[This article was last updated on December 13, 2017]
Training at home is no longer a lonely winter slog as wireless-connected home trainers and apps let you race against riders all over the world.
Turbo trainers used to be a winter purchase. Sometime in September we’d resign ourselves to four or five months of rubbish weather, get out the credit card and shell out on a turbo trainer. Maintaining fitness through the winter then involved cold solo sessions in the garage, battling boredom as much as loss of form.
That’s all changed. Importers tell us they now sell more turbo trainers in the summer than the winter. Why? Because riders are competing against each other on line using smart trainers that either come with their own networks or work with third-party apps like Zwift, making intense training sessions at home more fun.
What’s a smart trainer?
A standard indoor trainer has a stand to support your bike at the rear wheel and a resistance unit driven by the rear tyre. In a smart trainer the resistance unit has built-in electronics that, at the very least, transmit your speed to an ANT+-capable device. Some smart trainers also include power meters so you can train by that metric too.
Fully smart trainers have the ability to be controlled remotely by software on a computer, phone or tablet. The app controls the resistance so you don't have to mess about with it, and the trainer also measures your power output so you can train to a precise target.
Some trainers are only what we'd describe as 'half smart'. They measure power, which is very useful, and can send that and other data wirelessly to your computer , phone or tablet, but but their resistance can't be controlled by software.
For a fully smart, contrrollable trainer, the function to look for is ANT+ FE-C capability. ANT+ is Garmin's wireless communication protocol, as used for speed sensors, heart rate monitors and like that. FE-C stands for Fitness Equipment Control and the clue's in the name: it's a set of commands over ANT+ that, well, control fitness equipment such as turbo trainers.
With a data stream from your trainer, you can hook up a laptop and tap into the trainer maker’s systems for less boring sessions, or to Zwift, which gives you the ability to ride with other people round the world.
You can use Zwift with just a regular trainer and ANT+ bike sensors, but more and more riders are choosing to go down the fully smart trainer route.
One very big advantage of fully smart trainers is ERG mode. Your software tells the trainer what resistance to provide and it does so, regardless of how fast you pedal. That means you don't have to think about what gear your bike's in, or concentrate on hitting a power target, you quite simply just pedal. It's kind of mindless, but meditative too, and it's an incredibly straightforward way to optimise your training.
A smart trainer also needs all the features that make a good regular trainer. That means a resistance unit that produces a realistic pedalling feel to better simulate riding on the road; a sturdy frame to support you and the bike, even under high-wattage efforts; and an easy-to-use claming mechanism.
It's also nice if the unit isn't too noisy, especially if, say, you live in a flat with downstairs neighbours or you don't want to be banished to the garage so the family can watch Eastenders.
Various accessories are available to make your trainer sessions more pleasant. A riser block for the front wheel will bring the bike level, while a trainer mat will keep sweat off your floor and help reduce the noise. A trainer-specific rear tyre is a good idea too, so you don't wear through your good tyre by pressing it against a little roller.
An accessory that's particular useful with a smart trainer is a laptop or tablet stand for the handlebars so you can tap into the smart features or use apps.
12 of the best smart trainers
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 Elite Direto is really impressive. It offers a smooth and realistic road feel, massive stability for your hardest interval sprints, easy compatibility with a host of training apps, and works with disc brake bikes. It's a good pick if you want to make a serious investment into indoor training this winter but can't stomach the £1,000+ price tags associated with the likes of the Elite Drivo, Wahoo Kickr and Tacx Neo.
One of the least expensive ways of getting into smart trainers, the Satori Smart works with iOS, Android and Windows. Its associated app is free to download for iOS and Android, with in-app fees for workouts, and €65 for the basic version for Windows.
You change the Satori Smart’s resistance with a 10-position controller on your handlebar that’s connected by a cable. That means apps like Zwift can’t control the resistance, but the Satori still works with it because it can communicate with your laptop or tablet using ANT+ or Bluetooth.
Tacx’ own app the app provides readouts of power, speed, cadence, heart rate (from a compatible heart rate monitor), energy output, ‘slope’ and so on. The initial calibration process for every training session is somewhat brutal, requiring a hefty power output from a cold start.
The app lets you create your own workout from this point, but pre-set workouts are also available as in-app purchases from the relevant app store, along with video play-throughs of a range of iconic routes. These scenic videos play in sync with your pedalling, creating a useful distraction to go along with the various statistics provided.
You can’t remotely control the resistance of this unit, but it provides power measurement, so you can use it with Zwift. It’s a sturdy unit that’s quiet and stable even under flat-out efforts, and has a very realistic pedalling feel.
The Road Machine uses Bluetooth to communicate with your iOS or Android device, so should work with a Bluetooth-capable laptop for Zwift purposes.
For general training purposes Kinetic provides its own phone and tablet app which includes a number of workouts, and has a straightforward interface. During a workout the display on the app shows a bold line across the screen which is your target power output, and a large dot that indicates your real time power output. Hold this dot on the line to follow the workout. Following the power encouraged smooth pedalling to create a level reading, which will clearly be an advantage when you're back on the road.
In autumn of 2016 Kinetic will release the Road Machine Smart Control with resistance that can be controlled wirelessly for the full virtual ride experience with Zwift and TrainerRoad.
One of the less expensive fully smart trainers, this is a well-made unit with resistance controlled from the software on your laptop or tablet, matching that of the virtual climb you are tackling. It’s a really solid option for a pretty reasonable price.
Its software runs on PC, Mac or a tablet (Android or iOS). You create a ride via the website, then fire up the software and do your workout. If you skip the website bit then you can pick a workout from a selection of 20 rides that other users have scheduled, play a velodrome game or re-ride something you'd previously recorded for real on Strava (you can pair the two things up).
With a paid subscription to the website you've got a wide selection of first-person video rides to choose from. The harder you pedal, the faster the footage plays, and the resistance varies with the gradient of the hill.
This gives an immersive experience that some riders prefer to the computer-games feel of Zwift. It looks best if you've got a nice big telly set up in front of you, and you’ll need a decent internet connection.
There is also some ability to ride agaonst others. If another user jumps on your ride once you've scheduled it then you can try to beat them, but for obvious reasons they don't appear on the road in front of you like they would on Zwift – it is just a video recording, after all. Your progress, and that of your rivals, is shown via indicators that travel across the bottom of the screen in a video session, or with other 3D cyclists in a 3D session.
In addition to other users, you can also compete with "bots" and "ghosts", respectively computer-generated opponents with varying characteristics, and other real riders who've done that route in the past.
This reassuringly solid unit has a very realistic ride feel. Wahoo relies on a range of third-party apps for functions beyond recording sessions, and because its devices have an open interface there are plenty of compatible apps, including Zwift.
We found the Kickr Snap’s power measurement under-read compared to a PowerTap and this needed Wahoo’s iPhone/iPad app to fix it, which is a bit annoying if you only have Android devices. Even corrected, it still under-read around 5%, which won’t be an issue if you do all your power sessions on the Kickr Snap, but is irritating if you want to compare against a bike-mounted meter.
This can be worked around, and other riders report very close correlation with their power meters.
It’s an easy job to pair the Kickr Snap with Zwift and TrainerRoad via a Garmin ANT+ dongle: you just plug in the dongle, start the apps and the Kickr is available to use.
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.
At full price (over £1,000) this now-discontinued indoor trainer was an expensive proposition, but at this price it's well worth considering. If you plan to do a lot of indoor training and want all the bells and whistles, it's a serious investment. The resistance unit itself is mains-powered, and Elite claim it can replicate gradients of up to 10%. It's controllable by ANT+, and the Real Axiom comes with an ANT+ USB stick to connect to your PC. With it hooked up to a computer, you can benefit from the big library of RealDVD courses, which will allow you to slog up Alpe d'Huez or your favourite climb.
If you're planning to buy a fully-featured indoor trainer to use with Zwift and similar apps, then the excellent CycleOps Hammer should be on your shortlist. It has a smooth, realistic pedalling feel, accurate power measurement, high maximum resistance, and an air of reassuring solidity. It even folds away for more compact storage.
It's also quiet, and a doddle to set up, but it's a very long way from cheap. Whether it's good value will depend on how seriously you take your indoor training.
The Elite Drivo is a top-drawer, powered, indoor trainer with Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ connectivity that's a cinch to hook up and get riding. The Drivo is aimed squarely at the cyclist with plenty of money burning a hole in her jersey pocket and for those with the means I can't imagine a much better training tool. It's a shame that the bottom-drawer aesthetic and some needless niggles let it down, because it's otherwise close to perfect.
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 £899 it's an investment of serious proportions.
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.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.