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

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‘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, wat­

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