How Smart Trainers are Bringing the Outdoor Cycling Experience Indoors

As the latest extension to come from indoor cycling technology, smart trainers are sophisticated pieces of cycling equipment that are designed to closely simulate the feel of riding outdoors. 

What makes these bike trainers “smart” is the resistance programming is controlled by a cycling app, such as Zwift, TrainerRoad, or Rouvy via ANT+ or Bluetooth connectivity.

Because smart trainers rely on wireless connectivity to read and simulate the route’s data, they require a phone, tablet, or computer when using the. The route’s data is synced to the smart trainer, allowing the proper resistance and ride feel to be generated. 

Unlike rollers and low-tech bike trainers, there’s a lot more to know about smart bike trainers. Let’s explore this new standard of indoor cycling technology a little deeper, including what to consider when buying a smart trainer.

What are the Different Types of Smart Trainers?

The range of smart trainer options for indoor bike training is classified into two types: wheel-on and direct-drive smart trainers. 

Wheel-On Smart Trainers

Wheel-on smart trainers, as the name suggests, are characterized by applying resistance to the rear tire, with the rear wheel on and axle affixed to the trainer. The resistance is applied through the use of a drum mechanism, which is tightened to increase the level of difficulty. 

This design is much simpler, lightweight, cost-effective, and easy to use, especially if you have a special type of cassette drivetrain. The downside is the wheel-on smart trainers typically require calibrating every time the wheel is de/attached, and the power metric may not be as accurate as that of direct-drive trainers.

Direct Drive Smart Trainers

Direct-drive smart trainers, on the other hand, are more robust, accurate, and sophisticated systems that involve the rear cassette being directly mounted to the trainer. They’re the more advanced type that involves taking the rear wheel off and installing the chain to the direct-drive trainer’s cassette.

These often preferred smart trainers offer the advantage of greater power accuracy with no frequent calibrating required between installations. Direct drive trainers also provide a smoother, more realistic ride feel and overall experience. 

The trade-off is a higher cost, costing over $1k for top models. But for serious cyclists, the investment is well worth the heightened performance and simulation.

How to Use a Smart Trainer

For basic starters, when using any smart trainer, you’ll need a WiFi-enabled device like a laptop, computer, tablet, or smartphone that offers Bluetooth or an ANT+. These are the most common forms of connection from the app to trainer. 

From your device, you can choose to download indoor cycling apps like Zwift, Rouvy, TrainerRoad, and FulGaz, which are some of the most popular training apps. The routes and rides available on these apps communicate to the trainer, allowing you to simulate the riding experience, like the gradient changes of hill climbs or the power efficiency of drafting.

Using direct drive trainers is fairly straightforward. You’ll just want to ensure your cassette and fee hub body match up on the trainer as it does on your bike. If you’re running a 12-speed cassette, you may need extra accessories for certain smart trainers. Also, keep in mind that wheel-on trainers typically need to be calibrated and maintained more often, while direct-drive trainers are more reliable and stable over time.

Should I Invest in a Smart Trainer?

So, why consider investing in a smart trainer? While they may cost more than traditional bike trainers, they provide a more immersive and engaging indoor cycling experience. With virtual courses, riders will feel the resistance and slowdown of hills and curves, adding to the realism of the ride. 

On group rides or races, some apps will even reduce resistance to simulate drafting. Smart trainers can also be a great supplement next to hiring a cycling or triathlon coach. In conclusion, a smart trainer can add an extra level of excitement and productivity to indoor cycling.

Things to Consider When Buying a Smart Trainer

When researching the optimal smart trainer upgrade, there are numerous factors to consider that go well beyond price. Here are some of the top things to consider when selecting the right smart trainer.

1. Quality, Stability, and Durability

One of the most important considerations when purchasing a smart trainer is the level of durability and stability it offers. It is essential to choose a smart trainer that is built to last and can withstand the demands of indoor cycling as well as feels strong, secure, and stable when riding at efforts or climbs. 

Brands such as Wahoo, Taxc, and Saris are known for their quality ride feel, easy-to-maintain, and long-lasting smart trainers.

2. Cassette and Attachment Point

When choosing a smart trainer, it is important to consider the attachment point on your bike. Some smart trainers utilize a skewer and do not require the removal of a tire, while others require direct-drive attachment to the cassette on the trainer. 

For instance, if you’re using a 12-speed SRAM cassette on your bike, you’ll need a particular type of free hub to properly install the bike to the trainer. 

3. Stable Platform

Another factor to consider is the stability of the smart trainer platform. Especially for wheel-on trainers, the platform must be sturdy enough to support you and the bike without tipping over, especially during intense training sessions.

This is why rocker plates and other platforms have become common. But overall, a smaller base with shorter legs increases the risk of tipping, so it is important to look for a trainer with a broad and stable platform.

4. Direct Drive or Wheel-On Design

As mentioned above, smart trainers are available in two configurations: wheel-on and direct-drive. Choosing a direct drive provides a better riding experience but can cost 3-5x as much as a simple wheel-on option.

So if you’re only riding a few hours indoors on your smart trainer, a wheel-on option might be best. Your budget and preference will help you determine which makes the most sense.

5. Modulated Resistance

Smart trainers modulate resistance based on information received from virtual training platforms such as Zwift. Resistance is increased when the course is uphill and decreased when it is downhill, simulating the experience of outdoor cycling. Some models even replicate the feel of cobblestone roads or dirt trails.

6. Technical Considerations

Nearly all smart trainers use ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart to transmit and capture data such as heart rate, power, speed, and cadence. It is important to look for a dual-capable smart trainer that supports a broad range of apps and devices. 

Additionally, ensure that the trainer supports either ANT+ Fe-C or Bluetooth Smart FTMS, as this will impact the range of apps and devices that it can be used with.

Additionally, ensure that the trainer supports either ANT+ Fe-C or Bluetooth Smart FTMS, as this will impact the range of apps and devices that it can be used with and will allow for a wider selection of apps and devices to be utilized.

Just like having business cards that showcase your contact information to a variety of people, a dual-capable smart trainer offers versatility and the ability to connect with numerous fitness apps and devices.

In conclusion, taking the time to carefully consider each of these factors will help you make an informed decision when purchasing a smart trainer for your indoor cycling needs. Whether you are a seasoned cyclist or just starting out, choosing the right smart trainer can help you achieve your training goals and enhance your indoor cycling experience.

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