Indoor bike trainers can feel like new territory, even if you're an avid cyclist. This guide will help you decide which one is best for you.
Indoor bike trainers offer an ideal solution for cyclists looking to take their ride inside when the weather gets bad. Unlike stationary bikes, which hold firmly in place as you ride, indoor bike trainers mimic the natural feel of an outdoor bike ride by providing variable resistance and sway. This not only keeps things interesting, but, if you're a competitive cyclist or on the road to becoming one, it can help keep you on track with your training during the winter.
While indoor bike trainers have a lot to offer, even if you're an avid outdoor cyclist switching over to one can feel like completely new territory, but we're here to make things a little easier for you. This comprehensive guide will help you figure out which kind of indoor bike trainer you should get and how to get the most out of it.
There are three main types of indoor bike trainers -- direct drive, flywheel and roller. The best trainer for you will depend on your goals, your skill levels and what you're looking to get out of your ride, and this breakdown can help you narrow it down.
Direct-drive trainers require that you fully remove the rear wheel from your bike and connect it to a cassette and axle that are attached to the trainer, giving you the most stability out of all the trainer types.
Direct-drive trainers are also more powerful, have the most realistic road feel, provide the highest resistance (usually up to around 2,000 watts) and are quieter than aany of the other trainer types. Because they have the most to offer, they're generally the most expensive too.
Flywheel trainers, also known as rear-wheel trainers, use a heavy wheel to help create resistance and simulate an outdoor riding experience. There are two major types of flywheel trainers: fluid and magnetic. Fluid trainers use a viscous liquid, like liquid silicone, to create resistance, while magnetic trainers rely on magnets.
If you want to increase resistance on a fluid flywheel, you simply have to pedal faster. A magnetic flywheel indoor bike trainer generally requires manual adjustments, either through an app or software or a lever.
There are many different flywheel trainers you can choose from, but in general, these types of trainers provide a resistance of up to 1,500 watts and a realistic road feel. The downside is that, because your bike tire pushes against the flywheel using friction to create resistance, it can wear your tire out over time. Flywheel trainers are also slightly less stable than direct-drive trainers.
Roller trainers have three cylindrical drums attached to a metal frame. With roller trainers, you don't have to manipulate your bike at all. All you have to do is balance your bike on the drums, get on and ride. But while the setup sounds easy enough, this requires some level of talent and skill, since roller trainers are the most unstable and hardest to get used to.
The good news is that, in addition to helping you improve your biking skills, roller trainers give you a killer workout since you have to be moving at all times to stay upright on the trainer.
While all types of trainer can help you level up your biking game, the right choice for you really depends on your budget, skill level and overall goals. If budget isn't a concern and you want an indoor bike trainer that's whisper-quiet with the most realistic road feel, go for a direct-drive.
If you're looking for something that's a little more budget-friendly, but will still provide adequate resistance and realistic road feel, consider a flywheel, aka rear-wheel, trainer. If your main goals are to improve your balance, pedal efficiency and overall bike handling skills and you don't really care about the bells and whistles, a roller trainer will give you what you need.
Now that you've decided on the type of indoor bike trainer you need, it comes down to the details. Even within the same category, different bike trainers do different things. Some of the most important factors to consider are:
First and foremost, you need to make sure your bike fits. Most indoor bike trainers are compatible with several different bike styles and tire sizes, but it's important to check. You'll need to know what type of bike you have (mountain or road), the wheel size and whether it has a thru-axle or a quick-release skewer. Some bikes aren't compatible with an indoor bike trainer as is, but you can get adapters or cassettes that make them fit.
Price is another important consideration when deciding which bike trainer is right for you. In addition to calculating the actual cost of a new indoor bike trainer, make sure you also consider whether you'll need any additional parts to get up and riding, such as if your bike needs adapters. This can add $50 to $100 to the total cost, depending on which one you choose.
Independent of setup, you'll also want to consider how easy the bike trainer is to use once it's ready to go. Direct-drive trainers and flywheel trainers are fairly easy to use, even for a beginner, because they're secure and stable. Again, roller trainers don't hold you up at all -- you have to rely on your own movement to stay balanced. That doesn't mean they're out if you're a beginner, but if you opt for a roller trainer, be prepared to fall over a few times (and feel some frustration) before you can really get things going.
If you live in a single-family house alone, noise may not be that big of an issue, but if you share your space with others or you live in a second-floor apartment with neighbors below you, you'll want to get a quieter bike trainer to keep the peace. Direct-drive trainers are generally the quietest, with flywheel trainers following closely behind. Roller trainers are the loudest.
As a general rule, the more advanced the bike trainer, the quieter it is. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you're looking for the quietest setup, you're likely going to have to shell out a little extra cash.
Another thing to consider is whether or not your indoor bike trainer has smart capabilities. Smart indoor bike trainers connect to apps, like Zwift or The Sufferfest, which allow you to set your bike to a specific program or terrain. The trainer will adjust resistance accordingly to simulate the actual road conditions. You can also connect with other riders through the app.
Smart trainers are more expensive than traditional trainers, but if you're someone who gets bored easily or thrives on competition, it might be worth the payoff. Keep in mind that the apps you need to use a smart trainer to its full potential typically require a subscription (usually around $15 per month, on average), so that's another cost to consider.
Once you've decided which bike trainer aligns best with your goals, the last step is figuring out your indoor training setup and how to get the most out of it. You don't need anything fancy to get started, but a few additional accessories and considerations can really help improve your experience.
Because indoor bike trainers are fairly portable, you can put them anywhere, but that dingy spot in the basement or a corner in a cluttered room doesn't exactly make you want to get on and ride. If you have the space, clear out an area and dedicate it to your training. If you don't have the space to give, find a temporary spot that feels invigorating and motivating and do your rides there.
When you're riding outdoors, you create a natural wind that helps cool you down as you ride, but when you're indoors, you lose that factor. This can lead to overheating pretty quickly, even if the weather isn't overly hot. Ideally, you want to have two fans -- one in front of you and one behind you -- for proper ventilation.
Most trainers come with a front wheel block that will help keep your wheels stable as you ride, but when you really increase the speed, things can start to slip a little bit. A rubber mat adds an extra layer of stability for the whole setup that helps keep things in place. As an added bonus, it will also protect your floor from marks and scuffs and help reduce excess noise, especially if you have wooden floors.
Sweat covers go over your bike's handlebars and cover the frame of your bike, soaking up sweat as you ride. This helps keep sweat off the floor and keeps your ride more stable, instead of getting slippery.
If you opted for a smart trainer, you can get a really immersive experience by setting your bike up in front of a smart TV and allowing the programs to play on the big screen. If this isn't an option, a tablet or even a phone will work too, but you'll probably need an additional holder to keep it in place.
While you'll get a decent workout following the same routine every day, that won't really help you grow as a rider in the long run. It can also get monotonous really fast, especially if you're used to riding outdoors and the changes of scenery that come with it.
Instead of doing the same 60-minute bike ride every day, switch things up by adding interval training or playing around with your speed and your bike trainer's resistance. This not only mimics the feel of riding on the road, it also helps improve your skill and stamina for when it's time to get back outside.
Even if you're an avid outdoor bike rider, it will probably take some time to get used to your new indoor bike trainer, but the more you practice -- and the more comfortable you make your setup -- the easier it becomes. As long as you spend some time figuring out which trainer works best with your goals and you learn how to get the most out of that trainer, you can ride all year long, inside or out.