A Quick Guide to Buying your First Turbo Trainer

So you’re thinking of investing in your first turbo trainer, upgrading the one you currently have or you’re simply curious about the idea of indoor cycling? Chances are you’ve probably spent some time googling or thinking about what turbo you should get and if so, you’ve probably been met with a wide variety of options, jargon, reviews and other bamboozling information.

I first started using a turbo trainer in March 2020 at the start of the first UK lockdown. It had been something I had been thinking about for a while, but the lockdown acted as a catalyst for me to make the switch to indoor cycling. However, when I came to purchase one I found the information out there truly confusing. I just didn’t get how they worked, how I would know if I was buying the right one, what accessories I needed and why there was such a huge discrepancy in price. After a lot of googling and some very patient and helpful friends, the answer didn’t feel that much clearer and I took a gamble on a Lifeline magnetic trainer on Wiggle that was one of the cheapest available and one of the few left in stock. The set up felt easy enough, even for a bamboozled beginner like me and soon I was pedalling away – physically in our bedroom, but virtually in France (the irony being that my little cycling avatar has travelled far more widely than I have in the last 14 months).

If you too are thinking of dabbling with indoor cycling, here are some of my hints and tips for purchasing a turbo trainer.

Where do I start?

When first thinking about buying a turbo you need to consider your budget, space, location and the type of sessions you want to do. Your budget will be a primary constraint on what type of turbo you can purchase. Across the market there is a huge variation in price, with the price most commonly being a representation of the functionality, accuracy and performance. This is definitely true if purchasing first hand from websites such as Wiggle or Sigma Sports. However if purchasing second hand from eBay or cycling buy/sell sites you are likely to get more for your money, but always run the risk of the product not coming with set up instructions, in good quality or a warranty.

Similarly, the type of sessions you want to do will also influence the type of turbo you may wish to purchase. For example, if you want to try a range of Zwift workouts then a smart trainer or direct drive are probably the best options for you.

Finally, the space you have and the location you want to set up your turbo are also important. Direct drive turbo trainers tend to take up less space and are quieter than their wheel on counterparts- therefore if you’re in a small flat with neighbours close by a direct drive might be a more preferable option. My biggest tip is consider where you want to set up your turbo and make sure you check the measurements. My first turbo fitted in the space we chose with just centimetres to spare! If you’re also thinking you might want to store the turbo away during summer than you need to ensure that it folds down.

So there are your first considerations, and immediately we’ve jumped straight in with some jargon- smart trainers, direct drive, Zwift? Now we can break some of that jargon down and explore the turbo trainer types most commonly available.

What Different Types of Turbo Trainer are there?

Wheel on Trainers– these are turbo trainers where the back wheel is kept on (often with a turbo trainer tyre fitted but more on that later) so the bike basically looks like a bike. Your back wheel will be in contact with the trainer and your front wheel will rest on the floor or in a riser. These can be Magnetic, Fluid or Smart trainers.

Magnetic Trainers: Are a type of wheel on trainer and as the name suggests a magnetic trainer uses magnets! Resistance is created by magnets within the flywheel (the wheel on the trainer, which your wheel rolls over) and as you change the resistance these either engage or disengage to make your cycling feel easier or harder. With magnetic trainers, you need to change the resistance manually- usually via a control cable which attaches to the turbo. One huge advantage of magnetic trainers are that often you don’t need to plug them in. I started with a magnetic trainer and enjoyed many outdoor turbo sessions during the summer. Even though I have upgraded, I have still kept hold of my magnetic turbo to hopefully get some more outdoor balcony rides in! Magnetic trainers are often the cheapest option and provide an excellent entry option for riders who simply want to pedal with a variety of resistances. One perceived disadvantage is that they cannot be remotely controlled by training apps like Zwift. Whilst you can find workarounds to connect these to Zwift, you still need to change the resistance yourself which becomes problematic when trying to utilise Zwift workouts and FTP builders. These can also be quite loud- especially when working at a higher resistance.

Fluid trainers: are another type of wheel on trainer that operates using fluid rather than magnets. With these trainers, the resistance is determined by fluid stored within the flywheel of the trainer. The resistance on these trainers is determined by the rider- the harder you pedal the harder the resistance. So you need to use your gears and power to influence resistance, rather than being able to change it with a control like you can on a magnetic trainer. As a beginner, I found this off putting, as I wasn’t sure I had the skill to be able to do this and wanted to use the turbo to practice my pedalling. Fluid trainers are slightly more expensive than their magnetic counterparts are but offer a quieter and more ‘real’ feeling ride. In the past, there have been concerns about the fluid leaking but this problem isn’t as prevalent with modern day fluid trainers.

Smart Trainers: these can be both wheel on or wheel off trainers, the smart element refers to the fact that they can be controlled externally via training apps and trainer specific software. Smart trainers can connect to your iPad via Bluetooth or laptop via an ant+ USB stick. Then training platform can then take over giving you a virtual ride experience with resistance increasing on the uphills and decreasing downhill- giving you a chance to keep training your climbing ability without leaving your home. It’s much more challenging and much more fun than manually changing the resistance as you would on a magnetic trainer. You can also use a wider variety of workouts and races if using Zwift. Smart trainers are more expensive and due to their smart capabilities you’ll need to make sure you have access to a power source.

If you want a smart trainer but you’re on a budget then a wheel on smart trainer is the cheaper option. Wheel on smart turbo trainers include the Tacx Flow Smart Trainer, the Wahoo Kickr Snap and the Saris M2 smart trainer. In essence, smart trainers are simply magnetic trainers where the trainer has Bluetooth capability and the ability to change the resistance for you. If you want a smart trainer always check that the trainer you are looking at is a smart trainer and not just a magnetic trainer that could be made compatible with Bluetooth (more on this later) as this doesn’t offer the same functionality. When opting for a smart trainer to be used with a laptop check if your laptop has Bluetooth- if not you will need to buy an Ant+ USB stick separately.

To make things a little more complicated- the term smart trainers can also be used for direct drive trainers.

Direct Drive Trainers: these are wheel off trainers, where the bike connects to the rear of the bike frame and the trainer acts as a wheel. You therefore don’t need to faff around with a turbo tyre and as a result, these trainers often don’t take up quite as much space- although we’re talking space savings of centimetres here which was essential in our flat! Direct drives are much quieter so ideal for those with neighbours close by. Examples include, but are not limited to, the Tacx Flux S, the Tacx Flux 2, Wahoo KICKR Core and the Elite Direto Smart Trainer. It is essential you check the specific compatibility of your bike with the direct drive you are purchasing, for example, the Tacx Flux S is not compatible with my Liv Avail Advanced Pro because my Liv uses a 12 speed SRAM gearing which is not compatible with this trainer.

Direct Drives are amongst the most expensive trainers on the market with many hidden additional costs such as adaptors if you have a rear thru axle (if your bike has disk brakes you most likely do, if your bike has rim brakes and a quick release skewer e.g. a lever you pull when releasing the rear wheel you probably don’t), a need to invest in tools such as a chain whip if you don’t already have one and the need to purchase a cassette which gets pricey if you’re riding an 11 speed Cassette (one with 11 cogs). We recently made the jump from a magnetic trainer to a direct drive (Tacx Flux S) which I use with a 10-speed cassette on a bike with a rear thru axle. I found the set up extremely challenging, there was a lot of conflicting advice on the internet about exactly which parts of the adaptor I needed to use and at times I felt overwhelmed and out of my depth. However, once we had gotten the hang of it, getting it on and off felt much easier and with two people setting it up its much simpler too.

You’ll need a variety of tools to set up a direct drive trainer. Also if the final set up space is extremely small I recommend having a practice set up where you have more space

Having made the switch from a magnetic trainer to a direct drive smart trainer, I am absolutely loving the smart trainer experience and feel a smart trainer is worth the money if you want to do long Zwift rides or workouts. I wasn’t convinced by the direct drive aspect at first but now I have warmed to it I must say, I really enjoy the quietness of this turbo. We live in a small flat and my training no longer disturbs my boyfriend.

Still struggling to choose? Here is a really simple infographic to help you work out what trainer you might need:

Remember! Always check the compatibility of your bike

So now you’ve picked your trainer, you’ve checked your bike compatibility- what next?

Think ahead about what tools and accessories you’ll need for set up and use: for example if you’ve purchased a direct drive trainer you’ll need a compatible cassette (try buy the exact one already on your bike if you can- to do this I had to google my bike specs), a chain whip, an adaptor if you need one for a thru axle (trainer specific) a wrench that will fit the components of the turbo and if you have disk brakes I really recommend some disk brake pads.

Luckily wheel on turbos require slightly less tools and hassle, the most important component are the turbo trainer skewer (these might be included with your turbo but if not you’ll have to purchase one- don’t try using your bike skewer or axle as this won’t work) and a turbo tyre or old tyre.

Turbo tyres or trainer tyres are often quite noticeable as they’re usually blue or red to remind you that you have a trainer tyre on the bike. Many people opt for these as they are specifically designed for the temperatures and durability required when turbo training. They don’t shed as much as a road tyre meaning you aren’t constantly dealing with little black specs of rubber coming off your tyre. However these are not infinite and don’t last forever. Like a regular tyre trainer tyres age, crack and can eventually break. It is important to check them regularly for severe signs of wear, bubbling or areas where the shape of the tyre has changed. Another option is to ride your turbo with an old road tyre. Whilst these aren’t designed for turbos it is a good way to repurpose old tyres and saves money too. Road tyres can often shed and you’ll find little specs of black rubber around the turbo, but I prefer to use them as I am more confident checking for signs of wear.

Whatever choice you make with regards to the rear tyre, I strongly recommend that you change it from the tyre you would use on the road. Simply putting your bike onto a wheel on trainer and pedalling away then taking it off and going out on the road can be extremely dangerous. The resistance of the turbo will cause uneven wear in comparison to your front tyre meaning you will have compromised grip at the back of the bike.

Put a mat underneath your turbo trainer. This could be a fancy turbo specific mat or simply an old yoga mat- either way this will protect your floor from excess sweat and chain oil. Mats can also help dampen some of the noise going through the floor. For sweat, you can also buy specific sweat guards to protect the frame. Always wipe your bike down and dry off any sweat after use- sweat can cause rust and damage your bike especially around the hoods of your handlebars. I use Muc Off antibacterial equipment cleaner.

Want to try Zwift? Many smart trainers come with their own software to record your distances and speed and allow you to change your resistance via an app. However if you want access to workouts, races, routes or the social aspects of indoor cycling then training apps like Zwift are a great option. Zwift is an app which connects to your smart trainer or speed sensor via Bluetooth. You can then enjoy workouts or a variety of cycling routes and if you have a smart trainer it will change the resistance automatically based on hills- creating the feeling of riding out on the road. Zwift can then upload your indoor rides to Strava to help keep track of your training. Zwift requires a subscription which costs around £12.99 a month- find out more here.

Converting your non-smart magnetic/fluid trainer to be compatible with Zwift: if you’ve opted for a magnetic or fluid trainer and wish to use this with Zwift it is much easier than you think. If you purchase a speed sensor (I recommend a Garmin one which you can buy online here) you can then connect to an iPad via Bluetooth or laptop via Ant+ USB. This will allow you to do Zwift rides and record your speed/distance but will not let Zwift automatically change your resistance- you still have to do that yourself. Many people also opt for a cadence sensor, however I have found that I didn’t need one. You can also connect a Garmin speed sensor to a Garmin watch via the connect app. It isn’t the most accurate way to measure your indoor cycling but should give you a rough idea to help track your training.

Is there anything else I should know about turbo training? For some more turbo training tips check out my recent blog here.

What if a turbo isn’t for you?

If you still want to experience indoor cycling but don’t have a bike to put on a turbo/ don’t want to put your bike on a turbo trainer, you have two main options- you can either buy a cheaper, used bike that you wouldn’t use outdoors or opt for a spin style bike such as a watt bike, Peloton or similar. Depending on the type of bike you choose this can be a more expensive or cheaper option.

Rollers are another way to train indoors, but take a lot of skill and practice and I wouldn’t recommend them for beginner use.

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