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Are you trying to improve your training regime? Or has covid-19 put a stop to your club runs? You may well need a turbo trainer in your life. It may seem like a significant outlay, but a turbo is a must-buy piece of kit for the serious amateur cyclist and will last for years.   

Why buy a turbo trainer?

Turbo trainers have come a long way in a short space of time. Today’s smart trainers measure power output and remotely control the resistance you experience. We’re going to focus on “smart” trainers in this article – turbo trainers that can link to a third party app to give you that feedback – simulating varying topography, road surfaces and the effect of drafting other riders. Old school “dumb trainers” simply provide a pre-set resistance for you to ride against. Here are three great reasons to invest in a turbo trainer: 

  1. Quality of training: An hour on a turbo trainer can be worth two or more on the road. You’ll pedal 99% of the time – no stopping at junctions for example, or at the coffee shop. You’ll push yourself harder – dedicated training programs give you accurate measurable targets and races will push you harder than anything you’ll do on the road.  
  2. Fun factor: Racing on Zwift is great fun and exceptionally addictive once you get going. There are also many group rides you can join – often with hundreds of other riders. You can chat (virtually) to other riders as you go – its far from a solitary past-time.
  3. It’s not outside: Well, obviously. No rain, crazy drivers, potholes…..

Wheel-On vs. Direct Drive

Smart Turbo Trainers can be divided into two categories. Wheel-on trainers require your rear wheel to be in contact with a roller that is connected to the resistance unit. Direct drive trainers have a gear cassette attached to the resistance unit – you remove your rear wheel from and then attach your chain to the cassette. Your choice between the two types is likely to be dictated by your budget. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both:


Wheel-on trainers fix to the quick release skewer or axle of your rear wheel. Trainers are normally supplied with a model specific QR skewer or axle to fit with the clamp system on the frame. The better models have levers that make fixing your bike in place quick and easy. Most trainers will accept different wheel sizes. 

Wheel-on trainers tend to be smaller and lighter than direct drive models. So if space and portability are key considerations, a Wheel-on model may be a better choice. But the big plus point for wheel-on trainers is price. The very best units come in at under £400. That compares to over £500 for the low end of the direct drive market.
Now to the downsides: Wheel-on trainers are significantly noisier than their direct drive peers. There is also the question of tyre wear. You can mitigate both factors to some extent by buying a trainer specific rear tyre. But then you’ll probably want an extra wheel as well. Wheel-on trainers are less accurate (in measuring power output) and have a lower threshold for maximum power output and simulated gradient. In practice, those final two points are only likely to come into consideration for the most serious of amateur riders. 

⇧ Better value <£400
⇩ Noise
⇧Smaller and lighter
⇩ Tyre wear
⇧ Easy to set up
⇩ Lower accuracy

⇩ Lower power and gradient threshold

Direct Drive

View our Direct Drive product rankings.

Direct drive trainers allow you to fit your bike directly on the cassette on the trainer. Similar to wheel-on trainers, they come with the right kit fit quick release and through-axle frames. But you’ll need to buy a cassette that’s right for your chainset and fit it to the trainer.

Direct drive trainers have the advantages of being more stable, more accurate and quieter than wheel-on models. But this comes at a cost, with direct drive models starting at over £500 and the better examples costing over £750. They also tend to be heavier and larger than wheel-on models – thanks to weighty fly-wheels. Other advantages are higher wattage and gradient thresholds. 

While direct drive trainers are quieter than wheel-on models, they are still pretty noisy. A good direct driver trainer will produce about 70db – the same as a vacuum cleaner. So you’ll need an understanding family/flat mate/neighbours if you’re going to use it a lot!

⇧ Accuracy⇩ Cost
⇧ Low noise (relatively)⇩ Extras to buy
⇧ Stability⇩ Weight and size
⇧ No tyre wear

Key Metrics

When deciding which trainer to invest in, make sure you are looking at all of the following metrics: 

  1. Noise: As we’ve mentioned, they’re noisy! Look at the decibel outputs for each model.
  2. Size & Weight: Do you have room for the trainer in question? Most trainers can be folded while not in use, but check out the in-use dimensions. 
  3. Accuracy: This is normally expressed as +/- x watts. The lower the number – the better the trainer is able to measure your effort.
  4. Max power/Gradient capacity: All trainers have an upper limit for the power output they can register and the gradient they can simulate. This may come into play if you’re a powerful rider.
  5. Bike compatibility: Most trainers come with the correct kit to adapt to any bike – but just check your bike is accommodated.

Our product pages give a detailed description of the best trainers on the market while comparing all of these key features. 

Additional Kit

There are some extras you’ll need/want after you’ve made the investment in a turbo trainer (on top of a cassette if you’ve brought a direct drive model):

  1. A fan: This is absolutely essential. Regardless of which model you’ve brought, you are going to get really, really sweaty on your trainer. So you need a fan (or fans) to simulate the movement of air you feel outside. Wahoo make their own trainer specific models (at premium prices), but a powerful everyday fan will do the trick.

  2. A mat: Protecting your floor/carpet is a good idea – mainly from sweat, but also from any dirt on your bike. Again, there are trainer specific versions out there, but a cheap yoga mat will do the trick.

  3. Heart rate monitor: This is essential if you’re going to race on Zwift. It’s also essential if you’re getting the most out of the more analytical services like Trainer Road. You don’t need to break the bank and this is something that will improve every ride by giving you more accurate data on how much effort you’re putting in.
  4. Clothes: The general rule of thumb is; the less you wear while riding on your trainer, the better! But, there are trainer-specific clothes out there. These are generally made from super lightweight materials, with Le Col and Rapha leading the way.

For more detail on turbo trainer accessories, take a look at our dedicated buying guide.

Virtual Riding Platforms

Once you’ve set up your smart turbo trainer, you can select and join your virtual world of choice:

  1. Zwift: Now with 1.2m users, what it lacks in data analysis, it makes up for with pure fun. You race against riders from across the globe – divided into power/age categories to keep it competitive. There are seven courses to ride – including last year’s UCI World Championships in Yorkshire.
  2. Trainer Road: Data-rich, but with no avatars (you deliver a power output to a target line – rather than chasing a virtual companion), this app is focussed on making you a stronger cyclist. The training plans are focussed on improving your performance and give you a huge amount of detail on what to aim for.
  3. Sufferfest: Workout videos combine race footage and motivational music to match the effort required. One unique feature is the 4-Dimensional Power Profile, whereby the app identifies your strengths and weaknesses with recommended workouts to build on these.

    For a detailed rundown on the best virtual cycling apps, read our buyers guide.

Happy Riding!


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