Over the past few years, indoor bicycle trainers have really evolved and come into their own. Even more importantly, riding a bike indoors has become almost fun and enjoyable (notice how I said almost) with the creation of the smart trainer and accompanying applications like Zwift. However, with all of this evolution comes even more confusion for the uninitiated who just want to ride their bikes over the Winter. This article will serve to help those looking to buy their first trainer by providing a brief description, giving some opinions, and pros/cons of each type.
Wind Trainer: $
The wind trainer is the bottom of the barrel here. The resistance comes from a fan with the resistance increasing as the fan spins faster, and vice-versa. If you are looking for a lightweight and cheap option to bring with you to warmup at races, this will work out well, otherwise keep saving your money and invest in a more quality trainer.
Pros – Cheap, portable, resilient, cheap.
Cons – Cheap, loud, no-resistance adjustment.
Magnetic Trainer: $$
The magnetic trainer (mag) uses, you guessed it!, magnets to create resistance. As the magnet gets closer to the spinning drum the resistance will increase, and vice-versa. A mag trainer is a great option for your first trainer, but if you have a few seasons under your belt or you are looking for a “real” road feel, mag trainers will leave you wanting more.
Pros – Quieter than wind, they offer variable resistance (but usually the resistance levels are far between), still portable yet heavier than wind, still relatively cheap.
Cons – Resistance is adjustable but the levels are usually far between.
Fluid Trainer: $$$
The fluid trainer creates its resistance similar to the wind trainer whereby an internal impeller spins in fluid that becomes harder to pedal as the speed of the impeller increases. The fluid trainer is the best of the original 3 and has been used by cyclists for years with little to no complaints. However, they do not offer “smart” adjustability.
Pros – Road-like feel, accurate spin-ups and spin-downs similar to being on the road, resistance increases along a predictable curve.
Cons – We are getting expensive now, tend to be heavy, sometimes the fluid can leak from the barrel (but is VERY rare).
Smart Trainer: $$$$
Smart trainers are the new kid on the block, but are responsible for transforming the indoor experience from monotonous to somewhat enjoyable. Smart trainers are the best of the best right now and are geared towards those looking to use integrative applications, who need to spend a lot of time riding indoors, or for anyone who becomes bored rather easily indoors.
Pros – The most amount of resistance variance, ability to use Zwift and other integrated applications, and just really cool!
Cons – Very expensive, can be confusing to use initially.
Other Options: Rollers and Indoor Bikes
R0llers: Varied $
Rollers are great for those looking to improve their pedal stroke, maintaining a straight line, keeping balanced, and improve their cadence to name a few. The rear wheel sits between the back 2 drums, the front wheel just behind the front drum. As the rear wheel spins, a piece of plastic tubing (connected to both front and rear drums) turns the front wheel simultaneously.
Pros – Ability to really hone-in on pedal stroke, balance, and overall on-bike stability. Portable. You look like you know what you are doing when you learn to use them 😉
Cons – Little to no resistance variance on the less expensive models, super steep learning curve, not good for high intensity rest intervals since you always need to keep spinning to stay upright.
Indoor Bike: $$$$
Indoor bikes have been around for decades and are a favorite among those in health-clubs. Indoor bikes are cool if you have expendable income, or are looking to just ride a bike for a workout, but purchasing an actual trainer and using the bike and geometry you are used to is far more beneficial.
Other Other Options:
Direct Drive Trainer
Direct drive refers to the bike being mounted directly to the trainer versus the rear wheel. This is great for sprint intervals or other high intensity work as there is no wheel slippage.
Rim Drive Trainer
Rim drive trainers are best for mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, or other bikes that have treaded tires since the resistance is placed on the rim of the wheel versus the tire.
These are a favorite for track riders and/or fixed gear racers. They are lightweight and ultra-portable.
So, what trainer is right for you? This depends on what your budget is, what you plan on using it for, will you travel with it, and if you need all the extra bells and whistles to keep your focus on training over a long winter. Most of the athletes I work with use a fluid trainer, an ANT+ powermeter, and Zwift to get their indoor workouts done. However, as smart trainers are becoming more affordable, I have seen them being used far more.
Whatever you decide on, JUST RIDE YOUR BIKE!