How to Set Up and Use a Bike Trainer? (Beginner’s Guide)

how to set up a bike trainer: Canyon Endurance AL in a wheel on trainer

This article teaches you to set up wheel-on and direct-drive bike trainers, so you can start riding them.

I will also provide you with a few tips for using a bike trainer and avoiding beginner mistakes when training indoors.

Let’s dive in.

Ensure You Do This Before You Set Up a Bike Trainer

Before you set everything up, you should prepare your bike and the place where you set up the trainer. Here are the three most important steps.

  1. Clean your bike to avoid messing up your room or pain cave. Focus mainly on cleaning (and then lubing) your chain.
  2. Find a level floor, ideally in a room with a window. You can also use a fan to stay cooled down.
  3. Use a bike trainer mat to protect the floor against scratches and sweat. You can also put your trainer on a carpet, but a mat or a plate is a must. A tiled floor is one of a few exceptions where you don’t need them.

How to Set Up a Wheel-on Bike Trainer?

Step 1 (Optional): Change your rear tire for a bike trainer tire. It will be quieter, last longer, and won’t smell like burning rubber.

Step 2: Inflate the rear tire to a tire pressure that allows you to squeeze it a little bit. Don’t inflate it too hard because you may get less traction with the trainer’s cylinder.

Step 3: Replace the rear quick-release skewer with the one that was supplied with the bike trainer. They are usually made of steel to handle the forces transferred from the frame to the rear triangle. If you have a disc brake bike, use a supplied adaptor or buy one.

Trainer quick-release vs. bike quick-release on a wooden table (top shot)
QR supplied with the trainer (top) vs. original QR from the bike (bottom)

NOTE: Don’t use titanium skewers with bike trainers. You risk damaging them.

Step 4: Mount your bike trainer into the trainer and lock it. Use a front-wheel riser or a stack of books to level your front wheel.

Unlocked wheel-on trainer lever
The trainer seems to be locked, but it is not (the lever is not fully locked)
Locked wheel-on trainer lever
This way, the lever is properly locked

Make sure the nut fits the groove.

Detail of the locked quick-release
Detail of the locked quick-release

Step 5: Adjust the cylinder to touch the tire. It shouldn’t push too hard against it. Otherwise, you risk blowing up the tire. But it shouldn’t be too loose so that it won’t give you enough traction. This takes a little bit of practice and tweaking.

wheel-on trainer cylinder is not touching the tire (view from the rear)
The cylinder is not touching the tire
wheel-on trainer cylinder is touching the tire (view from the rear)
The cylinder is touching the tire
detail on a cylinder touching the tire
The cylinder and tire detail

PRO TIP: Once you are done with your training, unlock the cylinder to release the pressure on your tire and the cylinder.


How to Set Up a Direct-drive Bike Trainer?

Step 1: Mount a cassette onto the direct-drive trainer. Some direct-drive trainers come with a cassette, but some without it. If you don’t have two cassettes, you can use the one from your rear wheel. If the trainer comes with a cassette, make sure it is compatible with your groupset.

Elite Turno direct-drive trainer with cassette
The direct-drive trainer with a cassette prepared for attaching a bike.

Step 2: Switch gears to the smallest sprocket and take the rear wheel off. If you have a disc brake bike, use a brake pad spacer (or folded business card) to prevent brake pads from clamping each other.

Step 3 (quick-release): Mount your bike onto the trainer and lock the quick-release adaptor. Then tighten the skewer and ensure the bike is stable.

Step 3 (through-axle): Mount your bike onto the trainer and screw in the through-axle. Some bikes/trainers may require you to screw in an adaptor to the drive side of your bike. Then tighten the skewer and ensure the bike is stable.

Road bike mounted in a Elite Turno direct-drive trainer (view from the left side)
Through-axle is tightened, and everything is stable.
Road bike mounted in a Elite Turno direct-drive trainer (view from the right side)
There is one thing wrong in this image. Can you guess which one? Yes. It is the gear combination!

How to Use a Bike Trainer and Avoid Beginner Mistakes?

Here are three tips that will help you to avoid beginner mistakes.

1. Prepare a Drink (and Food)

The longer your ride, the more important it is to keep yourself hydrated. Ensure you have enough water on hand to avoid stopping and interrupting your training.

bike bottles in a road bike that is mounted in a wheel-on trainer
Make sure you have enough water prepared for your training to avoid dehydration

Suppose you are like me (i.e., always hungry), prepare some food too. It can be a quick snack like bread with jam, toast, banana, or anything else you are used to eating when riding your bike.

2. Do Warm Ups and Cool Downs

Don’t just jump on the trainer and start pedaling hard. Instead, take it easy and warm up your muscles for 5-15 minutes. It prepares the body for upcoming efforts. I recommend reading this article on the Importance of Cycling Warm-Ups by TrainingPeaks if you want to learn more.

Post-training cooldowns, on the other hand, accelerate the process of flushing the lactic acid, help dissipate heat, and much more.

3. Try a Structured Training

Riding a bike trainer without any goal or structure is fine if you just want to spin your legs from time to time.

But having some structured training is much more effective. Not only because of the results you get but also for your motivation.

A structured training plan in TrainerRoad calendar
TrainerRoad is a great app for creating structured training plans

You don’t have to think about your next training when you know what you have in your training plan. You simply jump on the trainer and start riding.

4. Get a Fan

The first tip I got from my friend who does cycling for a living was to get a fan. When we ride outside, we get cooled down by the air. But indoors, the air is still and doesn’t provide us with any cooling.

A white desk fan on my wooden desk with a Kask Protone helmet
This is my desk fan I’ve been using for indoor training

That’s why indoor cycling fans are so helpful. You don’t even have to spend hundreds of dollars on them. Just get one or two desk fans, and you will experience a big difference in comfort and performance.

5. Don’t Overdo It

It may be easy to get engulfed by indoor cycling apps and spend countless hours training indoors.

I trained about 6-7 hours a week indoors for three months during one of my off-seasons. I felt great. The training helped me boost my endurance (it included multiple 3-hour blocks).

Screenshot from my finished Active Offseason Plan in Zwift
Zwift Active Offseason Plan Finished

But honestly, it required a lot of willpower, and one negative side effect occurred the next off-season.

I couldn’t find the willpower to train indoors anymore. I overdid it. Don’t make the same mistake as I did. Always try to find balance.


Setting Up and Using Bike Trainers FAQ


Summary

Setting up a bike trainer differs depending on the bike trainer type (wheel-on vs. direct-drive) and brakes type (disc vs. rim).

One of the most important things is to replace the rear quick-release skewer (or through-axle) with the supplied one (eventually, use the supplied adaptors). Then, mount the bike and ensure it is securely locked.

In case of any questions on how to set up a bike trainer, contact me or add a comment below.

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