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The Ultimate Indoor Trainer Buyer's Guide

June 20, 2018

No longer does training year round mean that you have to ride outside, braving the elements in order to maintain fitness. Indoor trainers are no longer just the saviour for cyclists’ wanting to carry some form through the winter months, they now provide a fun and interactive environment that are capable of giving a social fix, too.

Thanks to a steep progression in technology and the introduction of virtual reality riding programs like Zwift and The Sufferfest, the popularity of indoor cycling has skyrocketed. Gone is the stigma of indoor training being a painful and lonely slog.

In this article we'll explain the various types of indoor trainers available, what sets them apart from each other, what to expect for your money and how to choose the right one to suit your needs.

Trainer Categories

Indoor trainers can be broken down into four key categories: direct drive trainers, tyre drive trainers, rollers and complete indoor bicycle systems. Each device differs in road feel, noise, price, weight, footprint, connectivity, and compatibility, see below for a description of each type.

Direct Drive

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A direct-drive trainer connects to your bike in place of the rear wheel, bolting on via the rear dropouts. They get their name simply due to the fact that they require a cassette (rear cogs) to be installed directly on the trainer (often not included). Once connected, a direct-drive trainer provides a solid platform and shorter footprint (as the rear wheel is removed) than rollers or tyre drive trainers. As with the majority of trainers, resistance methods (that we'll discuss below) can vary between wind, fluid, magnetic or a combination of all three.

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The benefit of direct drive trainers is that they save wear and tear on your rear tyre, rear wheel and cassette (assuming you have a separate one for your bike), are easy to set-up and work with a wide variety of frame dropout standards. As they’re compatible with a wide-variety of bikes, they’re often useable with a mountain bike, with some brands such as Elite providing a mountain bike specific direct drive trainer. Another key benefit is that they provide a realistic ride feel and great stability under hard efforts.

The downside of direct drive trainers is they are typically more expensive (especially once you factor in an additional cassette) and heavier than tyre drive trainers, meaning you might have to find a semi-permanent location for it.

Tyre Drive

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A tyre drive trainer connects to your bike via the rear dropouts with the rear wheel in place, clamping to the outside of a quick-release lever or similar. The resistance comes from an adjustable roller that contacts your rear tyre. These trainers come with multiple options in terms of resistance and are typically more cost-effective and lighter than direct drive trainers. The key downside of such a trainer is the additional tyre wear caused by trainer’s drum.

The lighter weight, small footprint and compact storage size make tyre drive trainers great as a means of warming up at events or for those who need to pack their trainer away after each use.

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A rare alternative to excessive tyre wear is a rim-drive trainer. This form of trainer provides resistance via rubber rollers that contact the sidewall (braking surface) of the wheel, not the tyre itself. This can be a great option for mountain bikers and road riders alike, as you don't need to change wheels or tyres to use the device. It's worth noting that this style won't work with all wheel types and market options are limited.

Rollers

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Rollers are the original indoor trainer and are still used by many to improve balance, pedaling efficiency and cycling specific core strength. They can also be more fun and realistic to ride than stationary trainers.

Rollers feature three drums (one at the front and two at the rear), that spin as you pedal. Resistance is based on the size of the drums (smaller drums provide more resistance) or by gear selection of the rider, however, some premium models do offer internal resistance beyond this. They are incredibly simple in design but can be difficult to use as they require balance and concentration.

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An alternate form of traditional rollers are 'hybrid' rollers. These feature the two roller drums out the back and a fork dropout mount on the front, providing the feeling of rollers with the stability of a fixed trainer. Brands such as Minoura and Feedback Sports offer such a product. The latter being a popular choice for those seeking a compact setup for use at races.

Stationary Bikes

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An alternative to indoor trainers is a complete indoor bike in the form of a Wattbike, exercise bike or alternative spin bike. These bikes typically only feature one wheel with resistance coming from fluid, wind, magnets or a combination of all three.

The advantages of a complete indoor bike are there is no wear and tear on your actual bike; they are more stable than other trainer options; and most have integrated connectivity features, resistance control system and electronic screens.

The disadvantages are the additional cost, with some models costing more than a decent road or mountain bike. The large size and significant weight are also factors to consider as is the additional purchases of pedals and a possibly a saddle. Some entry-level bikes also have limited scope for fit adjustment and in offering a realistic ride feel, which is not ideal for comfort or consistency when swapping to and from your actual bike.


Resistance Types

The type of resistance your trainer has will have direct impact on the cost, durability, road feel, weight and the noise produced.

Magnetic

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Magnetic trainers use opposing magnets to provide resistance. A weighted flywheel complete with magnets spins around and past another series of magnets in a fixed position. As these magnets get closer together the opposing forces increase causing greater resistance for the rider. How this resistance is adjusted will dictate how expensive (or cost effective) a magnetic trainer is. Some models require riders to dismount and manually change the resistance on the rear of the trainer, others can be changed with a lever whilst on the bike and some (that we'll detail below) are electronically controlled by an app or third party software, like Zwift.

Inertia is at the heart of the flywheel proposition, with a heavier wheel mimicking riding outside where it takes an effort to get the bike moving, and then it continues to roll once you are coasting. Generally, the heavier the flywheel is, the better the feel it will provide. Lightweight flywheels generally don't spin as well, as such, their rotation isn't as smooth or realistic. Flywheels can start at 1kg and extend to over 9kg for more expensive models.

Wind

Wind trainers were one of the first indoor trainers available and are still popular today. With a simplistic design that is both durable and cost-effective, wind trainers work via a fan within the unit that produces resistance against the air as it spins. The harder the rider pedals, the greater the speed of the fan and greater resistance produced. The drawbacks of such a system include excessive noise production, lack of realistic road feel and often non-adjustable resistance.

Fluid

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Fluid trainers are some of the most realistic trainers around as the resistance produced by the fluid mimics that of the road. The fluid is normally turbine oil, which can better deal with the heat generated whilst pedaling. The fluid is housed within a chamber and a bladed drive shaft that is powered by the pedaling action. On the internal walls of the chamber are more, stationary flat blades which produce resistance from the fluid passing by. Similar to the wind trainer, the harder you pedal, the more the resistance automatically ramps up. However, unlike wind trainers which eventually push all the available air out, fluid trainers are near impossible to over power. Offering quiet resistance, fluid trainers were once considered the benchmark, but trends toward electronic trainers has seen magnetic resistance take the top spot.

Smart trainers

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Smart trainers can be any of the above-mentioned options (though are usually magnetic) and are defined as trainers that have the ability to connect and communicate with external software and third party applications. With the right smart trainer and third party software, ride characteristics like hills, road surfaces and even drafting can be simulated, allowing riders a more tailored experience. Smart trainers are highly variable with different features and so we've outlined some important considerations below.

  • Connectivity: The ability to connect to external software is what sets these trainers apart. This is normally as a result of either ANT+, Bluetooth or a combination of the two wireless protocols. These allow for the transfer of data such as speed, cadence, heart rate, etc. What's important to know is whether the trainer you are interested in uses ANT+ or Bluetooth or both as some third party applications will only use one or the other, hence they may not be compatible.

  • Power: Watts and power are seemingly everything to the modern day cyclist and so it stands to reason that maximum wattage and power accuracy are key performance indicators for any good smart trainer. Maximum power is pretty simple and refers to the maximum amount of power the unit can tolerate and record. Some trainers can handle over 2,000 watts and to put it into perspective, WorldTour riders rarely (if ever) hit those kinds of numbers. As a result, power accuracy and other factors like noise and flywheel weight are of more importance to the majority of us.

  • Power Accuracy: Power Accuracy is measured in a plus or minus percentage and reads like this: +/- 5%. The more accurate, the better, with some claiming accuracy of +/- 1%. Of course, the method of measuring it differs from each unit and so the legitimacy of those claims need to be taken with a grain of salt. One thing to look for is how the power is measured, such as if it's via sensors or just estimated from an algorithm.

  • Slope: This is the trainer's ability to simulate a gradient. The greater the capable slope, the better the trainer. Some trainers can simulate upwards of a 20% gradient, which in a similar manner to maximum power, is perhaps more than most of us require. Trainers with a 10% maximum slope is a good figure as this should be enough to accommodate the majority of third party application routes or rides you'll encounter.


Buying Considerations

Now that you've got an understanding of the trainer and resistance types, it's time to consider other factors that could just as heavily influence your purchasing decisions.

Noise produced

Depending on where you live, who you live with and how you plan to use your trainer, the amount of noise produced could be an important factor. All trainers will make some kind of noise despite claims of being silent. Most trainers will list their decibel level at a given speed or cadence, so if you are trying to avoid upsetting neighbours or family members look for low numbers.

Additionally, if you are comparing noise production of trainers, be sure to compare the decibel level at the same speed or cadence as there's no industry standard at which this is measured. As a rough guide, fluid trainers are generally viewed as the quietest option whilst wind trainers will typically be the loudest.

Footprint

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The footprint refers to the physical size that something has. In trainer terms, the larger the footprint, the more space the trainer will take up when set-up, however, this will generally provide increased stability, too. The key dimension to look for is the width of the unit followed by the length. The width will create the stability to counterbalance the long length of you and the bike. Some units have foldable legs, which come in handy from both a functional and storage point of view, while others will remain locked in place.

Less expensive trainers tend to have smaller footprints whilst some can be unstable as a result of increased height. Tipping over is the last thing you want to happen in the middle of a hard effort or while reaching for your phone from a nearby table.

The flipside to this is a trainer taking up too much space can become a nuisance. If you have a designated spot for it in a spare room, garage or your cycling pain cave, then this is less of an issue. But if space is sparse, opting for a trainer with a smaller footprint is recommended.

Weight

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The weight associated with a trainer has two components; the weight of the actual trainer and the maximum weight it can hold.

The weight of the trainer is a key consideration if you plan on taking your trainer to events to serve as a warm-up device. Many events take place on closed roads with limited opportunities to ride on surrounding roads, which could leave you short of a decent warm up before your event. As such, bringing a trainer along that you can easily set up next to your car or close to the race start is ideal. If you plan on setting your trainer up in a permanent spot, then the weight isn't likely to be an issue, and in fact, will typically aid in stability, however, if mobility is a key consideration, be sure to check the weight first.

The second weight consideration refers to maximum load the trainer can tolerate and how that measurement is defined. Some products will list a maximum weight load including the bike and riders, whereas others may only consider the rider so it pays to double check.

Compatibility with a Variety of Bikes

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If you’re lucky enough to have a variety of steeds in your stable then knowing that your bike or fleet of bikes is compatible with the mounting requirements of the trainer is crucial. Mountain and cyclocross bikes will typically have thru-axles, whereas road and triathlon bikes will typically have quick releases, both requiring different mounting options and widths. Likewise, your next bike may have a different mounting requirement, and so those that accept a full assortment of bikes are likely to be more future proof.

The latest trainers will generally be able to accommodate most forms of bikes but it's one to check if you plan on rotating bikes through or primarily use anything other than a standard road bike. The trainers featured here from Elite and JetBlack are all compatible with thru-axle bike frames with widths of 142mm or 148mm and are quick release compatible for bike frames with standard open dropouts of 130mm and 135mm widths. This means they should fit just about all modern road, cyclocross, and mountain bike on the market.

Another consideration is ensuring the cassette on your direct drive trainer matches your bike in terms of gears. Pairing an 11-speed drivetrain with a 10-speed cassette, for example, won't work well and may lead to damage of your parts. Check with your local bike shop or trainer manufacturer for more information on freehub standards and compatibility.


Trainer Accessories

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Trainer accessories can enhance your indoor training experience and are worth considering. Designed to make your indoor cycling experience as fuss-free as possible, see below for our picks of the accessories worth contemplating.

  • Sweat guard: When you're out on the open road, the wind will blow sweat off you, but inside it will just drip directly onto your top tube, bars and frame. Sweat contains high levels of salt which is corrosive and can slowly work away at your bike's paintwork. To safeguard from this, a sweat guard or sweat net covers your top tube and catches droplets of sweat before they hit your bike and cause any damage.

  • Trainer Mat: A mat is used to protect your floor from wear and sweat. They are typically made from highly durable fabrics and as an added bonus, can also cancel out some of the vibration and noise created by the trainer.

  • Riser block: Many trainers (except most direct drive) will raise the rear of the bike, giving the impressions that you are riding downhill. To counter this, riser blocks are used to prop up the front wheel, leveling out your position. This not only feels more natural but also creates stability. They can even be used to increase the height of the front of the bike to simulate climbing a hill. An alternative option is to use phone books or those textbooks you once said you’d look at again, however, a riser block will hold the wheel better.

  • Trainer tyre: A tyre drive trainer will prematurely wear out your rear tyre so a simple way to combat that is to purchase a specific trainer tyre. These tyres are thick and resistant to wear, saving your good tyres for use in the real world. An alternative is to purchase a cheap road tyre that features thick, puncture resistant tread.

  • Applications: With the rise of smart trainers came the rise of third party applications that are aimed at enhancing your indoor riding experience. Apps like Zwift allow you to ride with other people in a virtual world, and can even simulate drafting. Programs like The Sufferfest allow you to be ultra-specific with your sessions and act like a real-time coach. If it’s realism you want, a program like Road Grand Tours has a host of real-world locations and terrain to explore.

  • A Fan: Having someone that adores you scream support at your face does wonders for motivation. Just kidding, we’re talking about a fan to keep air moving. It’s amazing how hot you’ll feel riding in the same spot, a fan goes a long way to keeping you comfortable.

  • A Training Plan: Once you have your trainer and accessories set-up, having a goal or a training plan to work towards allows you to get the most out of your indoor cycling experience. Most applications, such as The Sufferfest, are loaded with quality training plans developed by some of the world’s leading cycling coaches to allow riders of all abilities the chance to get the most out of their training.

We’ve teamed up with The Sufferfest to give BikeExchange readers a free training plan, as well as 30 days access to The Sufferfest for free! Click here for more information on the plans available and how to redeem your free trial.


Budget

At the end of the day, the type of indoor training experience you end up with will come down to a combination of connectivity, price and road feel. Whilst there are cheaper options with great quality and road feel, they often lack the connective features required to train virtually.

Spending more typically increases the quality and realism of your training experience, however, these are diminishing returns, with options at the top end of the market often quite similar in terms of their pros and cons. To paraphrase the great Keith Bontrager; “Cheap, connected, or realistic: pick two”. See below for more on what you can expect for your money.

Under $200

It is possible to get an indoor trainer for under AUD$200 but don't expect the connectivity, automation, smoothness or durability of the more expensive options. Trainers at this level will be tyre drive and any changes to resistance required will need to be done manually. Information in the form of speed or cadence is unlikely provided, and so you'll be required to work off perceived effort or use a magnet-based bike computer.

AUD $200 - AUD$500

Trainers under AUD$500 tend to be basic, lacking the automated controls and connectivity of the more expensive options but they still provide a great training tool or portable warm-up device. Some models close to AUD$500 may provide basic levels of connectivity to third-party applications but they won't be able to be controlled by these applications like the more expensive options (one-way communication).

Tyre drive trainers, rollers and basic direct-drive trainers are all available at this price point but if you're after a smart trainer, then the next price bracket is for you. Trainers at this level will typically use levers or manual methods to control resistance, have a small footprint and be relatively light weight.

AUD$500 - AUD$1,200

All types of trainers covered in this guide are available at this price point, we also see electronic resistance control options introduced. Weight, footprint and noise production will be similar to more expensive trainer options but things like slope, power maximum, accuracy and flywheel weight will be less. You can expect the following values for smart trainers in this price range; a slope of approximately 15%, power accuracy of +/-5%, maximum power of up to 1,500w and a flywheel weight around 4kg.

Over $1,200

The price of trainers can extend to well over $2,000 but typically, the difference between an AUD$1,500 trainer and an AUD$2,500 trainer will be greater power accuracy and maximums, more slope capability and a heavier flywheel. Other factors like weight, noise production and durability will be similar.

These trainers will have power and slope values exceeding what most of us mere mortals require - slope >20%, power accuracy +/- 2% and maximum power upwards of 2,000w - but as a result perform exceptionally well. Flywheels will be over 5kg producing a realistic road feel and smooth rotation. Some can even simulate road conditions like riding over cobbled sections or going down hill on virtual third party riding programs


Setting Up a Trainer for Online Use

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Looking at joining the indoor, online revolution and don’t know where to begin? Don’t stress, it’s much easier than you think! Regardless of whether you’re looking at a smart trainer with connectivity built in, or a standard trainer, there are a number of ways to get yourself online, training in the virtual world.

Standard Trainer Set-up

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Budget won’t stretch to a smart trainer with connective features, or looking to make use of your existing trainer? Thankfully there are a number of ways you can get your standard trainer set-up for online training.

If your trainer doesn’t have cadence, power or speed sensors built in, thankfully you can make use of existing ANT+ or Bluetooth sensors that you may already have fitted to your bike and then use provided computer algorithms. Almost all of the most popular third-party online training services will offer these built-in algorithms that convert your physical output into a virtual estimation.

For maximum accuracy, a powermeter fitted to your bike will give you the most realistic results on-screen, however, speed and cadence sensors are often all that is needed in order to get online.

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If your sensors do not transmit a signal via Bluetooth, you will need to procure an ANT+ dongle. ANT+ is a wireless connection technology that is largely used to transfer information from sensors such as heart rate, speed, cadence or power to a compatible device. Most computers and smartphones will not have ANT+ connectivity, thankfully ANT+ dongles or signal receivers are available to receive this information.

Using the existing sensors on your bike with a computer is as simple as plugging in the ANT+ dongle into an existing USB port on your computer, clicking through to your favourite virtual riding app and connecting your devices as normal. For newer sensors, such as those available from Wahoo, that transmit via Bluetooth, connecting your sensors is even easier, and only require your device to have bluetooth connectivity.

It’s worth noting that using a standard trainer online can feel a little disconnected at times. The data you create finds its way onto the screen, but there’s no way for the experience to respond and find its way back to you. It’s really just one-way communication.

Smart Trainer Set-up

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If your budget allows, a smart trainer will provide the easiest and most interactive entry to online training platforms. This is purely due to that fact that all of the smarts and connectivity features are built in. If your trainer only transmits via ANT+, you’ll still require a dongle as detailed above, however, thankfully the majority of the latest smart trainers will either provide an ANT+ USB dongle with the trainer or use Bluetooth for easier connectivity.

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Typically all that is required to connect a smart trainer to your computer, smartphone or tablet of choice is ensuring the trainer is powered on and ready to connect. Exactly how to connect will be as simple as following the steps outlined by your third-party training app of choice.

Once you have your trainer connected to your application of choice, it’s worth ensuring the trainer is correctly calibrated. Most programs will feature a calibration section that simply relies on the rider to spin the trainer up to speed. This importance of ensuring your trainer is warmed up and calibrated is that it’ll provide the most accurate data to your program, and thus the most fulfilling virtual experience!


We hope this buyer’s guide has provided some valuable information. BikeExchange is Australia’s number one marketplace for all things bike, browse our range of bicycle trainers from bike stores across the country.

Thanks to Elite, JetBlack, WattBike and The Sufferfest for providing samples and insight in creating this article