by Katherine A. Roccasecca
Maybe it never gets bitterly cold where you live and train. Maybe you don't have to contend with 18 inches of snow on the roads. However, there are still plenty of reasons for you to get an indoor bike trainer.
We will share those reasons with you, and once we have convinced you that you need one, this indoor bike trainer buying guide will help you narrow down the overwhelming choices.
Why You Should Get an Indoor Bike Trainer
- Fewer hours of daylight means fewer safe hours to ride outdoors.
- Yes, you can get extra tough-guy/gal points for riding outdoors in the cold or rain, but even the toughest tough-guys and tough-gals get sick of spending 30 minutes dressing up and dressing down for every ride.
- After a long season of racing, your family may be looking forward to spending some time with you this winter. Long endurance-building rides out on the road are unlikely to make them happy, but watching a movie together might!
- If you're a parent, you need to do your share of kid duty. Be careful combining watching the kids with riding the trainer, though. The trainer and your bike have lots of places to pinch little fingers. Make sure your kids are either old enough that this is absolutely not an issue or they are safely asleep in their crib.
- An indoor bike trainer is an any-time-of-year must-have tool if you ever break a collarbone or have foot surgery. Your doc will approve of you getting back on a trainer long before s/he will approve of you going out on the road.
- Virtual training options allow you to ride actual race courses before the race or to meet up with friends around the globe for a group ride.
- When you have a specific training goal, indoor training sessions allow you more reliably hit the correct duration and intensity for your intvervals, compared to when you are dealing with traffic and/or terrain changes outdoors.
So, you know you need an indoor bike trainer. Which one should you get?
Do you want to join your friends on Zwift? Use structured workouts from TrainerRoad? Or use any of the many training apps out there: Elite E-Training, Kinetic Fit, Rouvy, etc.?
You will want to consider a smart trainer. But what is a smart trainer? Manufacturers use the term in different ways.
The smartest are interactive trainers. They receive instructions from a computer (Mac, PC, tablet, phone, Garmin, etc.). They adjust the resistance automatically based on a virtual world or a workout you have selected. And they send data about your performance back to the computer. This means that when you climb Alpe Du Zwift, you feel like you are really climbing. Or, if your coach has programmed x number of minutes at such-and-such watts, the trainer will make sure you do exactly that. These trainers are listed in the Electronic Trainers section.
Other trainers are one-way smart. They have sensors which send information from the trainer to your computer where it can be used to control your virtual avatar and/or be recorded for you or your coach to analyze. These trainers measure your speed (and sometimes cadence), and use the known values in the power curve of the resistance unit to determine how many watts you are putting out. You adjust your gear and cadence to change the resistance and produce the desired power. These trainers are listed in the Fluid Trainers and Wind and Magnetic Trainers charts with the word "smart" in the name.
Dumb trainers can also work with these training/gaming apps. If you already have a power meter and speed and cadence sensors on your bike, the program can use the data from them. Some programs will even work without any power measurement—check the program you are interested in for compatibility information—they may use virtual power based on speed and cadence.
Which Indoor Bike Trainer to Buy
First, a quick word about rear wheel trainers vs. direct drive.
Rear wheel trainers hold the entire bike by the rear skewer, and the rear tire makes contact with the roller part of the resistance unit. Trainers of this type are marked "Wheel" in the charts below.
For direct drive trainers, you remove the rear wheel and mount the bike directly on the trainer. Direct drive trainers can be quieter and have the advantage of not wearing out your tire. These trainers are marked "Direct" in the charts below.
When electronic trainers first came out, we recommended them for those who are "very serious about their training." Now, with the popularity of virtual rides and the number of lower-cost models available, we also recommend them to anyone who wants to maximize fun.
For very serious riders, these trainers offer precise control of the workout session. They require you to do the exact workout you say you are going to do—no slacking off. You can create your workout or follow an already created workout or video.
For those seeking fun, electronic trainers are the simplest option for virtual rides. Simply pair the trainer with the app, instead worrying about several different sensors.
For more information on electronic trainers, see the Virtual Training section near the beginning of this article.
|Tacx Flow Smart||Wheel||$399.99|
|Saris M2 Smart||Wheel||$499.99|
|Kinetic Road Machine | Control||Wheel||$579.00|
|Kinetic Rock and Roll | Control||Wheel||$749.00|
|Tacx FLUX S||Direct||$749.99|
|Elite Direto II||Direct||$849.99|
|Elite Direto X||Direct||$899.99|
|Elite Drivo II||Direct||$1199.99|
|Tacx NEO 2T||Direct||$1399.99|
When we created our first Indoor Bike Trainer Buying Guide in 2013, we wrote, "This buying guide would be very short and yet still be accurate for most people if we just wrote, 'Get a fluid trainer,' and left it at that." While our primary recommendation has shifted to electronic trainers, fluid trainers are still the workhorses of the indoor bike trainer world.
Fluid trainers have progressive resistance, meaning it gets harder as you peddle faster or shift up. Therefore, they have good road-like feel. They are durable, and they aren't too heavy to put in the back of your car and travel to an in-person group trainer ride
If you want an mid-priced, relatively quiet trainer, any trainer in this category will provide you with years of trouble-free training.
(The CycleOps Magneto is listed here because, unlike the magnetic resistance trainers listed in the next section, it has progressive magnetic resistance.)
|Elite Tuno Power Fluid||Wheel||$324.99|
|Saris Fluid2 Smart Equipped||Wheel||$349.99|
|Kinetic Road Machine | Smart 2||Wheel||$369.00|
|Kinetic Rock and Roll | Smart 2||Wheel||$549.00|
|Progressive Magnetic Trainers||Price|
Wind and Magnetic Trainers
If you have a tight budget, there are magnetic and wind trainers available. Wind trainers have good road-like feel with progressive resistance but are very, very noisy. Magnetic trainers can be as quiet as fluid trainers; however, the resistance is linear and not progressive. It can be adjusted on the unit itself or with a shifter mounted on your handlebars.
|Elite Novo Force||Wheel||$229.99|
|Saris Mag Smart Equipped||Wheel||$239.99|
Indoor Bike Trainer Accessories
What more do you need beyond the trainer and your bike?
You will almost certainly want a trainer mat. Just to be blunt here: You are going to sweat. Your sweat is going to run down the bike, over the drivetrain, and onto the floor. Unless you want salty, greasy stains on the floor, get a trainer mat. After your workout, wipe it down, roll it up, and put it away. The mat will also protect your floor from possible scratches and it helps dampen the noise just a little. Buy Now
As long as we're talking about sweat, consider a bike sweat guard. It attaches to your handlebars and seatpost to prevent "salt-cicles" on your headset and bike frame. Buy Now
A riser of some sort is required for your front tire. Most indoor trainers (excluding some of the direct drive trainers) hold your rear wheel up off the ground. Leaving your front wheel down will be awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you're watching a TV screen. A phone book is a traditional quick fix for this problem. However, that just doesn't seem safe; plus, who has a phone book these days, anyway? Get a purpose-built riser. Buy Now
The indoor bike trainer will create a lot of wear on your tire. The friction itself, plus the heat, will shorten the life of your tire. If you have an old tire you don't care about, it will do on the trainer for awhile before it wears out. Trainer-specific tires are designed to withstand the stresses caused by the trainer and will last a long time, worry-free. Buy Now
If you choose a trainer which uses the rear wheel to roll along the resistance unit, you need to fit your bike securely into the trainer. This is done by fitting the skewer ends into small cups and tightening things down.
Many bikes these days have fancy lightweight, aerodynamic skewers. Those skewers are great for racing, but do not fit safely and securely into the trainer. You may have an old-school skewer lying around, but if not, pick up a proper trainer skewer. Buy Now
If your bike has a thru axle, you'll also have an issue trying to mount your bike on the trainer. Fortunately, trainer thru axles exist! Buy Now
More Odds and Ends
Collect a few more things from around the house and you'll be ready to go.
Food and water don't have to fit in your pockets while you're on the trainer. Go ahead and set up a small table next to your bike. Make sure there's room for the TV remote, your phone, and the baby monitor (if applicable).
Unless you are setting your indoor bike trainer up in an unheated garage, you will need a fan to keep you cool. You'll want a towel or two as well. Remember all the sweat that was mentioned above?
Now you should be ready for a winter full of crushing your training goals. We look forward to seeing a stronger, faster you in the spring! (As long as we don't have to race against you.)
Prices current as of October 2019.
A note about the Saris/CycleOps name: It's the same company. Saris decided to brand its trainers with the parent company name and discontinue using the CycleOps name. The products in our inventory with the CycleOps name are from before they rebranding. Learn more on the Saris website.
Need some tips to keep your indoor ride interesting? Get some ideas from our Break through Bike Trainer Boredom article.
Need replacement parts for your CycleOps trainer? Find them in our list of CycleOps Bike Trainer Replacement Parts.