Whether you’re training for an event, just trying to keep a regular riding schedule, or simply prefer the safety of riding inside, an indoor bike trainer is a valuable tool. But what to get?
There are several basic kinds of trainers, but the options for them have proliferated wildly the past few years, not to mention the explosion of “smart” trainers and the virtual worlds and training programs they allow you to connect to.
Check out our favorite trainers below for reviews and other top options, plus buying advice.
The Three Types of Indoor Trainers
Although there are many variations of each, most trainers come in three basic styles. Direct-drive trainers attach to the rear dropouts, replacing your wheel and providing a direct connection to the resistance unit. These trainers are easily identified because they require a cassette. They are typically the most expensive but also the most accurate, with the highest levels of resistance.
Friction trainers place a small roller against the rear wheel and utilize either magnetic or fluid resistance. They tend to be lighter and more portable than direct-drive trainers, but are noisier and less accurate. The trade-off comes in cost. You can get a smart friction trainer for about half as much as a direct-drive model.
Rollers are the most basic style and also require the most technique since the bike isn’t held in place, but rather perched atop three rollers. Resistance can range from almost nothing up to as much as any direct-drive trainer. They are also very useful for refining pedaling technique.
What Is a Smart Trainer?
A smart trainer is different than a model with electronically controlled resistance. “Smart” means it can communicate wirelessly with a training app on your smart phone or virtual riding world like Zwift—and automatically adjust resistance.
The popularity of Zwift and other apps means most newer trainers are “smart.” This adds to the cost, but prices are falling and you can now score a smart trainer for less than $500.
Some third-party training platforms support non-connected trainers, but you’ll need to purchase extras, like an external “speed” sensor from Garmin or CycleOps, and possibly a power meter as well.
Other Things to Consider
Compatibility: With axle attachment standards and widths changing almost yearly, check whether a trainer you’re interested in offers different attachment options such as thru-axle adaptors and, for direct-attachment trainers, free-hub options. Some trainers come with them. If yours doesn’t, you’ll have to purchase them separately.
Noise: With more people exercising indoors to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, and with families working at home, looking for a quieter option may be more of a priority than before (as well as getting a good fan when you work out). While most manufacturers can get away with using words like “silent” and “virtually silent” to describe the noise level of their trainers, there are other factors to consider, such as the sound your bike’s drivetrain cranks out as you pedal and, if you use one, the fan that’s whirring away to keep you cool and simulate wind speeds.
To get a better idea of how loud “silent” actually is, we used a decibel meter to record the noise levels of each trainer being ridden at 15 and 25mph. Decibels ranged from 68 (vacuum cleaner) to 85 (diesel truck going 40 mph); the fan alone measured 71. To get an idea of how significant a seemingly minor jump in decibels can be, 70 is twice as loud as 60 and 80 is twice as loud as 70.
Stability: Trainer crashes are rare, but not unheard of when you’re going cross-eyed trying to beat your PR on that workout. Typically, the broader the trainer’s base, the more stable it will be. Many trainers have a leveling feature for uneven surfaces.
How We Tested
We used every one of these trainers to squeeze Zwift workouts into our busy workday, and even hauled a few of them with us for race-day warm-ups. Then we banished Test Editor Bobby Lea, former pro and three-time Olympian, to the deepest, darkest recesses of our office with nothing but his bike, a fan, and enough trainers to make even the most cycling-obsessed person go mad. We tested each one with third-party as well as their own companion apps—and untethered for those who prefer the freedom to choose their own structured workouts.
Every trainer was put through the same steady-state intervals, max-power sprints, and Tabata-style efforts (high-intensity intervals) to test “ride” feel, stability, resistance, reliability, and repeatability. We also tested ambient noise levels while riding at 15 and 25 miles per hour to determine the real-world disturbance you’ll cause during your pre-dawn trainer session. In the end, we were left with one well-trained test editor and this list of the best indoor trainers you can buy right now—just in time for the cold, dark months ahead.
Wahoo Kickr Smart Trainer
For the cyclist who wants the ultimate in smart trainers with all of the bells and whistles, Wahoo’s recently updated Kickr has a lot to offer. What you get: a very quiet trainer, rock-solid stability, a whopping 2,200 watts of power, compatibility with every virtual training app, and Bluetooth Smart, Ant+, and Ant+ FE-C connectivity.
It comes pre-installed with an 11-speed Shimano/SRAM-compatible cassette, and works with most 8-, 9-, 10-, and 12-speed setups. Go for the Kickr KOM Bundle, and you get the Kickr Climb grade simulator along with the Kickr trainer for $1,600 (a $200 savings if you were to buy them separately). The Kickr Climb can simulate, in real time, ascents up to 20 percent and descents of -10 percent, making virtual climbing workouts feel even more like the real thing.
The R1’s +/-3% power readings are on the low end for a direct-drive trainer in this price range, but this trainer offers something unique in the ride-feel department that others don’t: more freedom to move the bike from side to side. Controlled by rubber elastomers between the legs and the drive mechanism, this movement can be adjusted simply by tightening or loosening the two bolts that hold the elastomers in place.
This level of freedom might feel funny at first, especially if you’re accustomed to being locked into place, but the longer you ride the more you’ll appreciate being able to shift around at will—you can actually throw your bike from side to side during all-out sprints the same way you would on the road.
The R1, the company’s entry into the direct-drive category, works with the usual apps, including Zwift, TrainerRoad, The Sufferfest, and its own Kinetic Fit via ANT+, ANT+ FE-C, and Bluetooth Smart. It’s compatible with Garmin devices and nearly all bikes, even those requiring a thru-axle. But unlike the other Kinetic trainer in our story, a separate purchase of the Traxle thru-axle adapter is not required.
The sturdy steel Suito is the best new trainer we tested this year. It comes pre-installed with a Shimano 11-speed cassette and pre-assembled legs. Compared with the company’s top-end model, the Drivo II, this direct-drive trainer sacrifices only a smidge of accuracy (+/-2.5% vs. +/-0.5%) but offers faster resistance transitions and the freedom to ride untethered (the Drivo II is managed through the company’s My E-Training app, which costs $18.95 a year)—all for $400 less.
We also love the Suito because, unlike some trainers (Drivo II included) that require you to use an app to operate the trainer, you can simply plug it in and start pedaling if you just want to ride without the fuss of logging onto a virtual platform. When disconnected from the virtual world, the Suito holds momentum more than any other trainer in this test–in other words, once you get it up to speed it likes to stay there.
Tacx Neo 2T
As if the first two iterations of the Neo Smart wasn’t quiet enough, Tacx claims the Neo 2T Smart is even quieter, and the redesigned drive system keeps the ride smooth, even through high–powered efforts like steep climbs and full-gas sprints. During those high–octane efforts we appreciated the freedom to rock the bike from side to side. The range of movement doesn’t compare to what the Kinetic R1 offers, but it’s just enough that you don’t feel locked in place.
Unlike other direct-drive trainers that use noisy belts or rollers for power transmission, the Neo 2T uses a metal flywheel with magnets that interact with electrical coils to moderate resistance. You turn the flywheel directly as you pedal–the more electricity that flows through the coils, the larger the magnetic force. This newest Neo claims to have better accuracy of cadence measurement, a smoother ride, more responsive resistance control, and improved internal memory.
It also comes with pedal-stroke analysis, a thru-axle adapter that accommodates 142x12mm and 148x12mm axles, and increased cassette/freehub-body compatibility. It’s ANT+, FE-C, and Bluetooth Smart-enabled and can be used without an external power source, although it’s not as generous with the momentum when used this way.
If you’re familiar with the CycleOps H2 direct-drive smart trainer, then you’re familiar with the Saris H3—nearly the same CycleOps product, with new Saris branding. The H3’s numbers are identical to the H2’s—2,000 watts, 20% max incline, +/-2% accuracy.
And like the H2, the H3 is compatible with the most popular virtual cycling platforms via ANT+, FE-C, and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity. And while pairing to those apps is simple, that’s not the case with the Saris companion app, which is prone to crashing and generally just annoying to use.
Fortunately, you really only need it for software updates and to calibrate the trainer. And if you want to just plug in and ride, no app is needed. However, in testing we did have trouble with the trainer shutting down and losing resistance when riding without using a companion app. Each time this was quickly fixed by unplugging the trainer and plugging it back in, but it was annoying when it happened mid–interval.
Resistance changes on the H3 are as pleasantly smooth as the best trainers we’ve tested. And that dead feeling often associated with heavy flywheels isn’t as noticeable on the H3—it provides enough momentum to simulate “real” ride feel without feeling sluggish.
Wahoo Kickr Core
The Kickr Core is a new trainer from Wahoo that’s a little more compact and a little less expensive than the much–loved Kickr. It uses the same smooth and quiet flywheel tech and reliable belt drive with electromagnetic resistance.
The Core uses a 12-pound flywheel versus the Kickr’s 16, and comes in a smaller package that features a reduced footprint and a more compact stand (when folded) that’s easier to store than other direct-drive units.
If you love the Kickr but don’t need the extra max wattage or extra incline of that $1,200 unit, the Kickr Core delivers the same great quality and ride experience in a cheaper and more portable package.
The Drivo II takes all of the great features from the Drivo and turns them up a notch. Power measurement is accurate within an incredible +/-.5%, claims Elite. Stability has increased thanks to large legs that fold away when not in use. And the trainer is compatible with both quick-release and 142x12mm thru-axles. The nearly silent direct-drive mechanism will allow you to conquer Zwift Island thanks to Ant+, FE-C, and Bluetooth connectivity without disturbing everyone around you. Want to refine your technique even more? An $18.95 annual subscription to Elite’s My Training software provides access to the pedaling analysis function as well as a substantial library of virtual courses.
If power data is all you need, Kinetic’s Road Machine | Smart 2 trainer is a great value. While it doesn’t automatically control resistance (for that, check out the Road Machine Control), it does connect with training apps such as Kinetic Fit, Zwift, TrainerRoad, and more, as well as ANT+ and Bluetooth-enabled computers and ANT+ head units.
Its stable base with floor-safe rubber feet, 6.25-pound (claimed) flywheel, and big roller mean it can find a permanent spot in your home, but its foldable legs and wheel-on design make it a convenient race-day traveler, too. It fits 22- to 29-inch wheels and comes with its own skewer, so you can save yours from wear and tear.
If your bike has a thru-axle, you’ll have to drop another $49 for the Kinetic Traxle thru-axle adapter. Bonus: It comes with a free one-month subscription for the Kinetic Fit training app.
Wahoo Kickr Snap
The Kickr Snap is everything we love about the Kickr in a cheaper, more convenient, and lighter-weight package. Like the Kickr, the Snap is Bluetooth Smart, Ant+, and Ant+ FE-C ready and can be controlled by a smartphone, tablet, or Wahoo computer—LED lights alert you to a successful connection.
It’s also compatible with Wahoo’s Headwind (wind-speed simulator) and Climb (grade simulator) accessories (since 2017), and it works seamlessly with third-party apps like Zwift, The Sufferfest, TrainerRoad, and more. The Snap’s wheel-on design accommodates QR and thru-axle rear wheels up to 29 inches, though you’ll have to purchase the thru-axle adaptor separately.
It’s essentially the highest-end Kickr minus some of the accuracy and user experience that some riders will happily pay more for.
Feedback Sports Omnium Over–Drive
At 14 pounds, the Omnium Over–Drive is ideal for race day, small living spaces, and travel—it comes with a durable tote bag that lets you stow it under a bed or shove it into an overhead bin on a plane. This portable trainer isn’t light on features, though.
Two 4-inch magnetic drums provide progressive resistance up to a max 1,050 watts at 55 mph and make for an incredibly quiet ride that won’t disturb the peace while you’re cranking out a workout in your hotel room.
Thanks to its height-adjustable fork mount (compatible with post- and flat-mount disc brakes) and sliding base on which the aluminum rollers are attached, the Over-Drive can accommodate various bike and wheel sizes, and quick-release or thru-axle configurations.
At first glance, you might think the Over-Drive’s simple design sacrifices stability, but even in an out-of-the-saddle sprint our tester couldn’t tip it over or get a rear wheel to skip off the rollers; the most he could do was lift a front support leg off the ground.
If you like the concept of the Over–Drive but don’t want the resistance, Feedback Sports offers the Omnium Zero–Drive, which is identical to the Over–Drive except the rollers have no resistance.
As an added bonus, the Over–Drive and Zero–Drive sleds (the part that holds the rollers) are interchangeable and sold separately so if you want both options you don’t have to buy two complete trainers.
Kinetic Road Machine Control
The Road Machine Control smart trainer makes the pain cave of your dream just a little more affordable, offering the same level of connectivity as its high-priced counterparts at a lower price. This friction trainer, with an electronically controlled 12-pound flywheel, offers remarkably smooth resistance.
Momentum generated by the flywheel also makes the riding experience feel a little more lively compared to other friction trainers, which have a tendency to feel pretty dead as they amplify every imperfection in your pedal stroke.
Unlike some smart trainers that let you just plug in and go, the Road Machine must be used in conjunction with an app, either a third party app for virtual riding or Kinetic’s own app for more virtual options as well as self-guided workouts.
Test Editor, Bicycling
Bobby is part of the Bicycling Test Team and brings with him over a decade of professional racing experience, including 3 Olympic Team berths.