Selecting a bicycle trainer

I started bicycling last spring to ride outside throughout the spring, summer, and fall. But as I started becoming more serious about riding and the weather started becoming inclement in the winter, I moved indoors onto a bicycle resistance trainer.

Since riding a bicycle indoors over the past few months, a number of people asked me about a trainer. They’re either somewhat recreational riders or are looking to keep in shape during the winter months (and believe me, getting out this past winter has not been easy). So this post attempts to provide some plain language on what a trainer is and what to expect.

Trainers, Rollers, and Stationary Bicycles 

For those of you who are wondering, a bicycle trainer (also called a resistance trainer) is a device that you attach to the rear wheel of a regular bicycle that allows you to ride it like a stationary bicycle. The purpose is to allow athletes, those in training, and bicycle enthusiasts (like me) to keep riding when the weather outside doesn’t provide a safe or reasonable riding environment (that is, too cold, too wet, too icy). Trainers are designed to help simulate the feel of riding on the road without having to worry about things like traffic, potholes, weather, or falling off. They also help increase pedaling strength and endurance because of constant resistance.

As I mentioned, you attach your bike’s rear tire to the trainer. This is done by the rear wheel skewer; that’s the part that keeps the wheel attached to the bike. Some trainers come with a replacement skewer that you can swap out with your bike’s original one; this helps keep the bike in place better and prevents damaging your good skewer. The trainer has a rotating cylinder that locks the skewer in place. The tire then rests on a roller that provides resistance and helps simulate riding outdoors. The roller is attached to the resistance unit of the trainer (I’ll explain the difference in resistance units below). On older models, you would typically turn a dial to move the roller into position against the tire; on many newer models, the knob is replaced with a lever that both turns then flips to make set up much easier.

Trainer-wheel holder
Trainer wheel holder

Bicycle (skewer) attached to trainer
Bicycle skewer attached to trainer

Bike (skewer) in trainer, left side
Bike (skewer) in trainer, left side

Trainer roller and lever
Trainer roller and lever

One alternative to riding a trainer is a bicycle roller. A bicycle roller is essentially a track with metal rollers spaced out to accommodate both the front and rear wheel. To ride, you simply place your bike on top and start riding, aiming to stay upright. The rider relies on continuously riding and maintaining balance in order to stay upright and keep going (so if you stop riding, you’ll fall over). This post will not discuss bicycle rollers, since I have no experience riding on one.

The third indoor option is a stationary bicycle. A stationary bicycle is more of an all-in-one device that is designed for indoor use only. Unlike a trainer, you don’t use your regular bike. Stationary bicycles come in a variety of styles, and many higher end models typically have some sort of computer to help measure your distance, power, cadence, and other metrics. Again, I won’t explain more because I don’t have one.

Types of trainers

Trainers come in three varieties: wind, magnetic, and fluid. Cycling King has a nice table comparing the different types. But here is my simple explanation of them.

A wind trainer uses a fan flywheel (or two) to increase air resistance as you turn the wheel. They do a good job of simulating riding on the road. They’re inexpensive (typically the least expensive of the three) and improve resistance as you ride harder. But they’re also very noisy; these are not recommended if you live in an apartment or with noise-conscious roommates.

A magnetic trainer uses magnets embedded in a housing to provide resistance. Because the magnets have a constant level of resistance, you can only ride to a certain level before the difficulty peaks (you get to a certain speed and can’t seem to ride any harder). Some offer a way to vary the resistance. Magnetic trainers are quieter than wind trainers, but also cost a little more. If you’re interested in just riding without so much noise, magnetic trainers are a good value.

A fluid trainer is essentially a wind trainer, but the flywheel is encased in a viscous liquid (think oil). They provide the benefits of a wind trainer without the noise. These usually cost the most of the three types.

What to expect: riding inside

The great thing about a trainer is that you can ride your bike inside when the weather outside is terrible, such as during the dead of winter, especially when you have record snow fall. Riding on a trainer can provide a serious workout, if you’re willing to keep pedaling. Unfortunately, they can be really boring. There are a number of things to consider when deciding whether or not you want to ride a trainer.

Unlike riding outside, where the scenery and the terrain changes constantly, the scenery and terrain on a trainer is constantly the same. This is the major reason why riding inside is really boring. Also, since the only thing moving inside is you and not the air around you, you get very warm very fast. And when your bicycle is mounted in the trainer, your rear wheel is higher than your front, so you feel like you’re constantly riding downhill (except that you’re still pedaling all the time); this puts additional stress on your back, shoulders, and neck.

Here are some techniques to combat these issues:

  • For boredom, either watch television or listen to music. I’ve noticed that I tend to feel more motivated to keep riding if I’m watching something with a lot of action, such as an action show with a car chase or a cycle race. In this case, I like to keep the remote within easy reach. Music with a faster tempo (in my case, rock and metal) works well. I prefer an mp3 player with a workout armband (dropping in your jersey pocket will make your player wet from sweating).
  • For the heat, you need three things: a fan, a towel, and water. The fan helps simulate air going by and helps keep you feeling cool. A ceiling fan is effective, but probably not as much as a tall circular fan. A towel helps wipe up the sweat; you’ll be doing a lot of that if you ride for more than 30 minutes. And water is just a necessity that helps prevent you from burning out altogether. Keeping hydrated during any physical exercise is a must.
  • Lift up your front wheel with some sort of block. An old phone book works well (as do most new ones). Some companies sell blocks made for this purpose.

Other considerations

Location is also important. As I mentioned, I like to ride while watching television. So I set up my bike in the living room, but make sure there’s enough room for others to pass by. Some people set up in the basement so they don’t disturb others. In my case, I essentially live in alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment, so I set up in front of my television (and take down when I’m done).

When riding, you might have a tendency to stay seated. Remember to lift yourself off your saddle once in a while. Also, because you’re constantly pedaling, a full hour on the trainer might be equivalent to more time outside. But it helps to slow down once in a while and give your legs a moment to recover. Again, Cycling King offers some really useful tips.

When considering whether or not you want to ride a trainer, think of the following questions:

  • Do you want to maintain fitness during the winter months?
  • Can you remain disciplined to set a goal and stick to it? 
  • Are you willing to put up with the monotony of riding nowhere?
  • Will you disturb others?

Answering these questions should help you determine your riding needs before you start shopping for a trainer.

Accessories

As I’ve mentioned, there are some things you might consider grabbing to make your ride much more bearable. I’ve already listed some of the following; others are additional items (consider them useful enhancements).

  • Water: a must; fill up one or two water bottles and mount them in your bike’s water bottle cages. You’ll need to remember to keep hydrating while (and after) riding. 
  • Towel: any towel will do. I prefer a hand towel; if you get a longer one too close to the rear wheel, it could catch.
  • Fan: although a ceiling fan works well (if you’re under it), a box or round fan in front of you will probably be more effective.
  • Bike floor mat: this helps reduce vibration and prevents sweat and water from getting on the carpet.
  • Bike block: this helps stabilize your front wheel. CycleOps makes a fancier “climbing” model.
  • Sweat catcher: If you sweat to the point where you can wipe yourself down with a towel, this accessory will prevent sweat from dripping on your bike. The CycleOps Bike Thong is a good example.
  • mp3 or other music player: I recommend keeping it in something that doesn’t allow moisture to get in contact with the player, such as a sport armband. The back pocket of your cycling jersey is not sweat-resistant.
  • Trainer tire: this is a special tire that you swap with your road tire made especially for riding on a trainer or roller. It offers a quieter ride because of the material and prevents your regular tire from wearing down.
  • Carrying case: some people like to maintain their fitness while traveling. So a carrying case is available for some trainers on the market.
  • Video: You can either ride with a peloton in a race or traing for a specific goal. There are a number of video cassettes and DVDs to help keep you motivated.

Some final thoughts

Riding on a trainer is a great way to keep on riding through the cold winter months. It keeps you in shape under controlled conditions. An hour on the trainer is actually more of a workout than an hour of real-world riding (most of the time). And it allows you to ride the same bike year-round. Over time, a trainer ends up costing less than a gym membership, and you can ride it when it’s convenient for you.

But riding indoors is not without its disadvantages. They’re not inexpensive. They can be really boring. They aren’t as fun as riding outside; you can’t get around attached to a trainer. And some of you might opt to swap out your tire for a specific trainer tire; you’ll have to put the regular tire back on before you ride on the road (the trainer tire is very slippery on regular pavement).

But if you’re looking for a great way to stay in shape over the winter months, a bicycle trainer is a good alternative. Just remember to get out and ride when spring hits again.

Additional resources

Saris/CycleOps: Trainer FAQs

Performance Bicycle (on-line retailer): Resistance Trainers

Bike Nashbar (on-line retailer): Trainers and Rollers

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6 thoughts on “Selecting a bicycle trainer

  1. Hi Brian,

    Excellent article. I am looking for a trainer and your points and experience with different trainers really helped me understand what I would like. Thanks.

    Joe

  2. great article, I have a trainer that I use with my mountain bike. unfortunately the knobby tires are super loud and shaky. Do you know of any trainer bike tires for mountain bikes, the two I found were for road bikes (23) not (26)… currently the duct tape around the tire works ok, but it’s certainly not ideal. Thanks tons, h

  3. I haven’t looked into trainer tires for mountain bikes, but Continental lists two tires in its Hometrainer line. I use the first one listed; the second one could be a mountain bike or hybrid size tire, but I am unfamiliar with the sizing (try http://www.sheldonbrown.com/tire_sizing.html for some attempt to understand tire sizing). To find out if it would fit on your rim, check with your bicycle manual, your local bike shop, or see if it is listed on your tire or rim.

    Another option is to get a wider tire with no tread for the rear. These are typically sold for hybrids and those on mountain bikes who want to use their bike for commuting. The only disadvantage I’ve noticed is that a new tire on the trainer could burn off some rubber and stick to the roller (see https://brianshah.net/2007/12/24/cleaning-your-bike-trainer-roller/). In this case, use some 000 (that’s three zeros) steel wool to remove the rubber from the roller. Pricewise, though, you’re looking at a savings of probably $8-10 versus buying the Continental tire.

    Again, check with your local bike shop and see if they have other options. And if you don’t mind sharing what you learn, please post your findings here. Thanks, and good luck.

  4. Hello webmaster, I’ve been looking for a site like yours since last Thursday. The last place I searched (should be the first) was in Google, using the keywords “air duct cleaning”. Anyway, it was worth the search because I really like this website and your post regarding Selecting a bicycle trainer looks very interesting for me. Definitely Stumbled!

  5. Thanks for a great overview. Can I attach any bike to a trainer? I’m still an amateur with a fairly cheap bike and I want to hook it up to a trainer for indoors use in this cold winter. Thanks.

    • Sorry for the late response. You can attach most bikes to a trainer, but there’s a caveat. If your bike has a carbon fiber frame, I don’t recommend it. At least, that’s my theory as to why my first high-end road bike ended up with a crack in the seat stay. Good luck.

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