Indoor Cycling, Different Types of Trainers for Your Pain Cave and Why.

By Bill Plock

I have a theory. A lot of outdoor cyclists have very little knowledge about all the options now available to ride inside. Historically, they have either “ridden” at a fitness facility or they ski during the Winter as their bikes sit in the garage untouched. But now of course things have changed. 

This article serves to outline the various types of trainers and give you some basic understanding of them all and why one might be better than another for you! 

My “Pain Cave”

My theory sprang to life when my 26 year old nephew, who skis all winter and rides all summer, with no gym to go to and now facing home quarantine texted me this:

Hey Bill – hope y’all are staying healthy! I’ve got a quick question for you: I’m looking to get a bike trainer so I can get some cardio in while the gyms are closed, do you have any trainer stands you would recommend? 

Quick question? Come on Nathan, you know your uncle better than that! You must know I have had every type of trainer on the market and that I like to talk—a lot sometimes. So I called him. 20 minutes later, animatedly talking about getting “ride on’s” from my friends on Zwift and trying for personal records climbing up hills in Watovia, I think persuaded him to invest in a smart trainer and check out Zwift. 

Zwift Dashboard

Before breaking out the atlas to find Watovia, Zwift is like gaming software (for now, check out this article from DC Rainmaker) that picks up data from devices like power meters, cadence sensors and heart rate monitors and moves an avatar in a virtual world along with other people doing the same thing at the same time. Thus you can ride with someone, race and “meet” people or join groups and specific events.  There are other software platforms that offer a similar experience and some offer video of a real road or trail with actual cyclists. More on software and their nuances in another article. 

You can use ZWIFT and other virtual cycling applications such as: TrainerRoad, Sufferfest and others; without a smart trainer. You can connect your Garmin or other ANT+ sensors to a computer or tablet using an ANT+ USB stick or a CABLE from North Pole Engineering

The application will not be able to communicate “back and fourth” with your trainer to control resistance, but your avatar (virtual version of you) will react to your speed, cadence and heart rate. With a smart trainer, the application can modify the resistance of your trainer in near real-time. That is to say, when you are going uphill in the virtual world, the resistance on your trainer will increase to simulate a climbing effort.

But let’s back the truck up! And talk about trainers. 

Saris H3 Direct Drive Trainer

Let’s talk smart trainers. There are two basic types. A direct drive trainer like this Saris H3 where you take off your back wheel and put your chain onto the cassette of the smart trainer just like you would your back wheel. The other type is when your back wheel rests against a roller and the roller becomes easier or harder to roll against, let’s call this a roller resistance trainer. In both cases the trainers are connected to software like Zwift either via a cable or wirelessly via bluetooth or USB dongle.  The software then sends a signal to your trainer to get harder or easier based on the course or a preset workout you or your coach/leader programs. 

Cycleops fluid roller resistance trainer

A roller resistance trainer the other type of basic indoor trainer, is where generally the resistance increases in proportion to how hard you pedal. The roller increases its resistance by how fast it rotates and resistance increases inside the roller using magnets or liquid. The faster you pedal, the more resistance you feel. But clearly you can only pedal so fast, so as you shift gears you feel the tension of the chain on your bike which makes it harder to pedal. 

Imagine you are on a flat road and you are pedaling with a cadence of 60 rotations per minute (rpm’s). This means your foot on the pedal completes a circle 60 times per minute or once per second. Because of gearing and gear ratios, your back wheel travels “x” distance per foot rotation which increases or decreases speed of travel. So if you shift into a harder gear, yet don’t change your cadence, it will be harder to pedal but your speed will increase because your chain is on smaller cog on the back wheel and thus your wheel actually turns faster, covering more ground, even though your foot rotation hasn’t changed. This is essentially what happens on resistance trainers. You get a certain resistance based on the rotation of the roller and then added resistance from the gear you are in. 

So now let’s factor in the gravity of a hill and thus the major difference between a resistance trainer and a smart trainer. 

When you are riding outside, at say 60 rpms, and you encounter a hill and stay in the same gear, and keep your rpm’s the same it will feel harder because of gravity. Just like walking up a hill feels harder.  But because of gears, we can shift into an easier gear, while keeping our cadence the same, which means our back wheel rotates slower, covers less ground, making it easier to pedal and accommodate the increased resistance due to gravity. 

So a smart trainer connected to software that visually shows you a hill on your monitor, simulates gravity resistance thus making you make a decision on switching gears to keep your energy output the same, or to stay in the same gear and push harder. 

Now that we have offered an overview of trainers, lets talk about some factors in choosing one over another. 

Cost

Smart Trainers: Direct drive trainer:  about $1,000 and smart roller resistance trainer is about $500. There will also most likely be a cost to access software like Zwift which is currently $15 per month. You might need an extra rear cassette for direct drive trainers, about $60

Roller resistance trainer: These will vary, generally from $150 to $500. On resistant trainers where the roller presses against the tire, it is recommended you buy a specific trainer tire. Tires heat up on these types of trainers and can wear out much quicker than normal. Trainers tires are around $50 and can be a bit difficult to put on so if possible, get another wheel and leave this tire on or dedicate a bike to the trainer as much as possible. 

User Experience: All trainers can provide a good workout first and foremost

Smart Trainers: Fully interactive, more entertaining, more socially connected with group rides, ability to create meetups, more feeling of being on a road/trail. Direct drive trainers do offer you the feeling of downhill or coasting and some will elevate or tip to further give you the feeling of gravity. 

Feedback Omnium

Roller Resistance Trainer: Simpler experience, no interaction virtually, unless you connect devices like power meters, heart rate monitors and cadences sensor to software. Some trainers feel more like the road than others. For example the Feedback Omnium trainer, where the wheel sits on top of the rollers feels more like riding a bike outside. Because the rear wheel is free and only your body weight is pushing on it (like a road) and because the front forks are locked on, you get some feeling of the natural sway of pedaling. All roller resistance trainers do not offer you the ability to coast so keep in mind that a one hour ride on a trainer might feel more like a 1 1/2 hour ride outside due to variable road conditions where you still move forward coasting or descending.

Mounting and connecting

Direct drive: You simply take off the rear wheel and mount your bike chain to the cogs of the trainer like you would a wheel. If feels very much like you are pedaling your bike as normal and there is no wear and tear on the tires. You need to make sure to use the same number of cogs as on your bike’s wheel. For example many bikes have a 10 speed rear cassettes and some smart trainers come with the newer 11 speed cassette or with no cassettes so you may need to buy one. It’s not realistic to take your cassette on and off each time. 

Roller resistance trainer: Most of these connect to your rear wheel hubs and then a roller housing folds up behind the wheel and adds pressure to it from the back. As noted above, this does create heat on your tires as you pedal so you might consider a trainer tire. A trainer tire also slips less when a lot of resistance is applied. 

The Feedback Omnium is different. The rear wheel sits on top of two rollers and your bike is connected by locking in the front fork. Because there is no added pressure other than your weight, your tires will wear normally. And because only the front tire is removed, it is easier to take on and off. The only downside to this trainer is that because it’s sitting on top of the rollers, your bike sits higher, so it will be a little harder to swing your leg over the top tube and mount. 

Portability: 

Smart, Direct Drive Trainers: They can be moved, but are quite a bit heavier than other trainers and they need an electrical plug. However you can operate them with a smart phone only.

Smart, roller resistance trainers: They move like any other trainer in this category but do need electricity. 

Roller resistance trainers: Most all collapse and are fairly easy to move. One note, rear mounted trainers require something to prop up your front wheel with like a “block” (an inch or two) or else you will be tilted downwards and slide uncomfortably forward on your seat. The Feedback Omnium, because of its design folds up smaller than most trainers and doesn’t require a front wheel block. Because of the portability and easy set up, you see a lot of these used at races. 

In conclusion, like all things, there is a lot to consider and money often determines the place to start. If you are seeking the most possible, dynamic experience, clearly a smart trainer is the way to go. But if portability or maybe taking your trainer outside is important and you would rather not have the connectivity a smart trainer offers, maybe you prefer simplicity, then any number of trainers may work just fine. And the used market of roller resistant trainers is pretty robust! 

Either way, have fun!

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