Update: After some discussion on Facebook, I thought I’d talk more about the growing trend in virtual bike trainers. Go there now
When it’s oh-dark-thirty in the middle of winter and you’re peeking at your alarm clock from the comfy confines of a toasty bed, it can be really, really challenging to assume an upright position and get out there on your bike.
A trainer can remove the sting of a cold winter chill; you still have to turn the pedals over, but it can be much easier to fit in those shorter midweek rides indoors. I’ve already written about the importance of having a well structured workout when you ride indoors. This article is designed to help you purchase your first or next indoor bicycle trainer.
Not all bike trainers are created equal
There are three different types of resistance trainers: wind, magnetic, and fluid. Each type of bike trainer has it’s benefits and drawbacks, and the better the quality of the trainer, the more resistance it will provide, and generally speaking, the longer it will last.
Wind trainers generate resistance using a fan. These types of trainers provide a decent workout, but the sound they produce is akin to a cat in heat moonwalking on burning asphalt. In other words, they scream. They also are fairly inexpensive, so if you are willing to live with the noise, you can get a good trainer at a fairly low price. They are probably best used for sprint training. A wind trainer like the Kinetic Cyclone produces resistance ranging from 5-1000 watts, so it would accommodate most cyclists. Wind trainers typically cost between $150-300.
Mag trainers are the most popular type of resistance trainer on the market. They generate resistance using magnetic force. The resistance is steady state, meaning it does not change based on how hard or fast you pedal. Many mag trainers come with a cable you can mount on your handlebar to increase or decrease the resistance. If you’re looking for a trainer you can use to simulate steady state riding including time trials and longer climbs, a mag trainer will do a good job. Many mag trainers provide resistance from anywhere between 300-1000 watts. Magnetic trainers can be found for as low as $150.
Fluid trainers provide progressive resistance. The harder and faster you pedal, the more resistance is created. Many riders credit fluid trainers with providing the best outdoor riding simulation. Fluid trainers are used primarily to train for sprints. The Cycleops Fluid 2 is said to be capable of 2000 watt sprints. Fluid trainers range in price from $230-500.
Generally speaking, you can get a trainer that will work for you for around $300-350. Depending on your specific needs, you may be fine purchasing a trainer that costs less, but keep in mind, that the more you spend, the better the construction will be, and the more watts of resistance it will provide. For newer cyclists, look for a trainer that provides a minimum of 400 watts resistance. This way you can simulate some climbs and you won’t outgrow the max resistance too soon.
More experienced cyclists are better served looking for trainers that provide a minimum of 600 watts max resistance. That will allow you to simulate climbs, intense sprints, and the trainer should last you several seasons. A trainer like the Kinetic Road Machine Fluid has a resistance rated at 3000 watts.
Finally there are interactive trainers. The most well known interactive trainer is probably RacerMate’s Computrainer. These trainers combine a trainer with computer software. The result is that you can train on virtual courses and get feedback for your speed, power output, heart rate and scores of other data in real time. If you have the cash and love tech toys, an interactive trainer might be right for you. Interactive trainers costs more than $1000 new. If you scour eBay, Amazon and Craigslist, you could probably pick one up for less.
There is a growing trend toward trainers with built in ANT+ sensors that can be combined with a smartphone app to create an interactive trainer that costs much less than a full blown interactive trainer.
And no one is currently doing this better than Wahoo Fitness.
Originally when we looked at the Wahoo KICKR, it was only compatible with iPhone. The company now offers a complete suite of cycling and running devices and apps for both iPhone and Android devices (You can change the trainer’s resistance from your phone!). Their cycling trainers are also ANT compatible, meaning that if you use a Garmin device, their trainers will let you see data such as speed and power. Speaking of power, the KICKR measures it right out of the box, no calibration required. The unique thing about this trainer is that it is a “wheel-off” system (that means no tire wear), so you mount your bike to a cassette on the trainer (10 & 11 speed available), similar to the Lemond Revolution.
Japan-based Minoura was actually the first manufacturer to develop ANT+ compatibility. They now offer several “LiveRide” models that interface with their LiveTraining application. The app is currently only available for Apple (iOS) devices, but an Android version is in the works. Here’s a promo video:
If you shop around, you can find a Minoura LiveRide trainer for between $200-400. To use the LiveTraining software, a device called a Wahoo key must be installed to the phone. The key fits into the 30 pin connector at the bottom of the phone, and costs approximately $70-80. The LiveTraining app is another $10.
Minoura trainers are some of the most affordable trainers out on the market. I own a Minoura rim-drive style trainer, and have used it for more than 10 years. While it does not provide quite as much resistance as it did originally, I have absolutely no complaints about it. In my opinion, Minoura trainers are more affordable than other brands because they spend a lot less on marketing. But they are innovative, and worth checking out.
Other virtual bike trainers
There are other brands like Tacx that have been around for awhile as well. In fact, the Tacx Bushido is the Computrainer’s closest competitor. By and large, the Bushido and Computrainer provide the same types of data and functionality. One outstanding feature of the Bushido, is that it does not require power to operate. DC Rainmaker has a very detailed review of the Bushido.
The Bushido costs around $800 new.