing the Atom’s full potential it’s all about Wattbike’s proprietary app.
‘The Atom has an inbuilt Ergo Mode, where the bike will hold you at a constant wattage no matter what your cadence,’ says Baker.
‘With Climb Mode, we’ve worked closely with Veloviewer and using their GPS data we’ve created climbing simulations so accurate that they will be mapped on to Strava’s virtual rides so your times appear on segment leaderboards, with data from the app automatically pushing over. So if you’re able to make it up Alpe d’huez in under an hour and a half indoors, you can all but guarantee you’ll be able to do it in France.’
Key to this is the Atom’s ability to simulate gradients of up to 25%, together with Wattbike’s legendary natural pedalling feel. ‘During the development years of the original Wattbike, we had access to data from the British Cycling squad riding on the track,’ Baker says. ‘This allowed us to fully understand the speed- power relationship, which is now synonymous with the Wattbike’s ride feel and data,’ and of course its accuracy.
‘We’re accurate to within +/-2%, officially across the entire range from 0 to 2,000W, although we’ve tested up to 4,000W. Other trainers or power meters may claim similar accuracy, but often the reality is that this tolerance figure only holds between, say, 160W and 170W. If you’re 5% out at 300W, that’s significant, and not something we could tolerate.’
View from everywhere
Aside from its integration potential and accuracy, perhaps the biggest feather in the Atom’s cap is Wattbike’s famed Polar View, a visualisation of the left/right leg pedalling
torque throughout the pedal stroke, sampled a hundred times a second. Previously this took the form of a four-quadrant graph, but thanks to further research conducted with sports scientist Dr Barney Wainwright at Leeds Beckett University, Wattbike engineers have managed to assimilate this data into a single number.
‘PES, or Pedal Effectiveness Score, is a number from zero to 100 that indicates how effectively you’re pedalling,’ says Baker. ‘Our and Barney’s research has shown that 70 to 80 is the sweet spot. Below this the rider is “stamping” and not transitioning effectively through the stages of the pedal stroke. Above 80 and the rider’s power profile throughout the stroke is not mechanically efficient.’
The PES score is displayed on the Wattbike app screen, and the number changes colour from green to amber to red depending on how well you’re achieving a Wiggins-like souplesse.
‘We found this means riders begin to teach themselves better technique intuitively – almost subconsciously – just by observing the number and adapting their pedalling style to keep it in range,’ says Baker. ‘The gains from better technique can be as high as 10 -15%, even higher in untrained riders.’
Added-value features such as these represent an ever-expanding world for the Atom. Unlike with trainers of old, its makers say updates will come thick and fast, ranging from training plans bespoke to individual riders, to analysis of data through the Wattbike Hub.
Wattbike has been learning from its customers, in both what they want in a consumer bike and also in training resources and feedback. Next, says Baker, is further developing digital training platforms to enable users to reach their goals.
If the Atom is anything to go by, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Wattbike Atom, £1,499, wattbike.com