[This article was last updated on November 17, 2017]
By simulating riding, but out of the cold and dark, a turbo trainer or indoor trainer lets you keep fit when it's too nasty to ride outside.
The latest magnetic resistance trainers give a reasonable facsimile of riding on the road.
'Smart' trainers incorporate electronics to measure your power output and remotely control the resistance, making for very precise training and enabling on-line virtual racing.
Rollers improve balance and pedalling smoothness, and feel more road-like, but usually don't have more resistance than is necessary to turn the wheels.
Many riders now use an indoor trainer year-round to get the most out of limited training time and hone fitness away from the traffic.
Essential for some, an instrument of torture for others, a turbo trainer can be preferable to heading outdoors when it's thundering down with rain or the roads are covered in ice.
Granted, there's nothing quite like getting out there on the open road, but sometimes it can be too treacherous and a turbo trainer allows you to focus on your training through the winter months so you don't miss a ride. And if you're racing or planning to race, a turbo is a perfect way to do really high effort interval sets.
Many people swear by turbo trainers. If you're serious about your training and do a lot of competitive cycling, or are planning to, a turbo trainer is an excellent way of doing very specific and targeted training sessions. With heart rate monitors and power measuring devices to help you, it's possible to train very effectively on a turbo .
Turbo trainers aren't just for winter. Many use them for warming up before races and they can be used throughout the year to brush up on your top-end with sprint and high intensity training, without traffic or junctions getting in the way.
The advent of online training and racing apps like Zwift and TrainerRoad has added a new dimension to indoor riding. You can ride in virtual landscapes, following the provided training programs or ones you enter yourself, and there are group rides and races to help with your motivation. Most recent turbo trainers will work, but to get the most out of these apps, you want a smart trainer that can be controlled by the app so its resistance changes with the virtual slope you're riding.
A turbo trainer is a relatively simple device. The rear wheel is suspended in an A-frame and the tyre butts up against a roller connected to a resistance unit. This is the heart of the turbo trainer and is really where your money is going – the more expensive trainers have more advanced resistance units. If you're planning to use a turbo a lot of the coming winter, it can be worth paying a little more but, that said, we've found simple trainers fine for occasional use.
Resistance units come in three main varieties; air, fluid and magnetic. Air resistance turbos are usually more affordable due to their simplicity while fluid types offer a smoother and more realistic feel. Here's a brief explanation of each.
Air resistance: A fan generates wind resistance. These aren't the quietest option, however, and don't offer the best ride experience, but they are cheap. They're not adjustable, so the only way to change the resistance is to change gear on your bike.
Magnetic resistance:These are very popular at low to mid price points. A metal plate spins inside a magnetic field so they're simple to produce. You can buy magnetic trainers with adjustable resistance so you can tailor your workout. Spend a bit more and electro-magnetic units offer more control.
Fluid resistance: Usually more expensive because of the complex internals, these offer a quieter and much smoother ride. Inside the resistance unit an impeller revolves in oil and they can offer plenty of adjustment via handlebar mounted levers.
Adjusting the resistance
The cheapest trainers won't offer any resistance adjustment, leaving you to use the gears on your bike to make any adjustments. Often this can be more than enough, but if you want a turbo with adjustable resistance you're going to have to pay a bit more.
Basic turbos have a lever on the resistance unit but that makes it hard to adjust during a session, so look for one with a handlebar mounted remote lever to make on-the-fly changes.
More expensive turbos have complex electronic control units that mount to the handlebar and can deliver all sorts of information. Many of the expensive trainers will provide you with power measurement. Some will even plug into your computer as well.
There's been an explosion in the last few years of 'smart' trainers that hook up to your computer or television and display 3D or real world video so you can ride your favourite Alpine mountain or Belgian pavé. They automatically adjust the resistance based on the virtual terrain and can make time spent on a turbo trainer a lot more fun.
You can also use a smart trainer to carry out a programmed training session. The trainer takes care of providing the right resistance so that you work at a planned power output. This makes training on a turbo very time-efficient.
Look out for a trainer with ANT+ FE-C compatibility (the communications protocol that the app uses to control the trainer) as well as standard computer and phone connections like ANT+ and Bluetooth.
A turbo trainer needs to have a sturdy frame that won't flex or bend under your riding. A larger footprint and heavier frame will ensure it's more stable, which you do want if you're doing maximum-effort intervals in your kitchen.
Space can be a premium in many households and many turbos fold flat, but how much space they take up when folded down differs greatly from brand to brand.
Most trainers have adjustable legs or feet, so you can ensure you get the trainer perfectly level on uneven floors.
A turbo fixes to the quick release of the rear wheel, and often a quick release is be supplied with the turbo that is specifically compatible with the model. A cam locking system adjusts two cones that clamp around the skewer.
The better models get ergonomic levers that make setting up a breeze. Most trainers also accommodate various sizes of wheels, and some feature a latch to bring the roller up against the wheel, saving you from having to set the roller each time you begin a session.
Perhaps the least attractive aspect of a turbo trainer is the noise they make. It can sound like a plane taking off and that can pose problems if you live in close proximity to your neighbours.
Live in a first or second floor flat? Don't expect your neighbours to be happy with the racket as you hit the first of your interval sets. Special turbo trainer tyres use a harder rubber compound that can decrease the noise (and wear out more slowly), and you can get mats to go under the turbo to stifle the noise.
As well as a turbo trainer, there are a couple of other accessories that you might want to consider, but they're not essential. One is a stand for the front wheel. As the frame of the trainer holds the back wheel a couple of inches in the air, it's worth propping the front wheel up. An appropriately sized book does the trick, but you can buy a purpose-made block that lifts the front wheel in the air.
A turbo trainer mat is designed to protect the floor from all the dripping sweat, which is useful if you're planning to set-up your trainer in the house and are worried about the floors, and can be wiped clean afterwards. They can be useful in flats as well as they can deaden some of the noise. Of course you could use a strip of old carpet which will do a similar job.
A turbo's roller is usually made of metal, and the heat generated by its friction with the tyre can accelerate the tyre's wear and eventually flatten the profile of the once round tyre. For that reason you don't want to be using your best tyres if you do plan to do a lot of time on a trainer. A good idea is to fit an old tyre or dedicated training tyre to your wheel, or even better a spare wheel. A specific turbo trainer wheel and tyre might seem an unnecessary expense, but turbo training tyres are made from a harder compound rubber so they don't wear out as quickly, and should keep the noise down a bit too.
The problems of tyre wear, and to a certain extent noise, are avoided or reduced with a direct drive trainer. You simply remove the rear wheel and hook the chain over the trainer's own sprockets. The resistance unit is often enclosed in a housing that helps keep the noise down and direct drive turbos often have very large flywheels for a smooth pedalling feel.
The turbo trainer choice
So what can you expect for your money? How much you should spend on an indoor trainer is a difficult question to answer; you need to be honest with yourself about how much you think you might actually use the trainer. There are lots of dusty trainers hidden away at the backs of garages or stashed in lofts.
If it's just for occasional use then one of the cheaper trainers will be just fine, but if you plan to log many weekly hours on a trainer that you will appreciate the better ride quality, stability and resistance levels of a more expensive trainer. Generally the more expensive trainers with fluid resistance units are quieter, and so better suited to using in the house or a flat, if you're concerned about annoying the neighbours.
When to buy
Trainer prices rise in the autumn and are lowest in the early summer. If you're planning a winter programme of indoor training, plan well ahead and shop accordingly.
There are far too many good turbos to recommend them all here, but we've tested a broad selection over the years, and used many others, so here is our selection of 17 of the best across a range of prices.
Showing you don't have to spends hundreds of pounds on a trainer, the Clarke CCTI Bike Trainer is a well priced magnetic trainer at £77.99. It's simple, and sturdy, has a handlebar mounted control for the resistance unit, and is ideal for occasional use, or for anyone looking to buy their first trainer.
The Elite Novo Force is a magnetic trainer and has a remote lever, which you mount to the handlebar, offering a choice of five resistance levels, so you can tailor your workout. The resistance unit is mounted so the rear wheel sits lower in the frame creating a more stable ride. The ElastoGel roller is intended to keep the noise down to a decent level, as well as decrease tyre wear.
Tacx's Booster Turbo Trainer is stable, easy to set up and folds away for convenient storage or to pop in the car to take to races. Its main features are that it can provide a very high level of resistance and its fan and magnetic resistance unit are surrounded by a plastic housing, so you can't burn yourself on them when they get hot. It's compatible with Zwift, so it's a relatively inexpensive way to get into connected training, especially as it can typically be found for a lot less than its £210 RRP.
If you plan to be a regular turbo trainer user, then the fluid resistance of the CycleOps Fluid2 offers a very realistic road-like feel, with infinitely adjustable resistance that increases the faster you pedal.
Kinetic's Road Machine Smart trainer comes with Kinetic's inRide sensor technology installed, for app-based power training. Its performance is excellent. It gives a fantastic ride feel, is rock solid, incredibly quiet, and delivers consistent power measurement via the inRide app. The only negative is that the cadence reading is erratic.
If you're really serious about indoor training, another option you might want to consider is something like the Elite Turbo Muin trainer. The main difference to regular trainers is that you remove the rear wheel and bolt the frame into the trainer, which has its own cassette mounted to the unit. The advantage this system offers is the increased flywheel size that results in potentially much less noise, and higher levels of maximum resistance, up to a claimed 2,000 Watts.
If you want to use the Turbo Muin with an app like Zwift (and trust us, you do) then you'll need the more recent Smart B+ version, not the older versions you'll find cheaper.
Not to be confused with this Cyclops silencer,the CycleOps Silencer is a direct drive magnetic trainer that provides a realistic ride feel and, as its name suggests, it's very quiet. You alter the magnetically controlled resistance via a handlebar mounted lever, so you can simulate hills. CycleOps don't give a measure of resistance provided by the Silencer, but our tester struggled to maintain a cadence of 40rpm for a minute in the hardest setting with a standard chainset. There's enough resistance here for all but the very strongest of sprinters doing the shortest of sprints.
The Bkool Smart Go is one of the cheapest proper smart trainers you can buy. And it puts in a very decent performance, provided that you're more interested in the online riding experience than super-accurate measurement of your power. As a way into the full experience of Zwift, it's pretty easy to recommend.
The JetBlack WhisperDrive is a direct drive trainer with magnetic resistance, and it's very quiet. Direct drive means your bike connects directly to the trainer, rather than your rear wheel turning a roller. The initial setup is relatively straightforward, although the WhisperDrive doesn't come with a cassette fitted so you'll need to install one yourself.
The WhisperDrive comes with a 5.9kg flywheel and the resistance is provided by magnetism. You get seven different levels of resistance that you can control via a handlebar adjuster and, of course, you can shift through the gears on your bike exactly as you would out on the road.
We haven't tested this version of the Smart Pro yet, but we really liked the previous model and its kid brother the Smart Go, so we'd be very surprised if this one isn't worth a look too.
The Tacx Flux Smart is currently the closest thing there is to an inexpensive fully smart direct drive indoor trainer. It's a doddle to set up and get started, measures your power to a useful level of accuracy and consistency, and works with popular virtual riding applications such as Zwift to make indoor training less dull. It's not cheap, but it's good value compared to its competition.
It's also fairly quiet, so the family can watch TV in the next room and you won't annoy your downstairs neighbours if you live in a flat. But most importantly, it's so straightforward to use that it actually makes indoor training – dare I say it? – fun.
Wahoo's Kickr power trainer offers a very smooth and realistic road feel, is simple to use and is compatible with an increasing number of apps that give you access to a huge virtual training world. But at £999 it's scarily expensive, an investment of serious proportions.
The Elite Drivo is one of the best of the new generation of direct-drive smart trainers. It has ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity and software like Zwift and TrainerRoad can control its resistance to tailor your training. It can provide up to 2,000 watts of resistance and simulate a 24% slope should you want to imagine you're training up Rosedale Chimney.
Elite claims the Drivo's power measurement is accurate to within 1%, which is as good as it gets, and it's very quiet. There are some small niggles such as its Star Wars At-AT looks and its resistance can be a bit enthusiastic if you stop pedalling when using ERG mode, but otherwise this is an excellent piece of kit.
Famously designed with input from Sir Chris Hoy, the Wattbike is a staggeringly good bit of kit but its price limits it to those most seriously interested in home trainer. If you're interested in the Wattbike you'll want to know that it's one of the most advanced home trainers currently available. Smooth resistance with stacks of adjustment from the huge fan up front, and it spits out more data than you'll know what to do with. It can be plugged into your computer to thoroughly analyse each session.
The alternative: Rollers
If you watch track cycling, you'll have seen the athletes using rollers to warm up and cool down on. Rollers are simple metal frames with three rollers, or drums. Two of the drums are attached with a band so that when you're cycling, both wheels rotate.
It takes a lot of skill to ride rollers comfortably though and you need a good deal of patience as there's nothing clamping the bike in place. Most rollers don't offer any resistance adjustment, but there are now rollers with integrated resistance adjustment, such as the Elite Real E-Motion rollers. People like rollers because they can feel a lot closer to actually riding a bike on the road.
They can be a lot more fun too. A major benefit of using rollers is they hone your balance and bike handling skills, and many say they improve the smoothness of your pedalling style. They're much easier to set up than a turbo.
The LR700 rollers have a simple design that doesn't falter on usability. With a standard three roller design, they manage to be small enough to store away at 554mm width and 766mm when compacted. They can be kept down the side of the tumble dryer, under a table or just tucked into a corner.
Kinetic's Z-Rollers are very good, especially if you need to pack your pain cave away after every session, or you want to sling them in the car for a race warm-up.They are a simple enough design: the standard three rollers are bolted into a frame that articulates at two points so you can fold it back on itself, in the shape of a Z. See? It's not just a clever name. That makes these Kinetic rollers the most compact we've seen when it comes to putting them away. They'll fit in a blue Ikea bag.
The luxury option in rollers, Elite's E-Motion model works with the company's RealAxiom software to simulate famous climbs and routes that you watch unfold on your PC. Unlike most rollers there's a resistance unit built into this one, and the rollers are mounted on a sprung frame that sits in a static chassis, so it's capable of moving fore and aft underneath you. This is a bit disconcerting at first but feels quite natural once you get used to it.
[This article was last updated on August 8, 2017]
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.