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On test: Elite RealPower CT, February 9, 2009
Almost like riding outside
Winter's tight grip still has a hold on much of the world and outdoor riding is sadly still months away for some. Cyclingnews technical editor James Huang finds the feature-packed Elite RealPower CT trainer to be a good way for the ADD-afflicted to maintain their fitness indoors - assuming you're lucky enough to afford one.
The Elite RealPower CT trainer puts out to pasture the usual practice of setting up in front of your favourite DVD or television show while riding indoors and replaces it with an on-screen 'virtual reality' environment that is far more capable of keeping one's attention.
Its folding steel frame and rear-mounted resistance unit look familiar enough but the latter is now hooked up to your home PC. Resistance is computer-controlled, depending on where you are on any number of RealPower or RealAxiom DVDs. These are filmed by someone actually riding the courses and include such classic routes as the Col du Galibier and the world championship road course in Salzburg, Austria.
There are 15 'virtual races' included with the system and 18 other courses - plus two Giro d'Italia packages with nine stages each - are also available once you burn through those.
The concept is simple: if you start heading uphill on the DVD, the resistance increases accordingly; start coming up and over the top of a climb on-screen and you can feel the resistance letting up as you build speed. According to Elite, the RealPower CT can crank out up to 1500W of resistance and simulate up to a 20 percent grade - five more than Computrainer. Ouch.
Pretty roads with no cars!
In practice, the RealPower CT is certainly one of the more entertaining (or less boring, depending on your perspective) trainers we've used. The accompanying videos are surprisingly engaging and a neat little feature also allows you to create a soundtrack for your session that plays in the background if you're so inclined. A wider-angle camera would make for a more encompassing image though, and a larger monitor or big-screen television with a computer hookup definitely helps.
The RealPower CT's on-screen display also provides a wealth of information - time, distance, current percent grade, cadence, wattage, heart rate - as you virtually roll along, and the separate handlebar-mounted console can also bring up separate pop-up displays such as the course elevation profile and start or pause the system.
The software even lets you create sub-courses from the existing files - if you don't feel like riding the entire Mont Ventoux climb - and like other trainers of this type, you can also create your own workouts from scratch using simple segment length and grade inputs.
The real fun begins when you take advantage of the software's more advanced features, though. Completed sessions can be saved so you can race against yourself later (or yourselves as you can pull in up to seven of your past performances) and users with a compatible internet connection can also race against other RealPower owners in cyberspace. You can even download your actual rides from a compatible GPS device - or the ever-growing crop of route-logging web sites such as Bikely.com - and then re-ride them on the RealPower CT.
Have a big event coming up and just wish you could pre-ride the course? Recently launched beta software apparently developed in conjunction with Google Maps allows you to create a course online and download the information straight to the RealPower CT software, as long as you can identify the route on a map. If you're not feeling quite that creative you can also just build your own course piece-by-piece by manually defining each segment's length and percent grade.
Though the map-it-yourself course creation and the downloadable GPS routes are undeniably handy they also highlight one of the RealPower CT's core deficiencies. Unless you're using the full-blown video mode, the only thing you have to look at on the computer monitor are a bunch of data fields plus a couple of charts outlining the course profile and key metrics such as power and heart rate - in other words, something only marginally more interesting than the display on your usual cyclocomputer (and far more expensive).
Other high-end computerised trainers such as the Tacx Fortius VR and the latest Computrainer at least carry on with video game-like depictions in those situations. While not actual video footage, it still provides much more visual stimulation to keep you going.
A few glitches
We went ahead and downloaded the latest software version from Elite's RealAxiom support site yet still suffered from some irritating bugs: we were never able to activate the 'full screen' mode on the display, so it was always cluttered with unnecessary buttons during our rides, and we were never able to actually get the self-competitor function to work (they never left the start line). Moreover, both the GPS and Google Maps download functions are still in the beta phase.
After contacting Elite directly, it turns out that a far more refined software version has already been coded - though for whatever reason it wasn't posted to the website. Regardless, this newer software version was a vast improvement over what we started out with. Gone were the annoying bugs and perplexing glitches and the interface now had a much more polished appearance in general. Elite says the new version should be available for public download within days though, and it's certainly worth the hassle.
We also had some initial problems with the power readings, which were often within 10 percent of our reference Powertap but occasionally as far off as 30 percent, particularly on climbs. Though the RealPower CT resistance units come pre-calibrated from the factory, even Elite admits that it can only get within the ballpark since external factors such as tyre pressure, tyre type, roller contact and even temperature can create significant variability.
Thankfully, the system can also be calibrated based on your own setup and environment for much more accurate readings. The procedure is pleasantly straightforward - though it involves cranking out and sustaining over 500W twice - and power readings on the RealPower CT and our Powertap were then consistently within five percent of each other.
The software issues are simple enough to solve - especially given Elite's surprisingly good tech support - though we'd much rather not have to deal with them at all, particularly given the unit's price tag. Unfortunately, some of the associated hardware is also a little disappointing and there's no downloadable patch available for a quick fix there.
Elite's Elastogel roller provides excellent tyre grip and is exceptionally quiet but the basic steel frame to which it's attached has a relatively small footprint - just 60x43cm - so it isn't as stable as we'd like during all-out efforts. The slippery plastic feet tend to slide around on hard surfaces, too, and there is also no built-in adjustment to accommodate uneven floors. The frame folds for easier storage but the legs don't lock in place in either position - nor does the resistance unit with its heavy steel flywheel - and the single-side mounting system is easy to use but prone to flex.
We'd also prefer a cadence sensor that used something other than zip-ties for mounting on the chain stay. It's secure enough for sure but cumbersome if you plan on using the RealPower CT with multiple bikes - a likely scenario if there's more than one cyclist in the household. Up front, the handlebar-mounted console fits both standard and oversized bars but it's bulkier than it needs to be, and its low-profile casing doesn't clear four-bolt stem faceplates.
Moreover, the console's built-in HRM receiver only works with older 5mHz chest straps - not the newer 2.4GHz ones - and is prone to outside interference as a result (which is why HRM companies switched to 2.4GHz to begin with). Chances are that anyone looking at spending this much on a trainer has likely moved on to newer HRM technology quite some time ago (we had to dig an old strap out of a parts bin). Adding insult to injury is the fact that Elite doesn't even include a chest strap for your US$1950 outlay.
Finally, the RealPower CT is only compatible with Windows computers and Elite has no plans to offer a Mac version.
Good, but not as good as riding for real
As compared to nearly any conventional trainer, the Elite RealPower CT is a far more entertaining way to log indoor miles and the gap only grows depending on the severity of your respective winter season. And in spite of its premium US$1950 asking price, few purchases - save for a vacation home in Arizona perhaps - can carry you through to spring with a modicum of sanity as well as something like this.
Even so, that premium price becomes harder to justify in light of the unit's less mature stage of development. The hardware isn't up to snuff for the trainer's capabilities and the software is clearly a work in progress, though Elite seems to be putting in a fair amount of resources towards bringing it up to speed and has been steadily adding features.
More importantly, the RealPower CT's slick feature array and eye-catching video environment shine a little less brightly when held up to similar - and less expensive - options like the Tacx Fortius VR or more refined systems like Computrainer, which now offers its own video-controlled environments (at additional cost) and GPS course builder and download functionality, highly useful training features like SpinScan and more advanced analytical software that aren't available with RealPower, and a more ubiquitous user network to facilitate remote races.
The Elite RealPower CT is good for sure, but seems to have a little ways to go before it can truly be great.
Price: US$1950 (includes trainer, handlebar console, front wheel riser,
cadence sensor and magnet, system software, fifteen courses, and all associated
cables and hardware); US$65 (additional courses, each); US$265 (2007 Giro d'Italia
package with nine courses); US$295 (2008 Giro d'Italia package with nine courses)
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by James Huang/Cyclingnews.com