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.
Smart trainers have an ANT+ or Bluetooth wireless connection to a computer, phone, tablet or Apple TV box that's able to control the level of resistance to pedalling they impose
By controlling how hard you pedal, a smart trainer and software such as Zwift, TrainerRoad, Sufferfest and others can help you train to a power-output target, simulate hills or put you in a virtual racing or group-training session, which all helps make indoor training less dull
Most smart trainers are 'wheel-off' designs where your bike drives sprockets on the trainer; you'll need to buy a cassette to go with the trainer as few include one
The Covid-19 lockdown made indoor training far more popular than it was, causing smart trainers to sell out just about everywhere and there are still shortages
The ultimate luxury option is a trainer that's basically a complete stationary bike, with calibrated adjustability so the whole household can use it
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.
A few 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. However, this is increasingly uncommon.
For a fully smart, controllable 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.
Several new models of smart trainer were announced over the summer, but aren't yet actually shipping. For example, Tacx has a version 2 of the Flux trainer in the works, with the capability to take a bike with a long-arm rear derailleur; Elite has a successor to the well-regarded Drivo direct-drive trainer coming, imaginatively named the Drivo 2, and a major revamp of the Nero smart rollers, and the 2018 version of the Wahoo Kickr Smart is about to drop, as well as a cheaper version, the Kickr Core. Similarly, we're about to see updates to the CycleOps Hammer and Magnus trainers. For the most part, these new trainers are refinements of existing models, with smoother drive from heavier freewheels, extra built-in capabilities such as cadence sensing or the ability to take a wider variety of dropouts.
Look out for first looks and reviews as we get our hands on new trainers. Meanwhile, here's a look at our current favourites, many of which can be had for bargain prices at the moment.
Elite's Direto XR is a very solid smart trainer with accurate power. It's quiet and reliable, and it beats most of its direct competitors on price too.
In general use I found the Direto XR to be a well-behaved training companion. When you're riding around in Zwift or My E-training the trainer responds very well to changes in gradient, and is fully capable of making things really difficult on the steep stuff if you set the realism nice and high.
It's quiet and well-balanced, too, as top-end trainers generally are these days. In my setup of a bike, the trainer and a gym fan, it was the least noisy thing of the three. It feels very solid and planted, which is good in a durability sense but less so in terms of ride experience.
The Direto XR feels like a premium trainer, and at £824.99 it's at the lower end of what you'd expect to pay for one. It's directly competing with units like the Wahoo Kickr Smart Trainer V5 at £999.99, and the Saris H3 Direct Drive Smart Trainer at £849.99, and it's comparable to either in accuracy, performance and ride feel.
Overall, the Direto XR is a solid investment: it's a very good trainer, and you get a year's free access to a training platform thrown in. And even if you're not going to use that, it's still good value given the performance.
Wahoo's Kickr is one of the benchmark direct drive smart trainers, and this incarnation builds on previous versions with improved accuracy, no need for spin-down calibration, and Axis feet that provide a bit of side-to-side motion that makes the bike feel a bit more active underneath you.
In terms of the physical unit, the Kickr is the same as before. It's a direct drive design that uses a belt drive to transfer your power from the cassette – like some competitors Wahoo now includes an 11-speed cassette in the box – to a 7.3kg flywheel that's controlled by an electromagnetic resistance unit.
Wahoo's Kickr Bike is certainly an impressive bit of kit, with one of the nicest ride feels of any indoor trainer I've tried. It's hugely configurable and incorporates Wahoo's angle-adjusting Climb tech into a static bike, which is impressive.
Like all gym-style static bikes the Kickr is very adjustable. You can raise and lower the whole bike with a big lever on the seat tube, and the reach is adjustable at both the handlebar and the seat. I was a bit worried that the stem and seatpost adjustments – which are standard round tube profiles instead of chunky square-section beams – would feel a bit flimsy on a static bike, but I've had no issues with them at all.
The Kickr Bike does one thing that the other smart bikes don't do: it includes a tilt mechanism that physically simulates gradient. It can be set to automatically follow gradient if your preferred cycling app supports that, or it can be manually adjusted using the up/down buttons on top of the left-hand lever. You can switch between the two modes using a button on the side of the gear indicator box.
Tester Dave Atkinson used the Kickr Bike for about 1,500km of indoor riding, including a daft 500km charity ride that took 22 hours in total, and was impressed. It's a solid platform, the ride feel is excellent, the virtual gears are sufficiently good that you never really think about them, and the whole thing feels like a quality piece of kit.
The Tacx NEO 2T Smart is the next generation of what's already a well-regarded trainer. The new unit offers more powerful resistance at low speeds and is capable of very quick ERG power changes. It's quiet and capable, with accurate power numbers, and continues the trend of NEO trainers being excellent, although the ERG mode is a bit hardcore compared to some.
The Tacx Neo 2T is currently out of stock at all the 20 or so retailers we checked. The website of Tacx owner Garmin says "Expected availability 1st quarter 2021".
The Saris H3 is the newest in the line of trainers that started as the CycleOps Hammer back in the day. It's still recognisably from the same family, but a lot has changed: The new H3 is quieter, has higher resistance and faster resistance changes, and has really good cadence sensing. Plus the price has dropped by £150.
Want an even more authentic training feel? The H3 is available as a bundle with the Saris MP1 Motion Platform for £1,399.
Elite's Suito is probably the easiest of all the smart trainers to set up. It comes fitted with a cassette, so all you have to do is take your wheel off, fit your bike and plug it in. The power accuracy isn't quite as good as the more expensive units but it's plenty good enough to provide you with meaningful, repeatable training efforts.
(Currently out of stock everywhere, but Sigma Sports say they're expecting stock around February 3.)
The Tacx Flux S Smart is a fully-fledged smart direct drive trainer that you can pick up for not much more than £500; that's half the price smart trainers were costing a few years back. It's simple to set up and can simluate a maximum resistance of 1,500W and a climb of up to 10%. That's not up there with the big guns but it's fine for most training. The new version has clearance for a long-arm derailleur so you can use your gravel bike or MTB.
If you can't stomach the £1,000+ price tags associated with many direct-drive trainers then the Elite Direto-X is the next step down. Based on the performance of the original Direto it should offer much of the performance at a lower price point.
The Zumo sits below the Suito in Elite's range. It's not quite as powerful, and it doesn't come with a cassette, but it's still a good training aid and one of only a few direct drive smart trainers you can pick up for less than £500. Currently it's only available in Halfords stores, and unlike just about every other smart trainer out there it's not currently marked out of stock … though it's not available for delivery either. Sorry.
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.
Wattbike's Atom trainer was the first fully connected smart bike trainer that's designed for interactive training on platforms such as Zwift, TrainerRoad and The Sufferfest. It features controllable resistance via ANT+ and Bluetooth, 22 virtual gears, a big flywheel for a realistic road feel and a fully adjustable gym bike setup that makes it easy for more than one member of the family to use it regularly. Wattbike's own app offers in-depth pedalling analysis and the option to try your hand at famous climbs such as Alpe d'Huez.
The latest version of the Atom fixes two problems we had with it. WattBike says that the new Atom uses a custom-designed electromagnetic resistance system. The switch to an electromagnetic system like you would find in the Tacx Neo Bike and the Wahoo Kickr Bike means that “not only does the bike react faster to gradients in third-party apps such as Zwift and The Sufferfest, but its own gear changes are crisper and faster.”
If money's no object – and especially if more than one of your household likes to train indoors – then the Smart Bike Neo is one to consider. A proper gym-spec build coupled with the excellent Neo 2 resistance unit makes for a really excellent home training experience. The virtual gearing system is impressive, and this is the quietest smart trainer we've yet tried.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.