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Tri-Newbies Online Free Triathlon Training Plans

Interview: Chuck Wurster - Vice President  Computrainer
Hazen Kent - Tri-Newbies Online

In 1992, while hanging out at the local bike shop in Charleston, SC, I had the opportunity to observe the shop owner demonstrate a fascinating bicycle trainer that displayed incredible images and statistical data via a television screen. I was blown away! It was my first exposure to a CompuTrainer™ and a year later, I purchased my very own. At that time, the graphics were supported through a NintendoÒ and the SpinScan™ software came loaded on the classic 5-inch cardboard floppy discs. Well, 11 years later (light-years in techy terms!), I am training on the newest version of CompuTrainer™, but my original machine is still going strong!

Since 1986, the folks at RacerMate, creators of the CompuTrainer™ have been providing the cycling and triathlon industry with the most up-to-date interactive tools for indoor bicycle training. Others have tried to duplicate their quality and sophistication, but none have risen to meet the challenge.

I had the opportunity to share some time with Chuck Wurster, Vice President at RacerMate and gain some insight about the genius behind this incredible cycling tool.

I remember first seeing a CompuTrainer™ demonstrated back in 1992.  I was blown away! Shortly thereafter, I purchased my own. Who was the mastermind behind the creation of this incredible training tool?  How did the idea of a high tech, stationary bicycle trainer come about?

Originally, we were [and still are] in the marine electronic instrumentation business for gasoline and diesel engines. Which is why our approach from the onset has been heavily technical. We started the business back in 1969 under the name of FloScan Instrument Company. Then, in 1976 Wilford Baatz, my colleague and a mechanical design engineer, invented the first wind trainer…

Really! No kidding!…

Yea…He introduced the wind trainer at the Los Angeles bike show. Over the next few years, we built up our sales to 20-30 thousand trainers per year. However, by then, the competition started rolling in and within a couple of years there were about 10-12 different manufacturers in the wind trainer business. Eventually, one of the Japanese manufacturers developed the magnetic trainer. This was a much quieter machine and put a real dent in our wind trainer sales. We felt that this was the beginning of the demise of the wind trainer business. So, we decided to go one better. We thought to ourselves…”if the quietness of a magnetic trainer is the appealing factor [in this industry], we will build an electromagnetic trainer that will be computer controlled.” Consequently, the resulting product was the first CompuTrainer™.

So was the first CompuTrainer a NintendoÒ-backed machine at that point?

Actually, the earliest models were backed by the Commodore 64! And then it went to Nintendo® and then eventually to the PC.

And when did you come aboard?

I was actually the first corporate employee in 1969.

So how did you all go from creating marine instruments to include  computer bicycle trainers?

Wilford [Baatz] was a cyclist in his youth and the genesis of the wind trainer was based on the fact that we reside in Seattle (rainy winters!). He had a brand new custom built frame and wanted a means to train during the winter months without getting out on the wet roads so he invented the wind trainer!

It was around 1996 that you all made the jump to 3D imaging and began to move away from the Nintendo/television combination and more towards the PC. Although the computer industry was definitely booming at that time, computers were still not a household item like they are today.  And moving from something that every house could have [television version backed by a Nintendo® game box] to a computer version seems like a bold move. This obviously took some foresight. How did that come about?

Well, actually, Nintendo® discontinued their original game boxes and we were able to use these discontinued boxes and neuter them to apply to our needs. Keep in mind, by doing this, it allowed us to use their product without having a corporate relationship. Unfortunately as Nintendo® became popular, their technology began to improve resulting in better equipment. Add to that the fact that this bicycle type business (computer stationary trainers) has such small volumes relative to the gaming industry [even at that time] that we were never going to get a company like Nintendo® or Sony® to work with us. So we had to make some hard decisions if we were going to continue developing our product. Nintendo® eventually quit making the original boxes all together and we could not use their newer equipment so we had to turn to a general computer. Which actually enabled us to use better graphics. And yes, it was a bold move. It cost us the better part of a $1,000,000 to move to a PC backed product with all the software development, etc.

And as you mentioned, moving to the PC enhanced the graphics of the CompuTrainer, which really took it to an entirely new level.

The graphics were originally created by Jim Sachs, who is arguably one of the top five computer graphic artists in the world. Fortunately, we just happened to be lucky enough to catch him at a time when he had some free time.

I remember visiting the CompuTrainer tent at Ironman® Florida 2001 and seeing a demo of the 3D version on a laptop and was amazed at the clarity of the graphics. Which adds a whole new dimension of quality and portability!

Absolutely. Originally, we used to carry around a computer and a television monitor to the events. However, today, we simply take along a laptop. With the quality of today’s laptop and the video cards that come standard with these computers, it’s a no-brainer. But understand, any contemporary computer has the adequate computing power to run a CompuTrainer™. The difference of quality, especially for the 3D software lies in the quality of video card within the computer. And obviously, there are some cards out there that are better than others.

I would assume that the CompuTrainer has been popular among professional cyclists and cycling teams? But it would appear that it has made a huge impact on the triathlon industry? Where do you find the trend is heading today – more towards triathlon or is the cycling industry still dominate?

For us, actually, the cycling industry has never been a huge factor in the sales of our product. It certainly did during our wind trainer days, which was long before the days of triathlon, but we assumed of course, when we created the CompuTrainer™, that it would be the cycling market that would run with it. However, it turned out that that wasn’t so. So we looked around for other markets and happened upon the triathlon market during the early days of the sport (the mid to late 80’s). And triathletes seem to take to it right away. It became apparent that time was and still is a large factor for triathletes in terms of training. Triathletes have to train for three sports and the CompuTrainer™ saves a great deal of time allowing you the ability to actually schedule when you want to do your bicycle training. Then as time went on, we found that triathletes were pretty techy as well and were willing to try the latest gadget. When they tried the CompuTrainer™, they discovered that it improved their performance by 20-30%. Eventually, pro triathletes began to approach us. And now we have 50-70 professional triathletes using our product. And in fact, this year’s female U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team – Barb Lindquist, Sheila Taormina and Susan Williams - were all “Compu–Trainers.”  And for the 2000 Olympics, 5 out of the six men and women competing in triathlon were CompuTrainer™ users as well. They just found it was an indispensable tool for top-notch performance.

It really has become a testing center or “lab” for the serious cyclist. You can work on efficiency as related to bike position and pedal stroke, it provides data regarding watts, cadence, balance, heart rate, as well as the ability to motor pace, time trail against another rider, climb hills up to a 15% grade and more! All without the danger of automobiles or the high cost of a real exercise lab. And through a variety of statistical data, you can receive immediate feedback. I imagine it has become a popular tool for Triathlete coaches as well?

Our ambition is of course to have every coach [triathlon and cycling] using a CompuTrainer™ as part of their testing and training gear. Today, there are probably in the neighborhood of 400 coaches in the country using the CompuTrainer™ and we continue to sell our product to coaches each week. And not only are the independent coaches using it, but organized groups are using the CompuTrainer™ as well. In fact, the Canadian Cycling Association has been using it for years as their primary testing and training tool and use it perhaps more extensively then any other organized group. But it is quickly becoming popular among many of today’s USAT and USA Cycling coaches.  And with the development of our Multi-Rider Software™ (which we discuss later in this interview) we may see things take a more cycling-oriented direction. There is an ad currently in VeloNews® showing a  Multi-Rider™ set up in Philadelphia and its amazing how may cyclists have called us in response to the ad. And if that catches on, which it looks like it will, it could very much push the interest into the cycling industry in a much stronger way. As a matter of fact, we have people in Holland who want to set up multi-rider cycling centers which is the first time we have gotten independent interest in Europe. We have been pretty strong in England but up until now, nothing throughout Europe.

In the past couple of years, you all have introduced some new items to your arsenal of high tech indoor cycling training aids…

When I bought my first CompuTrainer™ back in 1993 , I went out, and purchased topographical maps (topo maps) of the various areas where I planned on racing. I then called you guys for the formula for figuring percent of grade and created my own courses. The only problem was, I had these huge 2’ x 4’ maps spread out all over my floor (like a puzzle) while running my little measuring wheel along the highlighted race course. It took forever! Then, in 2000, you all came out with your TOPO Software™, which pretty much allows anyone to build any course they wish from around the United States at the push of a button (so to speak).

The company we work with is called DeLORME - one of the leaders in the field of topographical mapping and software - located in Maine. They have topographical software discs for the entire United States. And we collaborated with them on an exclusive basis where by they have modified their software so the user can delineate a course on their software, then their software exports to us the longitude, latitude and altitude points every few feet on the course and our course creation software automatically takes all that data and converts it into a three dimensional course. And what is exciting is, not only do we create courses here for our site and our customers, the triathletes have provided excellent courses as well. We have created the bike courses from many of the major races from around the country including the Ironman® races and well known olympic distance races and we continue building courses. We even went to Athens and surveyed with our own altimeter the Athen’s Olympic bike course for the US athletes, which is available to the public as well. Today there are a couple hundred courses that we have built (and we are continually adding courses to our website) that come loaded on the CD ROM with your CompuTrainer. But if there is a race or races we do not have, the individual can purchase the topo map discs and build their own course via our software.

Then you developed the Velotron™ in 2002. Is this more of a commercial grade product?

Well, it is certainly a bit more expensive than a CompuTrainer. It sells for about $5000-7000 depending upon how it is equipped. It is more accurate than a CompuTrainer and is primarily used in the sports science field. However, there are individuals of which the cost is not a concern who simply want the best and who have invested in their own Velotron. But it is primarily becoming the bicycle ergometer for universities and sports science labs around the country and Canada.

And recently the development of the adjustable crankset…

This we developed because it goes so well with either the CompuTrainer or Velotron. After all, these are both scientific quality ergometers. And if you want to determine what your optimum crank length is, what better way than to be able to sit on a CompuTrainer and read your results (i.e. efficiency/wattage/output) at various lengths to determine what is best for you.

Probably the coolest thing you all have launched is the Multi-Rider Software™. I remember a couple of years ago, during a phone conversation, you mentioned you all were working on a software package based on the concept of team time trailing with the CompuTrainer. The idea being, several riders could ride and race together and against each other indoors. Since that time the idea has become reality and the popularity has exploded. Please explain this concept and how far has it come today?

The concept really developed about 10 years ago. At that time, during the early years of the Internet, we thought it would be neat for multiple cyclists to race over the phone - modem racing! So, we built the software, it worked and it was fun. But, it never really caught on and we didn’t really push it. More recently, about 2 years ago, Team Psycho in Boston came to us. They wanted to do for their wintertime bicycle training what Concept 2 Inc. (manufactures of the Concept 2™ Rowing Machine) has done for rowers worldwide. For over 10 years, Concept 2 has been holding indoor rowing competitions nationwide and worldwide (some events being held at MIT in the Boston area) and some of the members of Team Psycho wanted to do something similar with their CompuTrainer™. So, one of the team members tried this in his garage with three or four CompuTrainers™, and all who participated loved it! Consequently, they contacted us and asked if we’d be interested in the further development of this concept. And we said yes. About the same time, we found out there was a bike club in Chicago that had been running indoor time trials for about 5 years. So these two experiences indicated to us that this multi-rider idea might lead to something. So we decided to generate special software to make it easier to accomplish the task of handling more than two riders. Our previous software could only handle two riders with two CompuTrainers™ so if you wanted to race eight people you had to rig up eight different CompuTrainers™ to four computers, which really was a logistical nightmare. So we created the software and a USB hub that would allow 8 CompuTrainers™ to run (through the hub) off one computer, which we completed this year (2004). Now there are about 10 groups around the US and one in Canada that are involved and sure enough, it has been a big success. And everybody has loved it! Not only did they like it in terms of assessing their performance, but they really enjoyed being in a group environment similar to a spinning class.

Specifically, you can have as many as eight cyclists viewing one screen displaying all eight lined up along the starting line with each rider having his/her own lane complete with a variety of statistical data provided for each lane.  The screen says “ready, set, go…” and everyone takes off! And each of the riders and can see how they are doing relative to each or all of the racers.

So now you guys are marketing an entire  Multi-Rider™ package which consists of  eight CompuTrainers, the USB hub, etc. for a specific fee…basically a Training Studio?

Exactly, we are selling a training studio! And we are getting all kinds of interest in having these studios set up by individuals, teams and coaches. Which has also helped generate more interest in the cycling industry as well. Initially we discovered that cyclists weren’t as enthusiastic as triathetes about indoor training for whatever reason. But they are certainly interested in having fun and racing and training together. It’s the combination of a group training activity with the fact that it makes indoor training fun that has really led to its popularity.

And this is probably the next to last step for us in developing the software for real time internet or online bike racing where you have multiple individuals from around the country and world racing each other in real time via this Multi-Rider Software™.

Wow! How cool would that be, to get together with eight friends from around the country or world and train together as often as you’d like! As a CompuTrainer owner, I can’t wait! I’d like to thank Chuck Wurster for providing us with the inside scoop behind the genius of the Computrainer  and for all of his support of Tri-Newbies Online and friendship over the past few years.

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