Buyers Guide: Buying a turbo trainer

What to look for when buying your first turbo trainer

by David Arthur   October 29, 2013  

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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.

Resistance unit

A turbo trainer is a relatively simple design. The rear wheel is suspended in an A-frame and the tyre butts up against a roller in 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 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.

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Resistance units usually 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 also have limited adjustability, leaving just the gears on your bike the only available adjustment.

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 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 will 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.

We're starting to see a lot of trainers that will 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 will automatically adjust the resistance based on the terrain and can make time spent on a turbo trainer a lot more fun.

Frame

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 max interval efforts in your kitchen.

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Space can be a premium in many households and many turbos will fold flat, but how much space they take up when folded down differs greatly from brand to brand.

Most trainers will have adjustable legs or feet, so you can ensure you get the trainer perfectly level on uneven floors.

Wheel mount

A turbo fixes to the quick release of the rear wheel, and often a quick release will be supplied with the turbo that is specifically compatible with the model. A cam locking system will adjust two cones that clamp around the skewer.

The better models get ergonomic levers that make setting up a breeze. Most trainers will 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.

Noise

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.

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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.

Accessories

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 proper '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 worred 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.

Th heat generated by the usually metal rollers can accelerate the wear of a tyre, and will 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 tyre might seem an unnecessary expense, but they're made from a harder compound rubber so they don't wear out as quickly, and should keep the noise down a bit too.

The turbo trainer choice

So what can you expect for your money? How much you 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 a fluid units are quieter, and so better suited to using in the house or a flat, if you're concerned about annoying the neighbors.

There are far too many turbos to recommend here, so here are a few picks from recent road.cc reviews to give an idea of what you can get at different prices. You can see all the reviews here. You can also see the top ten turbo trainers from £150 to £2,250 here.

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, sturdy and has a handlebar mounted resistance unit, and is ideal for occasional use, or for anyone looking to buy their first trainer.

The Tacx Blue Matic (£159.99) is another magnetic trainer like the Elite with a simply wheel mounting system that should make it easy to get the bike positioned and ready to go. You get 10 levels of resistance with a handlebar mounted level, and the resistance unit has a maximum resistance level of 700 Watts, that should be plenty for many people.

The £179.99 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

If you have best laid plans to be a regular turbo trainer user, then the fluid resistance of the £285 Saris Fluid2 offers a very realistic road-like feel, with infinitely adjustable resistance that increases the faster you pedal.

If you're really serious about indoor training this winter, another option you might want to consider is something like the new Elite Turbo Muin trainer (£499.99). 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.

Staring at the garage wall can seriously dent your motivation. There is an increasing choice of trainers that are packaged with virtual reality or, in the case of the Bkool (£429.99), real-world video training rides. Hook the trainer up to a computer, fire up the software, and you can be cycling on a sun-drenched Alpine pass. All in the comfort of your own living room.

And if budget is no obstacle, then perhaps the best indoor trainer you can buy is the Wattbike which, as the name implies, measures your power. Designed with input from Team GB, it's the ultimate indoor trainer although it's pricey at £1,650.00.

The alternative: Rollers

If you watched any of the track cycling over the summer, 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. There's no resistance adjustment but they feel a lot closer to riding a bike on the road than most turbos. 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.