Deciding which indoor cycling training apparatus to use can be confusing. In this article, I summarise the advantages disadvantages of each and suggest how they might be useful to you and the event specific you are training for. It might also be helpful to consider some of the technical implications of the equipment you are already using. It’s not designed to be a comprehensive product review, as other people have done this better (see DC Rainmaker)
If you are an intermediate, beginner or U18, road or track cyclist, I recommend that you use rollers for some of your training. Other than that, the main difference between apparatus is how it can be used for your training and the way resistance is created.
So, why train indoors?
- Focus on specific elements of technique and fitness
- Simple to plan and complete
- Safer than riding outside
- Benchmark progress
Wattbike (Pro or Trainer)
The Wattbike Pro or Trainer was designed with sports scientists, athletes and coaches in mind. It’s as accurate as an SRM bike, but costs a fraction and with a much better design for training.
The air paddle design replicates the air resistance felt when riding on a smooth surface, such as a velodrome. The bike has a single gear, but as you increase the resistance level it produces the drag felt when riding faster.
The manual resistance adjustment is its main downside. If you are doing specific workouts with quick changes of resistance it can be a bit of a faff to keep leaning down to change the resistance.
Smart Indoor Bikes (IC8, Wattbike Atom…)
These bikes are the latest generation of indoor training, with connectivity with virtual training apps, and electronically controlled resistance, they are similar to a smart turbo trainer. The main difference is that they are better for multiple users (i.e. gyms). Some of the bikes (Atom) have real bars and saddle with a wide range of adjustability which means they are good for bike fitting. Similar to the SRM ergometer. On this same point, they are also not so good for bike fitting, as their large size can block the field of view of the feet and legs particularly from front on.
Rollers are simple, relatively cheap and quick to set up. They are perfect for warming up for a race.
They are the only indoor training method which allows for steering and balancing when training, the design means any instability in pedalling or bike handling is exaggerated. The smoother you pedal the faster you can pedal. As you increase your cadence you will start to shift side to side and front to back, as you adjust your pedalling style you will be able to pedal faster.
The downside of rollers is that they aren’t designed for high resistance workouts. If you have aluminium rollers, you can add a magnetic resistance device, but the extra instability could be unhelpful when you just need to train really hard.
Spinning bikes are a solid indoor bike, with a fixed gear, heavy flywheel and frictional resistance.
The frictional resistance and flywheel mean that resistance feels very smooth and is constant at any cadence. This is just like riding on the flat in thick mud, so suitable cyclocross/MTB training.
Basic Turbo Trainer
Turbo trainers are best suited to rider’s who need a lot of resistance: hill climbers, MTB XC, Cyclocross riders and older road/TT riders who rely more on the ‘slow-twitch’ ability.
A turbo trainer is the tried and tested method of doing ‘suffer sessions’. You get in the zone ready for that 1hr of suffering then sweat it out. You aren’t going to get hurt if you collapse or throw up at the end of your intervals.
Turbo trainers come in various forms, magnetic, fluid, air, motor or a mixture of these, and they have a resistance curve (resistance increases with speed). A non-adjustable turbo can be used as an old-school method of power benchmarking, as described by Graeme Obree in ‘The Obree Way’. Power Curves produce a low-cost device that does this for you, for certain models of a turbo trainer.
Smart turbo trainer
This is a turbo trainer which has a power measuring device, some have electronically controlled resistance which connects to a virtual platform, (Zwift, trainer Road, Rouvy, Sufferfest, Bkool) allowing hill and wind resistance to be replicated. They are great for people who struggle to get enough training at a medium/low intensity, particularly in the winter months.
The downside is that although they are designed to replicate road conditions, it might not do this as well as you think. You are relying on your turbo trainer/app’s algorithms to replicate road conditions, which are too simplistic to achieve this fully and could cause you to unlearn good technique. What happens if you lift your head a little bit early on a fast descent, approaching a climb? or you ride out of the saddle in a climbing position while doing 30mph on the flat? What about the aerodynamic differences between a 75kg 6ft tall and 5ft tall person at 40mph?
The other potential pitfall is using Erg mode for training (ergometer mode). Its designed for steady lab state tests this feature adjusts the resistance to maintain a fixed power output, this is completely non-contextual (and unhelpful in my opinion) for training for any cycling event. In what situation does the resistance increase if your pedalling slows down? Hill climbing to some extent, but not to the same extent as Erg mode on a turbo.
A note on power meters.
If you want to train with power, then follow data for one type of device. Whenever I’ve had clients with different power meters, it causes confusion: ‘The turbo session felt much harder, I think it must be reading lower than my power meter or maybe its just harder training indoors?’. The difference between the numbers from different devices can make the rider look like a completely different person, not just fitter. If you use a power meter for training on the road, you can still use a smart turbo, Zwift etc, but don’t look at the power from the turbo, and only upload data from your power meter.