Riding inside is necessary for many cyclists. Typically, the cold, nasty weather and limited daylight of winter are to blame. Lately, the global coronavirus pandemic has taken traditional riding out of the cards for even more people.
As of this writing, no U.S. authorities have banned or restricted our ability to ride outside. But trailheads are so packed in many places that mountain biking isn’t providing much social distance. Group rides are definitely frowned upon. And, especially for those with young children home from school and day care, getting out now might be tougher than it was in the depths of December and January.
Enter indoor trainers, which enable you to work out at home whenever you want. Trainers have been around for decades, but the past ten years have seen massive improvements in everything from features to ride feel. With online connectivity, you can interface with sophisticated programs that make trainer workouts a powerfully effective way to build fitness rather than just maintain it. Modern connected trainers also offer the opportunity to immerse yourself in rich virtual-riding environments, including group rides and races. If you’re finally ready to join the inside-ride revolution, here’s what you need to know.
Types of Indoor Trainers
There are three broad categories of indoor cycling trainers: rollers, stationary trainers, and stationary bikes. Rollers, the most basic option, are a set of cylindrical drums that spin in a frame that you lay on the floor and balance your bike on top of. Stationary trainers are upright frames that hold your bike in place as you pedal. And stationary bikes are stand-alone units that let you pedal, no bike required.
Rollers and stationary bikes have their place, but they’re best for specific groups of cyclists who want the particular kind of indoor riding experience that each offers (more on those below). Stationary trainers are the best option for most cyclists. They have the largest selection of feature sets and come in the widest range of prices. They also don’t require the learning curve that most rollers do and are far more compact and easier to store and move than stationary bikes.
Stationary trainers fall into two categories: basic models that offer manually adjustable resistance and not much else, and so-called smart trainers, which connect to sensors on your bike, like a power meter, and to online training and riding programs like Zwift that can automatically control things like resistance. Basic trainers are the most affordable option, but smart trainers have come down in price enough that they’re our primary recommendation, unless you’re on a strict budget or only plan to use your trainer occasionally.
Pros: They produce a fairly realistic ride feel and are great for honing pedaling technique.
Cons: They are generally tricky to master and have few connectivity options.
Price range: $180 to $1,345
The oldest indoor-training technology, rollers are essentially three parallel cylindrical drums mounted to a rigid frame. Rather than attach your bike to them, like you do for a stationary trainer, you simply balance it atop the roller drums. As you pedal, the drums turn. On traditional rollers, the progressive resistance occurs mostly from the size of the drum, with smaller diameter drums yielding higher resistance. But some units have fan-resistance or adjustable magnetic-resistance options as well.
Rollers are light and easy to transport and store. Many are foldable, so they’re great for small spaces (you can put them under the bed) or throwing in the car for a prerace warm-up. They’re also ideal for working on a more fluid and efficient pedaling technique. But learning how to keep the front wheel steady so you don’t steer off the edge of the drums takes work. If you’re just starting out, set them up in a doorway so you can balance yourself.
If you want a lightweight, easily portable training option, or if you’re interested in improving things like efficiency and pedaling technique, they’re great. But aside from the Inside Ride (mentioned below), the general lack of features and the learning curve to master rollers means most cyclists are better off with a stationary trainer.
The Tacx Antares Basic Trainer ($200) is as simple as it gets: the plastic drums taper slightly from the ends to the middle to help keep your wheels centered, and the aluminum frame folds for easy storage. The price for such affordability is that resistance isn’t adjustable; it varies only based on how hard you’re pedaling.
Kreitler’s American-made rollers are renowned for their quality and durability. The Kreitler Challenger Rollers 4.5 ($480) are pricier than Tacx’s Antares Basic Trainer, but its lathe turned aluminum drums will last virtually forever. As with the Tacx, the frame folds for better storage. The Killer Headwind accessory ($225) generates additional resistance and creates a cooling breeze.
The floating-frame construction on the Inside Ride E-Motion Rollers (from $900 to $1,345) means the bike can move slightly forward and backward underneath you as you pedal, just like on the road, which provides an excellent simulation of real ride feel. You can even stand and sprint, which is almost impossible on most rollers. Side bumpers on the front-wheel roller help prevent your bike from falling off. That feature, and the floating frame’s natural feel, make this model easier to learn on than conventional rollers. The E-Motion is available in a basic, unconnected model ($900) and two pricier models: The Smart model ($1,200) offers compatibility with independent-training and interactive-riding applications like TrainerRoad and Zwift. The Ultimate Flex model ($1,345) adds to that a fork-mounted stand that turns the Inside Ride into a stationary trainer of sorts.
There isn’t really a sweet spot for rollers; the best options are at either end of the price range. E-Motion’s Smart model rivals high-end smart trainers for cost, but it’s the only unit that offers both roller feel and connectivity to training apps. It’s also easy to learn on. On the more affordable end of the spectrum, we vote for Kreitler for quality (you’ll bequeath it to your kids). But if you just want to work on your spin or get in a quick warm-up before a race, the Tacx will do the job.
Basic Stationary Trainers
Pros: They’re inexpensive and easy to use.
Cons: They offer a limited feature set and the least realistic ride feel of all trainers. They can also be noisy.
Price range: $100 to $300
Basic trainers are stripped-down wheel-on units with limited features. Some basic trainers have remotely adjustable resistance that lets the rider control whether the workout is harder or easier in any given gear combination and pedal cadence. Others require you to get off the bike to twist a knob that changes the resistance. Most basic trainers use magnets or hydraulic fluid for resistance. Magnetic trainers can feel dead or sluggish, but they’re more affordable and less likely to overheat. Fluid ones are quieter and produce a more realistic pedaling resistance but are more prone to failure from overheating.
The big downside to basic trainers: they don’t have built-in connectivity to apps like TrainerRoad and Zwift (more on those below). You can use accessories like speed and cadence sensors, which gauge rear-wheel revolutions, to cobble together a semi-smart setup. This allows you to interface with an app, albeit without the benefit of features like power metering or automatic resistance. The total cost of a basic-plus setup like this is similar to the least expensive smart trainers, but this may be a good approach if you want to spread out the cost over time.
The lightweight, foldable Blackburn Tech Mag 5 Trainer ($130) is the most affordable basic trainer we know of that has remote-adjustable magnetic resistance, with five settings available. Blackburn doesn’t offer its own speed or cadence sensors for connectivity, so we’d recommend Wahoo’s Blue SC ($60), which measures both. Together with an ANT+ dongle ($40), which will allow your laptop or smart device to communicate with sensors like the Wahoo, it’s the cheapest way we know to connect a basic trainer.
Saris’s Fluid Trainer ($250) offers a quieter, nicer-feeling ride via its fluid resistance, with one drawback: it’s not adjustable. All trainers have resistance that progressively increases as you pedal harder. Adjustable resistance lets you control (to a degree) the rate of that increase. Trainers, like the Saris, that lack that feature may be less ideal for high-intensity workouts like sprint intervals. With the addition of Saris’s crank-arm-mounted speed sensor ($40) and an ANT+ dongle for computers, you can get basic connectivity to apps like Zwift. Whatever app you’re using can’t control resistance on this trainer, but you’ll be able to participate in virtual group rides and workouts.
Smart Stationary Trainers
Pros: They offer the best value and are easier to set up and store than a stationary bike. There are also many options to choose from.
Cons: They tend to wear out faster than rollers and stationary bikes, and stability and ride feel varies significantly between models. They also generally require more futzing and come with higher chances of issues with connectivity, firmware updates, and the like.
Price range: $350 to $1,400
Smart trainers are broadly similar to their basic counterparts, except they connect to third-party apps and on-bike sensors using ANT+, ANT+ FE-C, or Bluetooth Smart. Some also have built-in power meters. ANT+ FE-C is the newest protocol for connecting with apps and is much less likely to drop the connection. If you go this route, we recommend making sure the trainer you buy supports it.
Smart trainers often use electromagnetic or fluid resistance. Fluid trainers are typically less expensive but suffer from the same overheating issue discussed above. Electromagnetic resistance is more precise (this matters when you’re riding a virtual course via an app that controls the trainer) and often comes with a weighted flywheel—essentially a heavy disk in the back that spins when you pedal—for a highly realistic ride feel.
But the biggest differentiator between smart trainers is that some apply resistance to the bike’s rear tire while others replace the rear wheel entirely and apply resistance directly through the drivetrain. These so-called direct-drive trainers are more expensive but offer the best ride feel and more accurate power measurement than wheel-on models. They are also compatible with more bicycle types and wheel sizes, and they eliminate wear and tear on parts like the rear wheel and tire.
The Saris Fluid2 Trainer Smart ($350) is one of the most affordable smart trainers. This wheel-on trainer features a fluid-based resistance unit, an integrated speed sensor, and basic ANT+ connectivity to get you started on a third-party app like Zwift. (Though you’ll still need an ANT+ dongle for your laptop, tablet, or other device to interface with the apps.)
The Wahoo Kickr Core ($900) is a sterling example of a midprice direct-drive smart trainer (this type typically starts around $700 and runs up to $1,400). It’s got most of the features of the more expensive Kickr ($1,200) in a more affordable package. This includes the same electromagnetic flywheel resistance technology, with just slightly less max power and a lower maximum climbing grade. It also offers identical app and sensor connectivity (including app-controlled variable resistance), bike compatibility, and accuracy.
At the top end of the smart-trainer spectrum sits the Tacx Neo 2T Smart ($1,400). It’s hard to find a more fully featured trainer. Like other smart options, this direct-drive model connects to third-party apps via a phone, laptop, or tablet. The electromagnetic flywheel resistance mechanism can handle up to 2,200 watts of output on a simulated climb of up to 25 percent. That’s the same maximum watt capability as the flagship Wahoo Kickr but a 5 percent steeper gradient. By comparison, the midrange Kickr Core maxes out at 1,800 watts and a 16 percent grade. The Neo 2T Smart measures distinct left- and right-leg power output to approximately 1 percent accuracy with no calibration needed, and it’s one of the quietest trainers around.
We love direct-drive trainers because they provide a better riding experience, but the Neo 2T Smart is a major investment. Instead, we’d go with a more modestly priced direct-drive option, like the Kickr Core or Tacx’s Flux S Smart ($750), which provide much of the same experience and functionality for significantly less scratch. You can save even more with a wheel-on trainer, and you can’t go wrong there with Wahoo’s Kickr Snap ($500); its power reading is slightly less accurate than direct-drive versions, and it has less capability to handle peak power outputs for sprint workouts, but it has all the connectivity features you need, fits most road and mountain bikes, and runs on the same basic electromagnetic flywheel system as Wahoo’s direct-drive units.
Pros: They are extremely stable, offer a realistic ride feel, and don’t cause wear and tear on bike parts.
Cons: They are big and heavy and expensive.
Price range: $1,400 to $3,500
These are a far cry from the sad indoor bikes of old that quickly became laundry racks. Modern versions, from brands like Peloton, Stages, Wahoo, and Wattbike, are designed with vigorous workouts in mind and have a wide range of adjustability for seat and handlebar positions, so you can reproduce the fit of your regular bikes.
Even the most affordable models rival high-end smart trainers in price, and you’ll have to spend more for a bike with connectivity (without it, these models aren’t much different than the simple stationary versions you’d find at a gym). Because of their stability, stationary bikes are a good choice for hard workouts. They’re also well suited to users who do a lot of indoor riding, because you don’t have to set up your regular bike on the trainer. But you’ll need a dedicated spot for a home workout studio.
There are cheaper bikes, but few mimic fit and touch points like the Stages SC1 ($1,700). It also has adjustable resistance control and a realistic ride feel. But it’s essentially a home version of a group-workout exercise bike and won’t connect to training and riding apps.
The Wattbike Atom ($2,600) is a relatively affordable smart bike with all the adjustments you need to reproduce your regular bike fit, plus ANT+ FE-C connectivity to pair to third-party training apps for automatic resistance control to simulate climbs. You need an Android or iOS smart device to run those apps.
One of the most full-featured smart bikes available, the Wahoo Kickr Bike ($3,500) can do all kinds of cool stuff. Not only does it pair to third-party apps to control resistance but it also mimics climbs and descents by changing the bike angle and even offers virtual shifting. It works with Android and iOS devices. What about the 500-pound gorilla of the stationary-bike space, Peloton? As great as Peloton is for many people, the experience it offers is different than what many cyclists want. The bike and its attached tablet run only on the Peloton app; you can’t make the bike work with TrainerRoad, Zwift, or other third-party apps. And to us, that’s a deal breaker. Peloton’s fitness experience is much more like a gym-based spin class, and most cyclists are instead looking for a workout experience that more faithfully resembles their outdoor rides.
As cool as the Kickr Bike is, it’s also almost a cool grand more than the Wattbike Atom, which provides most of the Kickr’s function. Unless you plan to become a full-time Zwift warrior, bikes like the Atom, which have full connectivity but lack the whiz-bang virtual-reality features of the Kickr Bike, are the best bang for the buck.
A Few Words on Apps
We’ve been talking a bunch about connecting your trainer to third-party apps, but what does that mean, and why does it matter? Yes, Elite, Tacx, Wahoo, and others have dedicated training interfaces that offer workout programs and even virtual riding environments. But content is often limited. Most riders opt for independent platforms that offer richer virtual environments, more workout options, and a larger community of users. With pricier trainers and bikes, these third-party apps can remote-control the resistance to match your ride experience to the virtual landscape.
These platforms fall into two broad categories. Some offer a gamified experience, often through some kind of visual interactivity. Others simply offer workout programs that control the trainer. Cost varies depending on the app’s business model, but most of the subscription options are around $10 to $15 a month.
Our preference is for interactive apps like BKool, Rouvy, Sufferfest, and Zwift, which offer workouts and virtual-ride experiences either via high-resolution videos of real-world rides or a virtual universe like Zwift’s Watopia. Most also offer peer-to-peer communication, so you can go on virtual rides with friends or make new ones.
Whatever you pick, the options today are miles away from what was available a decade ago. Indoor training used to be the stuff of hardcore cyclists only, with entertainment or distraction limited to blasting a playlist or watching TV. Today, Zwift is so popular that some riders choose it for workouts even when the weather is perfect for riding outside.