How to ride on rollers

An alternative to the trusty turbo trainer

Rollers are viewed with suspicion, incomprehension or downright fear by many road cyclists. 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.

Rollers vs. turbo trainer

Rollers (on the left) and turbo trainer (on the right) both have their uses, for different applications
Rollers (on the left) and turbo trainer (on the right) both have their uses, for different applications

There are two major benefits to rollers when compared with using a turbo trainer. First, rollers improve 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 taking off a jacket, then you can definitely gain from the balance and core stability training that rollers deliver.

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

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 though, the bike handling skills you obtain will make you a more confident and successful cyclist.”

Second, high-cadence workouts 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.”

The advantages of rollers

Chris Hoy knows how to ride the rollers
Chris Hoy knows how to ride the rollers

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.

The disadvantages of rollers

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 combined 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.”

How to ride on rollers

Don't be daunted by the idea of riding on rollers, with our guide and some practice you'll soon be rolling like a champ
Don't be daunted by the idea of riding on rollers, with our guide and some practice you'll soon be rolling like a champ

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 (ensure this is not a glass door or window and create a clear space around you). 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. Keep looking 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. Keep your 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.

Two recommended roller sessions

1. Wake-up drill

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. 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.
  • 10-10½ minutes: In the same gear, do 30-second all-out effort.
  • 10½-13½ minutes: Recover — spin easily in medium gear.
  • 13½-18½ minutes: Ride a cadence of 100rpm+ in a gear that makes you ride at 65-75% max HR.
  • 18½-19 minutes: In the same gear do 30-second all-out effort.
  • 19-23 minutes: Recover — spin easily in medium gear.
  • 23-29 minutes: Ride a cadence of 100rpm+ in a gear that allows you to ride at more than 80% MHR.
  • 29-29½minutes: In the same gear do a 30-second all-out effort.
  • 29½-34½minutes: Recover — spin easily in medium gear.
  • 34½ minutes-END: All-out in top gear for as long as you can.

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