As society continues to adapt to life in a pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the sky (read: ceiling) is the limit when it comes to what people can do from the comfort of their own homes.
Everything from pub quizzes and escape rooms to work meetings and court hearings have all gone virtual in the space of the last 12 months.
You can even have a steak bake delivered directly to your door now without having to go anywhere near a Greggs. How’s that for a silver lining?
But perhaps one of the most surprising do-it-at-home trends to emerge from life in lockdown has been the boom in indoor cycling.
For the uninitiated, that’s exactly what it sounds like. Except, instead of attempting to pedal from room to room without knocking over house plants and priceless family heirlooms, it’s done with the help of a contraption known as a turbo trainer.
Turbo trainers allow housebound cyclists to set their bikes up static, generating resistance to simulate real-world conditions.
They’ve been a winter-training favourite among dedicated cyclists for some time, but lockdown restrictions have opened them up to a wider audience.
To help you pick the right one, we put several to the test over the course of what proved to be a very sweaty month. We were paying special attention to ride feel, functionality and value for money in every price bracket.
Below you’ll find our top picks, as well as some essential information on finding the perfect turbo trainer to suit your needs.
Wheel-on vs. direct-drive
There are two key types of turbo trainer: wheel-on and direct-drive. Wheel-on trainers are the cheapest option and work by using a roller that touches the rear wheel to provide the resistance. They’re cost-effective, but don’t provide the most realistic ride feel.
Spend a little more and you can get a direct-drive trainer. These require the rear wheel of the bike to be removed so that it can be mounted on an integrated cassette (the bit with the gears). The resulting ride feel is much more authentic and performance metrics such as power and cadence are more accurate.
What is a smart trainer?
Aside from the most basic of options, most turbo trainers these days are what are known as “smart trainers”. This simply means that they possess the functionality to connect to a smart device, allowing the user to train virtually by using a multiplayer training program such as Zwift. This is usually achieved via a Bluetooth or ANT+ connection.
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Wahoo kickr snap
At over £400, the kickr snap from Wahoo is admittedly quite expensive in comparison to other wheel-on trainers. But then again, other wheel-on trainers don’t offer anywhere near the quality, performance or quietness that this thing brings to the table.
Wheel-on trainers are notoriously noisy, particularly when training sessions get serious. But not the kickr snap. It’s almost noise-free, while offering a ride feeling far superior to comparable models from similar brands. It’s also nice and simple to set up, and has the added benefit of being compatible with Wahoo’s kickr climb grade simulator, something which no other wheel-on machine can claim.
Elite direto smart trainer
For a direct-drive turbo trainer, Elite’s direto smart trainer is pretty reasonably priced. It’s a great option for keen amateurs who want top-level performance but perhaps can’t stretch their budget to accommodate a top-tier machine. That’s not to say the direto can’t give some of the higher-end turbos a run for their money – in terms of ride feel and overall performance, it comes close.
The main drawback is the noise. While not deafening, the direto is far from silent. It’s not much of an issue when you’re pedalling away with your headphones in, but if you have downstairs neighbours they might have something to say. Assembly is pretty straightforward, but you’ll need to buy a cassette separately.
Wahoo kickr core
Wahoo’s famously sturdy turbo trainers are known for their high quality and authentic ride feel. The brand’s kickr trainer, also featured below, is effectively the industry standard, and this slightly stripped-back version offers much of the same pro-level performance for a slightly more affordable price.
It’s a direct-drive trainer that’s realistic, quiet and remains firmly planted even when really putting the hammer down out of the saddle. Much like its older sibling, it’s built like a tank too and will automatically set the resistance level to match the terrain in your chosen training app.
Tacx neo 2 smart trainer
This cutting-edge turbo trainer from Tacx (another big and trusted name in turbo trainers) is probably the most advanced option on the market. The ride feel is second to none and the trainer even incorporates a degree of movement to more closely mimic real-world bike behaviour.
It’s also able to run with or without mains power, making it very handy for cyclists whose setup isn’t near a plug socket or who have been banished to the shed for bike-related activities. The way this works is by using a motor to generate its own power, which is a really cool feature that no other trainer currently offers. In terms of noise, the only sound you’re likely to hear is the whir of your drivetrain and the click of your shifters.
Saris mag+ turbo trainer
Entry-level turbo trainers are like gold dust at the moment. The boom in virtual cycling has seen demand increase to the point that the most affordable options are almost universally sold out… almost. Enter the mag+ turbo trainer from Saris. It’s a wheel-on trainer that’ll pair with all the popular training apps, allowing you to explore virtual routes, races and even ride with friends from afar.
The main drawback is the fact the resistance has to be controlled manually via a remote control at the handlebars. Still, if you’re just entering the world of indoor cycling and don’t want to invest too much money right away, it could be a good place to start.
The Wahoo kickr is the flagship smart trainer from the most reputable name in the game. It’s many a professional cyclist’s trainer of choice, and after a week of daily riding, it’s really not difficult to see why. First off, it’s about as durable turbo trainers get (and as heavy, too). It remained glued to the floor no matter how hard we pushed, how vigorously we bobbed around when out of the saddle on climbs and no matter how ungracefully we dismounted at the end of a session.
In terms of feel, it’s about as close as it’s possible to get to real-world cycling, and we had our demo model ready to go within five minutes of getting it out of the box. The premium price tag will deter casual users, but if you’re serious about your cycling and can afford it, this is the way to go.
The verdict: Turbo trainers
For a good balance of premium performance and affordability, the Wahoo kickr snap is a solid choice. It’s a great trainer from a highly reputable brand and it’ll even fold up for transportation, or to save space when it’s not being used.
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