Smart trainers: the best units for your sweat session
Updated: Nov 3, 2018
The days are getting shorter. Weather is deteriorating. And cyclists have more choices than ever when it comes to indoor smart trainers.
This article originally posted on VeloNews.com.
Welcome to the pain cave. The sweat station. The Sisyphus ride. We’re riding indoors more and more on these shorter, colder days when the sun sets before we leave the office.
Which means we’re trying to get at the heart of what makes a good smart trainer. The good ones make those indoor sessions more bearable and — gasp! — even fun. The best ones are stable, quiet, and packed with everything you need to integrate with virtual riding environments like Zwift.
Those top trainers have it all dialed, from power accuracy and output to physical stability and portability. Smart trainers are most often paired to virtual riding environments like Zwift, so realism is key: The idea is to make it feel as though you’re riding real roads, with real grades, and real resistance.
Here are some of the keys to finding the right smart trainer.
This is generally expressed as +/- X%. This number matters most if you don’t have a power meter but you do know your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) and common wattage numbers out on the road. You’ll want these numbers to match, or come close to it if you’re relying on the trainer’s built-in power meter to structure your workouts.
This is expressed as a maximum wattage output. This is basically the big number of how much resistance you’ll get in various scenarios. Most smart trainers today already offer more resistance than you’ll be able to push, but if you’re a big-time sprinter, you’ll want to pay attention to this number.
This is expressed as a grade percentage. It’s essentially representative of the steepest climb the trainer can simulate. Keep in mind that this won’t change the position of the trainer itself; it simply changes the resistance. (Wahoo’s Kickr Climb is an accessory you can add to your training setup to simulate grades by raising or lowering the front end of your bike.)
This will depend largely on the physical construction and the way the trainer legs are positioned. The trainer shouldn’t rock side to side, unless it’s an actual function of the trainer (like Kurt Kinetic’s Rock and Roll, which aims to simulate real-world bike movement). Top-of-the-line smart trainers generally include foldable legs that swing outward. Adjustable feet are integrated into those legs to level off the trainer and keep it from rocking. Consider the ease of use here, because if you move your trainer frequently, you may also need to readjust the feet frequently.
If you’re moving your trainer station frequently, or taking it over to a buddy’s house to do a group workout, you’ll want to consider how heavy it is, how easy it is to handle and move, and how much space it takes up both when it’s in use and when it’s folded away and stowed behind the couch.
What else does the trainer offer? Compatibility with peripheral accessories (like Wahoo’s Kickr Climb and Headwind), ANT+ FE-C (Fitness Equipment Control) capabilities that allow you to pair with just about any virtual platform, included apps and training programs, included accessories like wheel blocks, durable construction; these add-ons won’t make or break your training experience, but they certainly can enhance it.
We tested four of the newest and hottest trainers on the market to discover each one’s true personality. Here’s what we found out.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: While we used non-Wahoo trainers with the Wahoo Kickr Climb, Wahoo warns against doing so because your bicycle's dropouts can get damaged from the movement. We did not notice any damage to our bike, even after repeated sessions on non-Wahoo trainers, but you may not want to risk it with your expensive bike.)