Bike trainers: one way to pedal when life intrudes

A strange question for August in Canada — how do I choose an indoor bike trainer. But life intrudes and the question came from a friend whose work precludes riding at any time other than late at night. I have another friend who has joint custody of three young kids. He has time, but must be present.

So I thought I would turn my answer into a blog post to share my journey with anyone else who’s looking to pedal indoors.

First, answer the big questions:

Stand-alone or attached to bike?

People do like the Peleton exercise bike. It’s $3000, though. Then you pay $20 per month for the subscription to the classes and the service. It has the advantage of not being all that loud and putting you in relatively normal bike-like positions. But it wants to be your everything. Your classes, your community etc. Zwift doesn’t work with it, for example. And if the website videos are anything to go by, it can lead to really bad cycling habits. Bouncing. Tank tops. 

Obviously you can spend a lot less on a stationary pedaling trainer, but it’s just moving your legs around until they hurt. No rhyme, reason, feedback etc. Deadly for your motivation, and not necessarily great training for outdoor riding. That said there are some people for whom indoor pedaling is their thing — they don’t actually ride a bike — so recumbent and vertical stance trainers aren’t an issue.

Stand-alone trainers also have the benefit of not having to fuss about as you switch your bike between outdoor and indoor modes — whether that’s swapping tires, removing the rear wheel, adjusting seat height etc. 

And there’s something to that because Wahoo, the smart trainer industry leader (or at least first-to-market) has announced the Kickr Bike, their version of the Peloton. It’s more expensive, though, than the Peloton and you supply your own screen.

Effectively that’s what I have. An old road bike, mounted to a smart trainer, that never gets un-mounted. It’s always there, ready for me if I decide outdoors is a no-go. But it has bike gearing. And a bike saddle. And the cockpit. And the fit matches my actual road bikes.

Rollers or stationary?

Do you value your teeth? Actually there is a new sort of trainer that purports to to combine the feels-real of rollers with the not-insanity of a regular trainer.  Read the review, though. Power readings are much less accurate than similarly priced smart trainers. And trust me — those missing watts will in fact kill you. Even if falling off your bike doesn’t. There are lots of tutorials about learning to ride on rollers. But I reckon if you’re really time-crunched, you will want to get right to the suffering part.

You can tell where I’m headed, can’t you.

Back wheel on or back wheel off?

I don’t think there’s a noise difference. And having a training tire isn’t the end of the world. And, if it’s in your basement, neither is having to sweep up the debris as the trainer slowly shreds your tire. I just can’t get past the idea of a bike bit that, when used correctly, destroys part of your bike.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the cassette on your direct drive trainer (aka back wheel off) has to be compatible with your bike’s drive train. So you may have to either replace it or the one on your bike so that they work together. And it has to be the same for all the bikes used on the trainer. So a partner, or progeny uses theirs, for example, they may have issues. And swapping bikes, cassettes and tires might not fit the definition of ‘readily available in the basement’.

If you can dedicate a bike to the trainer, then wheel-off. Otherwise, wheel on with a trainer tire.

Smart or stupid?

Smart. By which I mean it measures power, speed and cadence and can send that data to a phone, computer or ideally both. Otherwise you will be pedalling entirely by feel and the main feeling will be “holy hell I am sweating buckets, my legs are on fire and I’m not moving anywhere.”

You can try watching TV or listening to music. Distraction might be enough for you but it’s not for me. When I start to tire, and need to focus on the effort, I need feedback that isn’t just the feeling of lactate building up in my quads.

I ride structured workouts a lot. And it’s a lot easier to do that on a smart trainer, whether connected to a head unit (Garmin, Wahoo etc) or to Zwift via my phone. My personal combination is Zwift on my phone, with my phone attached to a small TV via an HDMI cable. Getting access to my workouts is a no-brainer, and if I’m just chasing avatars at random, the gamification thing works for me. Much better than watching TV wherein I taper off every time things get interesting on the screen. With Zwift, when things get interesting it means I’m chasing or being chased so I ramp things up. Zwift costs $19.00 per month. Once you’ve got compatible gear.

Which smart trainer?

It’s about budget, isn’t it. Wheel-on trainers are cheaper. I use the Wahoo Kickr (wheel off) when I bought it, it was the most reliable and long-serving one on the market. The Tacx Neo is its equal according to a number of reviews, but it’s not the only one out there. This review is pretty fair and includes sound levels in dB.

Accessorizing the pain cave

  • A fan: You’ll need at least one. 
  • Screen: If you’re not using a Peloton or some sort of stationary bike with a built-in monitor. 
  • Rocker plate and/or squishy mat: I don’t use these but a lot of people do. They like the sway/give that they provide, especially when sprinting or pedaling out of the saddle.
  • Bike bib: they make these things that stretch from your bars to your seat tube to catch the sweat drips so that the salt doesn’t corrode your baby. You think I’m kidding. I personally don’t have one of these)
  • Heat-of-summer bike kit: because it will always feel like that. Good thing is you can keep a towel close at hand and reach for it at will. Unless you’re on rollers.