Which indoor training solution is best for you?

What type of torture device should you furnish your hurt locker with: rollers, turbo trainer, smart trainer or static bike?

Just as there are a zillion different types of bike for every kind of riding imaginable, there are a number of different indoor training solutions, and working out what one is right for you can be a daunting task.

Mericully, BikeRadar is here to lend a helping hand and help you work out whether a set of rollers, a turbo trainer, smart trainer, static bike or something else is the right solution for you.

Rollers

At their simplest, rollers are a set of drums mounted to a frame that are connected by a belt
At their simplest, rollers are a set of drums mounted to a frame that are connected by a belt

Rollers are best thought of as a treadmill for a bike and essentially consist of a set of three drums bolted onto a frame.

Your rear wheel drives the back pair of rollers that in turn drive the front one via a belt or very strong elastic band.

Unlike a turbo, you actually ‘ride’ on top of rollers, so there’s an element of balance and skill involved.

This can make them a little more engaging to use than a turbo and there are some unique training benefits, in particular, high-cadence workouts on rollers are a perfect platform to develop a smooth pedalling technique, and many pro riders will spend the winter on rollers working on just this.

With practice, you could look as cool as Chris
With practice, you could look as cool as Chris

Rollers are also excellent for improving your balance and bike handling skills. If you struggle with holding a line, retrieving a nutritious snack from a jersey pocket or a bottle from its cage, then spending some time on them is bound to help.

Unlike a turbo trainer, you can also just jump straight onto a set of rollers on any bike and get right into punishing yourself — this makes them a popular choice for pre-race warm ups and the hum of a zillion rollers in a car park is a common spectacle.

Despite being a relatively simple thing, rollers have actually come on in recent years, with better bearings making for a smoother ride and smaller rollers making it easier to get up to speed. Many rollers are now also concave shaped, making it much easier to stay in place.

The majority of rollers have a fixed level of resistance, so if it’s out and out power you want to work on, it might be best to look at a turbo.

Elite's Real E-Motion rollers offer variable resistance and smart connectivity
Elite's Real E-Motion rollers offer variable resistance and smart connectivity

Most rollers also aren’t 'smart', but are still compatible with apps such as Zwift as long as your bike has at least a cadence and speed sensor, though you'll miss out on the automatic adjustment of resistance that a smart trainer offers — the exception being he Real E-Motion ‘smart’ rollers from Elite.

Turbo trainers

Turbo trainers clamp the rear of a bike into a static stand and are driven in two different fashions.

The wheel rolls on a metal or composite drum on a regular turbo trainer
The wheel rolls on a metal or composite drum on a regular turbo trainer

A regular turbo trainer uses the tyre of a bike, usually rolling on a metal or composite drum, to drive the trainer. After clamping the bike into the turbo trainer, a dial can be used to finely adjust how hard the roller presses against the wheel of the bike.

It’s recommended by most turbo trainer manufacturers that you use a special hard compound tyre that’s less resistant to wear and heat build up on a turbo trainer. Turbo trainer tyres absolutely cannot be used on the road!

Direct drive turbo trainers replace the rear wheel of a bike
Direct drive turbo trainers replace the rear wheel of a bike

Direct drive turbo trainers replace the rear wheel of the bike, sitting between the dropouts and clamped in place with a quick release or thru-axle. And just like a wheel, a direct drive turbo is driven by a cassette.

Direct drive turbo trainers tend to be quieter, as there’s no tyre/roller noise, more stable and offer greater levels of resistance than regular turbo trainers. They do however tend to cost a bit more.

Feedback's Omnium turbo trainer uses rollers instead of a flywheel
Feedback's Omnium turbo trainer uses rollers instead of a flywheel

There are some trainers, such as the Feedback Omnium, that use rollers out back with the front wheel clamped in place instead, but these are in the minority.

There are numerous ways in which resistance is produced on a turbo, ranging from heavy flywheels on the simplest models to fans, fluid disks and even the magic of magnets and eddy currents.

The very cheapest turbo trainers have a fixed level of resistance and as you increase in price, you’ll gain features such as remote resistance control, power meters and smart features.

It’s normally recommended that you use a wheel block in conjunction with a turbo trainer to raise the front of the bike up to its normal height.

Smart trainer

The resistance of a smart trainer is controlled by software such as Zwift
The resistance of a smart trainer is controlled by software such as Zwift

The term 'smart trainer' refers to a turbo trainer that can interact with software such as Zwift and TrainerRoad. This software can control the resistance of the trainer, allowing you to recreate rides and race others from the (dis)comfort of your home.

Most smart trainers work with both ANT+ and Bluetooth protocols. ANT+ is the most commonly used wireless protocol for fitness products such as heart-rate monitors and power meters. Bluetooth should be familiar if you use smartphones, tablets and computers.

Besides automatic resistance control, smart trainers also include power meters, allowing you work out exactly how hard you’re riding.

Exercise bike/static trainer

The Wattbike is the best known static trainer
The Wattbike is the best known static trainer

Modern static trainers are nothing like the contraptions — it would be a push to call them a bike — of old that you might have come across in a skip or at the back of a thrift shop.

The Wattbike, and the recently announced Wattbike Atom, is the best known option and offers a far more stable and faff-free indoor training experience than any turbo trainer or rollers.

The price, bulk and weight of a static trainer will put off many, but for dedicated racers who want the very best indoor cycling experience, they’re hard to beat.

There are only a handful of options available for now, but we suspect these will become much more popular in the near future.

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