Wahoo Fitness KICKR Climb review: Oddly engaging for indoor aficionados
The Wahoo Fitness KICKR Climb “Indoor Grade Simulator” is a product that makes little sense on paper. Its sole function is to move the front of your bike up and down in concert with whatever is happening on-screen in Zwift, TrainerRoad, or other virtual training environments. It’s expensive. It’s big and bulky. It also only works with the latest Wahoo Fitness trainers; Tacx, CycleOps, Elite, and other owners need not apply. Not everything in life has to be 100% logical, however, and the KICKR Climb seems to be one of them. Because despite what your impressions may be of this widget, the reality is that it’s strangely entertaining to use.
Simple in theory, tricky in execution
There’s not much to the KICKR Climb in terms of hardware, at least from the layman’s point of view. Inside the tall case is a powerful electric motor and toothed belt drive to move the fork carriage up and down. The top of the unit includes a receptacle for the wired remote control (which can be attached to your handlebar should you prefer manual control), while down below is a weighted base to help keep things stable.
The fork carriage has tool-free interchangeable axle caps to fit 100x9mm quick-release, and 100x12mm, 100x15mm, and 110x15mm thru-axle hubs.
And that’s about it.
The trick is getting all of this to operate smoothly when you’re riding on Zwift or TrainerRoad, but Wahoo Fitness seems to have pulled that off nicely. Pairing the KICKR Climb to a compatible current-generation KICKR or KICKR Snap trainer is easy. Assuming you have the latest firmware, all you have to do is push a button on the KICKR Climb, and the two devices basically just find each other automatically.
Another neat feature is the ability to connect a Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT or ELEMNT Bolt computer to the system, which allows you to recreate the resistance and physical grade profiles of rides you’ve done in the real world.
Once you’ve got everything set up, the KICKR Climb responds promptly each time the road virtually kicks up or down, angling the bike (and you) up or down in kind without ever feeling jerky or rough.
The KICKR Climb is pretty quiet, too, with just a little whirring when the axle carriage is in motion, most of which is drowned out by the sound of the trainer, anyway.
Wahoo Fitness says the KICKR Climb can simulate uphill grades up to 20%, or downhill grades down to 10%, and it feels about right. The effect isn’t just for entertainment, either, as both positions legitimately engage different muscles than you’d otherwise be using were the bike level all the time.
Whether that yields a tangible difference in terms of training, I can’t say, but it feels more realistic, and that’s arguably the whole point here. Zwift and other simulators have made leaps and bounds in terms of making riding indoors more palatable, but the fact of the matter is that you’re still just sitting there, working hard but going nowhere. Merely angling the bike uphill or downhill obviously doesn’t change that, but as skeptical as I was initially about the KICKR Climb, I was genuinely — and pleasantly — surprised by what it added to the experience.
Bumps on the virtual road
Perhaps the biggest knock against the KICKR Climb is that only owners of current-generation Wahoo Fitness KICKR or KICKR Snap trainers can experience the sensation for themselves. One issue is the specific electronic hardware required, but another is the fact that few trainers allow attached frames to pivot freely at the rear dropouts. Without that motion, repeated up-and-down motion will eventually wear into the frame. Either way, no other trainers are compatible at the moment, although it’s possible that new trainers from other companies might work in the future.
My early-production KICKR Climb was also worlds more refined than the early prototype I sampled last August, but it still isn’t perfect. The upward and downward movement is fairly smooth, but not entirely so, and the increments aren’t infinitesimally small; rather, the unit seems to only react at full-integer changes in grade, not more subtle undulations.
Wahoo Fitness has clearly been paying more attention to industrial design with its latest products, and the sleek appearance of the KICKR Climb is no exception. It looks and feels like a premium product, as it should given the heady price tag. But that said, the product’s designers missed a couple of potential opportunities.
First, while I applaud the decision to include four sets of axle end caps, but there’s no on-board storage for the unused pieces. The KICKR Climb is hardly small, and it seems like there easily could have been a compartment, or even individual sockets, to hold the extra caps. As is, multiple users with different fork interfaces will need to keep those parts somewhere handy, and single-bike KICKR Climb purchasers who might eventually upgrade down the line will have to remember someday where they put the things.
Second, there’s a lot of power required to repeatedly move the combined mass of the rider and bike up and down, and there’s undoubtedly a pretty big motor inside the KICKR Climb’s tall housing. Unfortunately, there’s also a chunky power adapter to go with it. Perhaps there’s a good reason why Wahoo Fitness couldn’t build that directly into the base of the KICKR Climb for a cleaner appearance, but I’m not sure what that would be. If anything, adding more weight to the bottom of the KICKR Climb would be good for stability.
Speaking of which, I wasn’t sure what to expect when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle with the KICKR Climb installed instead of a front wheel, but in hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stability always comes primarily from the rear trainer itself, so there was essentially no difference here. That said, there’s some play in the axle carriage of the KICKR Climb that lets the bars wiggle left and right a bit. It’s not a functional issue, mind you, but I found it a little off-putting nonetheless.
Repeat ad nauseum — literally
Not everyone will be comfortable with the additional layer of realism the KICKR Climb provides. At one point during my testing, I was curious just how immersive an experience I could get by adding another dimension of motion, moving my setup almost right up against a big-screen television — sort of like a poor man’s IMAX theater.
The result was a little surprising.
Although no one will ever confuse Zwift with the real world, adding the up-and-down movement of the KICKR Climb to the already-realistic feel of the resistance unit does legitimately make an experience that was far more lifelike than I had anticipated. In fact, I found it to almost be a little disorienting, especially on sections of “road” with more frequent changes in grade. Keep in mind that I’m generally pretty immune to motion sickness. My wife, however, is much more sensitive, and had to either turn the KICKR Climb off, or move further away from the screen. Your experience may vary, of course, but riders prone to queasiness may want to keep this in mind.
Makes no sense. Still fun to use.
Overall, I was genuinely impressed by how much the KICKR Climb added to the experience of riding indoors. Is it a good value? At a hefty US$600 / AU$750 / £450 / €500, the answer to that question is an emphatic “no.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t desirable.
Riders who only train indoors occasionally will invariably have a hard time justifying the expense for what will ultimately be a novelty, but those with more rigorous indoor training regimens might want to start saving their pennies.
The KICKR Climb still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on paper, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t curiously fun to use.