Buying a trainer for the first time was hard for me: I didn’t understand what features does each model have. I don’t like watching millions of YouTube videos to buy something, and at least 3-4 years ago, it was very hard to buy one without shelling out lots of dollars. Yet, I figure out one important thing, which was critical to me at the time…
My original plan was to use Zwift. Whole thing evolved around Zwift for some time…until I used it twice. More on that later, too.
I’m not a trainer expert by any means, and I don’t think I’ll be too interested in riding indoors in the future. My motive here is to explain what they are, and what they do, which took me a lot to understand. Nowadays, it looks much easier, because all models I see these days are “Smart interactive trainers”. “Interactive” was the key thing for me, but before explaining what that was – I don’t see that word in trainers anymore – let me explain what a smart trainer is, in laymen’s terms: Smart trainers, at a bare minimum, sends speed and cadence data to apps via ANT or Bluetooth. Fancier (much expensive) ones also have power meters, the golden standard in biking.
Someone may wonder “why to go for expensive trainers, I can buy 2 cheap sensors for speed and cadence, at probably 20$ each”. That’s true. That’s where “interactive” kicks in – apps like Zwift have to modulate “resistance”, to simulate elevation. Some cheaper models I saw at the time have a device like a shifter, which regulates resistance. So basically, you have a dumb trainer with speed and cadence sensors only, which is not fun..maybe.
Then there is “Direct Drive”. Instead of mounting your bike with rear wheels on, you remove your rear wheel and mount the bike directly to the trainer. And your cassette, too. They are said to be more realistic and silent. Never tried one, so cannot say. They are much more expensive, though. Good thing is, if you are riding few thousand km’s a month, you don’t need to buy trainer-specific tires (yes, they’re expensive).
Resistance units on “ordinary smart trainers” (not direct drives) have 3 methods to variate resistance; they are either magnetic or fluid controlled. Never mind the “wind” models; they are cheap and rubbish. Fluid seems to be more realistic, but my Elite Rampa is magnetic. Do I bother? No. I know the drill from rowing machines. No matter how realistic it is, never the real thing…
Zwift – or not
I was too carried away by Zwift as if it is as good as riding outdoors.
At the time, I have a huge desktop computer and sold it to be more mobile. I bought a gaming laptop, with moderate GPU and having the best CPU at the time. This presented me with 2 challenges: I had to pass 2 floors to go into the man cave, where my trainer setup was, and was using the laptop for both work and Zwift. And the mighty gaming laptop was no match for Zwift: it didn’t perform very well. After a short ride, Zwift looked somewhat silly: it’s no better than playing tennis with a Nintendo. Graphics are like a decade behind the current gaming technology. Besides, it doesn’t motivate me to look at ugly-looking avatars in bibs. Total waste of time – it’s more fun to watch YouTube videos.
Zwift had no proper training plans at the time, but I recall that is solved in newer versions, still don’t know it for sure and I don’t care.
Yet, an app-controlled smart trainer is not a bad idea. Being an open source advocate, I used Golden Cheetah for some time, which is more serious, with no fancy looks but useful metrics. Admittedly, I m not riding indoors anymore, but I plan to..again.
What about rollers?
I never tried rollers, but from what I heard, and looks like so, they need some getting used to. Maybe a lot, for an old guy like me. Have seen lots of people doing their rollers – it’s cheap, probably much more realistic than anything else if you have fancy, resistance-controlled models.
Another downside of rollers for me is they take up more space, which I don’t have at the time.
Do I need trainer-specific tires?
You, surely, definitely need trainer tires. Period.
Buy trainer tires with a trainer, or maybe beforehand! The trainer is super harsh on tires. I had Michelin slicks, which I used for 3.000 km, and still had life in them. On the trainer, the rear tire, which was almost brand new at the time, burned out after 100 km! That’s crazy – smelled burned rubber for days.
Better, buy a strong, 36-spoke rim, pay for a great truing service – your rear wheels must be true as possible. Another plus, is you won’t be changing your tires while switching between indoors-outdoors. Never ride your trainer tire outdoors. It doesn’t grip. I mean it.
What else do I need?
You’ll be surprised to see how much you sweat. I even don’t sweat that much at Finnish bath. You’ll need a fan, a very strong one.
Get towels, a lot.
Sitting on a saddle while the bike is stationary makes no difference, so you’ll be wearing your padded shorts. Gloves on, too.
Get a front wheel block if your trainer doesn’t come with one.
Some people buy frame protection nets, as lots of sweat will be dripping on your frame. I have no idea how corrosive it is on paint, unless you are Alien.
I’m quite pissed off about Elite, their subpar Android app is paid. I immediately opted for GoldenCheetah. There are plenty of options to choose from, which I don’t cover here, as I have only very brief experience. Golden Cheetah does not have a smartphone app. You can try Flux, which I didn’t try yet, but seems to be very feature rich.
Is indoor cycling dying ?
By 2019, Peloton sold 577.000 bikes and treadmills. They founded in 2012, and released their bike at Kickstarter in 2013, for 1500$. It WAS a huge success story. With a little bit of help from pandemic, they rise to 50b $ worth! That was incredible.
What happened later on was incredible, too: now they laid of more than 4000 employees, share prices went down 20x fold, users experiencing connectivity issues, and looks like they’ re on a big downfall. People started selling their bikes, at 1/5 or less of their purchase price but noone seems interested.
I was in my country’s one the best rowing teams when I was young. I quit rowing then, and never bothered to buy an indoor rowing machine. Why? Rowing, or biking, is not like boxing, where you can enjoy (or suffer!) indoors. I’m not obsessed with my body or performance, like most people. Peloton boomed with pandemic, and died off when restrictions slacken off. Nothing replaces being outdoors, and social interaction in sports like biking or rowing.
Indoor equipment has always been a niche market, for performance obsessed people or pro athletes. If I was a pro rider, I’d definitely, absolutely need an indoor trainer to keep up. Most people, ever involved in sports, buys a treadmill, indoor biking or rowing equipment, then use them as a cloth hanger. That’s why thousands of dollars worth, top of the line equipment is sold for 1/10 of its purchase price.
Trying to make a niche market mainstream will never work out in the long run, that’s what happened to Peloton.
That still doesn’t mean indoor cycling equipment is a dying market. Quite the contrary; it’s establishing a firm ground for its real users.