Training: How to ride on rollers

An alternative to the trusty turbo trainer

Rollers are viewed with suspicion, incomprehension or downright fear by many riders – a dangerous liability only suitable for hardcore experienced riders. But once mastered, they can provide a valuable addition to the training armoury of any cyclist, regardless of experience. 

Although essentially based on the same simple design that’s been used for years, modern rollers have evolved and are much more user-friendly than those of old. Improved bearings offer a smoother ride, and smaller drums are easier to get spinning and mean less distance to fall. Some roller sets now have parabolically shaped rollers which make it easier to stay on.

Roller rewards

There are two major benefits to rollers when compared with using a turbo trainer. The first is that riding on rollers is a fast-track method to improving your balance and bike handling skills. If you struggle on the road with basics such as holding a straight course when getting a bottle out of its cage, digging an energy bar out of your jersey pocket or putting on a waterproof on the go, then you could definitely benefit from the balance and core stability training that rollers deliver.

Edmund Burke, coach, former physiologist for the US cycling team and author of Serious Cycling, agrees. “It takes weeks to be able to ride on rollers and feel relaxed enough to lift your hands off the handlebars,” he says. “Once you get past the learning stages, the bike handling skills you obtain will make you a more confident and successful cyclist.”

The second is that the high cadence workouts typically performed on rollers are perfect for developing a super-smooth, even and efficient pedal stroke. Poetically described by the French as ‘souplesse pedalling’, it’s what pro riders spend most of the winter working on and what separates great riders from the merely good.

Dr Jamie Pringle, senior physiologist at the English Institute of Sport, sees this as a major benefit. “Pedalling style is a major component of fitness,” he says. “An efficient pedal stroke ensures that the delivery of force is economical. This, not engine size, is what differentiates a pro from an elite or first category rider. On a turbo you can get away with mindlessly mashing the pedals, on rollers you can’t.”

Key strokes

By concentrating on key aspects of the pedal stroke when roller riding you can go a long way towards minimising the dead spots at the top and bottom of the stroke, and improving efficiency. “Don’t think you have to pull up on the pedals,” says coach John Capelin, “but focus on scooping through at the bottom of the stroke and pushing over the top. Sort out your pedal stroke and you’ll save loads of energy.”

Another benefit is that you get a more interesting workout than on a turbo because you have something to concentrate on. The ease of setting up is also a bonus – you don’t have to bolt your bike on – and rollers are less stressful on your bike because it’s not fixed in position and subjected to unusual loads.

There are also disadvantages though. You’ll have to invest some time in learning to ride the rollers and, although some sets come with optional resistance fans or other methods for raising the training load, you won’t be able to get near the forces you can generate on a turbo.

For this reason, an ideal winter indoor training plan would include a combination of turbo and roller work. “Rollers don’t offer much resistance so use them for technique work, warming up and recovery spins,” says Capelin. “Use the turbo for higher level work.”

“Turbos and rollers both allow you 100 percent control of your effort and intensity,” says Pringle, “and, without having to worry about traffic and junctions, they’re ideal for finely controlled, constant power efforts such as intervals. Riding for two hours indoors, without stops or being able to freewheel, is equivalent to three hours on the road.”

But before you head permanently indoors for the winter, he offers the following warning: “No matter how close the turbo or rollers come to the feel of riding on the road, they’ll never replicate the exact demands of the sport and you’ll still need to get out and do the miles outdoors as well.”

Technique

1 Starting off: Put your bike in a low gear and have the rollers set up close to a solid object such as a wall or doorway. Make sure your wheels are in the middle of the rollers and, keeping one hand on the wall, begin pedalling at 60rpm. If you have a willing volunteer, an alternative is to have them hold your handlebar; you’ll be more balanced to start with and the learning process will be quicker.

2 Going straight: Look straight ahead. You don’t watch your front wheel on the road, so don’t on the rollers. Once you feel confident in your balance and you’re staying central, let go of the wall, build up your cadence and you’re off. After a few sessions you’ll gain confidence and develop more advanced skills.

3 Mind on the job: Concentrate on what you’re doing – no watching TV at an odd angle or turning around to see who’s just come into the room… To stop, you need to simply slow down gradually and, before you come to a complete halt, reach out for the wall.

Example sessions

1 Wake-up: Dr Jamie Pringle’s pre-breakfast session works well for anyone who can split their training into twice a day, which can be more beneficial than one longer session. It’s a great way to start the day and an excellent warm-up.

  •  0-10 minutes: Start off spinning in an easy gear at 90-100rpm and, over 10 minutes, increase the gear incrementally.
  •  10-15 minutes: Continue building cadence (100-110rpm) and progressively work through the gears so that by the 15-minute mark you’re riding at tempo effort. This pace will feel sustainable but will need concentration to keep it up and equates to around 80-90% of maximum HR.
  •  15-20 minutes: Hold the tempo effort.
  •  20-25 minutes: Put in three hard 20-second efforts with 90 seconds of easy spinning recovery.

2 Spin-ups: An ideal session for developing cadence and smooth pedalling. Also great as a warm-up before hitting the road or as a pre-turbo roller session.

  •  0-5 minutes: In a medium gear (39x18), ride easily, building your cadence to 100rpm.
  •  5-5:30 minutes: Staying in the same gear, ‘spin up’ to the maximum cadence you can manage without bouncing. Hold the cadence through to the end of the 30-second period. Concentrate on getting your lower legs and feet to relax.
  •  5:30-20:30 minutes: Repeat the spin-up on every fifth minute (10, 15 and 20). Spin easily at 90-100rpm for each five-minute recovery.

3 Maxing out: A tough session that will take you to total failure.

  •  0-5 minutes: Warm up, spinning at 90-100rpm in a medium gear (39x18).
  •  5-10 minutes: Ride a cadence of 100rpm+ and a gear that allows you to ride at 60% of max heart rate.
  •  10:00-10:30: In same gear, do 30-second all-out effort.
  •  10:30-13:30: Recover: spin easily in medium gear.
  •  13:30-18:30: Ride a cadence of 100rpm+ in a gear that makes you ride at 65-75% max HR.
  •  18:30-19:00 In same gear do 30-second all-out effort.
  •  19:00-23:00 Recover: spin easily in medium gear.
  •  23:00-29:00 Ride a cadence of 100rpm+ in a gear that allows you to ride at more than 80% MHR.
  •  29:00-29:30 In same gear do a 30-second all-out effort.
  •  29:30-34:30 Recover: spin easily in medium gear.
  •  34:30-END All-out in top gear for as long as you can.

Rolling, rolling, rolling

There are plenty of rollers out there. Here's an idea of what you'll get for your money...

1 Beginner-friendly: Elite Parabolic, £149.99

This adjusts to all solo bike sizes. The rough surface of the plastic drums offers more low speed stability than metal ones, and the fl anged ‘parabolic’ ends help prevent the wheels from wandering too, which boosts confidence. The large drums spin well and quietly but you’ll be topping out the gears at 60kph+ to get a properly punishing workout. Weight: 8.12kg. From: Elite / Madison (UK).

2 Improvers: Tacx Antares, £169.99

The telescopic design means compact storage and they’re light for pre-event use. The fixed frame makes a flat floor vital though. The height of the rollers and lack of steps makes starting a bit precarious but they’re smooth, and not as ‘icy’ as metal rollers. They spin up to speed and increase gyroscopic stability very quickly, and there’s an optional extra resistance kit. Weight: 6.7kg. From: Tacx / Fisher Outdoor Leisure (UK).

3 Experts: Kreitler Alloy 2.25in, £329

These are relatively light and fold for storage. The lack of end stops and ‘icy’ feel of the metal rollers is initially intimidating and the small size of the rollers means a higher resistance level than other rollers. There’s some tyre noise and buzz on the rollers, but overall smoothness and longevity are excellent. Medium resistance 3in rollers are available, or 4.5in for easy spinning, plus fan, flywheel and front wheel stand. Weight: 7.52kg. From: Kreitler / Nemesis Group (UK).

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