While piecing together the perfect Zwift setup can run up a substantial bill, it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, it’s entirely possible to build a solid, reliable and high-performing indoor cycling setup on a tight budget.
As is often the case, there are a few compromises to be made with a budget Zwift setup, but knowing which features are must-haves and which aren’t can make all the difference to your experience.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of Zwift on a budget. We’ll cover the best smart trainers available that don’t break the bank, the features you simply may not need and the must-have accessories that are really going to make a difference when Zwifting.
While it’s possible to use Zwift without a smart trainer (we covered how to do this in our guide to the best Zwift setup), having access to a smart trainer unquestionably makes the experience far more fun and immersive.
For those new to indoor cycling, a smart trainer is an indoor trainer with the ability to vary the resistance it applies in response to instructions from a connected app or device, such as Zwift.
Zwift’s interactive workouts and training plans are a key part of the app and a smart trainer will enable you to reap all the benefits of indoor cycling.
Fortunately, you needn’t spend thousands on a top-performing indoor smart bike, as there are good smart trainers available for just a few hundred pounds or dollars.
Budget wheel-on smart trainers
As a sub-£300 / $400 wheel-on smart trainer, it boasts a modest specification on paper, but nevertheless puts in a very respectable performance when paired to Zwift.
It is undeniably louder at higher wattages and speeds than more expensive direct-drive smart trainers such as the Wahoo Kickr Core, Elite Suito and Tacx Flux S, but otherwise, there are fewer compromises than you might expect.
If you have a space to train that isn’t next door to family members who are sleeping or watching television, such as a garage, then this might not be a huge concern anyway.
The Elite Novo Smart is another budget wheel-on smart trainer with a slightly lower spec and price than the Tacx Flow Smart, but it still offers good performance on Zwift. If you‘re shopping around for a deal and this one turns up at a bargain price, it’s well worth considering.
Budget direct-drive smart trainers
If you’re shopping around promotional periods such as Black Friday, it can also be possible to find substantial discounts on smart trainers, so it’s always worth keeping an eye out if you’re after a bargain.
With direct-drive trainers, you remove the rear wheel and mount your bike directly onto the trainer via a compatible cassette.
There are numerous advantages to a direct-drive smart trainer over a wheel-on trainer but, in brief, you’ll get higher maximum resistance and simulated gradients, better power accuracy, a more realistic ride feel and a much quieter experience.
This jump from wheel-on to direct-drive is where you’ll see the biggest leap in overall ride feel and performance from smart trainers, and it needn’t cost you the Earth. Everything beyond this is arguably marginal gains.
What you need and what you don’t
When considering purchasing a smart trainer, it’s useful to think hard about which features are must-haves and which you can live without.
Seen and not heard
Noise is often a big one. If you need a smart trainer that’s quiet at all power outputs and speeds, that’s unfortunately going to cost you quite a bit more money.
On the other hand, if you (and the people you live with) can put up with a bit of noise then a cheaper wheel-on smart trainer would be a great budget option.
Likewise, it’s easy to get carried away with on-paper specs referring to “2,000 watts maximum power”, but if you can’t put out more than 1,000 watts in your sprint then that’s a feature you don’t need to stump up for.
It’s also true that while a power ceiling of 800 watts or lower, as found on the Tacx Flow Smart and Elite Novo Smart, may be limiting for powerful riders when it comes to sprinting, that’s likely something many people can live with.
Be honest with yourself – how much full-gas sprinting do you really want to do indoors? If you mainly want to immerse yourself in Zwift’s virtual worlds and do basic Zwift workouts and training plans and Zwift group rides, then both of those cheap smart trainers will do a great job.
If you want to include sprint training in your plan but don’t have the budget for a higher-specced smart trainer, you could always do those workouts outside.
The same goes for the maximum gradient a smart trainer is able to simulate.
While the ability of a smart trainer to replicate a thigh-numbing 20 per cent gradient may look good on the spec sheet, is that a feature you really need if you’re on a budget?
Zwift’s default trainer difficulty setting of 50 per cent also means even the cheapest smart trainers, which typically can only simulate gradients up to six per cent, don’t actually max out their resistance until you hit a 12 per cent gradient in Zwift.
Turbo trainer accessories on a budget
While it’s a smart move to invest most of your cash into a smart trainer, holding some cash back for a few accessories is key to getting the most out of Zwift on a budget.
We’re not talking about investing thousands of pounds or dollars on a projector or home cinema suite, but a handful of simple accessories that can really make a difference.
Other than a compatible device to play Zwift on, such as a tablet, smartphone or computer, the only truly essential accessory is a fan.
No, we’re not talking about a person who thinks you’re great to help motivate you through those tough interval sessions (as nice as that sounds) – we’re talking about the kind of fan that helps keep you cool.
A fan simulates the wind you get when riding outside and is crucial to helping you stay cool and comfortable when riding indoors, especially when working hard.
If you already own a reasonably sized desktop fan, you’re sorted, but if not, you don’t need to spend loads. Most Zwifters use something such as the Honeywell Turbo Fan from Amazon and simply position it carefully to get the maximum cooling effect possible.
Trainer mat and front-wheel riser block
Other inexpensive accessories that aren’t strictly essential but can, in some instances, make the experience much better include a trainer mat and front-wheel riser block.
A trainer mat prevents any dirt, oil or sweat from hitting the floor beneath your bike, which can be crucial if you’re Zwifting in a room with a carpet.
They can also help dampen vibrations and reduce noise, so are generally a good idea all round (unless keeping the floor clean and being quiet aren’t concerns, of course).
A front-wheel riser block levels out the bike, or puts it at a slightly upward sloping angle, both of which can help to improve comfort on the bike while riding indoors.
This helps stop you from continuously sliding forward on your saddle or putting excess pressure on your arms and hands, as can happen if your bike is angled down at the front.
You might not strictly need one if your trainer is designed to level the bike out as standard, but the increased stability of a front-wheel riser block can still be useful nevertheless.
The big-screen experience
While Zwift can be played on most smartphones, tablets and computers, playing it on a big screen is an easy way to make the experience more fun and immersive.
Zwift has put a lot of effort into the details of its many virtual worlds, but you’ll likely miss out on them if you’re playing on a tiny screen.
A cheap HDMI adaptor lead can enable you to connect your existing smart device to an external monitor such as a television or computer monitor, and get that big-screen experience without needing to splash out on a dedicated device such as an Apple TV box or projector.
Keep it clean
Cleaning your bike isn’t often a consideration for indoor cycling, but when working with a tight budget – or if you care about the longevity of your components – it’s something important to stay on top of.
Any dirt your bike picks up when riding outside will still be causing wear and tear when riding inside, especially if it’s on moving parts such as the drivetrain.
A dirty, badly worn chain, for example, can rapidly wear out a brand new cassette on a direct-drive trainer if you’re riding a lot.
In between full cleans, wiping down the front end of your bike (things such as the handlebars, stem and steerer) after each session on the trainer can help protect parts from corrosion due to sweat.
On top of that, keeping your drivetrain properly lubricated with one of the best chain lubes is a simple way to extend the life of parts such as chains, chainrings and cassettes, potentially saving you a lot of money in the long term.