Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Best Indoor Bike Trainer

This was posted to the list on Wednesday Jul 8, 2009 11:24 pm

rebecca lewis wrote:
I have a QR Kilo (size 46, if that matters -- it's very small) but anyway... I am looking to purchase a bike trainer shortly and would love to hear some of your reviews about which trainer is "best." Now I know that everyone has their own personal preference, but seeing as I do not have any experience with indoor bike trainers, would love to hear what everyone has to say.

Thanks in advance!!


Hey Rebecca,

There are three basic types of bicycle trainers: "Rear Wheel Trainers", "Roller Trainers", and "Stationary Bikes".

Stationary bikes are in every gym, and come in vertical and recumbent styles. These can also be purchased for home use, and are always available used.

Rear Wheel trainers require you to replace your bike's rear skewer with one that the trainer can mount to. Once the bike is rigidly mounted to the trainer, you must correctly adjust the friction between the rear tire and the resistance (wheel load). Too little friction, and the rear wheel could slip, possibly causing injury if you are standing on the pedals at the time. Too much friction, and your rear tire can wear out incredibly fast. After that, you'll need to raise the front wheel to get the bike level. However, once your trainer is correctly configured, subsequent setup is faster.

The wheel load (resistance) on a rear wheel trainer can be provided in at least three ways:
1) Electro-Magnetic ("mag" trainers)
2) Air ("fan" trainers)
3) Liquid ("fluid" trainers)
Each kind has its advantages and disadvantages relative to the others that I won't go into here, though factors include noise, power, cost, durability, etc.

Overall, you can think of a rear wheel trainer as a device that converts your bicycle into a stationary spin bike. Pretty much like the ones in a gym, but with your own saddle, bars, clips, and instruments.

Roller trainers are simply a set of three rollers that are about 18" wide: Two cradle the rear wheel, and the front wheel rests on the third. The only adjustment on a roller trainer is to set the position of the front roller. If you use only one bike, then it is a one-time setting. This setting will need to be adjusted whenever you use a different bike on the trainer. There is no mechanical connection between your bike and a roller trainer, so you must ride your bicycle (balance and steer) to stay on the trainer.

Here's my shot at comparing the pros and cons of the three types of trainers:

Stationary Bike Pros:
1. Doesn't wear out your good bike.

Stationary Bike Cons:
1. Doesn't fit you like your good bike.

Rear Wheel Trainer Pros:
1. Rigid: No balance issues.

Rear Wheel Trainer Cons:
1. You have to replace your rear skewer to mount to the trainer, and replace it again to be ready for riding on the road.
2. It takes time and care to properly prepare/mount/unmount/restore the bike from the trainer.
3. I've seen bikes fall out of improperly adjusted rear wheel trainers! This can easily harm both the bike and the rider.
4. You can stress your frame by doing sudden accelerations (hard intervals). This was particularly true of early carbon and aluminum frames, and may not apply as much today. It is best to use a rugged frame on a rear wheel trainer.
5. If you already have a gym membership, use their spin bikes instead.

Roller Trainer Pros:
1. Use whatever bike you want, with no changes to the bike hardware.
2. No setup, except when you change bikes.
3. You are actually "riding" your bike: You must balance to stay up, and must steer (very slightly) to stay centered on the rollers.
4. Best indoor simulation of an actual bike ride.
5. If you really want the stationary bike feel, you can remove the front wheel from your bike and attach the fork to a "front fork stand" roller trainer accessory.

Roller Trainer Cons:
1. Noisy compared to most mag trainers. About the same noise as fan trainers.
2. Somewhat harder to learn to ride on (see Pro #2 above).
3. You can veer off the side of the rollers! There are roller trainers with elliptical rollers that reduce this problem, but they cost more.
4. If you accelerate too suddenly you can ride off the front of the rollers!
5. Provides only a limited amount of resistance, so it is not ideal for hard intervals or simulating steep hill climbs. But the resistance is more than adequate to simulate a good long ride (spinning).

Cons Common to All Indoor Bike Trainers:
1. Trainers wear out your bike components! (Use a spare bike.)
2. Sweat drips everywhere. (Use a "bike thong" and a mat.)
3. Trainers need to be used on a hard surface, not carpet.
4. You can't use the wind in your face to gauge your effort...

I'm certain there are many pros and cons I've failed to list (such as price). There are lots and lots of discussion online about this, as a quick Google search will show.

Before buying any bike trainer, be sure you know what your training needs are, then determine which kind of trainer will best meet those needs. For example, many cyclists want to minimize the time they spend riding with car traffic, or they only have time in the evening and don't want to ride the road at night, so they want to use a trainer primarily to get more "miles" or more "saddle time" (add volume). For this kind of rider, I'd certainly recommend a roller trainer. An advanced rider without easy access to hills may want to do lots of really hard climbs (intervals) indoors. For this particular rider, I'd probably recommend a rear wheel trainer or a stationary bike.

In any event, before buying any trainer, DO take your bike to the local shops and try it with each type of trainer they sell. Learn how to properly adjust and use each trainer before buying one. And be SURE to buy from a TCSD sponsor!

My younger brother has been a hard-core cyclist for about 30 years, starting as a competitive BMX racer, and since then has bicycled all over the world, both on and off road, and has competed in insane events such as the Pikes Peak Ascent. He swears by roller trainers. It's how he keeps riding when it's raining or snowing. When he needs power/interval training, he goes to the gym and uses a stationary bike. He claims he'd never expose any of his wheels or frames to the stresses of a rear wheel trainer.

Despite my brother's advice, I did get a rear wheel trainer (a CycleOps Fluid), but only because I had an old road bike I could dedicate to use with the trainer. Also, I live close to the 56 bike path, so I have easy access to traffic-free riding. However, I do think I'll eventually get a roller trainer, simply because I want to get more realistic saddle time, especially at night after a short winter's day.

Finally, consider not getting a trainer right away, and first attend some spin classes at your local gym. Just as a group ride can be more fun than a solo ride on the road, the same can be true on stationary bikes in the gym. I used to do two interval spin classes each week, though I must admit that since I started triathlons, my gym membership has become underutilized. Yet I keep renewing it in the hope I'll soon do better...



Update 31 Aug 2011:  The LeMond Revolution trainer removes some of the negatives of conventional rear-wheel trainers, in that it eliminates rear tire wear by incorporating a cassette into the trainer itself.  It still mounts to the rear drop-outs, so the frame stress during use is unaffected.  The rear mount is much more secure, so the risk of the bike falling out of the trainer also seems to have been eliminated.

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