While many cyclists think they're sufficiently hardened to ride through the toughest of conditions, there will come a time when weather or temperature or perhaps injury will necessitate some time off the road. Some riders will drown their sorrows by sampling random cardio routines. Others attend spin classes hosted by exuberant undergrads, while many will simply sit on the couch watching Tour de France replays.
Serious cyclists know that time spent off the bike is time spent getting slower -- or, more optimistically, time that could have been spent getting faster. In a sport where speed is everything, that's not good news.
Thankfully, with the right equipment and the right guidance, your "off" season becomes an opportunity to get healthier, get stronger and, most importantly, get faster. Let's get started.
Cycling vs. spinning
First, a quick clarification between two very similar yet different pursuits: spinning and cycling. While both involve pedaling and sweating, spinning is basically an aerobics class taught in the saddle. Its primary goal is burning calories, a goal that it is spectacularly effective at delivering, to the tune of 800 calories per hour or more. The primary goals of cycling, however, are speed and endurance. Even if you don't race, cyclists will want to ride as fast as possible.
While those goals of burning calories and getting faster are usually complementary, spinning yourself to exhaustion every day isn't necessarily the best way to get quicker. A performance-based cycling training program requires more nuance than that. That's what we're here to discuss.
There are endless ways to simulate the act of cycling without actually moving anywhere. A quick trip to your local fitness store will surely reveal a row of stationary bikes shaped like futuristic hoverbikes -- minus the hovering part. These machines will certainly help you burn some calories; some will even do a passably good job of replicating the feeling of riding on the road, but your money is probably better spent elsewhere.
Then there are the premium, connected or "smart" stationary bikes. I'm talking about your Pelotons and the like. These bikes offer some pretty amazing technology and can indeed serve as a worthwhile steed for your training pursuits, but these wouldn't be my choice. Why? Well, most of these bikes are very focused on spinning, not cycling, and as we've established above, the that's not always the best way forward.
But the real reason I'm not generally a fan of these bikes is because they're outrageously expensive. A Peloton will set you back $1,995, plus another whopping $39 monthly if you want to use all its functionality. For that you can buy yourself a better-than-decent road bike, and who doesn't need another bike?
What to do instead? Easy: convert your own road bike into a stationary. If you're a cyclist you probably already have at least one bike and hopefully it's fitted and tuned to your body. Why waste time and money on some stationary thing that may never fit you so well?
If you don't already have a bike, peruse your local classifieds and get yourself something decent, hit your local bike shop for a fitting, and then decide what you're going to mount it to
Rollers are, at their simplest, a set of three tubes, usually about 18 inches wide and maybe four or five inches in diameter, connected by belts of some sort. To use your bike indoors you simply place it on top of the contraption and start pedaling. The belts on the rear rollers spin the front roller, which in turn spins the front wheel of your bicycle, generating enough centrifugal force to keep the bike — and, crucially, you — upright.
If that sounds like a precarious arrangement, you pedaling your heart out with only a few inches of safety on either side, you have no idea. Staying upright on a set of rollers requires supreme concentration. The good news is that if you master riding on rollers you will develop an incredibly smooth, efficient form. The bad news is that if your mind starts to wander, your bike will start to wander and you'll be flat on the floor before you know it. (Yes, I am speaking from experience here.)
That's a pretty significant drawback, especially if you plan to spend hours and hours sweating away indoors. Another issue is the lack of easily adjustable resistance. Thankfully there are solutions. I have a set of Kreitler rollers, which are available with both a front stand and a belt-driven fan. The stand keeps you from falling over, while the fan serves the double purpose of adding resistance and keeping you cool. The fan's resistance is even adjustable, but you'll have to get off the bike to change it.
Total cost? About $899 for the full setup, or $480 for just the rollers. Expensive? Yes, but the way these things are built, they will likely outlast both you and me. And, if you want the closest feel to actually riding on the road, rollers will deliver.
This broadly refers to the category of trainers that either attach to your bicycle's rear wheel or replace the rear wheel entirely. With the "wheel-on" group, your rear tire is pressed against a small roller with variable resistance. In the "wheel-off" group, your chain is looped around a separate cassette of gears that replicates the rear wheel. Either way, installation rarely takes more than a minute. I've had the chance to sample both types and my preference is definitely for the wheel-off units: they're generally quieter and won't cause any abnormal wear on your rear tire.
For the purposes of this article, Wahoo was kind enough to send me its Kickr, a wheel-off unit that can dynamically and wirelessly adjust its resistance to meet your demands, up to 2,000 watts worth, a figure rather significantly higher than I can muster even on my best days. Despite this it's very quiet, much more so than the fan on my rollers, which were loud enough that I often wore earplugs while training
There are some drawbacks, the biggest being cost. The Kickr costs a whopping $1,199, though if you're willing to forgo some of the bells and whistles, a wheel-on Kickr Snap costs half that.
Another drawback? While rollers will help you improve your form, turbo trainers like this can actually make your form worse, because you become dependent on the trainer holding your bike upright. Thankfully, form-specific training can help with that.
If you're training indoors you'll be doing an awful lot of sweating, and it's best to think about that up-front. Sweat can actually destroy the sensitive, finicky and inevitably overpriced components on your bike. There are plenty of custom covers designed to serve as protection, but a towel draped over your handlebars will do just as well.
You'll want a fan of some sort, because stationary riding gets awfully hot. If you opt to go the rollers route and order the Kreitler kit, then you'll be set -- and I do so love killing two birds with one stone.
Finally, if you're serious you're probably going to want some sort of power meter. Simply, power meters tell you how hard you're pedaling, and many of the better turbo trainers (like the Kickr) have power built-in. Sure, you can tell roughly how hard you're pedaling on your own, but having an accurate power readout not only means your training becomes more efficient, it'll prevent you from slacking off and pedaling lighter than you should be. When you'll be spending hours pedaling away without actually moving an inch, staying motivated is a real problem.
That's where the software comes in.
Digital training plans will help keep you focused, motivated and productive. They range from analytical to emotional, though if you choose to start your training with our first software option, there's one more hardware accessory you may want to add to your training setup: a bucket.
$10 monthly, $99 annually
The Sufferfest started as a series of downloadable videos that were little more than graphics telling you how hard to pedal overlaid on edited footage of professional cycling races, with the occasional bits of humorous text mixed in. (I use the term "humorous" somewhat generously, but after you've spent 60 minutes pedaling to within an inch of your life, even simple jokes become surprisingly effective.)
Since then, The Sufferfest has evolved into a proper training platform, with dozens of polished videos offering everything from the basics of style to the deliciously painful regimens that gave this service its name. You'll even find yoga for cyclists and a few videos that add running into the mix. Sufferfest is also the only program to offer so-called "Four-Dimensional Power" or 4DP, an alternative to the ubiquitous Functional Threshold Power (FTP) measurement. 4DP offers a more comprehensive look at your capabilities for efforts of varying intensities and durations, tailoring your workouts to target weaknesses and bolster strengths.
Still, the visual formula is the same: onscreen graphics tell you how hard to pedal and when, mixing hard intervals with too-short recoveries in the interest of making you faster. Connect The Sufferfest app (Mac, Windows and iOS, but sadly, not Android) to your smart trainer and it'll even control resistance for you, ensuring you're always shedding the right amount of Holy Water. (That's the Sufferlandrian term for sweat.)
The apps also include full training plans, but as of now they're a bit disjointed, requiring you to manually track your progress from one workout to the next. (However, if you don't mind using a separate program, Sufferfest integrates with the also-excellent TrainingPeaks service, which will track your plans for you.) And, while more than 50 cycling videos may seem like a lot, there's something of a lack of variety here compared to the competition, especially when it comes to midpaced or "sweet spot" training options. But, if you're looking to go hard and go often while enjoying excellently produced footage of people suffering even more than you are, you should get your passport stamped in Sufferlandria.
For many cyclists, Zwift is a revolution. Offering the camaraderie of riding with friends plus the addictive gamification of achievements and unlockable cycling attire, many a hardcore cyclist has found themselves covering more miles on Zwift's virtual island of Watopia than out in the real world.
And for good reason. Training in a controlled environment like Zwift offers can be more effective than hitting the road, and it's surely safer, too. Plus, with the ability to chart custom courses on Zwift's many highways and byways, you can basically do any kind of ride you want, whenever you want. You'll find infinite variety here, even if you never leave your pain cave at home.
Zwift also mixes in hundreds structured workouts and dozens of training plans with the ability to join clubs and meet up with friends. Yes, I've had the pleasure of getting dropped on a virtual climb, just like I frequently do on real ones. You can even try to keep up with the pros. You'll pay for it, though. Zwift is the most expensive option here at $15 monthly, and is available for Mac, PC and iOS, plus AppleTV. Full Android support is coming, and in the interim Zwift users can use an Android companion app to chat and manage their workouts.
$12 monthly, $99 annually
Compared to the in-your-face intensity of The Sufferfest and the flashy, tropical environs explored in Zwift, TrainerRoad has all the sex appeal of a pivot chart in Excel. But don't sweat appearances: this app has it where it counts. Available for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, TrainerRoad has the simplest aesthetic by a mile, but easily the most comprehensive training options.
While The Sufferfest has dozens of training routines and Zwift comes out of the box with hundreds of them, TrainerRoad's workouts number over 1,000. While more isn't always better and there is significant overlap, these workouts are broken up into more than 100 training plans ranging from broad goals, like increasing endurance, to very specific ones, like hilly road races (my personal favorite).
If that weren't enough, each training plan is available in different flavors that you can select based on how much time you want to spend training every week. And, when you complete one training session, the app will automatically load the next workout on the next day.
There's a lot to like, but still plenty of room for improvement. Guidance in TrainerRoad is delivered exclusively via text and just a few words at a time. You may find yourself needing to watch the screen for 30 seconds or more just to figure out what you're supposed to do next. My frustration escalated incrementally by the tenth and twentieth time I'd completed the same workout, having to sit through the same instructions every time. Mix in the odd grammatical error and you can see why a lot of folks get turned off on TR.
TrainerRoad is definitely the least motivational of the bunch. The Sufferfest pushes you to try harder, while Zwift shows you your friends literally riding away from you. TrainerRoad just shows you bars and numbers and endless strings of text, meaning it certainly isn't for everybody.
My chosen setup
After just a day or two riding on the Wahoo Kickr I pretty quickly folded up my Kreitler rollers and haven't looked back. While rollers have significant advantages, not least among them cost, the capabilities of the Kickr won me over.
And the software? Don't take my word for it, because all three services have a free trial. But, for me, and despite the lack of visual appeal, TrainerRoad is still the one that I chose most frequently. While I was an early adopter of Sufferfest and I still love the service, and while I appreciate the gamification in Zwift, the amazing depth of TrainerRoad meant I was easily able to come up with a relatively low-intensity training plan that works for me as I continue to try and ride back from injury.
Sure, the app doesn't do much to help with the motivational side of things, but I just put the aforementioned Tour de France replays on the TV and imagine myself chasing Chris Froome up Mt. Ventoux. Now, where's my Albuterol inhaler?
Update: The original version of this article incorrectly indicated that Zwift is available only on Android and iOS. The service also offers Windows, Mac, and AppleTV support.