Updated 2020 :
For a lot of people Zwift starts the conversation, either your mates are riding Zwift or you stumbled across it by their not so subtle advertising. This Zwift thing blew up a few winter seasons ago and has opened the door for a lot of new gear.
In this article i’m going to be talking about trainers which are $300 of above. This is pretty much the entry point into trainers that are above “sit and spin” trainers.
Let’s step back a second and talk about training and why of it all
Trainers (or Turbo’s as they are called in the UK or Australia ) were typically used in winter months to keep fitness or even build fitness for an upcoming race season. The new fundamentals of training are based in the philosophy that training with Power measurement nets the best results, as they are the most comparable, consistent and repeatable. Training with Heart Rate is OK, but often too unrepeatable as many other factors affect HR, like your sleep patterns.
Thanks to over 8 years of power training study, there are now lots of online programs where you can have personalized workout plans based on your fitness or power readings. Training Peaks, Trainer Road, Zwift to name a few. These can help you stay fit, set goals and become fitter should you wish.
Traditionally, power sensing devices (also called power meters) have mounted on the bike and have been expensive anywhere from $600 for a Stages to over $1500 for an SRM (which is what you typically see in Grand Tour Pro Races) They measure power in Watts, and Watts are hands down the best way to scientifically measure output to be used for training and fitness.
How does this affect trainers?
In the past only the highest end trainers had power (wattage) reading ability. Of the past few years, trainer manufactures have invented ways to build lower cost power meters into a range of trainers from $250 upwards, and of course as you go up the features get varied.
Base Level Trainers ($300+)
These trainers are often the most affordable, they typically require you to use the rear wheel on your bike to work the trainer.
Resistance is created either buy fluid or magnets in a mechanism, They calculate the rotation speed and estimate the power based on the known resistance curve of their mechanism and can be calibrated giving a typical +/- 3% accuracy.
These trainers connect to the programs (run on your computer, or tablet) via bluetooth or Ant+ depending on what system you use.
These power measuring trainers range from $299 to about $450 from brands like Wahoo, PowerOps and KurtKinetic
As you would think, on these base level trainers, you use your gears to control your peddling speed / resistance. So if you select a harder gear on your bike, they take more effort to spin and vice versa. A lot of the trainers now use fluid as resistance and a good flywheel to provide a very realistic smooth road feel. What base level trainers don’t do is automatically control the resistance when hooked up to software simulations like Zwift etc.
Before I jump into Mid range trainers, Let’s talk about Zwift for a second as it will start tomake more sense.
Zwift (like other platforms) is a simulated riding environment, augmented reality, think a cycling game where you can see your bike, your friends your route.
Zwift can add an extra level of excitement, camaraderie and interest to an other wise boring subject of being sat inside on a trainer.
In order for Zwift to position you in that environment relative to other riders it uses your Power numbers (measured in Watts) from your trainer, but not only receive data from your trainer (watts) they can also send data to your trainer to control resistance!
Mid – Upper Trainers (Smart Trainers) $499 to $1200
Imagine you are riding up a hill in Zwift, it’s a steep hill and in reality you would be working hard and going slower. (or stopping and getting off the bike, like me 🙂 )
Now what if the trainer could automatically simulate this gargantuan resistance? – enter what they call the Smart Trainer
Wow. Talk about a realistic riding experience. There are a lot of manufacturers that are making Smart Trainers. These are trainers with electronic devices attached to their flywheels to provide variable resistance to your backwheel or your gears. The leader in this technology is Tacx and Wahoo, they make units from $500 to $1200. There are also options from other brands such as Kurt Kinetic and Cycle Ops which do similar things.
Smart trainers provide the enhanced experience when used with programs like Zwift, you can be riding up a hill on a course and feel like you are riding up a hill, you can draft off of people and it feels like drafting, even going downhill. Training programs (like Trainer Road) can also use this feature as they can prescribe a resistance to achieve a specific target wattage in that gear and make you work for it in a prescribed training plan.
In this category there are two basic types of trainer – Back wheel on (you clip your bike in the trainer back wheel on) typically around the $500 mark and the wheel off, anywhere from $800 to $1300 depending, the trainer directly attaches to your chain. thus the name wheel off – for the this kind however you will have to transfer the cassette or buy another cassette.
NOTE: Don’t forget that you don’t necessarily need a $600+ trainer to use Zwift, basically anything that can estimate power can be used to feed Zwift. They won’t provide resistive feedback from Zwift and rely on you changing gears to make the ride harder or easier.
Wheel off smart trainers are more expensive – what do you actually get for your money?
The largest difference is wheel off trainers tend to be quieter, as there are less frictional surfaces to cause noise. Wheel off trainers provide a more stable platform, as the physical connection is more direct, simple engineering, this also translates to a smoother more natural ride feel. Wheel off trainers also take less calibration, since they are not compensating for using an inflated tire their readings tend to be more accurate (good for folks who are training for racing). The pressure in a tire varies over time and temperature, so in a wheel off trainer, you don’t have to pump your tire and you don’t have to calibrate every ride. If these things are not important to you, a wheel on trainer can save you some money.
Types of wireless communication aka computer connection.
Moving on and getting more technical. In general these “things” have to connect and talk back and forth, Some trainers communicate power numbers to software via Bluetooth, Some Via ANT+, some both. In most cases there are adapters for everything. If say you wanted to use your ipad for Zwift then you can get and Ant+ adapter. or if you wanted to use your Laptop with Bluetooth you could also.
Just be aware of the technologies for example an Ant+ Heart Rate Strap will not always work with a Bluetooth System and vice versa, its best to make sure your gear is on the same channel so to speak. Fortunately most manufacturers now are using multiple channels of communications and bluetooth is becoming the leader.
Physical bike technicalities to notice – QR or Thru Axle?
Since all of these trainers rely on supporting the back of the bike or wheel in some fashion (both wheel on and off designs), you have to pay attention to the details. If you have a regular road bike things are going to be easy. The spacing on the back wheel will be 130mm standard with a quick release – not a problem. You may have a cyclocross bike with 135mm or new mtn bike. Bikes with 142mm and 148mm Boost, this may or may-not be 12mm with different thread pitches. It all gets a bit complex as soon as you step into Thru axles. Fortunately most manufactures take care of this and have adapters. Certain bikes may cause a little more grief and you should check with the manufacturer how they accommodate such. Its worth being aware when purchasing.
For the Wheel off Kickr : 12mm x 142mm
For the wheel on Kickr Snap
Kinetic Trainer Through axles here : https://www.kurtkinetic.com/thru-axles/
What tires to use?
For wheel on trainers, I say use any smooth tire, make sure it’s clean. You can use a worn out road tire. Trainer specific tires provide marginal improvement but mainly are just marketing hype to soak up your extra dollars for marginal features.
How to decide?
This is the million dollar question so to speak. Since there is such a wide range in price for trainers, I found the best way was to decide my budget for my winter training and work back from there. I did know I really wanted to try the full simulation of Zwift with feedback, so that ruled out the Base Level Trainers , I also knew I had to spend above $500 on a trainer that could do this simulation.
Another way to choose, is to decide what you want to do. Do you want to ride for fun? Do you want to train? How often will you ride it?
Please also bear in mind, online programs require a subscription Zwift = $15 a month. Also some trainers may require adapters at extra costs, ie an Ant+ adapter $40 or a special axle for a 142mm rear hub. $45 and a heart rate sensor can cost you $50
Zwift adds a level of fun back to indoor, you can be super serious and only train or you can ride for fun in virtual environments. Or , like me you can do a hybrid. A bit of both. Training with power is great, but training with Power in Zwift or Trainer Rd is fantastic.
For training : Zwift and Trainer Rd allows a high quality structured workout (based on your FTP) with a game like interface to keep you engaged. That means theres more chance you will stick to your plan and achieve your fitness goals.
For just Riding – my friends who ride Zwift a lot for the “experience” have resistive / feedback trainers controlled by Zwift- They say that riding the Zwift environment and feeling the hills and descents is fun and engaging. It never used to be that way with indoor cycling, so – well done Zwift.
Have to say, from a fitness perspective I’m hooked on Trainer Rd, the quality of workouts are top notch- especially when it’s rainy and cold / icy out.
What do you use?
I have used a couple of types, both with good results. They vary in price and really the decision is how much you want to get out of the system vs your commitment.
1. Base – Kurt Kinetic Road Machine $299. This is the kind where the back wheel sits on a roller – It connects via Bluetooth (included) to my Macbook which has Zwift ($15/month)
It sends power data to Zwift but doesn’t receive data from Zwift to vary the resistance, that I have to do with gears. I use it with a 130mm road bike no problem, its stable, The ride feel is great, it rolls very smooth, has a road like resistance and accurately measures power. It’s pretty quiet and I would say its a great training machine at high value. If I need to add a heart rate monitor to it, to understand extra parameters I can its an extra $45, the front wheel lift is also $26 Note: This trainer does not have the hill / course / resistance feedback from Zwift. – for that you need to spend more on a control-able resistance unit 🙂
Total Cost: $370 add $49 to this if you have a thru axle.
2. Mid Smart Trainer – Wahoo Kickr Core $899. This unit provides resistive feedback in a wheel off design.
The unit doesn’t need a front wheel riser, but you will have to buy an extra cassette $40, unless you use the one from your rear wheel. This design has great stability, I use it with a road bike and it comes with adapters for QR, 142, 148 Thru axle included.
The largest difference with this unit is the resistive feedback, this is great for Zwift simulation and also in training mode to make sure you are hitting the right effort levels for the right amount of time.
Because I do like to get a good workout I often find myself using this setup for a Trainer Road workout set into ERG (automatic power) to make sure I am completing my plan.
A small but notable upside to the wheel off designs is that you don’t need to pump your tire every time you ride and you can calibrate your unit much less.
Total Cost : $939
Awesome post, brother. You certainly hit everything!
I’m a huge fan of Zwift. Totally transformed my indoor training.
Now that’s an in depth article. Nice done 😉
I agree with your entire summary, the historical and technical narrations. I’ve tried a couple combinations. One of the most practical is a cheap trainer with PowerTap P1 pedal (factory reconditioned for $650). The benefit is you can use the pedals/power on road rides. I eventually decided to invest in the Elite Direto, one of the least expensive wheel-off smart trainers that has power measurements and not too loud ($900+tax). Zwift is so much fun. I WANT to head down to the cellar to ride new virtual places, new group rides, and to explore the Zwift training program. Also, Elite gives you a free year of their online training along with trial subscriptions to a couple other online systems.