In recent times, cyclists have become hooked on going nowhere. New kit makes doing so more attractive than ever: cycling inside your house might once have sounded strange, and perhaps still does, but it is now also one of the fastest-growing exercises there is.
Much of that popularity is in the development of turbo trainers and the wide array of software that supports them.
Between the introduction of new gadgets that make cycling inside really feel like tearing up the pavement outside, and the development of new software that can show you moving through virtual versions of the world’s biggest races, cyclists are going nowhere fast.
Indeed, indoor or turbo trainers alone have been so popular that they have become one of the unexpected must-have gadgets of the last year, rivalling the PlayStation 5 in terms of demand.
It’s easy enough to understand why: with gyms closed, outdoor cycling became one of the few exercises that could continue throughout the pandemic, but lockdown restrictions and the harshness of winter have made actually getting out difficult. Cycling indoors offers much the same joy without having to compete with the weather and other difficulties the world might throw in the way.
However, if you’re keen to get started on your indoor cycling journey, the actual turbo trainer is just the beginning. Here’s everything you need to get started with cycling indoors.
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Why would I cycle indoors?
Cycling indoors can initially seem a fairly miserable prospect: you’re stuck inside, hot and sweaty, pedalling very hard to go absolutely nowhere.
When compared with the joys of a beautiful trail or a sublime climb, it can sound like deeply unpleasant work. But it can also be a joy when compared to the difficulties of cycling outdoors.
Indoors, you will never have to wrestle with a cold wind, a dangerous ice patch, or frustrating red traffic lights; you also won’t have to grind through the city until you find yourself out on the open road.
However, indoor cycling is not really a competitor to outdoor; it’s actually a great complement to it. It is an incredibly efficient way to get fit – you can precisely organise your training so that you’re always working as hard as you need to improve, you don’t waste time waiting around, ensuring that every minute of your ride is productive, and good smart trainers even offer an “erg” mode that makes sure your legs are always pushing as much as your workout plan requires.
All of these factors ensure that you stay as fit as possible when you’re inside, so that you can go as fast and freely as you need when you can get outside again.
Which turbo trainer should you choose?
The really unhelpful thing about turbo trainers is that there’s a lot of them, and many seem to offer the same features. But the helpful thing is that most of them – at least those made by the well-known brands such as Tacx and Wahoo – are good.
We put several to the test over the course of what proved to be a very sweaty month-long quest, paying special attention to ride feel, functionality and value for money in every price bracket.
Ultimately, the decision is more about just how good you want yours to be, and how much you are willing to spend. For the extra money, you’ll get a range of additional comforts, such as a more realistic simulation of riding on the road and more accurate information about how you’re pedalling.
Tacx, one of the biggest names in turbo trainers, offers everything from the boost (£229.99, Wiggle.co.uk) to the neo 2T (£1,199, Wiggle.co.uk), with a host of different options in between. As you move up through the ranks, features just get added on: better accuracy at measuring your output, for instance, and a more accurate feeling road as you pedal, which at the high end even allows you to simulate the skids of ice and the bumps of a cattle grid.
Tacx’s neo 2 trainer (£1,099.99, Wiggle.co.uk) was awarded a place in our round-up of the best turbos, with our tester saying: “The ride feel is second to none and the trainer even incorporates a degree of movement to more closely mimic real-world bike behaviour.”
The other big question is about wheel-off and wheel-on trainers. They are just as they sound: on the former, the wheel comes off and the bike’s chain goes straight onto the trainer, whereas on the latter you keep your bike as it is and place the back wheel into the machine itself.
Wheel-off or direct drive trainers have a host of advantages: they are more accurate and reliable, tend to replicate the feel of the road much more effectively, don’t wear down your bike’s tyres, and tend to be less noisy.
Wheel-on trainers, however, tend among other things to be much cheaper. They are also considerably easier to use, given the bike’s wheel simply slots into the trainer rather than requiring you to undertake the complicated (and often mucky) work of taking your wheel on and off.
The wheel-on Wahoo kickr snap (£429.99, Zwift.com) took first place in our turbo trainer edit, with our testing noting: “Other wheel-on trainers don’t offer anywhere near the quality, performance or quietness that this thing brings to the table.”
They added: “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.”
Another option to consider is the relatively new advent of smart bikes like the Peloton, which don’t just sit in place of your rear wheel but incorporate a whole bike.
The great advantage of these is that you don’t need to worry about taking your bike off and on the trainer, and that everything is built to make indoor cycling as efficient and easy as possible. The disadvantage is that they cost considerably more than a turbo trainer, which is already rather expensive.
Peloton, Tacx, Wahoo and Wattbike all offer this type of equipment, with a variety of incredibly clever ways of setting up and simulating the process of riding outdoors. They are all fairly costly – the Tacx neo bike smart (£2,241.64, Tacx.com) and the Wahoo kickr bike (£2,999.99, Wahoofitness.com) cost more than £2,000, for which price you could get a turbo trainer and a decent outdoor bike – but all very smartly made, too.
Ultimately, the question all really comes down to which features you want, and how much you want to spend.
And how should I find one in stock?
Once you’ve made your decision, the tricky process of actually buying one begins. If you thought indoor cycling sounds like spending a lot of effort to not get anywhere, then just wait until you try to buy the kit to actually start doing it.
Because of the intense interest in turbo trainers since the pandemic began – and the difficulty making and shipping them amid lockdowns – they are somewhere between difficult and impossible to buy. Heading to stores and checking the "in stock" option is likely to reveal an empty page and a host of frustrations.
The biggest and most reliable cycling stores, such as Wiggle and Sigma Sports, offer the option to sign up for email alerts whenever they arrive in stock. Be quick, when they do – they often sell out almost as quickly as the email arrives.
It is also worth checking the websites of the manufacturers directly. Wahoo and Tacx – which is sold through the Garmin website – both occasionally have stock even when shops don’t, and likewise offer the option to sign up for email updates if there are no trainers available at the time.
What other hardware do I need?
You’ll need a bike, of course. While the chances are you already have one that will work fine with your trainer, it’s worth checking with the manufacturer, since some of them have particular advice about how to use your bike with an indoor trainer – or advise against it entirely, given the way that the stresses and strains of being on a trainer might damage the bike.
If possible, it’s worth using the bike you ride outside on most, given that it will most accurately replicate the experience and ensure all of your fitness transfers to the open road.
The other key bit of kit you’ll need is some sort of computer, for controlling the trainer and seeing what you’re up to.
This can be done with just about everything: most trainers broadcast over Bluetooth as well as the more fitness-focused ANT+ protocol, meaning that they can connect to both traditional cycling computers as well as the newest iPads. Even relatively old pieces of hardware should be able to control the difficulty of the trainer and track your sessions, if that’s all you need.
Wahoo’s £200 Kickr Desk
A more powerful computer, however, will ensure the best experience on the cycling software you’re probably going to want to use to make your sessions engaging and efficient. Some of these, such as Zwift, are basically computer games that you control with your turbo trainer; as such, a computer or tablet with better processing power will be able to play them all the better.
And finally, you might want somewhere to place that computer so that it’s within reach and easy to see. While there are a range of options for this – such as Wahoo’s £200 kickr desk – you might also just as easily be able to find a tall table or other surface to put your computer on.
If you really want to up the realism, you could even look at buying Wahoo’s kickr climb. This does for the front wheel what a turbo trainer does for the back: it can move up and down, adjusting the elevation of the bike and giving you the feeling of pedalling uphill. It is very clever and wonderfully immersive – but it also costs £450.
What else do I need?
As with anything involving cycling, you can spend a lot of money on a variety of different pieces of kit. And as with all cycling kit, that might not be necessary but it will definitely improve the experience.
It’s important to make sure that you’re dressed properly, for instance. Given that you’re indoors with nobody to see you, and no wind to battle against, it might be tempting to just throw on some old gym kit and climb on the bike – but actually the quality of your clothing is perhaps even more important indoors than out, given that any discomfort or lack of breathability will be exaggerated by the fact you’re stuck sweating in your saddle.
Lots of the established cycling brands make clothing devoted to indoors: Rapha, for instance, offers devoted shorts for the turbo trainer (£95, Rapha), as part of an indoor training range.
Rapha turbo trainer shorts
Similarly, it’s worth getting yourself a good fan – or plenty of them. Cycling indoors generates a lot of heat, which can not only be uncomfortable but actively unhelpful – the warmer you get, the more likely your performance is to drop off.
Blasting yourself with a fan is a great way of keeping yourself comfortable and efficient. It’s worth scouting around for one that is going to throw out as much wind as possible – though Wahoo even offers its own dedicated training fan (£199.99, Wahoofitness.com), which at top speed is like cycling into a hurricane and which can adjust its power depending on your heart rate.
What software do I need?
With all of your physical kit in place, and with your bike set up on your shiny new and much in-demand trainer, you’re ready to start cycling. But that means nothing without the software required to actually know what you should be doing.
There are a host of different options, all of them offering their own advantages depending on what you’re looking for from your indoor riding.
Probably the two most discussed are Zwift and TrainerRoad, and they sit at completely different ends of the market.
As we mentioned above, Zwift is the most active video game you’ll ever play: it is an entire world, as well as some recreations of real locations such as central London, that you navigate as you cycle on your bike. You can join group rides with friends, conduct workouts, or just explore; it is deeply engaging and recreates many of the things that make cycling outside so fantastic.
TrainerRoad, on the other hand, has no frills at all, and is entirely focused on your training. Getting set up means telling it the ways you want to get faster, after which it will generate an in-depth calendar of workouts to lead you through – though without any entertainment, leaving you to watch Netflix or just focus on the efforts themselves.
Alternatively, some trainer companies make their own platforms, in the form of the Tacx Training app and Wahoo’s Sufferfest, and there are a number of others such as the more simulation-focused BKool and RGT, which allows you to make your own maps. The useful thing is that many of them offer free trials, so it should be reasonably straightforward to find the one that suits best.
With all that in place, you’re off to the races – literally, if you use Zwift, which regularly offers virtual contests.
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