How to Choose a Bike Trainer? Create Your Ultimate Indoor Training Setup (2021)

How to Choose a Bike Trainer

In this guide, you learn how to choose a bike trainer to spend your money wisely. Based on my experience, discussions with pro cyclists, and in-depth market research, I explain the benefits and disadvantages of different bike trainers.

You find out who are individual types of bike trainers suitable for, what to expect in every price range, and much more.

You can also take advantage of my tips on accessories and useful resources to kick off your indoor training.

Let’s dive in!


What is a Bike Trainer?

Before I dive into the individual bike trainer types, let me quickly explain what bike trainers are and why they are so popular.

A bike trainer is a device that allows you to mount a bike for a pre-race warm-up (eventually a post-race cooldown) or indoor training. There are many types of bike trainers. The basic two types are wheel-on and direct-drive bike trainers. Bike trainers also differ in the resistance type.

With the boom of indoor training apps like Zwift, ROUVY, Trainer Road, etc., bike trainers are a useful accessory not only for pro cyclists but also for advanced and casual riders who want to maintain their fitness during winter.

Here are the three most important reasons to use a bike trainer:

  1. Bad weatherproof – with an indoor bike trainer, you don’t have to worry about cold, rainy, or windy weather. Instead, you can jump on a bike and start riding whenever you want despite the outside conditions.
  2. Time-efficient – indoor bike training is more time-efficient than outdoor training. Unfortunately, most of us don’t live in a perfect area for bicycle training. A bike trainer allows you to set the resistance so you can do recovery, endurance, or interval rides from your living room, basement, or garage at any time.
  3. No interruptions – you know the feeling when you have just started an interval, and suddenly you come across an intersection or increased traffic. If you train indoors, you don’t have to worry about this. Plus, it is safe.

How to Choose a Bike Trainer?

In this section, you learn what types of bike trainers are there, who they are suitable for, and what to be aware of when purchasing them.

Here are the main features to consider:

  1. Type of a bike trainer (wheel-on, direct-drive, bike simulator…)
  2. Resistance type (wind, magnetic, electromagnetic, fluid)
  3. Price
  4. Accuracy
  5. Bike Compatibility
  6. Noisiness
  7. App & Device compatibility
  8. Stability

Type of a Bike Trainer

The market is flooded with various types of bike trainers. So which one is right for you? Let me explain what bike trainers are there, their advantages and disadvantages, and who they are for.

types of bike trainers (wheel-on, direct-drive, bike simulators, rollers)
Basic types of bike trainers | Product picture source: garmin.com

Wheel-on Trainers

Wheel-on trainers allow you to mount your bike without the need to take off your rear wheel. The rear wheel is then set up against a roller that provides resistance.

Wahoo KICKR SNAP wheel on bike trainer
Wheel-on bike trainer (Wahoo KICKR SNAP) | Product picture source: wahoofitness.com

Depending on the price range, wheel-on trainers use different types of resistance. The lower-end models use wind or magnetic resistance. The more advanced trainers use fluid resistance (learn more).

The price of the trainer also determines how you can change the resistance (either using a dial / remote control, or it changes the resistance automatically based on the training app).

These trainers are the most affordable ones, they are also very portable, and you can use them with almost any type of bike (double-check the bike compatibility).

The lower-end models are very noisy and don’t provide a very realistic riding feel. This means they won’t keep you as engaged and can bore you quickly (especially the non-smart models).

Pros of Wheel-on Trainers

  • More affordable than direct-drive trainers
  • Compatible with many types of bikes
  • Take up less space than direct-drive trainers and are more portable

Cons of Wheel-on Trainers

  • Worse riding characteristics than direct-drive trainers
  • Less stable than direct-drive trainers
  • Low-end models are often not “smart” and, therefore, not compatible with training apps
  • Usually noisier than direct-drive trainers

Who are wheel-on trainers ideal for?
Wheel-on trainers are, thanks to their affordability, great for people with a limited budget. However, the lower-end models are pretty noisy, so they are not very suitable for apartments but rather for people who don’t have neighbors.
If you don’t have a non-smart trainer but a power meter, you can also use them with training apps. More serious cyclists should think about buying a smart trainer.

What is a smart trainer?
A smart trainer is a trainer that controls the resistance based on the information from a training app. This means that if you encounter a climb or a descent in the virtual world, the resistance increases (or decreases) depending on the terrain.

Direct-drive Trainers

Direct-drive trainers (also sometimes called wheel-off trainers) have an attachment mechanism that includes a cassette*. This means you have to take off your rear wheel and mount your bike directly in the bike trainer.

*The cassette is not always included.

Wahoo KICKR Smart direct drive bike trainer
Direct-drive bike trainer (Wahoo KICKR) | Product picture source: wahoofitness.com

Direct-drive trainers are usually much more expensive than wheel-on trainers but provide you with better, more real-life-like riding characteristics and stability. The power transmission is also much more efficient.

One of the biggest benefits of direct-drive trainers is their quiet operation. Some direct-drive trainers are so quiet that the only noise is caused by your bike’s drivetrain.

Most direct-drive trainers are “smart” so you can use them with most cycling training apps.

Pros of Direct-drive Trainers

  • Better riding characteristics than wheel-on trainers
  • More stable than wheel-on trainers
  • Usually “smart” and compatible with training apps
  • Very quiet

Cons of Direct-drive Trainers

  • More expensive than wheel-on trainers
  • Take up more space than wheel-on trainers
  • They require accessories like a cassette
  • They may not be compatible with every bike

Who are direct-drive trainers ideal for?
Direct-drive trainers are suitable for experienced, demanding, and performance-oriented riders. These trainers are usually very quiet, so you can use them in apartments without disturbing your household members or neighbors. In addition, the majority of direct-drive trainers are “smart,” so you can use them with training apps like Zwift. However, due to their construction, it is better to have a dedicated training area (like a garage or a whole room).

Bike Simulators

Bike simulators, also called smart bikes, can completely replace your bike with a trainer. These sophisticated devices are equipped with everything you need for indoor training.

Wahoo KICKR NEO smart bike simulator
Bike Simulator (Wahoo KICKR NEO) | Product picture source: wahoofitness.com

They provide excellent riding characteristics and efficient power transfer. It is possible to train sprints, for example, thanks to their excellent stability. Of course, you can adjust the bike fit to your needs.

One of their biggest disadvantages is the high price, making them more of a product for professional and avid cyclists than casual riders. They also require a dedicated training area.

Pros of Bike Simulators

  • Great riding characteristics and efficient power transfer
  • Very stable and quiet
  • Highly adjustable

Cons of Bike Simulators

  • Very expensive
  • Not portable

Who are bike simulators ideal for?
If money is not an object for you and you take cycling seriously, a bike simulator will provide you with the best riding characteristics possible while being quiet. However, you will need a dedicated training area because bike simulators are not portable.

Rollers

Rollers are not like standard bike trainers, but they are often used for indoor training or pre-race warm-ups. They consist of three cylinders that act as a “floor” for your bicycle. When pedaling, the rollers rotate so you can pedal in place.

The main advantages of the rollers are their easy adjustment for many types of bikes and relatively quiet operation (unless you are riding them with knobby tires). At the same time, they will make you improve your pedaling technique and strengthen your core muscles because you have to balance to avoid falling off them.

Pros of Rollers

  • Easy to setup
  • Affordable (price similar to low-end direct-on bike trainers)
  • Relatively quiet
  • Portable
  • Improve pedaling technique and balance
  • Compatible with almost any type of bike

Cons of Rollers

  • Limited resistance
  • Take time to get used to (not very beginner-friendly)
  • Require a lot of concentration

Who are rollers ideal for?
Rollers are perfect for all riders who want to improve their pedaling technique and strengthen core muscles. Thanks to their portability, they are suitable for people with limited space. It takes some to get used to them, and they are not very suitable for long training sessions because they require a lot of concentration.

TIP: Learn more about the differences between rollers and bike trainers.


Resistance Type

When buying a wheel-on or a direct-drive trainer, you will encounter different resistance types. These include:

  • Wind resistance
  • Magnetic resistance
  • Electromagnetic resistance
  • Fluid resistance

NOTE: Even rollers can have a resistance mechanism. It is usually (electro)magnetic.

The question is, does the resistance type matter?

Yes, it does because it affects the trainer’s price and other features like the ride feeling and noise. The following table shows their advantages and disadvantages.

Type of ResistanceProsCons
Wind• Cheapest
• Progressive resistance
• Very Noisy
• Lack of resistance adjustability
Magnetic• Relatively affordable
• Quieter than wind trainers
• Resistance adjustability
• Linear resistance
• Maximum resistance level
Electromagnetic• Adjustable resistance based on software
platforms (Zwift, Rouvy, etc.)
• Quiet
• Expensive
Fluid• Progressive resistance translating into a very realistic riding feel
• Quiet
• No maximum resistance level
• Expensive

Sources: artscyclery.com, youtube.com, medium.com (The Pacemaker)

What is progressive resistance?
The progressive resistance means that the more you pedal, the higher the resistance. This type of resistance is closer to outside riding conditions because the air resistance increases exponentially the faster you ride. The opposite of the progressive resistance is the linear resistance (used on low-end wheel-on trainers).

Price

Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t have an unlimited budget, so we have to make compromises. So, what type of trainer can you expect at every price point?

Price rangeTrainer
Up to $300Low-end wheel-on bike trainers
Rollers
$300-500Smart wheel-on bike trainers
Rollers with resistance
$500-1500Direct-drive bike trainers
Above $3000Bike simulators
An estimated price of different types of bike trainers

The price usually determines the features I explain more in-depth below.

Accuracy

If you thinking about buying a smart trainer, or if you care about the accuracy of the power data, accuracy is another feature to consider.

The trainer’s accuracy determines the power deviation. This means that if you ride at 250W and the trainer has an accuracy of 3%, the real watts can vary between 242.5-257.5W.

The general rule of thumb is the more expensive trainer, the better accuracy. High-end trainers have an accuracy of ±1% to ±2%. Mid-range around 3%, and low-end around ±5%.

You can see the power deviation for different power outputs and accuracy levels in the following table.

Accuracy250W500W1000W2000W
1%247.5-252.5495-505990-10101980-2020
2%245-255490-510980-10201960-2040
3%242.5-257.5485-515970-10301940-2060
4%240-260480-520960-10401920-2080
5%237.5-262.5475-525950-10501900-2100

Bike Compatibility

Not every bike trainer is compatible with every bike. You may need to return your new bike trainer if you skip double-checking it.

Information about the compatibility of the trainer can usually be found on the product pages.

For example, the following disclaimer can be found on the Wahoo website:

Wahoo Bike Trainer Compatibility Disclaimer
Wahoo Compatibility Disclaimer | Source: wahoofitness.com

Wahoo explains well the compatibility of its KICKR trainers in the following video.

Noisiness

The noisiness of the trainer will affect not only how pleasant your ride without headphones will be but also whether your neighbors will like you or not.

Especially if you live in an apartment, a noisy trainer can be a problem. Fortunately, technology is moving fast forward, and it is no longer a problem to buy a quiet trainer.

Read these proven tips on how to make a bike trainer quieter.

The silent trainers are usually more expensive, but this investment will pay off. Trust me.

When I talk about quiet trainers, I mean trainers with a noisiness level of around 55dB. You can check out this video that compares three quiet bike trainers.

App & Device Compatibility

When buying a trainer, it is good to look for compatibility with applications and devices. Suppose you want to use popular applications such as Zwift, ROUVY, Trainer Road, etc. In that case, look for the magic word “smart trainer.”

Trainers are usually connected to these applications (resp. the devices they run on) via ANT+ or Bluetooth protocols. Trainers featuring ANT+ FE-C protocol allow third-party apps to adjust resistance. These are so-called interactive smart trainers.

TIP: Check out the Best Bike Trainers for Zwift.

DC Rainmaker wrote a great article on this topic, so if you are a tech-geek, make sure to read it.

The point is that if you want to use your smart bike trainer via a desktop app, you will need an ANT+ USB adapter that ensures connectivity with your computer and trainer.

Stability

The stability of the trainer is important if you are used to training sprints, for example. Bike simulators are known for great stability. Low-end wheel-on trainers are on the other side of the spectrum.

However, stability varies between models, and if you can’t try the trainer before you buy it, you have to rely on reviews of other customers.

Some bike trainers (like Kinetic trainers) even allow side-to-side movement. This is great for a more realistic ride feel.


Bike Trainers Accessories

There are useful accessories to make your indoor training more enjoyable. Some accessories can even help you perform better.

I admit that buying an indoor bike trainer and its accessories altogether gets costly. The good news is you don’t have to buy them all at once. You can slowly collect them over time.

So, what accessories should you get?

  • Fan – to cool you down. Trust me, you will overheat without it and you won’t perform well.
  • Towel – to wipe of excessive sweat.
  • Bike trainer mat – to keep your floor clean from sweat and your neighbors from the noise.
  • Trainer tire (for direct-drive trainers) – to get better traction for your powerful accelerations.
  • Front wheel riser block – to keep you level and stable.
  • Sweat guard – to keep your bike clean and protect bolts from coroding.
  • Phone mount and wireless headphones – to keep yourself entertained if you don’t have a TV or PC.

Bike Trainers FAQ

More bike trainers FAQs…



Useful Indoor Training Resources

If you decide to give indoor training a go, I recommend checking out the following resources.

  • Zwift – One of the most popular indoor cycling app with a completely virtual world.
  • ROUVY – An indoor cycling app with maps from the real world.
  • Zwift Hub – includes everything you need to know about Zwift worlds, routes, achievements, etc.
  • Zwift Insider – tracks Zwifts updates and provides tips, tricks, and guides on squeezing the maximum potential out of Zwift.
  • What’s on Zwift – is a database of worlds and workouts on Zwift.
  • GCN Indoor training – guided video training sessions.
  • This Is ANT – for checking ANT+ device compatibility.

Summary

Here is my summary of features to consider when buying a bike trainer.

If you are one of the more casual riders who want to relax from time to time, you will only need a cheaper trainer with wind or magnetic resistance.

Advanced riders, for whom cycling is an important part of their routine but have a more limited budget, can reach for more affordable smart trainers with fluid or magnetic resistance.

The best option for demanding riders and professionals is to get a high-end trainer with electromagnetic or fluid resistance. They provide great driving characteristics and are very quiet.

Here is a list of other features to consider when buying a bike trainer:

Make sure also to check out bike trainer accessories to improve your indoor training cave. Remember, you don’t have to buy everything at once but slowly upgrade it over time.


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