Buying an indoor trainer used to be simple. There were only one or two types to choose from, and whatever was at your local bike store is likely what you bought. These days, with online retail and numerous types of trainers, it has become almost as hard as purchasing a bike. As with buying a bike, it is important to know where and how you will use it, and what general options are available. Let’s start by looking at the three basic types:
THE THREE MAIN TYPES OF TRAINERS
1. Rollers: Basically, a set of rollers is a bunch of tubes attached to a frame that lies on the ground. After much practice, you balance on them. Rollers require more engagement than a trainer, which is generally good for building your skills and resisting boredom. Cheaper models are plastic, have no resistance and let you spin at high cadences, while higher-end models have smoother aluminum rollers, resistance units for higher intensity and secondary frames and bumpers to help keep you on the rollers. There are even smart units that allow you to use online apps and track your power output.
2. Trainers: Trainers are upright frames that screw into your rear axle to mount your bike slightly off the ground. Resistance was traditionally applied by a unit that is tensioned onto the tire to resist the wheel’s ability to spin — and the resistance unit contains a fan, magnet, fluid or electronic component to resist your pedaling efforts. Now there are direct-drive models, in which you remove your rear wheel and mount your bike on the trainers gear cassette and axle. This usually provides resistance via electronic (e.g., Wahoo Fitness KICKR) or fluid methods (e.g., CycleOps Fluid2 Trainer).
3. Indoor Bikes: Some athletes will set up complete bikes for their indoor training to ensure they can get started quickly and avoid exposing their race bikes to sweat and the stress of being mounted in the trainer. Exercise bikes and more cycling-specific models (e.g., Wattbike or CycleOps Phantom 5 Indoor Cycle) allow the rider to pedal and enjoy features that a normal trainer setup might not have, like power and build-in displays. Look for models that can be adjusted greatly, including pedals and seat replacement, to ensure you get a proper fit that matches your actual bike.
HOW WILL YOU USE YOUR TRAINER?
You can quickly narrow your search if you know you will also need your indoor training unit to warm up at races. Criterium and cyclo-cross racers need light, portable and durable units that don’t require electricity. Many racers will use foldable rollers (e.g., Feedback Sports Omnium Portable Trainer) for race warmups because they are so light and compact. These lightweight setups can be fine for home training as well, especially if your bike is already equipped with a power meter that would make an expensive smart trainer redundant.
If your goal is to do long rides, then rollers or trainers with heavier flywheels are your best option. Rollers allow you to shift position on the bike more, and, since you need to focus on balance, you won’t get bored as fast. Rollers also hone a smooth pedal stroke, and higher-end models (e.g., Inside Ride E-Motion Rollers) add resistance and optional fork mounts to allow for high intensity. Many of the direct-drive units have a heavier flywheel (e.g., Wahoo Fitness KICKR), and this will be more roadlike. This makes riding feel less like slogging through mud and more like cruising fresh pavement.
Conversely, if you will use the trainer only for short, intense rides to build seated power and to simulate climbs or mud, a cheaper, low-tech trainer would be a great choice.
WHERE WILL YOU USE YOUR TRAINER?
Where you are training matters as well. If you are training in the living room, a cumbersome and heavy unit will quickly become annoying and impractical to set up. Noise also factors into your choice if you have roommates or live in an apartment, and finding a quiet trainer usually means spending a bit more. While not as rich in features, lighter rollers and trainers fold up for easy storage and are best for those who move around a lot.
Cyclists who have a room dedicated to training can arrange to have a TV for movies or a computer for virtual riding over the Internet nearby. For these riders, an ANT+ or Bluetooth-enabled smart trainer is important (and also more expensive).
HOW MUCH ARE YOU WILLING TO SPEND?
Indoor training technology has developed so much that there is a huge range in pricing. Original technology has gotten cheaper, and new technologies can be as expensive as you are willing to go — such as a giant bike treadmill in an altitude room with your own private physiologist.
As with any large purchase, you should have an idea of what you are willing to spend and make sure that you invest in useful gear that might also double for outdoor riding (and cross-training). Buy a power meter for use indoors and out, and a lower-end trainer will let you measure power inside and outside.
Wind and basic magnetic and fluid trainers can be found for under $100. Unresisted rollers and more advanced trainers can be found for under $250 — and for under $400, you can get resisted rollers and even an ANT+ or smart trainer that will estimate power from speed. Going up in price, $500–$1,000 gets you into smart trainers and rollers with power, and over $1,000 brings better feel, more smart capabilities, higher resistance, quieter riding and even a stand-alone indoor bike setup.