Riding a bike on an indoor trainer was previously associated with the words ‘boring’ or ‘mind-numbing’, however the introduction and advancement of smart trainers and training apps has completely changed this sentiment, by creating an engaging, motivational and even fun experience.
In the past few years, we have seen a large shift towards year-round indoor cycling. With the addition of bluetooth® and ANT+ as well as the advancement in electromagnetic technology, smart trainers have reached the point where they produce an ultra-realistic ride feel, which almost perfectly mimics the feel of riding a bike out on a road.
Whether you’re training for an event, trying to keep a regular riding schedule, wanting to keep out of the cold or wet weather, prefer the comfort of riding in a safe indoor environment without the worry of traffic, pedestrians or punctured tyres, or just generally want to improve your overall health and fitness levels, then an indoor bike trainer is a great option for you.
What is a smart trainer?
A smart trainer is an interactive bike trainer which can connect to devices (Bike computer, PC, smart watches, smart phones and tablets – Mac, Windows, IOS, Android) and apps via bluetooth® or ANT+.
This allows the devices and apps to measure speed, distance, power and cadence, control the trainer’s resistance to replicate the gradient of hills and with some trainers, can even vibrate the unit to simulate different road surfaces.
Smart trainers allow you to do almost anything, from being able to set and alter the resistance to a certain level via one of the devices or allowing your trainer to automatically adjust the resistance using an app.
Although it may seem difficult, the majority of smart trainers and apps are actually very easy to set up, as they automatically search for and connect to each other.
Smart trainers have advanced to the point where the electromagnets produce an ultra-realistic ride feel, which almost perfectly mimic the feel of riding a bike out on a real road.
What are the different types of smart trainers?
Direct Drive Smart Trainers
Requires you to remove the rear wheel and to connect your bike to the trainer via a cassette, which is already attached to the unit.
Pros: Quieter than wheel-on trainers, give a more realistic road-like ride feel, have more features, more accurate data measurement (power, cadence, speed), no tyres/wheels needed therefore reducing wear
Cons: More expensive, heavier units making them harder to move around, the legs on some units can’t be folded
Wheel-On Smart Trainers
Functions like traditional trainers, where you attach your bike to the trainer via a rear axle clamp, with the rear wheel resting on a roller drum.
Pros: Cheapest and lightest type of smart trainer, can be folded away for easy storage
Cons: Can wear through tyres (although specific trainer tyres are available), generally less accurate data measurement (especially power measurement), less realistic ride/road feel, noisier than direct drive smart trainers due to tyre/wheel usage
A stationary frame with shifters and gearing (usually virtual). It eliminates the need to attach your own bike to a trainer.
Pros: Quieter than wheel-on trainers, give a more realistic road-like ride feel, have more features, more accurate data measurement (power, cadence, speed), no tyres/wheels needed therefore reducing wear, Can jump on and go – no need to remove any wheels or use your bike
Cons: The most expensive units available (although it can cost less than purchasing a bike and a direct drive smart trainer together), heaviest and largest units available making them harder to move around and store
What to look for when buying a smart trainer
Power and Gradient: Manufacturers list the maximum power measurements that a specific trainer can measure, the higher the better, however 1500 watts should be more than enough for the majority people. To put power measurements into perspective, professional cyclists typically reach around 1800 watts and higher during final sprints.
The gradient figure listed by the manufacturer refers to the maximum incline (in percent) the smart trainer can simulate. Once again the higher the better, however some people don’t want to simulate steep inclines (>10%) on an indoor trainer. If the trainer’s simulating gradient is a lower figure, it basically means that the trainer won’t be able to simulate a steeper incline perfectly, when the gradient goes higher than what the trainer is capable of.
Flywheel: A flywheel helps to simulate road-like feel due to stored kinetic energy and resultant inertia. Basically, it helps to ‘feel’ as though you are rolling on a real road when you are pedaling. Generally, a heavier flywheel is considered to give a better, more realistic ride feel. However, this depends greatly on the materials, design and construction of the flywheel. Direct drive flywheels are generally a little heavier than wheel-on trainers
Noise: The quietest trainers are direct drive units. The drivetrain and gear changes are typically the main sources of noise with direct drive trainers. Wheel-on trainers are louder than direct-drive trainers, however the difference has narrowed in the past few years. Trainers in general are much quieter than what they previously had been. It is essential to have a quiet trainer to avoid waking people up or disrupting others from doing their daily or nightly activities.
Weight and Storage: Although trainers come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and weights, wheel-on trainers are generally lighter, foldable and therefore more compact to store away. On the other hand, direct drive trainers tend to be larger and much heavier. Also, some direct drive trainers can’t be folded or stored away as easily as others. Smart bikes of course take up the largest amount of space. If you have a dedicated ‘gym’ or ‘bike’ area, then a direct drive trainer or smart bike is fine but if you need to set up and store away a trainer after every ride, then you’ll need to take this into account.
Apps and training software
Smart trainer accessories
Bluetooth® and ANT+ dongle: A bluetooth® and ANT+ dongle are USB devices that connect to your computer or laptop’s USB port, which allows it to send and receive data wirelessly via bluetooth® or ANT+. ANT+ is not native to computers or laptops, and not every computer or laptop has bluetooth® either. It’s best to check whether your computer has bluetooth® otherwise, either a bluetooth® or ANT+ dongle is required to send and receive data. Although, connection of your smart bike and hardware via bluetooth® is generally recommended.
Extension cord: The majority of smart trainers connect to the mains electricity supply in order to function. Some of the supplied power cords aren’t very long, therefore an extension cord may be necessary.
Fans: It goes without saying that a large powerful fan or climate control is needed for any indoor training environment. There a many large low cost fans out there which can do the job well, however Wahoo has created a ‘smart fan’ called the Wahoo Kickr Headwind.
Sports towel: For the tough workouts or for people who have a tendency to sweat easily, a sports towel comes in very handy.
Stands for a computer or laptop: A laptop or computer screen can easily be placed on the box that your smart trainer arrived in, or it can be placed on a stand for easy viewing. Some people prefer a larger screen and therefore opt to position the trainer in front of a TV screen.
Sweat net: A sweat net that covers your top tube, stem and part of your handlebars can protect your bike from corrosion, and help to keep your floor and bike clean in case multiple people use the trainer set up.
Trainer mat: Bike trainer mats help to dampen vibrations and reduce the noise coming from a smart trainer, especially on wooden floors. They are also great for keeping your floor clean and for catching sweat.
Tyres for wheel-on trainers: Normal tyres or even an old set of tyres can be used on a smart trainer, however there are trainer specific tyres available which don’t overheat or wear out as quickly, and are slightly quieter during use.
Trainer rocker platforms: Smart trainers can be attached to trainer platforms which ‘rock’, moving laterally to simulate the natural movement of riding a bike out on the road.
Wheel block: Some smart trainers don’t include a wheel block. Wheel blocks help to keep the front wheel secure and stable, which means more power goes into the pedals. It also ensures that the bike is level, taking unnecessary pressure off your hands and wrists. Wheel blocks work perfectly well, however Wahoo has developed a gradient simulator called the Wahoo Kickr Climb.
Wahoo Kickr Climb: The Kickr Climb is an indoor gradient simulator designed to work with Wahoo Kickr Smart Trainers. The Climb automatically adjusts the height of your front fork to match the gradient of the virtual terrain when paired with apps and devices.
Wahoo Kickr Headwind: The Wahoo Kickr Headwind is a ‘smart fan’ which can pair to your smart trainer, heart rate monitor or speed sensor to gauge your workout intensity and automatically adjust air flow.