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 online 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.
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.
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.
"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 ultimate luxury option is a trainer that's basically a complete stationary bike, with calibrated adjustability so the whole household can use it
At the top of the turbo trainer pile sits the Tacx Neo 2T. It's a super-capable smart trainer that has a resistance unit able to simulate road surfaces by altering the resistance hundreds of times a second. If you want the best direct-drive trainer, this is currently it.
The Neo 2T revision 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.
Tester Dave writes: "The NEO 2T's resistance unit isn't exactly the same as the NEO 2, but it's a similar beast, and it has the same characteristics. Those characteristics are: it's very good at giving repeatable numbers that you can trust to be pretty close to what you're actually putting out, and generally it reads at the lower end of what I'd expect from my legs, given a few years of trying all sorts of trainers and power meters."
"The work that Tacx has done on the resistance unit should mean that it's capable of doing pretty much anything, but at the moment it feels a bit like it's turned up to 10. It needs to be backed off a notch, or maybe user-configurable for feel. Some people might like the current feel.
"The flip side of that is that if you're riding around in Zwift then the gradient changes in the game are more quickly and accurately represented. On the Suito, for example, if you're riding the rollers at the start of Titan's Grove then it can sometimes feel like the climbs on the trainer are lagging behind what you're seeing on the screen a bit, and that's never a problem with the NEO 2T: as soon as you see the gradient tick up you can feel the hill kick in.
"If you're looking for a top-end indoor trainer then it's easy to recommend, as are its competitors. At that top level I'd say the Saris H3 is the best value right now, and the NEO 2T – with its better cadence sensing, road feel and the ability to power itself – is probably the pick in terms of features. Whether the extras are worth the £350 hike will depend on how much you value them, and what you'll be doing with the trainer."
Elite's Suito sits at the cheaper end of the direct drive trainer market but it's well made and performance is great. As the basis for a lower-budget smart setup it's an excellent starting point. It now comes in two versions: Suito, with a cassette included for £595 and Suito-T without. Given that a 105 cassette can be had for £32, the Suito-T is better value, if you have the necessary tools to fit a cassette.
The Suito with cassette is probably the easiest of all the smart trainers to set up, though: fold out the legs, drop out your back wheel, put your bike in place and you're away. 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.
Tester Dave writes: "In spite of some discrepancies the Suito is pretty good across the power band I'd use for workouts. It's not quite as accurate as higher-end direct-drive trainers in my experience, but it's plenty good enough for meaningful training. If you use a power meter on your bike anyway, you can use the Power Meter Link function to use that power reading instead of the internal one.
"At £550 the Suito's not much more than half the price of a Wahoo KICKR, less than half the price of the Tacx Neo 2T, and it's a lot cheaper than a Saris H3. Is it as good as any of those trainers? Well, no: not quite. But it's plenty good enough that I'd have no qualms about using it as my everyday indoor trainer.
"It's quiet and responsive, and it's relatively cheap and easy to set up. Okay it's a little bit noisier than top-end trainers but if, like me, you train with headphones blaring and a big fan in your face it'll make precisely no difference – to you, at least. And the power numbers might not be quite as nailed down as the more expensive units but they're easily good enough – and repeatable enough – to form the basis of your training schedule.
"There's plenty to like about the Suito. It's great to see the price of high-quality connected trainers coming down, and this particular unit is easy to recommend.
Elite's Qubo Digital Smart B+ has been around a while now, and that means you can hop into smart training for around £300. If you're not sure it's for you this is an excellent unit to try.
Tester Dave writes: "Want to get into smart training? The likes of Zwift, The Sufferfest and TrainerRoad are lining up to help you, but you'll need an indoor trainer setup that'll broadcast your power. The Elite Qubo Smart Digital B+ (hereafter: the Qubo) is one of the cheapest ways to get set up, at not much more than £300, or even less if you shop around. And do you know what? It's really good.
"Elite says that the maximum resistance of the Qubo is 1,070W; I didn't get past 800W on my Zwift sprint up the Mall (more on power below), when on the Wahoo Kickr I can normally max out at about 1,100-1,200W. I could have gone higher with a bigger gear to push (my turbo bike has a 50x11 top gear) but I very much doubt I'd have made it up to the stated maximum using any kind of standard gearing. If you're doing a lot of high-power intervals as part of your training then that might limit the Qubo's appeal a bit.
"Similarly, Elite says the maximum slope the trainer will replicate is 6%, and certainly it's more limited in its ability here than more expensive units. The Qubo responds quickly though, and gives a very good ride experience on Zwift with no real lag between the road going up and the resistance following suit.
"Well, once you've set it up correctly (more on that in a bit) the Qubo does a pretty impressive job of measuring power, considering it's about the cheapest smart trainer out there. I was expecting it to be okay but not stellar, in terms of accuracy. In fact it can be a lot better than that.
"The Qubo isn't the best indoor trainer I've ever tried, but it is the best one I've tried for this kind of money. The ride feel is a bit better than its competitors, you can calibrate it accurately, and you get a year's subscription to a training portal that isn't the best out there but is still useful.
"If you're looking to get started with indoor training and your budget isn't huge, then you could buy the Qubo and spend nothing else for a year. As a trainer it's impressive, and as a package it's really good value."
It's a lot of money, but the Tacx Neo Bike Smart is a lot of trainer. A gym-quality build coupled with what's probably the best resistance unit out there at the moment means that this is a pretty special bit of kit. It's not without its niggles, but if you have room for a permanent training station – and especially if more than one person wants to train – it's certainly one for the short list. Or at least the wish list.
Using the excellent Neo 2 resistance unit from its smart trainers, Tacx has created a gym-standard smart bike that uses a configurable system of electronic gears. It's a real piece of work, if you have somewhere to put it!
Tester Dave writes: "Hop on the Neo Bike and start pedalling and the first thing you'll notice is how extraordinarily quiet it is. Modern direct drive trainers don't make much noise at all, and the Tacx Neo 2, with which the Neo bike shares its resistance unit, is one of the quietest. But your bike makes plenty of noise with its chain and derailleur gears rattling away: that's mostly what you hear when you're training. The Neo bike has an enclosed singlespeed transmission that is basically silent, so all you get is a sort of space-ace whoosh from the bike. It's a pretty cool sound.
"Gearing is virtual: you click the buttons, the resistance changes as if you're changing gear. And the take-home here is that it really is like changing gear. Unlike the Wattbike Atom, which has a slower resistance change that's mechanically driven and not very realistic, the Neo Bike is hugely impressive. It even gives a little 'clunk' as you're dropping to a smaller sprocket, like you'd feel on a real bike.
"It's not surprising that the bike can do this, because the Neo resistance unit is enormously capable, able to replicate different road surfaces by changing the resistance at the wheel hundreds of times a second. Unlike the Wattbike there's nothing mechanical happening, it's all electronically controlled, and it's very clever. Sometimes the pedal action can get a bit choppy if you're pedalling fast with a low resistance, but for the most part the experience is incredibly realistic. In Zwift the changes in resistance when the road ramps up are near-instant, and you can make a near-instant change to your gearing to deal with ramps and climbs.
"If you're forking out over two grand for a smart bike you'd want it to be spitting out meaningful, reliable and accurate data, especially since there's no calibration available. And I've found the Neo resistance unit, used in the direct drive trainers and now in this bike, to be very good indeed.
"There's no doubt that the Tacx Neo Bike Smart is a high-quality piece of equipment. It offers simple and effective adjustability, great ride feel and impressive accuracy. If you're sufficiently dedicated to indoor training to put aside space specifically for it, then the Neo Bike is a great way to fill that space. It'll be especially tempting if there's more than one person in your family that wants to train, or you want to replicate more than one bike setup.
"The Neo resistance unit is the ideal base to build a bike like this around. It boasts very fast control over the resistance at the wheel which allows the Neo Bike to reproduce any gearing system with impressive feel at the pedals."
The Saris Fluid2 Smart Equipped is about as good as it gets for classic turbo trainers, which is why the design hasn't changed for years. A clever progressive resistance unit with internal fan means you can (in theory) push yourself infinitely hard, plus it's not too loud and this 'smart' version – it has a speed/cadence sensor – means it works with training apps like Zwift and Rouvy.
Tester Jack says: "Saris says the Fluid2 is 'power-tuned for a road-like feel'... I don't really know what that means, but I do know that for a trainer that isn't smart, the ride is definitely the best I've tried. It doesn't feel exactly road-like, of course – and it's not as good as a high-quality direct drive – but the gear switching element and clever progressive resistance-matching is arguably even more realistic than smart training where the machine does the work.
"Browsing the hundreds of customer reviews online I found a few grumbling about the resistance having a tendency to drift, even getting harder after a few minutes, but that's not something I experienced. My trusty Favero Assioma power pedals report the effort necessary was pretty consistent on long steady-state sessions.
"As for noise, I was pleasantly surprised with the pretty gentle whirring from the roller. It doesn't bother my other half – who can be watching telly less than 10 metres and one door away – and I had no complaints from next door. Saris claims the Fluid2 is 69 decibels loud at 20mph; for me on a flat road that's about 200 watts, and using the dB Meter app on my phone, I found that claim pretty much spot on."
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. The Direto XR and Direto XR T are the same thingwith and without a cassette pre-installed.
Tester Dave writes: "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 RRP 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."
The Direto XR replaces the very similar Direto X which had slightly lower maximum resistance and slope simulation, but can now be had for a bargain £550.
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.
tester Dave writes: "Overall I've no issue with the accuracy of the power, but I think there is still work to be done in the firmware to get the ERG mode to behave a bit better. The latest firmware update has mostly stopped the cadence dropouts that I was getting when I first rode on the Kickr (I still get the odd one) but I don't think it's fully sorted yet.
"Out of ERG mode and just riding around Zwift, the Kickr is a very capable trainer with quick resistance changes. It never struggles to keep up with things when the gradient changes are coming thick and fast, and when you ramp up the realism to 100% you'll be in your winching gears and out of the saddle on the steep stuff. On the flat it offers more than enough resistance to deal with my sprinting power (1,200W) without any issues.
"The Kickr V5 is a very good smart trainer. The power accuracy is good, it's easy to use and it's easy to connect. The fact that it's more accurate and doesn't need calibrating is a win too. The Axis feet might sway you – see what I did there – but they're not the best implementation of trainer motion you'll find, so they're unlikely to be the deal clincher."
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.
Tester Dave writes: "At 21kg it's a heavy old thing so it's not too easy to lug about, but it feels very solid once you've attached your bike and hopped aboard.
"One of the main things you want a smart trainer to be is accurate: there's not much point chucking £800+ at a trainer if the numbers are all off. But that's not something you'll have to worry about here. The H3 is capable of producing 2,000W of resistance and simulating a gradient of up to 20%, and my testing shows it to be pretty much spot on. I can't really comment on whether it's accurate up at 2,000W though.
"The H3 responds really well to changes in your training. In ERG mode it's very quick to adjust the training load when switching from easy to hard, or vice versa. There are some structured training sessions that I'd normally do in manual as they contain short sprints (10 seconds and under) which ERG trainers struggle to replicate; the H3 did better than most.
"In Zwift, the changes in gradient are swiftly applied, and the result is a very realistic feel. Even through Titan's Grove, where there are lots of short, sharp changes in gradient, the H3 didn't struggle to keep up.
"The 9kg flywheel and sturdy frame make for a solid and reassuring feel when you're in the saddle. There's no side-to-side movement, so if you like to fling yourself about on the bike it might feel a bit more static than you'd like."
"There's no doubt that the indoor trainer market is getting increasingly competitive, and whereas a couple of years back you were looking at a £1k spend for a direct drive smart trainer, there are a good number available well below that mark now.
"The H2 was one of the thousand-pound old guard, and the H3 is a better trainer – quieter and a bit more responsive – for a chunk less money. For those reasons it's easy to recommend. "
Want an even more authentic training feel? The H3 is available as a bundle with the Saris MP1 Motion Platform.
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.
Tester John writes: "The Flux S has a smooth pedalling feel that's as close to feeling like you're actually riding a bike as any trainer I've used. It's significantly better than the Flux 1.0.
"I spent 10 minutes just noodling around in Zwift to warm up both the Flux S and my PowerTap P1 pedals, did a calibration spindown on the Flux S and calibration adjustment on the pedals, and dialled up Jon's Mix on Zwift to provide a variety of efforts.
"Tacx claims the Flux S reads your power to an accuracy of +/- 3%, and that's consistent with my readings from the P1S in most situations.
"The Flux S struggles in two situations.
"It's not good at delivering very low levels of resistance. At the beginning of a warm-up and end of a warm-down, when you're only supposed to be putting out a few dozen watts, I found the Flux S simply couldn't provide resistance below about 80 watts.
"I also tried messing about with my gears to see how quickly the Flux S could respond to a change in torque to maintain the same resistance (I'm indebted to Shane Miller at gplama.com for this idea). Not very quickly, it turns out, and in some cases not at all. At 160 watts in 34x28, I found the Flux S was able to restore resistance after a few seconds when I went up to the 25, 23 and 21-tooth sprockets, but couldn't cope if I went any higher up the cassette.
"It usually takes a few seconds for the resistance of the Flux S to ramp up when you go from, say, gentle warm-up to a sprint, so it's not surprising that it takes a similar time to handle a gear change, but that lag might be a handicap if you were e-racing and needed instant response for an attack or a sprint.
"For the most part, though, readings from the Flux S and the PowerTap P1S were within claimed tolerances, and the Flux S's readings are certainly consistent and accurate enough that it'll make a perfectly fine training tool."
There's also another version of the Flux — the £649 Flux 2 — with higher maximum resistance and other improvements.
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.
And it performs well above its price tag. The power data is acceptable and the impressive ride feel makes racing that bit more realistic. The price makes this a great option for occasional indoor smart training.
Tester Liam writes: "The power numbers that the Zumo provides are more than acceptable for the money. I've been happily training on the Zumo all winter and only calibrated a couple of times.
"The ride feel is very good in some areas: riding in simulation mode on Zwift, the changes in virtual gradient feel very realistic. I found that if you hit a climb with loads of speed from a steep descent, pedalling remains light until, just like out on the road, the gradient really starts to bite, forcing you to shift through the gears rapidly.
"Flat roads and descents also feel good, with a high cadence needed to sustain higher power outputs. Riding on the various mountains of Watopia, I never felt hindered by the maximum slope replication of 12%, though this might limit you if you prefer apps that map real roads.
"The ERG mode left me slightly disappointed during certain workouts. While it is very good at holding you in a certain power range with only a few seconds delay once an interval starts, I found that it would kick me down to a cadence that I just couldn't get out of in certain intervals. For a skinny climber like me, getting the cadence up from 40rpm when the trainer wants to hold you at 400W requires a full-gas sprint. Sometimes, at the back end of a hard interval, that just isn't in the legs.
"For racing on Zwift, I found the Zumo easily good enough. Generally, I just want to get into a race to get a hard session in. If you really care about your result you might want to look for something with a higher max resistance and power data accuracy of around 1%.
"If you're looking to get a direct drive smart trainer on a tight budget and you've already got a cassette along with the tools to install it, the Zumo is a great pick. It's quiet, responds well to the virtual environment and provides usable power data."
Taking it to the next level, smart bikes are a fully-intergrated solution with plenty of adjustability so that more than one rider can easily use them. Obviously you're paying a bit more for all that tech.
Tester Dave writes: "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.
"I 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.
"Compared to the Tacx Neo Bike I'd say that the ride experience of the Kickr is slightly better, and the user experience of the Neo edges it. So really, there's not a lot to choose between them, and you certainly won't be disappointed with either. If the extra immersive dimension of the bike moving underneath you is important to you then the Kickr will be your choice. To be honest, it'll need to be pretty important to justify the difference in price between the two. If it was my money, right now I'd opt for the Neo."
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.
A control lever on your handlebar allows you to change the effort required to turn the magnetic resistance unit from not-very-much to you've-got-to-be-joking in 10 increments. If you're going to change the resistance a lot, you'll need to clamp it as firmly as possible as the lever itself is quite stiff.
Tester John writes: "Resistance is this unit's raison d'etre. Tacx claims it takes 1,050 watts to get to 40km/h in the highest setting, and I can believe it. I can barely get it moving in this setting, even in a low gear, and I've seen commentary questioning that anyone – even a pro – needs this much resistance. However, if you do want to practise your maximum-output sprints, it's there for you.
"My main use for the Booster was with Zwift, and that calls for the far less brutal second-lowest setting. That still affords plenty of resistance when pedalling a high gear, and gives the pedalling action a smooth feel. It's not quite like riding on the road, but it's perfectly acceptable, and far better than the ancient fan-only trainer it replaced."
While there are still a few knocking about the Booster has been replaced in the Tacx line-up by the Boost, which we'd expect to be substantially the same, and which comes with a speed sensor for the same price.
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 LR720 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. The L720 rollers add features like a step for easy access to the LR700s we reviewed and liked.
Tester Steph writes: "In use the rollers are very good. They have a good length to them so they feel very stable when riding. The frame is solid and feels extremely secure. The front slider is held fast (and released) using two quick release levers. Just make sure it is actually pulled evenly on both sides or riding straight can be problematic.
"The rollers themselves are smooth and very quiet. Having never used any form of rollers before these (preferring a tyre drive trainer), I soon relished in the feeling of freedom rollers offer. After a few side to side scary moments, I was changing gears and not falling off. The LR700 comes with two little silicone rings that sit on the front roller to provide a wheel guide. As a first timer it wasn't much use to me, but I can see the benefits of it as something to aim for.
"These rollers are a great addition to any cyclist's hoard. I am now favouring them over my trainer due to the drastic difference in noise. They are easy to set up and once you are on, you are off (so to speak)."
Roodol's folding track rollers are simple and easy to use, and they can be used with Roodol's Bluetooth roller which allows you to transmit power data to apps such as Zwift.
Tester Stur writes: "In use the RooDol is smooth to use and the rollers spin true, so you don't suffer from any vibration through the bike. From the rubber band you get a decent level of resistance for a workout or warm-up while using the bike's gears, and if you do stop pedalling the bike slows quickly.
"Because of the nature of the frame, there is some flex which is probably why RooDol has a recommended weight limit of 125kg, inclusive of rider and bike, plus a max speed of 50kph (31mph). If you're going for it you can feel some movement, but it's not massively offputting.
"The RooDol has no feet adjustment either, so you will need to make sure you find a flat and smooth area to set up shop, not always the easiest thing to do if you find yourself warming up in a gravel car park or in a field pre-time trial or road race.
"The USP of the RooDol is its foldability and easy transportation. It's a brilliant travel-friendly solution for pre-race warm-ups and training basically anywhere."
In this section we'll take a look at the design features you'll find in indoor trainers. Perhaps the most basic thing you need to know is that there are broadly two physical types of indoor trainer: wheel-on and direct-drive. A wheel-on trainer has a mechanism that clamps your bike at the rear, usually by the quick-release; your rear wheel then drives a roller attached to a resistance unit. For a direct-drive trainer you remove your bike's rear wheel and the chain drives sprockets on the trainer.
Trainers also divide up into smart and not-smart. Smart trainers can be controlled by apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad and Sufferfest so you can ride in virtual worlds or follow precise training sessions, while non-smart trainers usually just have variable mechanical resistance with no electronic control.
Let's kick off with smart trainers as they've become far and away the most popular variety in the last few years and are our pick if you're serious about using an indoor trainer as part of your fitness program.
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 transmit your speed to an ANT+-capable device and receive instructions from the device to set the resistance you're working against. Smart trainers usually include power meters so you can train by that metric too.
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.
Smart trainers can also use Bluetooth to communicate with the controlling device. That's handy if you're using a laptop, say, because you don't need an additional ANT+ dongle.
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 clamping mechanism.
A turbo trainer is a relatively simple device. With a wheel-on trainer the rear wheel is suspended in an A-frame and the tyre butts up against a roller connected to a resistance unit. A direct drive trainer replaces your wheel with the resistance unit directly. 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.
'Dumb' 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. Technically speaking only an air resistance unit, which uses a turbofan, is really a 'turbo' trainer, but the name is ubiquitous now.
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.
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.
Many trainers have adjustable legs or feet, so you can ensure you get the trainer perfectly level on uneven floors.
A wheel-on 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.
Direct drive trainers allow you to fit your bike to the trainer; most come with the necessary hardware to fit either quick release or through-axle frames.
Perhaps the least attractive aspect of a turbo trainer is the noise they can make. It can sound like a plane taking off and that can pose problems if you live in close proximity to your neighbours. The more you spend, the less of an issue it's likely to be: modern direct drive trainers are very quiet and well-balanced. On the best of them the main source of noise is your chain and sprockets.
Special turbo trainer tyres use a harder rubber compound that can decrease the noise (and wear out more slowly) if you have a wheel-on turbo. You can get mats to go under the turbo to stifle the noise; dedicated mats are expensive but a £10 yoga mat does the job and will stop you sweating all over your carpet.
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 riser 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 wheel-on 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.
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.
The aim of road.cc buyer's guides is to give you the most, authoritative, objective and up-to-date buying advice. We continuously update and republish our guides, checking prices, availability and looking for the best deals.
Our guides include links to websites where you can buy the featured products. Like most sites we make a small amount of money if you buy something after clicking on one of those links. We want you to be happy with what you buy, so we only include a product in a if we think it's one of the best of its kind.
As far as possible that means recommending equipment that we have actually reviewed, but we also include products that are popular, highly-regarded benchmarks in their categories.
John 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 founder 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. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.