One of the biggest complaints people have against indoor cycling is that it is “boring”. Although I disagree, I completely understand. Again, this is where these smart trainers shine. Rather than riding on endless straight stretches, they can simulate REAL courses including up and down hills by controlling the resistance on your bike which keeps things much more interesting. Couple that with the fact that applications like Zwift make it fun by turning your bike ride into a video game with you racing against other real riders and “boring” is a thing of the past! By the way, I have no affiliation whatsoever with Zwift – I just love anything that encourages people to do their cardio!!!
My kurt kinetic stationary trainer that has given me years of reliable service and is bulletproof. The old trainers had no electronics, they simply provided resistance to pedal against – not the most exciting for of exercise. The new generation of “smart trainers” are smart in two important ways:
- They accurately measure your power output.
- They allow an app to control your resistance and simulate any course with its hills as shown to the right.
A power sensor is not only valuable for people who just want to exercise because it allows them to use software like Zwift that makes biking indoors FUN, but for serious cyclists the power sensor is indispensable for performance training. If you want to see how fun it can be, check out Zwift.com where indoor bike riding becomes a video game.
Rear wheel roller models
These smart trainers are the cheapest and fastest to get your bike in and out of, they are also noisier. You simply clamp the rear wheel into the device and tension a roller to press against your real wheel. Usually the rear quick release skewer is replaced with one provided by the trainer so that it clamps in securely but you can leave this skewer on your bike all the time. This type of smart trainer is the best option if you are going to be using your bike for real rides outside when its nice and indoors when its nasty out because its so easy to pop the bike in and out. You will note that all of the units above look virtually identical and have prices that are almost identical. They all have a folding frame that slips easily under a bed or into a closet. You swing the legs out and then clamp your bike in as is. With these trainers you can put the bike on in 10 seconds or take it off to take it on a real ride in 10 seconds.
If you have an old Kurt Kinetic Trainer like I do you can upgrade it with the T-6000 Resistance Unit but its pretty pricy considering you can get the whole new Kurt Road Machine Smart Control for $569. The Cycleops Powersync Trainer is $620. The Elite Rampa is about $650. The Tacx Vortex Smart is $549. The Wahoo Kickr Snap is $649. Again, these units all look very similar, have the same basic features, and are of very similar pricing. All these models are fairly new and the the market is very competitive. I recommend making a purchasing decision based on the current pricing on each of the above models and the Amazon Average Customer Review star rating. Also, before you buy, make sure that your model is supported by Zwift if you plan on using that!
Direct drive smart trainers
Although the rear wheel roller models are the least expensive and very simple, they do have their drawbacks. The first is that if you keep the tire tension loose then it slips when you are going up a simulated hill which can be a bit dangerous. If you tighten the tire tension so much that it wont slip when going up hill, it mashes the heck out of your tire and wears it out. This is where the direct drive units come in. Rather than using a roller against a wheel, they replace your rear wheel entirely. You take the rear wheel off (greasy hands) and put the chain around the sprocket on the unit (greasy hands). With this direct drive there is no slipping in any situation and you dont wear out your tire either. For those who can leave their bike setup in the trainer all winter long, this is the ultimate. Of course, these units are more expensive, count on paying twice as much for these. The Kickr is $1199. The CycleOps Hammer Direct Drive Trainer is also $1199. Surprisingly, KurtKinetic does not have a direct drive offering. The Elite Drivo is $1299. The Tacx Neo Smart is about $1600. Again, note that most of these direct drive units look about the same and cost about the same. I recommend making a purchasing decision based on the current pricing on each of the above models and the Amazon Average Customer Review star rating. Also, before you buy, make sure that your model is supported by Zwift if you plan on using that! One additional expense with these units is that unless you want to disassemble your rear wheel each time you put your bike on or take your bike off the unit, you will need to buy another cassette. A casette is the stack of 10 or 11 gears on your rear wheel. Depending on your bike, this will cost $30-$100 plus you will need to buy $35 worth of tools to put the cassettes on and take them off. These direct drive units are fine for climates where there are entire seasons where you cannot bike outside and dont need to constantly mount and dismount your bike from the trainer. These direct drive units are also great if you have an old heavy bike that never gets used.
I can tell you that the old fluid resistance units were VERY noisy. I suspect that the direct drive units are substantially quieter than the ones where you leave your rear wheel on but I have not confirmed this. If you want to ride in the late evening hours or early in the morning without your neighbors or you family calling the cops on you, you might have no option other than to buy one of the pricy direct drive units.
What about a dedicated stationary bike, the kind that they have in gyms? These have not kept up with the new technology, I would stay away from these as they do not have the ability to control the resistance like the above smart trainers do.
This whole thing just keeps getting more and more expensive! You can get a good mountain bike on sale at your local bike store for $400. Even the cheapest rear wheel roller costs $500, doubling your cycling investment. If you want a direct drive so that its quieter, then that costs 3x what your bike did and you have just spent $2000! So we are paying $1500 for a fancy bike trainer that allows us to *simulate* being outside biking when we are really inside. Think this over carefully and see if you can afford this luxury because steel studded wheels and foul weather gear is cheap in comparison to these trainers if you want to bike outside in the winter. Also, consider cheaper options like going snowshoeing or simply getting a cheap used fluid trainer like my Kurt Kinetic Trainer from craigslist – you should be able to get one for under $150.
Of course, if racing and biking is your passion then you have several expensive bikes and the price of a $1400 direct drive trainer is an excellent investment to keep you in top shape all winter long so you can hit the ground running in the sprintime.