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Indoor Bike Trainers Explained

Once upon a time, purchasing an indoor bike trainer was simple, but these days it’s a little confusing. There are several different types of trainers with varying technology options available, so there is a little more to think about when it comes to deciding which trainer is right for you. So, let’s break things down.

 Why the need for an indoor trainer?
  • They are safe and a great option for beginners who don’t want to ride alone.

  • They keep you training even when the weather outside is less than ideal, just hop on the trainer and get that session done #noexcuses.

  • They are time efficient, with no traffic lights to contend with or layers to put on so you can easily squeeze in an hour before heading to work or putting the kids to bed.

  • They offer quality riding, you can get some consistent efforts in, easy access to hills (via the wonderful internet) and the ability to control your workout a lot easier.

  • They are fun now that we have smart trainer options available to us you can race people from all over the world or simply go on a virtual recovery roll with your training buddy!

There are 3 main types of indoor trainers:
  1. Rollers

  2. Basic trainers (aka dumb trainers)

  3. Smart trainers


We’ll skip over rollers briefly as a set of rollers is more commonly used by cyclists than triathletes. They are difficult to balance on but can be great for teaching you how to be steadier and hold a straight line on the bike. There is never a time to rest on rollers and you need to be 100% alert at all times.

Basic Trainers

Basic trainers are commonly referred to as dumb trainers as you have to manually control the resistance level, most often, with a dial of some kind. You can pick up a basic or dumb trainer pretty cheaply from places such as Aldi or Big W, or spend a little more and get a renowned brand such as TACX, Wahoo, Elite, Jet Black, CycleOps or Blackburn just to name a few. Generally speaking, you might pay between $100-$400 for these options. 

Smart Trainer

A smart trainer will automatically adjust your resistance based on the software you are using or the workout you are doing. There is no manual adjustment needed other than using the gears on your bike as you would if you were out on the road. Smart trainers also have the option of wheel driven or direct drive trainers (we’ll get to the difference shortly).

In simple terms, smart trainers are more expensive than dumb trainers as they enable you to connect to third-party apps such as Zwift, TrainerRoad, FulGaz and Sufferfest. The ability to connect to such apps can do wonders in terms of beating the boredom and making time fly by a lot faster (a must if you have an indoor four-hour ride to get through). These apps offer an array of indoor training options in terms of workouts and races.

Smart trainers start around the $500+ mark with some top of the line smart trainers selling for around the $1800 or more. It’s important to note here that an entry-level smart trainer, (around the $500 mark) is not that much more expensive than a dumb trainer. However, by spending that little more you do open yourself up to many more training/technology options, which down the track you will more than likely appreciate (especially as your indoor trainer sessions get longer). Recommended smart trainer brands include TACX, Wahoo, Elite, Jet Black or CycleOps.

Smart Trainer: Wheel Driven Trainer vs Direct Drive Trainer

Put simply a wheel driven trainer is where your rear wheel rolls on a roller to create momentum, whereas with a direct drive trainer you remove your back wheel and the trainer itself becomes your rear wheel. There are pro’s and con’s to both options here and these are summarised below:




Wheel Driven

  • No need to remove back wheel (i.e. easier for beginners).

  • Lighter and more portable (convenient if travelling with trainer or taking to training sessions).

  • Easier to put your bike onto and remove off again (for most, removing the rear wheel can be fiddly).

  • Tyre wear and tear.

  • Slippage of tyre against roller.

  • Can be noisy (constant whirring noise which can be irritating).

Direct Drive

  • More direct drive feeling i.e. closest feeling to riding on the road.

  • Quieter.

  • No wear and tear on tyres.

  • No slippage.

  • You need to remove your rear wheel which can be fiddly.

  • You need to purchase a cassette that matches your rear wheel (i.e. just like your bike has) so that the trainer becomes your rear wheel.

  • Other accessories required i.e. cassette, ANT+ dongle.

  • Heavier.

  • Requires power.


Sometimes it is simply just knowing what all of these terms mean that enable you to make a purchase decision that is right for you. Of course, your final decision will also be influenced by your budget but I would strongly recommend looking at an entry level smart trainer if you plan on doing a bit of indoor riding and if you want to have the option of connecting to some pretty wicked modern-day training options!

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