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.
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 trainers.
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 route.
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 mechanism.
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 use apps.
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.
The Saris H3 is the newest in the line of trainers that started as the CycleOps Hammer back in the day. It's still recognisably from the same family, but a lot has changed: The new H3 is quieter, has higher resistance and faster resistance changes, and has really good cadence sensing. Plus the price has dropped by £150.
Elite's Suito is probably the easiest of all the smart trainers to set up. It comes fitted with a cassette, so all you have to do is take your wheel off, fit your bike and plug it in. The power accuracy isn't quite as good as the more expensive units but it's plenty good enough to provide you with meaningful, repeatable training efforts
The Tacx Neo 2 is expensive at full retail (£1,199) but is available a lot cheaper online, especially since it has been replaced with the newer Neo 2T. There's very little to choose between the two, and for the money the Neo 2 is probably the benchmark trainer right now. Its resistance unit is second to none.
The Tacx Flux S Smart is a fully-fledged smart direct drive trainer that you can pick up for not much more than £500; that's half the price smart trainers were costing a few years back. It's simple to set up and can simluate a maximum resistance of 1,500W and a climb of up to 10%. That's not up there with the big guns but it's fine for most training. The new version has clearance for a long-arm derailleur so you can use your gravel bike or MTB.
The CycleOps H2 is the predecessor to the Saris H3 above, and it's still fairly widely available. It offers top-end performance, with an excellent resistance unit and built-in cadence sensing. It's also quiet, and a doddle to set up, but it's a very long way from cheap at its £1,000 RRP. At less than £600, however, it's an absolute steal, especially as its successor, the £849 Saris H3 features only incremental improvements over the H2 (in short, it's quieter and has some firmware-based improvements that you can make to the H2 and even the old Hammer by updating the firmware).
The Bkool Smart Go is one of the cheapest proper smart trainers you can buy. Bkool has stopped making hardware now, focussing instead on improving its online training software, but the trainers are still widely available.
If you can't stomach the £1,000+ price tags associated with the likes of the Elite Drivo, Wahoo Kickr and Tacx Neo then the Elite Direto is the next step down, and offers much of the performance at a lower price point. It's smooth and accurate, giving dependable power numbers.
The Zumo sits below the Suito in Elite's range. It's not quite as powerful, and it doesn't come with a cassette, but it's still a good training aid and one of only a few direct drive smart trainers you can pick up for less than £500. Currently it's only available in Halfords stores.
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 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 perfect. And at this clearance price — less than half its original RRP — it's a serious bargain.
The latest build of the Wahoo Kickr is the best yet, and it's not like it was awful before. It's smoother and quieter, and a brilliant bit of kit if you're serious about indoor training. Which you'll need to be if you're thinking of forking out a grand.
Wattbike's new Atom trainer was 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.
If money's no object – and especially if more than one of your household likes to train indoors – then the Smart Bike Neo is one to consider. A proper gym-spec build coupled with the excellent Neo 2 resistance unit makes for a really excellent home training experience. The virtual gearing system is impressive, and this is the quietest smart trainer we've yet tried.
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Acknowledged by the Telegraph as a leading cycling journalist, John Stevenson has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.
He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.
Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for CyclingNews.com. Along with road.cc editor Tony Farelly, John was on the launch team for BikeRadar.com and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.
John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of TotalWomensCycling.com before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.
He joined road.cc in 2013 and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.