How to Choose an Indoor Bike Trainer

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A detail shot of an indoor bike trainer in use

Riding a bike trainer, once geared toward cyclists driven indoors by stormy, bitterly cold or oppressively hot weather, has evolved into an immersive exercise regimen in its own right. Whether you are looking for a fully interactive experience or are simply needing to maintain cycling fitness in the offseason, there’s a bike trainer to meet your needs. This article offers an overview of your choices.

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Types of Bike Trainers

Any basic bike trainer can provide a good aerobic workout. As you go up in price, models will offer greater precision and additional features. The biggest difference with more premium-priced trainers is their level of immersive technology. Trainer prices range from a few hundred dollars for a basic model without connectivity up to a few thousand dollars for a virtual cycling simulator.

Bike trainers fall roughly into these categories:

  • Wheel-on trainer: This compact, affordable style attaches at the axle of your bike’s rear wheel and uses a roller pressed against the tire to create resistance.
  • Direct-drive trainer: On this style you remove your rear wheel and attach its mechanism directly to your bike’s drivetrain. Smooth power transfer and app connectivity on many models can make the higher cost (roughly double wheel-on prices) well worth it.
  • Bike simulator: This premium standalone exercise bike offers a realistic riding feel in a robust, comfortable and stable platform, along with wireless app connectivity.

“Smart” trainer: Although this is a feature rather than a separate category, the ability to wirelessly connect to the world of trainer apps is a notable distinction on any trainer. Sensors on software-controlled smart trainers change resistance to match the topography of virtual workouts. Feedback on fitness and performance metrics improves training efficiency; gamification features make workouts both fun and addicting (in a good way).

 

Bike Trainer Comparison

 

Wheel-On Trainer

Photo of a wheel-on bike trainer on a white background

Pros: Cons:
  • Less expensive than a direct-drive trainer.
  • Easily mounted to almost any bike.
  • Most models fold up for easy storage.
  • High-end models offer app connectivity.
  • Not quite as smooth or stable as a direct-drive trainer.
  • Causes some wear on your wheel and tire.
  • Low-cost models can’t connect to apps for an immersive experience. (Some models can add a sensor to gain basic interactivity.)

 

Direct-Drive Trainer

Photo of a direct-drive bike trainer on a white background

Pros: Cons:
  • Better mimics a roadlike feel than a wheel-on trainer.
  • Offers quieter operation, greater resistance control and a more efficient power transfer.
  • Nearly all direct-drive trainers also offer wireless app connectivity.
  • More expensive than basic wheel-on trainers.
  • Attachment setup is more complex—sometimes requiring you to buy a rear cassette that’s compatible with the trainer; you also can’t pop your bike in and out quickly.

 

Bike Simulator

A photo of a bike simulator on a white background

Pros: Cons:
  • As premium as you can get, it offers a real-world cycling feel, whisper-quiet operation and training app connectivity.
  • Durable builds and adjustable ergonomics make them great for multiple riders.
  • Your bike can remain at the ready for outdoor rides because it’s not needed with your simulator.
  • The price is every bit as premium as the performance.
  • Heavy-duty builds mean you’ll need a dedicated training area.
 

Type of resistance: At one time this was an important shopping consideration, but advancements in technology have changed the buying focus to apps and connectivity instead. Fluid resistance, found in most wheel-on trainers, is valued for its smooth, quiet operation. That’s still true, but sophisticated electronically controlled flywheels in most direct-drive trainers and bike simulators today also operate smoothly and quietly.

 

Trainer Apps

In recent years, innovative training apps have transformed the world of indoor bike training. Using a “smart” wireless connection to your trainer, these apps can provide workout control and fitness feedback like speed, cadence, power output, heart-rate data and more.

Some apps also include video ride simulations and motivational features like virtual training rides, route sharing and races. You and a friend who lives on in another state could ride (virtually) together on a classic route located in yet another location. (Note that this type of outdoor riding simulation is distinct from trainers that mimic an indoor spin-class experience.)

Popular subscription-based apps include Zwift, TrainerRoadThe Sufferfest, Rouvy and many more. If you already have a favorite app, then double-check to be sure the trainer you’re considering is compatible. Some trainer brands also offer their own apps that range from free ones that allow you to control the trainer, share data and get real-time feedback on workout metrics on up to subscription-based ones that also offer virtual-training video features.

 

Shopping Tips

As you’re deciding which trainer is right for you, consider these factors:

  • Price: The least expensive option is a wheel-on, “not smart” trainer, which is fine if you’re looking to save money and/or just want a simple workout option for occasional use. Direct-drive models offer a leap in performance but come in at roughly double the cost. Bike simulators will be an even bigger leap in price.
  • Connectivity: For most people, the real-time workout feedback and social and virtual riding features that come with wireless connectivity to training apps are a game changer.
  • Bike fit: Trainers can fit a wide range of bikes, but you need to double-check trainer and bike specs to be sure. REI.com lists these, and trainer brand websites have fit guides. You can also call an REI store, e-mail cyclinghelp@rei.com or schedule an outfitter session.
  • Additional parts: Many direct-drive trainers require you to also buy a rear cassette that’s compatible with your bike’s drivetrain.
  • Noise: Trainers have gotten much quieter over the years; most of the sound generated today comes from the drivetrain of your bike, rather than the trainer mechanism.

 

Trainer Accessories

Accessories for completing your trainer setup include simple sweat mats to protect your floor, sophisticated gear like headwind and climbing simulators, and special platforms that mimic the way a bike moves when you ride outside.

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Contributing Experts

Anthony Record

Anthony Record, Retail Sales and Experience Manager at REI’s Dallas-Fort Worth store, has 6+ years of shop experience, and a few thousand miles of riding in gravel bike events. He loves anything on two wheels and inspirational John Muir quotes.