Training at home is no longer a lonely winter slog as
wireless-connected home trainers and apps let you race against riders all
over the world.
Turbo trainers used to be a winter purchase. Sometime in September we’d
resign ourselves to four or five months of rubbish weather, get out the
credit card and shell out on a turbo trainer. Maintaining fitness through
the winter then involved cold solo sessions in the garage, battling
boredom as much as loss of form.
That’s all changed. Importers tell us they now sell more turbo trainers
in the summer than the winter. Why? Because riders are competing against
each other on line using smart trainers that either come with their own
networks or work with third-party apps like Zwift, making intense training
sessions at home more fun.
What’s a smart trainer?
A standard indoor trainer has a stand to support your bike at the rear
wheel and a resistance unit driven by the rear tyre. In a smart trainer
the resistance unit has built-in electronics that, at the very least,
transmit your speed to an ANT+-capable device. Some smart trainers also
include power meters so you can train by that metric too.
Fully smart trainers have the ability to be controlled remotely by
software on a computer, phone or tablet. The app controls the resistance
so you don't have to mess about with it, and the trainer also measures
your power output so you can train to a precise target.
Some trainers are only what we'd describe as 'half smart'. They measure
power, which is very useful, and can send that and other data wirelessly
to your computer , phone or tablet, but but their resistance can't be
controlled by software.
For a fully smart, contrrollable trainer, the function to look for is
ANT+ FE-C capability. ANT+ is Garmin's wireless communication protocol, as
used for speed sensors, heart rate monitors and like that. FE-C stands for
Fitness Equipment Control and the clue's in the name: it's a set of
commands over ANT+ that, well, control fitness equipment such as turbo
With a data stream from your trainer, you can hook up a laptop and tap
into the trainer maker’s systems for less boring sessions, or to Zwift,
which gives you the ability to ride with other people round the world.
You can use Zwift with just a regular trainer and ANT+ bike sensors, but
more and more riders are choosing to go down the fully smart trainer
One very big advantage of fully smart trainers is ERG mode. Your software
tells the trainer what resistance to provide and it does so, regardless of
how fast you pedal. That means you don't have to think about what gear
your bike's in, or concentrate on hitting a power target, you quite simply
just pedal. It's kind of mindless, but meditative too, and it's an
incredibly straightforward way to optimise your training.
A smart trainer also needs all the features that make a good regular
trainer. That means a resistance unit that produces a realistic pedalling
feel to better simulate riding on the road; a sturdy frame to support you
and the bike, even under high-wattage efforts; and an easy-to-use claming
It's also nice if the unit isn't too noisy, especially if, say, you live
in a flat with downstairs neighbours or you don't want to be banished to
the garage so the family can watch Eastenders.
Various accessories are available to make your trainer sessions more
pleasant. A riser block for the front wheel will bring the bike level,
while a trainer mat will keep sweat off your floor and help reduce the
noise. A trainer-specific rear tyre is a good idea too, so you don't wear
through your good tyre by pressing it against a little roller.
An accessory that's particular useful with a smart trainer is a laptop or
tablet stand for the handlebars so you can tap into the smart features or
Several new models of smart trainer were announced over the summer, but
aren't yet actually shipping. For example, Tacx has a version 2 of the
Flux trainer in the works, with the capability to take a bike with a
long-arm rear derailleur; Elite has a successor to the well-regarded Drivo
direct-drive trainer coming, imaginatively named the Drivo 2, and a major
revamp of the Nero smart rollers, and the 2018 version of the Wahoo Kickr
Smart is about to drop, as well as a cheaper version, the Kickr Core.
Similarly, we're about to see updates to the CycleOps Hammer and Magnus
trainers. For the most part, these new trainers are refinements of
existing models, with smoother drive from heavier freewheels, extra
built-in capabilities such as cadence sensing or the ability to take a
wider variety of dropouts.
Look out for first looks and reviews as we get our hands on new trainers.
Meanwhile, here's a look at our current favourites, many of which can be
had for bargain prices at the moment.
11 of the best smart trainers
The Bkool Smart Go is one of the cheapest proper smart trainers you can
buy. And it puts in a very decent performance, provided that you're more
interested in the online riding experience than super-accurate measurement
of your power. As a way into the full experience of Zwift, it's pretty
easy to recommend.
The Elite Direto is really impressive. It offers a smooth and realistic
road feel, massive stability for your hardest interval sprints, easy
compatibility with a host of training apps, and works with disc brake
bikes. It's a good pick if you want to make a serious investment into
indoor training this winter but can't stomach the £1,000+ price tags
associated with the likes of the Elite Drivo, Wahoo Kickr and Tacx Neo.
One of the least expensive ways of getting into smart trainers, the
Satori Smart works with iOS, Android and Windows. Its associated app is
free to download for iOS and Android, with in-app fees for workouts, and
for the basic version for Windows.
You change the Satori Smart’s resistance with a 10-position controller on
your handlebar that’s connected by a cable. That means apps like Zwift
can’t control the resistance, but the Satori still works with it because
it can communicate with your laptop or tablet using ANT+ or Bluetooth.
Tacx’ own app the app provides readouts of power, speed, cadence, heart
rate (from a compatible heart rate monitor), energy output, ‘slope’ and so
on. The initial calibration process for every training session is somewhat
brutal, requiring a hefty power output from a cold start.
The app lets you create your own workout from this point, but pre-set
workouts are also available as in-app purchases from the relevant app
store, along with video play-throughs of a range of iconic routes. These
scenic videos play in sync with your pedalling, creating a useful
distraction to go along with the various statistics provided.
You can’t remotely control the resistance of this unit, but it provides
power measurement, so you can use it with Zwift. It’s a sturdy unit that’s
quiet and stable even under flat-out efforts, and has a very realistic
The Road Machine uses Bluetooth to communicate with your iOS or Android
device, so should work with a Bluetooth-capable laptop for Zwift purposes.
For general training purposes Kinetic provides its own phone and tablet
app which includes a number of workouts, and has a straightforward
interface. During a workout the display on the app shows a bold line
across the screen which is your target power output, and a large dot that
indicates your real time power output. Hold this dot on the line to follow
the workout. Following the power encouraged smooth pedalling to create a
level reading, which will clearly be an advantage when you're back on the
In autumn of 2016 Kinetic will release the Road
Machine Smart Control with resistance that can be controlled
wirelessly for the full virtual ride experience with Zwift and
One of the less expensive fully smart trainers, this is a well-made unit
with resistance controlled from the software on your laptop or tablet,
matching that of the virtual climb you are tackling. It’s a really solid
option for a pretty reasonable price.
Its software runs on PC, Mac or a tablet (Android or iOS). You create a
ride via the website, then fire up the software and do your workout. If
you skip the website bit then you can pick a workout from a selection of
20 rides that other users have scheduled, play a velodrome game or re-ride
something you'd previously recorded for real on Strava (you can pair the
two things up).
With a paid subscription to the website you've got a wide selection of
first-person video rides to choose from. The harder you pedal, the faster
the footage plays, and the resistance varies with the gradient of the
This gives an immersive experience that some riders prefer to the
computer-games feel of Zwift. It looks best if you've got a nice big telly
set up in front of you, and you’ll need a decent internet connection.
There is also some ability to ride agaonst others. If another user jumps
on your ride once you've scheduled it then you can try to beat them, but
for obvious reasons they don't appear on the road in front of you like
they would on Zwift – it is just a video recording, after all. Your
progress, and that of your rivals, is shown via indicators that travel
across the bottom of the screen in a video session, or with other 3D
cyclists in a 3D session.
In addition to other users, you can also compete with "bots" and
"ghosts", respectively computer-generated opponents with varying
characteristics, and other real riders who've done that route in the past.
This reassuringly solid unit has a very realistic ride feel. Wahoo relies
on a range of third-party apps for functions beyond recording sessions,
and because its devices have an open interface there are plenty of
compatible apps, including Zwift.
We found the Kickr Snap’s power measurement under-read compared to a
PowerTap and this needed Wahoo’s iPhone/iPad app to fix it, which is a bit
annoying if you only have Android devices. Even corrected, it still
under-read around 5%, which won’t be an issue if you do all your power
sessions on the Kickr Snap, but is irritating if you want to compare
against a bike-mounted meter.
This can be worked around, and other riders report very close correlation
with their power meters.
It’s an easy job to pair the Kickr Snap with Zwift and TrainerRoad via a
Garmin ANT+ dongle: you just plug in the dongle, start the apps and the
Kickr is available to use.
The Tacx Flux Smart is currently the closest thing there is to an
inexpensive fully smart direct drive indoor trainer. It's a doddle to set
up and get started, measures your power to a useful level of accuracy and
consistency, and works with popular virtual riding applications such as
Zwift to make indoor training less dull. It's not cheap, but it's good
value compared to its competition.
It's also fairly quiet, so the family can watch TV in the next room and
you won't annoy your downstairs neighbours if you live in a flat. But most
importantly, it's so straightforward to use that it actually makes indoor
training – dare I say it? – fun.
If you're planning to buy a fully-featured indoor trainer to use with
Zwift and similar apps, then the excellent CycleOps Hammer should be on
your shortlist. It has a smooth, realistic pedalling feel, accurate power
measurement, high maximum resistance, and an air of reassuring solidity.
It even folds away for more compact storage.
It's also quiet, and a doddle to set up, but it's a very long way from
cheap. Whether it's good value will depend on how seriously you take your
The Elite Drivo is a top-drawer, powered, indoor trainer with Bluetooth
Smart and ANT+ connectivity that's a cinch to hook up and get riding. The
Drivo is aimed squarely at the cyclist with plenty of money burning a hole
in her jersey pocket and for those with the means I can't imagine a much
better training tool. It's a shame that the bottom-drawer aesthetic and
some needless niggles let it down, because it's otherwise close to
Wahoo's Kickr power trainer offers a very smooth and realistic road feel,
is simple to use and is compatible with an increasing number of apps that
give you access to a huge virtual training world. But at £899 it's an
investment of serious proportions.
Wattbike's new Atom trainer is the first fully connected smart bike
trainer that's designed for interactive training on platforms such as
Zwift, TrainerRoad and The Sufferfest. It features controllable resistance
via ANT+ and Bluetooth, 22 virtual gears, a big flywheel for a realistic
road feel and a fully adjustable gym bike setup that makes it easy for
more than one member of the family to use it regularly. Wattbike's own app
offers in-depth pedalling analysis and the option to try your hand at
famous climbs such as Alpe d'Huez.
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As far as possible that means recommending equipment that we have actually reviewed, but we also include products that are popular, highly-regarded benchmarks in their categories.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.