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How to choose an indoor bike trainer

Short days, cold temperatures and marginal riding conditions don’t have to prevent you from getting fitter on your bike. An indoor bike trainer keeps your legs spinning and heart pumping. If you’re not convinced that sweating and breathing heavily for hours in your living room can be fun, read on. You’d be surprised at how today’s indoor trainers keep things interesting.

When you want to buy an indoor trainer, here are some things to think about and understand:

  • Smart vs. classic indoor trainers: Find out how smart trainers make training indoors more engaging.
  • Indoor trainer tech: Know the difference between wheel-on and direct drive, fluid and magnetic resistance, and how flywheel weights affect the feel.
  • What do you need to ride on Zwift? A few things you need to get rolling.
  • Quiet indoor trainers: Top picks for apartment-dwellers or riding with sleeping babies nearby.
  • Tips for indoor training: How to deal with all that sweat and keep your bike rolling smoothly.

Smart vs. classic indoor trainers

Classic trainers have been around for ages, but smart trainers have changed the indoor riding game entirely.

Smart trainers

Tacx Neo 2 Smart Trainer

Smart trainers are super popular these days, and for good reason. They simulate riding on the road in real life with changing resistance. From racing virtual routes with friends online to power-based training sessions, smart trainers are turning “having to” to “wanting to” get on the bike indoors.

Think of the most iconic climb you’ve seen at Le Tour de France. Smart trainers can adjust the resistance automatically to simulate an incline that matches a pre-set course. Mont Ventoux? Col du Tourmalet? Alpe d’Huez? You can get up these climbs from the (dis)comfort of your living room.

Are you looking for a way to smash your PRs on all the local Strava segments? Intervals might just be the right type of workout for you. Smart trainers support ERG mode which allows you to hold a prescribed wattage. This is perfect for structured workouts where you need to hold a certain effort (and don’t trust your head to hold that effort). The trainer will keep the same intensity, as long as your legs keeps turning.

You can easily pair smart trainers with apps like Zwift or TrainerRoad to help keep the ride more interactive and motivating. You can even ride with friends or family that live across the country.

Classic trainers

Tacx Blue Twist classic trainer

The pros of classic trainers are that they’re simple and affordable. They’ve been around for a long time and do a good job at making you sweat. Classic trainers aren’t controllable by apps or software, but they do offer resistance when pedalling. If you prefer to write down your workout of the day on a piece of paper and don’t mind listening to your brain screaming how much your ride hurts without distractions, a classic trainer might be all that you need.

Bike trainer technology explained

There are a lot of specs and tech on the market. Below are some the main differentiators to help you understand general categories of indoor trainers.

Wheel-on vs. direct-drive trainers

Examples of wheel-on and direct-drive indoor trainers
Example of a wheel-on trainer (left) and direct-drive trainer (right).

Wheel-on trainers: Until a few years ago, this was the only type of trainer available. The name is self-explanatory: the rear wheel of your bike stays on, and the tire pushes on a roller that provides the resistance. Getting your bike on and off the trainer is quite fast and easy. Since these trainers rely on the friction between the tire and the resistance unit to provide resistance, you should use a trainer-specific tire that has high-heat resistance or use tires that aren’t road-worthy anymore.

For wheel-on smart bike trainers, calibrating the unit to get an accurate power reading takes more time and effort than using direct-drive trainers. The accuracy is also often lower because of the many variables.

Direct drive trainers: For this type of trainer, you take off the rear wheel off your bike and replace it with the resistance unit of the trainer. Your bike chain directly engages the resistance unit to provide a smooth and realistic feel. This style of trainer means you don’t need a trainer-specific tire. It also gives you more direct engagement and virtually eliminates the dreaded tire-slip when you sprint hard. Bottom line: less wear and tear on your gear, and a more realistic riding feel.

Fluid vs. magnetic/electromagnetic resistance

Examples of fluid vs. electromagnetic resistance indoor bike trainers
Example of a fluid resistance trainer (left) and electromagnetic resistance trainer (right).

Fluid resistance: To feel more resistance on a fluid resistance trainer, you simply need to pedal faster. And the faster you pedal, the harder you’ll have to work. Fluid trainers tend to have the smoothest ride feel, but they don’t give you the option to add or reduce resistance like smart trainer does. In terms of noise, these are very quiet.

Magnetic/electromagnetic resistance: Trainers that uses magnetic or electromagnetic resistance generally have a way to increase or decrease resistance. It could be a lever-actuated cable for classic trainers (magnetic), or an app or software for smart trainers (electromagnetic). Since you have option to increase or decrease the resistance with these trainers, they give you more flexibility for how you train.

Flywheels and riding feel

A flywheel is used to keep some momentum. The heavier the flywheel, the more realistic the riding will feel. An indoor trainer with a light flywheel will feel as if you’re riding with your brakes rubbing, slowing you down quickly when you stop pedalling. One thing to note is that trainer manufacturers can use pulleys to increase the flywheel effect without having to increase the actual weight of the flywheel. This also means that you may not be able to compare apples to apples when looking at flywheel weights.

What do you need for Zwift?

Person riding indoor trainer with Zwift

Apps like Zwift are completely changing the world of indoor training. They let you virtually ride and connect with other people, ride virtual roads and routes, and try different training sessions designed by real coaches. They also keep your mind occupied as your legs and cardio gets stronger.

Here’s what you need to get rolling:

  1. A trainer: A smart trainer will adjust the resistance to match the terrain you’re riding on. It will also act as a power meter and provide the most immersive experience. A classic trainer won’t offer the same level of experience but it will keep the cost lower. For your classic trainer to be compatible with Zwift, you’ll need a speed sensor installed on your bike that can communicate via ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart.
  2. A way to run the Zwift app: This device can be an iPhone, iPad, Mac or PC computer, or an Apple TV. If you’re using a PC, you’ll need an ANT+ dongle. This ANT+ dongle will also let you connect your own ANT+ heart rate straps and cadence sensor to Zwift.

Once you have everything you need, hop onto Zwift and follow the prompts to connect your devices. If you can set up your trainer in front of a screen like your TV or laptop, it can make the riding and gaming experience more fun.

Not sure if your current equipment is compatible with Zwift? Head to the Zwift hardware page to find out.

Quiet indoor trainers

Squeezing a training session might have to wait until the kids are in bed or before your downstairs neighbours wake up. Traditionally, indoor trainers have been quite loud and not the most relaxing sound for people around you. Things are changing, and you can now ride your bike quietly inside. (The downside is the fact that there won’t be anything to drown out your heavy breathing and grunting.)

The Tacx Neo 2T Smart Trainer, the Wahoo Fitness Kickr Power Trainer and Wahoo Fitness Kickr Core are near-silent options. The noise of your drivetrain and the fan you set up will be much louder than the trainer itself.

Tips for indoor bike training sessions

Sweat. There’s no way to avoid it, but isn’t that the point of your ride? Here are a few tricks to keep you (and your bike) more comfortable when you push on the pedals and enter the pain cave.

Fan(s): There’s no breeze to cool you down when you’re inside. Set up some fans to prevent overheating – staying cool helps you get the most out of your workout.

Sweat towel: Keep a towel handy to wipe down your face.

Sweat cover: Think of a sweat cover as an umbrella for your bike. It prevents salty sweat drops from dropping on your frame and components so your bike continues to spin smoothly.

Trainer mat: A floor mat keeps the sweat contained and helps reduce vibrations from the trainer.

Dry chain lube: Even though you’re riding inside, you still need to keep your chain well lubricated. Choose a dry lube instead of a wet lube, since it’s less likely get sprayed around as you pedal.

Snacks and hydration: Set up snacks and your water bottle nearby. Staying hydrated and well-fed helps you perform better and recover faster.

Wireless keyboard: Riding on Zwift is a lot of fun, especially when you can interact with others. Maybe you’d like to hammer out a few messages or emails as you cool down? A wireless keyboard can help you do that.

Wireless headphones: Wired headphones can literally hold you back when getting out of the saddle. Sweat can also drip down the cables and ruin the mic and controls. Wireless headphones allow you to focus on your ride without having to gauge how much cable there is between you and your phone that you’re trying to protect from your sweat.

Heart rate monitor: Keep an eye on the numbers with a heart rate monitor to make sure you’re working at the right intensity.

Bike cleaning supplies: Give your bike a good wipe down after your ride. Use spray bottle of water and a cloth to get rid of most of the salt that dripped on your bike from sweating.