How to Choose a Bike Trainer (Ultimate Guide)

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Bike trainers are an excellent piece of equipment to train and maintain fitness without leaving your home. However, with so many options available, each with different features, it can be really difficult to shop for one. In this article, we have explained everything you need to know to choose the right bike trainer for you. We have also answered some commonly asked questions towards the end of the article. Without further ado, let’s get started.

Features to look out for in bike trainers

Types of Bike Trainers

Before you think about purchasing a bike trainer, you should know about the various types available. There isn’t a best as each type has its advantages and disadvantages. People prefer one or the other based on their personal preference.

Wheel-on Trainers

Wheel-on trainers, as the name suggests, require you to leave the bike’s rear wheel on. Clamps on the trainer attach to the axle of the rear wheel. A quick-release skewer is often provided which is compatible with the clamps. The tire is pressed against a smooth metal roller and rotates. This is coupled to a flywheel and/or resistance system. Wheel-on trainers are not too expensive and are also very compact and portable. Which is why they are so common. One downside is that your rear tire is exposed to a lot of wear and tear.

Wheel-on trainer

Wheel-on trainer

Direct-drive Trainers

On direct-drive trainers, the rear wheel is detached and the bike is mounted via its rear dropouts. This saves your rear tire from excessive wear. Direct-drive trainers come with their own cassette which you can wrap your bike’s chain around. There are an internal flywheel and drive system which often provides a better ride feel than wheel-on trainers. Most are smart trainers with internet connectivity, app compatibility, sensors, and other features. They are larger and heavier than wheel-on trainers, and significantly more expensive as well.

Direct-drive trainer

Direct-drive trainer

Rollers

Rollers are the simplest and oldest type of bike trainer. They work pretty much like a treadmill. It consists of a set of rollers on which you place your bike and start pedaling. The resistance is low and there are rarely any extra features. However, rollers require you to maintain good balance which is similar to outdoor cycling. Also, they are quite cheap. You will need something to hold onto, like a wall, to safely get on and off. Professionals often use them to improve balance, pedaling efficiency, core strength, and sometimes as a warmup before a major event.

Roller

Roller

Bike Simulators

Bike simulators are the most premium machine that you can get for indoor training. They are basically stationary bikes, except they offer a much more realistic cycling experience. A bike simulator often has all the smart features that you will need to simulate a real outdoor experience. Additionally, they are adjustable so that you achieve the right bike fit. Unlike other trainer types, very little noise is produced by these machines. Due to all these, they come at a very high price and take up more space than other trainers.

Bike simulator

Bike simulator

Resistance Types

The resistance on a bike trainer can come in different forms as well. Rollers, for example, do not have any resistance system. Whereas, wheel-on and direct-drive trainers usually have one of two types of resistance – magnetic or fluid resistance. Some wheel-on trainers have a wind resistance system. Bike simulators have electronically controlled magnetic resistance systems.

Fluid Resistance: This type of resistance is very popular on wheel-on trainers. Only some low-end direct-drive trainers use this system. An impeller inside a fluid-filled container is coupled with the roller. There could be a separate flywheel or the impeller itself could act as the flywheel. The impeller spins through the fluid (usually oil or liquid silicone) and generates progressively higher resistance the faster you pedal. This produces a realistic bike feel and the noise generated is low.

Fluid resistance

Fluid resistance

Magnetic Resistance: This system is similar to that of a stationary bike. Magnets are brought closer to or farther from the flywheel to vary the resistance. For wheel-on trainers, the resistance increases linearly. However, in direct-drive trainers and bike simulators, the magnetic resistance is normally controlled electronically. This can offer progressive resistance which better simulates outdoor cycling. Unlike other resistance types, magnetic resistance can be manually controlled.

Magnetic resistance

Magnetic resistance

Wind Resistance: These are usually only found on wheel-on trainers. Similar to fluid resistance, a wind resistance system uses a fan linked to the roller. The faster you pedal, the faster it rotates and produces progressively higher resistance. However, they are not as good as fluid systems. Moreover, they generate a lot of noise. The upside is that there is no issue of fluid leakage as with a fluid trainer.

Wind resistance

Wind resistance

Compatibility

Your bike trainer should be able to accommodate the bike that you will be using. Usually, there is not much of an issue with most road and mountain bikes. But it is still a good idea to check the manufacturer’s list of compatible wheel sizes, rear dropout spacing, and axle types. Sometimes you can get adaptors or cassettes to achieve a proper fit. For rollers, you should check whether it has the proper length for your bike.

Noise Levels

Unless you live alone and do not have neighbors nearby, the noise will be a factor you need to consider. Generally, spending more will get you a quieter machine. Bike simulators are the quietest. Direct-drive trainers and fluid trainers are quite silent as well. Meanwhile, rollers and wind trainers are the loudest of them all. Note that you can never get anything that is fully silent since there will be noise from the other moving parts such as the chain and wheels.

Stability

A bike trainer needs to be sturdy and stable enough to withstand high-intensity pedaling. Otherwise, you won’t be able to ‘train’ yourself. A trainer that weighs more and has a large base will be more stable. Other than bike simulators, direct-drive trainers are the most stable followed by wheel-on trainers. Again, the more money you spend, the better the stability and material quality will be. Fortunately, crashes on bike trainers seldomly occur.

Size and Portability

The size of a bike trainer is an important factor in deciding which one to buy. Wheel-on trainers are highly compact and often foldable. Their dimensions on all sides are always less than 30 inches. Therefore, storing and carrying a wheel-on trainer is never much of an issue. Direct-drive trainers are larger and heavier. However, they are still portable enough. For a roller, you will need more floor space, around 4-5 feet in length. Some rollers can be folded for ease of storage.

Smart Features

Most high-end bike trainers make your indoor training an enjoyable experience rather than a boring one. Bluetooth and internet connectivity allow you to use software such as Zwift, Sufferfest, and Rouvy. Combined with the speed, power, and cadence sensors, you can get an immersive session using one of your smart devices. You will be able to explore different routes. Some trainers can introduce an incline by varying the resistance. Some can even be paired with a compatible fan that simulates the wind according to your speed. You can buy sensors to use with cheaper trainers that do not have them.

Accessories

There are a bunch of different accessories that you can buy that might be needed. Some such as a riser block are often included for free. This block raises the front wheel to make the bike parallel to the ground. Without it, the bike would lean downwards slightly. Other items that can be bought include a sweat guard, a floor mat, a fan, etc.

Riser block

Riser block

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is meant by a ‘smart trainer’?

Ans.: A smart trainer is a type of bike trainer which has the ability to connect to fitness/trainer apps wirelessly. Some of these apps such as Zwift offer a virtual reality experience. You can track your activity, explore various routes around the world, and interact with other riders. They make use of sensors and can be paired with smart devices. All bike simulators and nearly all direct-drive trainers are smart. A few wheel-on models are ‘smart’ as well. Smart trainers make indoor cycling an immersive and enjoyable experience.

Q2. How much do bike trainers cost?

Ans.: Considering the diversity of bike trainers, it should not be surprising that their price varies a lot. The simplest wheel-on trainers cost around $100 while modern direct-drive trainers cost more than $1000. If we are talking about bike simulators, they are usually in the range of $2000-$3000. The general rule of thumb is that the more money you dish out, the better trainer you will get. Hence, budget plays a huge role in deciding what trainer to buy.

If you’re on a tight budget, in that case, we suggest, you go for some of the top affordable bike trainers of 2021

Q3. Is using a trainer harmful for my bike?

Ans.: Bike trainers are completely safe to use and will not damage your bike. The only exception is that wheel-on trainers can wear out your rear tire. An easy solution to this problem is to get a trainer tire for your workouts. These are designed to withstand wear and tear and produce little noise. On top of that, they are very cheap as well.

Trainer tire

Trainer tire

Most wheel-on trainers come with an additional quick-release skewer. This skewer is compatible with the clamp and prevents any damage to the bike’s axle/skewer. Once replaced, you can leave it on for your regular outdoor rides as well if you want.

Conclusion

Indoor bike trainers are one of the best tools for maintaining your fitness and cycling ability at times when you can’t go outside. As you can see, choosing an indoor trainer requires you to take into account multiple factors. Whichever type you prefer, we recommend buying a good quality unit and not skimping out too much on the pr6. It will be more than worth it in the long run.

My name is Dion Lewis. I’ve been cycling since my childhood. When I was in high school, I started racing in our local competitions. In my college life, I took a part-time job in a bicycle shop and I learned how to repair and maintain bicycles professionally. Though I love racing, mountain biking is another thing I do frequently. My friends, neighbors, and colleagues treat me as an avid rider and take my suggestions while they plan for a new bike or bike gear.

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