It used to be that in the toss-up between heading out for a ride or staring at the spare room wall as you churn out half an hour on a turbo trainer, cycling al fresco won every time. For riding experience and head-clearing ability, nothing beats getting out on two wheels. But, while that may still be true, there are clear benefits to be gained from investing in a good indoor cycling trainer.
Turbo trainers have made miles of progress in the last decade or so, and many models on the market today are formidable training aids for cyclists of all abilities and any discipline – from road to MTB.
Not only does this new range of indoor trainers make home sessions time-efficient, but with a smart trainer, you can utilise apps like Zwift, The Sufferfest and TrainerRoad to replicate all the good bits of outdoor riding.
Not sure where to start when looking for a turbo trainer? Here is a guide to the different types available and some of the best on the market, regardless of your budget. It's time to take your training indoors.
What are the different types of turbo trainers?
If you’re investing in a home set-up, it’s important to know which is going to fit your riding style, training goals and budget. Here are the most common variations and the pros and cons of each:
Magnetic cycling trainers are some of the most popular entry-level units. As the name suggests, they use a magnet to control the amount of resistance on the flywheel of the turbo. Simply slot your bike into the trainer, secure it in place and ride to your heart's content.
The best thing about magnetic turbo trainers is that you can adjust the resistance with a dial that clips to your handlebars, mimicking the resistance dial on a gym spin bike. They do have some downsides though, including being the noisiest of the bunch.
Fluid trainers are often quieter than magnetic trainers, and are said to offer a more realistic experience, helping simulate how your bike behaves on the road. They work by progressively building resistance, based on how hard you pedal.
While you won’t be able to manually adjust the resistance, you can concentrate on getting your head down and leaving that job to the bike.
Direct drive trainers tend to be heavier and more expensive than wheel-on trainers, and to use them you’ll have to remove your rear wheel and connect your bike to the trainer using a standard cassette.
The main benefits are that they're quieter and more realistic than other turbo trainers, typically offering greater resistance than magnetic trainers and allowing easier sprints without the risk of the tyre slipping. They'll also stop you wearing a flat spot on your rear tyre.
Smart turbo trainers
Any style of turbo (magnetic, fluid, direct drive or rollers) can be a smart trainer (provided the model is compatible), and the thing that makes them 'smart' is their ability to broadcast an ANT+ or Bluetooth signal. This enables you to pair them with a smartphone, tablet or computer, which when used in tandem with apps such as Zwift, allows you to take your workout virtual.
It's not just a gimmick, either. Training in a virtual world can turn a boring training session into an engaging workout and will see you tackling the likes of Alpe d'Huez, riding in a peloton with pros, or racing others online.
The simplest type of turbo trainer, rollers see you ride on two cylindrical drums that are linked via a belt drive. As you pedal, your wheels spin the drums, creating resistance. There’s no need to fiddle with rear skewers, and as you need to rely on balance to stay upright, they’re great for improving core strength and technique.
The best turbo trainers you can buy in 2021
1. Bikehut Turbo Trainer
This wheel-on trainer doesn’t offer smart compatibility but it does have six different levels of magnetic resistance, which you can adjust remotely. It’s versatile too; it fits wheel sizes of 26", 28" & 700c, and the adjustable feet offer maximum stability. With a maximum power output of 465 watts, it’s a respectable entry-level model for those who are new to indoor cycling.
2. Saris Aluminum Roller
This roller may look basic, but there’s everything you need to push yourself at home, least of all because rollers require you to keep pedalling, meaning it’s even harder to pause to catch your breath. The aluminium roller drums don’t slide about either, making for a stable and quiet ride. Best of all, for those with limited storage space, it can fold flat or be stood on its end when you aren’t using it, making for a simple and space-saving alternative to more complex trainers.
3. Elite Tuo
While it might not look like your stereotypical turbo trainer (and in fact resembles something you'd stick slices of bread in, rather than your bike), the Tuo from Italian brand Elite is as advanced as on-wheel turbos get.
The nifty bit of kit can go toe-to-toe with some of the more expensive direct-drive units featured below. In terms of capability, it can put out a massive 1250 watts (max), and replicate inclines of 10%. It's also fully compatibility with virtual training platforms such as Zwift, thanks to Bluetooth and ANT+ transmitters. What's more, it doesn't cost as much as a new bike.
The only downsides to the Tuo are the same things that limit all wheel-on turbo trainers – flat spots on your tyre and the potential to slip. But if you're looking for something that is a simple and relatively cheap way to turn your humble steed into a smart indoor trainer, then look no further.
4. Saris H3 Silent Smart Turbo Trainer
With the ability to accurately measure your power output to +/- 2%, the Saris (formerly known as CycleOps) H3 Silent Smart Turbo Trainer is a fantastic option for those looking to analyse and improve their performance. Naturally, it has all the usual connectivity options, including Zwift, TrainerRoad, Rouvy, and more.
One thing to note is that the trainer doesn't come with a cassette pre-installed, so you'll have to add this cost into consideration when buying.
5. Tacx Neo 2 Smart Trainer
The Neo T2 Smart trainer from Netherlands-based Tacx is the brand’s top-of-the-range smart trainer. In fact, it’s one of the most premium trainers on the market right now.
Featuring a virtual flywheel of up to 125kg (the largest of any trainer on the market), it provides a whopping power output of 2,200 watts – and replicates inclines of 25 percent. And when teamed with training software like Zwift, its ability to simulate real-life riding and racing is seriously impressive. The trainer features 'Road Feel' technology, which cleverly imitates the surfaces ridden in the virtual world, meaning that, as soon as you hit a bridge or a cobbled section on a ride, you feel the same sensations as you would if you were out on the road. Thanks to the 'Downhill Drive' feature, you’re also able to experience the sensation of riding downhill, with the trainer forward spinning the real ‘wheel’ as you hit a decent.
One of the best features, though, is the trainer’s ERG mode, which is game changer if you’re looking to increase your FTP. The ERG mode setting allows you to train at a specific target power (which you can set in Zwift or other training apps), and the trainer will automatically change your resistance to consistently keep you at that power, regardless of your speed or cadence. You also have the option to train in simulation mode, where an outdoor grade is replicated, but you’re able to adjust your own resistance accordingly, as you would do outside.
Finally, it’s a dream to set-up. Once the legs are unfolded and you’ve fitted a cassette (which you do unfortunately need to buy; it’s compatible with Shimano & SRAM: 8-12 speed), the bike is ready to attach. Connection to Bluetooth is then instantaneous, with the trainer detected as soon as you open up your training software. Oh, and as soon as you get going, it is very quiet – obviously the drivetrain is audible but it’s certainly not loud enough to wake up your neighbours during a pre-dawn session.
6. Wahoo Kickr
Being the turbo of choice for cyclists of the professional peloton, such as Tom Pidcock and Team Ineos, you wouldn’t expect anything but the best from Wahoo’s Kickr. Providing a maximum power output of 2,000 watts, Wahoo describes its trainer’s large freewheel as imitating the sensation of real-life riding. In practice, when used in combination with a virtual training platform, it's eerily realistic, allowing you to simulate the thigh-burning ascents of alpine climbs without leaving your front room.
The direct drive trainer is easy to set-up on the majority of bikes – 26"-29" MTBs, quick release or thru axle, and even BMXs – and it's relatively quick to switch bikes if multiple people in your household are using.
After a quick configuration, you're good to go, and the trainer is the ideal accompaniment to virtual software such as Zwift. Like the Neo T2 Smart above, its ERG mode is perfect for completing set intervals at pre-determined watt output, but it's also extremely responsive when used without, as on-screen climbs, descents and thigh-burning sprints are realistically brought to life.
It's worth noting that, if you have a 12-speed cassette on your bike, you will have to buy and install a new driver to make the turbo compatible with your bike.