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Rollers, static bike, turbo or smart trainer? Which indoor cycling solution is best for you?

What type of torture device should you furnish your hurt locker with?

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.

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

What are rollers for indoor cycling?

Elite Arion Parabolic Rollers
Once you’ve got the hang of them, rollers are a great indoor training option.

Rollers are best thought of as a treadmill for a bike (though an actual treadmill for a bike does exist).

Rollers essentially consist of a set of three drums bolted onto a solid rectangular frame that sits on the floor. 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.

Rollers, static bike, turbo or smart trainer? Which indoor cycling solution is best for you?
With practice, you could look as cool as Chris
Shaun Botterill

Rollers are also excellent for improving your balance and bike handling skills. If you struggle with holding a line, retrieving food (or your phone for a sweet Insta’ snap) 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 at many events.

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 (they slope towards the middle), 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 or smart trainer.

Most rollers also aren’t ‘smart’ (more on that below) 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 Elite’s Quick Motion (formerly known as the Real E-Motion) ‘smart’ rollers.

What is a turbo trainer for indoor cycling?

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

Saris M2 smart turbo trainer
Your wheel drives a flywheel, providing resistance, on a standard turbo trainer.
Simon Bromley/Immediate Media

A regular (or wheel-on) 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.

Tacx Neo 2T smart turbo trainer
A direct-drive turbo trainer takes the place of a rear wheel.
Simon Bromley/Immediate Media

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

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

Rollers, static bike, turbo or smart trainer? Which indoor cycling solution is best for you?
Feedback’s Omnium turbo trainer uses rollers instead of a flywheel.
Simon Lees / Immediate Media

There are some other trainers, such as the Feedback Omnium and Blackburn Raceday, 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 discs and even the magic of magnets and eddy currents on certain models.

The very cheapest turbo trainers have a fixed level of resistance but, as price increases, 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.

What is a smart trainer?

Jack Luke riding Wahoo Kickr while playing Zwift
Smart trainers have become increasingly affordable in recent years.
Simon Bromley / Immediate Media

The term ‘smart trainer‘ refers to a turbo trainer that can interact with training software such as Zwift and TrainerRoad.

These apps 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 a power meter, allowing you to work out exactly how hard you’re riding.

Exercise bike/static trainer

The Wattbike is the best known static trainer
Wattbike is one of the better-known static trainer brands on the market.
Reuben Bakker-Dyos / Immediate Media

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

Wattbike is the best-known brand that is dedicated to static bikes, though Tacx, Wahoo, SRM and others have brought options to market recently.

A static trainer offers a far more stable and hassle-free indoor training experience than any turbo trainer or rollers.

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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.