Essential for some, an instrument of torture for others, an indoor trainer can be preferable to heading outdoors when it's thundering down with rain or the roads are covered in ice — or when you're in Covid-19 lockdown but don't want to lose your hard-won cycling fitness.
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.
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, The Sufferfest 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. With a whee-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.
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.
Most smart trainers communicate on both ANT+ and Bluetooth and are compatible with nearly any device that'll run the training software.
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.
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 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. 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.
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 14 of the best across a range of prices.
A note on availability: The Covid-19 lockdown sent cyclists everywhere flocking to Zwift and other online indoor training platforms. As a result, indoor trainers sold out in days back in late March, and supply is still far from normal. Where we've linked to retailers below we've tried to find ones that either have stock or have estimates of availability this side of the heat death of the universe. We've also included links to eBay searches.
The Elite Zumo is one of the cheapest interactive smart trainers on the market and 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.
At the top of the turbo trainer pile sits the Tacx Neo 2. 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 newest of the range of trainers that started as the CycleOps Hammer, the H3 is very quiet and very accurate. It's a smart trainer that's great for serious indoor training
Elite's Qubo Digital Smart B+ has been around a while now, and that means you can hop into smart training for only just over £200. If you're not sure it's for you this is an excellent unit to try.
Elite's Novo is a good quality classic trainer. It features a remote lever to vary the resistance and the Elastogel roller should make it a bit quieter if you're worried about annoying the neighbours.
If you're looking for a trainer that's easy to pack away – if you don't have room to leave your training set up set up – then the Tacx Booster is easy to set up and strike when you're done.
The Saris (ex CycleOps) Fluid2 has been around for a long time, and its sealed fluid resistance unit has stood the test of time: it's one of the best classic trainers out there and will last for ever.
Kinetic's Road Machine Smart trainer is a classic fluid trainer that comes with Kinetic's inRide sensor technology installed, for app-based power training. The ride feel is excellent and the fluid resistance unit uses a magnetic coupling so there are no seals to wear.
Direct drive smart trainers are getting cheaper, and the Suito shows that you don't need to spend the best part of a thousand quid to get really good performance. It's a solid unit that's pretty accurate.
If you want a smart direct drive trainer then the Elite Turbo Muin Smart B+ is about the cheapest you'll find. If you want to use 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.
Another mid-priced direct drive trainer, the Tacx Flux S gets a 7kg flywheel and can simulate a maximum resistance of 1,500W, so it should be plenty capable enough for your sprint intervals unless you're an elite level rider.
There's also another version of the Flux — the £795 Flux 2 — with higher maximum resistance and other improvements.
The Kickr is one of the best direct drive trainers currently on the market, and it's designed to be compatible with the Kickr Climb, which can move the front of your bike up and down to simulate climbing and descending.
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...
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!
Wattbike's Atom trainer is 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.
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.
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
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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.