Turbo training, or indoor cycling, is becoming increasingly popular among cyclists and triathletes of all abilities, allowing for incredibly focused and specific training with minimal fuss. As the winter approaches and brings with it strong winds, freezing temperatures and rain, indoor riding becomes all the more appealing.
I strongly advise all athletes I work with to purchase a turbo trainer to allow them to get specific and focused training sessions. An hour on the turbo is generally worth two hours on the road, and is worth even more when you you include all the time prepping your bike and getting changed for an outdoor ride, and if you live in a city, the distance you need to travel before you can get riding properly. I have athletes ride the turbo not as a last resort in bad weather, but all year round to allow us to fit more quality hours of training in every week. You can also train with specific metrics and monitor power closely, rather than simply going out for a ride to get some miles in the legs. Using Functional Threshold Power (FTP) testing you can accurately monitor your improvements and use the data to train at intensities specific to you.
The words ‘turbo trainer’ strike fear into the hearts of most old school cyclists, and hark back to the days where indoor training involved staring at a wall or watching a video of other cyclists racing while you pedal into nowhere using a heavy, expensive trainer that kicks up enough noise to make a jet engine blush. Turbo training has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, so let’s look at the new generation of training options and what they offer
Smart or dumb?
You’ll hear the phrase “smart trainer” thrown around on various websites, blogs and bike shops, so you can understand people’s hesitation in asking what exactly makes a bike trainer smart. A smart trainer will talk to electronic devices, broadcasting power data to them and changing their resistance based on the feedback they receive from the training software. If you’re riding a virtual course and reach a hill, the trainer will increase resistance, decreasing it when you reach the summit. This makes your indoor riding experience far more immersive and valuable with specific metrics such as accurate power and in build cadence sensors.
Direct drive or classic?
The term direct drive refers to when a cassette sits on the trainer itself which you mount your bike onto (after removing the rear wheel) and start riding. Wheel on trainers work by taking the bike in its entirety and bolting it onto the trainer. A metal drum is then pressed against the rear wheel to provide the resistance.
So which is better? You’d be hard pressed to find someone who chooses a wheel on trainer over a direct drive trainer. Wheel on trainers will rapidly wear some tyres necessitating the use of a specialist turbo training tyre, and the tyre/wheel change that comes with it before every indoor ride. Wheel on also tends to be noisier, and it feels very unnatural to ride compared to the smooth, progressive resistance of the direct drive trainers. Direct drive trainers are coming down in price, so I’d recommend looking at them as they’re so easy to use. If you have to change the wheel/tyre every time you want to ride indoors, it’s a barrier to you getting the workout done and you’ll find excuses not to ride.
The vast majority of those training indoors will use training software to maximise the accuracy of their ride and stave off the boredom. Here we look at some of the options available to athletes.
The benchmark in training software, Zwift has exploded in the last couple of years, edging itself towards the world of mainstream fitness. The premise is simple, by turning the pedals you power your rider around a virtual course, providing not only a challenge in the undulating courses they create (including a full mountain climb), but a visual distraction from the monotony of indoor training. Several hundred riders can be found online at any given time varying from weekend warriors to professional cyclists, either participating in races, battling over the various jerseys that can be earned on course, following a workout or simply pooling round the course.
Zwift is an incredibly detailed topic which deserves an article on its own, but can be summarised as the most social and iadvanced platform.
Pros: social, being continually developed, incredible visuals
Cons: only three courses currently available
If Zwift is the excitable 10 year old of the indoor cycling world, TrainerRoad is the surly uncle. It’s been around for longer than Zwift and focuses more on performance. It works on the premise that you are given a series of power figures to hit, and you have to hold the correct power and/or cadence/heart rate for each effort. There is no visual representation of your efforts, it is more of a no frills experience than Zwift, instead focusing on its library of workouts and training plans designed by coach Chad Timmerman. It also has the unique feature of allowing you to minimise the software to watch your favourite film/TV show with essential workout information at the bottom of the screen. Athletes training with me are provided with turbo workouts, so the appeal of TrainerRoad is limited.
Pros: Extensive workout library, ability to minimise workout
Cons: Represents poor value for money compared to other software, no visualisation or social aspect
Bkool are the underdog here, and something of an anomaly as they produce their own trainers as well as software. The Bkool software is unique in that is allows you to ride a huge variety of routes with video/google earth images to keep you engaged, rather than relying on the somewhat limited course offerings on Zwift. This can prove especially useful for those who have a big race abroad and want to preview the major climbs.
It has social elements like Zwift but with far fewer people using it, the scope for racing and training with friends is somewhat limited.
Pros: replicate courses from around the world
Cons: less social than Zwift, not many people use it
Tacx Training Software
I am including this one as something of a warning more than anything. While Tacx were early adopters of training software, their involvement seems to have fallen by the wayside and it now their software exists as little more than a legacy product. Interestingly it can be used with the Tacx steering column to allow you to pick your way around virtual courses, but this is a pricey accessory that is only compatible with Tacx software. As they seem to have stopped marketing the software or including it with their latest trainers, they have either accepted that their efforts are better spent of manufacturing trainers, or they are planning a complete reboot of their training software (unlikely). While doing a bit of research for this article I noticed on the Tacx website they are now advertising their trainers using Zwift, so it seems the writing is on the wall for Tacx Training Software.
Pros: may have come free with your turbo trainer
Cons: dated, large one off payment to purchase
So you have your trainer and your software, do you need anything else? Some of these are optional, some necessary depending on your setup
Turbo Quick Release
A bona fide essential for anyone riding a quick release bike (so 99% of you) on an indoor trainer. This is a heavy duty rear skewer that can withstand the rigours of indoor training. A standard lightweight QR skewer can be damaged by being pinned in place with huge forces going through it. which can result in failure out on the open road. Every trainer recommends their use and will come with one to use, so please ensure you change your skewer everytime you move your bike indoors to avoid serious injury out on the road.
A black grippy mat that sits under your turbo trainer, you’ve probably seen them in marketing materials for trainers and at demo stations. Their purpose is two fold, to protect the floor from sweat, and to reduce noise, especially important if you’re using it on anything but the ground floor. They roll/fold up nicely and look the part, but it’s nothing that an old piece of carpet won’t do…
Hopefully you have one for your normal riding, but some workouts use heart rate as a metric for you to ride to, so they can prove to be especially useful on a turbo trainer. You can closely monitor your heart rate on a turbo to see how it reacts to different intensities, something you can’t afford to do out on the road.
You can use a speed sensor on your rear wheel to give you a virtual power reading even if using a dumb trainer or rollers. Not necessary if using a smart trainer.
This little beauty sits on the inside of your non drive side crank and registers how often it passes the seat stay to give you a revolutions per minute (RPM) figure, also known as cadence. While not essential, it is very useful information when riding as it will help you realise when you’re pedalling too slowly or too fast. Some of the sessions that come with Phazon plans specify cadence figures so they’re an item we recommend. Currently the Tacx Neo is the only trainer with an unbuild cadence sensor.
When you’re pushing hard indoors with no wind to chill you, it’s pretty inevitable you’ll get a sweat on. This becomes a problem when sweat starts dripping from your face onto your headset, stripping the grease and leaving a salty residue which isn’t conclusive to smooth steering. A sweat guard will protect these sensitive areas from becoming damaged from indoor training. To reduce sweating and make your indoor ride more bearable, consider setting up an fan to keep you cool. I’m sure I won’t need to do a separate entry for this one…
With Zwift and TrainerRoad offering mobile apps (Zwift is releasing an Android version very soon), many people will choose these over setting up an entire computer and monitor rig every time they want to ride, unless they have a permanent “pain cave” setup. Products are available to hold your phone or tablet either on your handlebars or freestanding in front of you. If you’re running aero or non rounded handlebars you’ll likely need the free standing version
If you’re planning to run ANT+ then this will be a necessity unless your computer comes with an ANT+ chip built in. If you already own a Garmin watch that comes with a USB ANT+ stick you can normally use the same one to save a bit of cash as an additional ANT+ stick will normally set you back around £30-£40. If you’re using a tablet or smartphone there are legacy products from yesteryear which can make your mobile device ANT+ compatible, but many of these will need expensive adaptors to make them work with modern devices so I suggest you invest in Bluetooth instead.
For more information on ANT+ vs Bluetooth see the section below
Most turbo trainers will lift your bike off of the floor slightly, so to accommodate for this manufacturers provide a small block for your front wheel to sit on. Most trainers that require one will come packaged with one. Some people looking to replicate his climbing will often use a pile of books or similar to raise their front wheel more
Wahoo Kickr Climb
Specific to the Wahoo Kickr series, you remove your front fork and slot your forks onto the notches provided, the climb replicates inclines of up to 20% and downhills of up to -10%. While it is easily dismissed as an expensive gimmick, it recruits different muscle groups to better replicate climbing, especially useful for those training for mountain events who will spend prolonged periods riding in this position.
Turbo tyre/spare wheel (wheel on trainer only)
“Do I need a turbo tyre?” Is one of the most common questions I’m asked. The truth of the matter is it’s hard to tell, but if in doubt better to use one. They are an extremely hard rubber compound designed to withstand the rigours of being pressed against a metallic drum and spun around for hours on end. Some people report that they ride on the same tyre indoors and outdoors with no problems, while some find pieces of rubber being flung around their living room as soon as they start riding their road tyre on a trainer. It depends on the combination of your trainer and on your road tyre, but even if it doesn’t start delaminating visibly, you’re still putting a lot of wear on your expensive tyres and will have to replace them sooner. If you use a turbo tyre it it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to replace it.
With regards to the spare wheel, this is vital for those of us who don’t want to change a tyre every time we want to ride indoors. This is not only very time consuming and tricky, but it risks damage to your rim and increases the risk for blowing inner tubes by botching a tyre change. Drop a message on the forum of your club asking if anyone has any old stock/worn rear wheels they never use and can be donated for a good cause.
Bluetooth or ANT+?
The question on the lips of many newbies to indoor cycling, which protocol should they use? I’ll run you through the basics of each.
The connection everybody has been using for many years, it has been slowly improved over the years but is still not especially long range or reliable. However most computers and devices can read Bluetooth signals so will be able to talk to Bluetooth trainers, making the process nice and simple.
The ANT+ connection is generally longer range and more reliable than Bluetooth, however requires an ANT+ USB stick to communicate with your device, which is an additional expense. It is also slower to react to changes in resistance than Bluetooth, with up to 2-3 seconds delay between reaching a hill on Zwift and the resistance increasing. You can also attach the dongle to a USB extension lead to get it as close to your trainer as possible, minimising dropouts.
There’s no real right or wrong answers, I’ve used both over the years and not had major problems with either, it may be worth checking your trainer/sensors before deciding. If you own Garmin sensors which only tend to be ANT+ then it makes sense to use them rather than reinvest in an entire new set of Bluetooth sensors. My advice is to start with what is easiest for you, and try changing if you encounter issues.
I’m not going to start comparing brands here, but simply compare different kinds of trainer and the advantages/disadvantages of each style
Cheap wheel on magnetic trainers
Examples: Tacx Blue Matic (pictured), CycleOps mag|
These trainers are somewhat dated and likely to be discontinued in the next 3-4 years as smart trainer become more affordable. The resistance changes using magnets in the rear drum, controlled, by a trigger that is attached to your handlebars. They are loud and feel very unrealistic, but for the triathlete on a budget their are better than no turbo
Cons: clunky, unrealistic road feel, no data transmitted to software
Examples: Kurt Kinetic, CycleOps Fluid 2 (pictured)
These trainers do not change resistance in the traditional sense, but instead follow a set power curve that increases the resistance the more power you put down. This makes for a more realistic riding experience, but a less controllable one. I can’t really recommend them for use with training software
Pros: more realistic ride feel, no need to worry about changing resistance
Cons: very little control makes interval work difficult
Semi smart trainers
Examples: Tacx Satori Smart (pictured), Kimetic Rock and Roll Smart
These are magnetic wheel on trainers, but unlike their cheaper cousins they broadcast power to Zwift, giving you a much more accurate reading than the Z power that Zwift calculates using speed sensors and power curves. However they do not change resistance depending on where you are on course, although people will often manually increase the trainer resistance when they reach hills to replicate the slower cadence associated with going uphill.
Smart wheel on trainers
Examples: Tacx Genius, Wahoo Kickr Snap (pictured)
A smart wheel on trainer is ideal for those who want the full functionality of a trainer without the cost associated with direct drive. They tend to be less accurate and can’t create as much resistance as the big boys, but if that doesn’t really bother you then I can happily recommend one of those trainers. They tend to be much quieter at this price point, something which is worth the extra alone. Even if you don’t have neighbours, it’s nice to be able to hear yourself think when training.
Budget direct drive trainers
Examples: Tacx Flux, Elite Direto (pictured)
Don’t let the word budget fool you, you’re still looking at the best part of £700 for these trainers, but this is still a significant saving compared to the big boys. They can’t quite replicate the resistance of the top end trainers, but the road feel is vastly improved compared to wheel on trainers and the changes in resistance are smooth. I’d recommend most people invest a bit more and go all in for a top of the line trainer personally, but for those who can’t justify the extra expense these are a solid option. They can replicate a reasonable gradient and are more accurate than wheel on trainers, along with the buttery smooth feeling that comes with direct drive trainers.
Top end trainers
Examples: Tacx Neo, Wahoo Kickr (pictured), Cycleops Hammer, Elite Drivio
These are the top dogs of indoor training, the five star experience for the cyclist who has it all or will be spending vast amount of time on their trainer. They are the most realistic indoor riding experiences available, extremely quiet and able to accurately replicate the inclines on training software and give extremely accurate power readings.
You won’t get much change out of £1,000 if you’re looking at one of these, but if spending a bit more will make the experience more enjoyable and encourage you to ride where you might not otherwise, then it’s money well spent.
The differences between each are pretty minimal, so the best way to make the decision is simply to try riding each to decide which you prefer the feel of.
Ergonomic (or ERG) mode works by capping your power at a certain level during structured workouts. Once you exceed the target power for an effort it will lower the resistance to spin your legs out. This is incredibly useful as it allows you to focus on riding rather than staring at the screen trying to keep your power within the set parameters, and is favoured by many (including myself) for following structured workouts as it allows you to focus on your pedalling technique, audiobook or TV show rather than staring at numbers. The only problem is if you decide to stop pedalling or slow your cadence considerably as the ERG mode will whack the resistance up to full to compensate.
Which bike should I ride indoors?
Many people have a ‘turbo bike’ that has been retired from regular service and now sits on a trainer in their garage. This makes sense from a ease of us standpoint, you don’t need to worry about changing tyres or swapping bikes on and off the trainer, but at the end of the day we want to ride our race bike fast, and riding a different geometry on the trainer won’t give us the specific strength we’re looking for. This is especially true for people who have a road bike on their turbo but race on TT bikes, the muscle groups recruited and the demands put on them are quite different so train specifically for the kind of riding you’ll be doing. Many people will do a lot of turbo training over winter when you probably won’t be using your race bike on the roads, so consider bolting it onto your trainer for winter.
And finally… Can I use my carbon frame on a turbo trainer?
It wouldn’t be an article about turbo training without the contentious carbon frame question. The answer is that if your carbon frame is properly attached and you do not throw it around while training on it, you’ll probably be fine. If the quick release or thru axel is done up super tight you increase the chance of damage, but the biggest mistake you can make it doing it up too loosely as this will allow for the bike to rock around, vastly increasing the risk of damage. I know it can feel wrong to bolt your new carbon frame tightly into a static object before riding it, but if the frame is built to withstand the rigours of road use, it can survive being pinned into a trainer.
It’s worth mentioning that some companies such as Specialized currently void the warranty of a product if damage occurred while riding on a trainer. As indoor training increases in popularity you hope they’ll change their stance, but for now it’s worth checking the details of your manufacturer’s warranty if you want total peace of mind. Most of the time a bike suffers damage on the trainer it’s because the frame was already cracked and the turbo training was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Hopefully this has given you an insight into the world on indoor training and allows you to make informed decisions of what setup to run. I’ll be wiring more in depth articles on specific aspects of indoor training over the coming weeks to make sure you subscribe or like our Facebook page to be kept up to date.