How to Choose a Bike Trainer

woman on a direct-drive indoor bike trainer

Knowing how to choose an indoor bike trainer can be a daunting task for a beginner with how many different types of trainers there are and the variety of features they offer. Before learning about how to choose a bike trainer, remember why you want a bike trainer in the first place. Indoor bike trainers are a great way to continue doing what you love when weather is uncooperative, and they are an efficient and comfortable way to exercise. All you need is your bike, some space in your home, and the right bike trainer to experience something new in the world of cycling. We’ve created a guide on what to look for in different bike trainers so you can create the best indoor bike training setup possible for you.

Important Factors to Consider

  • Activity Level - When deciding which bike trainer to choose, it is important to know how often you will use it. If you are very active, you’ll want to make a larger investment for continued enjoyment and quality workouts. If you’re going to be using your trainer only occasionally, you will want a bike trainer that allows your bike to attach and detach easily.
  • Smart vs. Traditional - Traditional bike trainers often require users to manually change the resistance, which works for people looking for one steady level. While smart bike trainers change resistance automatically with no user input making workouts more dynamic and offer a more authentic cycling feel.
  • Comfort - Using an indoor bike trainer is already comfortable since you are using your regular bike which is adjusted to fit you, but depending on which trainer you choose, you can increase the level of comfort and make your setup feel just like the outdoors. 
  • Noise - A factor often forgotten about is how much noise a trainer makes. Continued innovation has allowed for overall quieter rides, but certain trainers are nearly silent which is a lifesaver for riders with close neighbors or family.
  • Price Range - In terms of bike trainers, your investment reflects the value you get in return. If you want the best experience, you’ll need to commit more than if you just need something for occasional workouts.

Types of Bike Trainers

Wheel-On Bike Trainers

saris wheel-on bike trainer

Wheel-on bike trainers are the more affordable, less complex option when it comes to indoor bike trainers. They are compact, very portable, and allow for easy setup if you move your bike inside and outside often. These trainers attach to the rear wheel’s axle on your bike and use a roller pressed against your tire to create resistance as you ride. Depending on if you have a smart wheel-on trainer or a traditional, you can adjust the resistance manually or the trainer will automatically raise and lower the resistance level. These indoor bike trainers are best for people who are looking to make a smaller investment, only need a trainer for bad weather or short winters, and want to be able to take their setup anywhere with relative ease.

Direct-Drive Trainers

wahoo kickr direct-drive bike trainer

Direct-drive bike trainers are designed to offer the most premium indoor riding experience. Direct-drive trainers work by completely removing your rear wheel and attaching the drivetrain directly to the trainer. This allows for a more realistic, smooth feeling that mimics the outdoors while you’re training inside. On top of their realistic feel, they are also much quieter than wheel-on trainers, and most direct-drive trainers are smart trainers that connect to apps which can enhance your riding experience with interactive workouts and virtual landscapes. Direct-drive trainers are for people who want to invest in a more permanent setup with a quieter operation and built-in smart capabilities to make the most of their workouts.

Types of Resistance

Magnetic Resistance

Magnetic resistance is used on basic wheel-on trainers. It is more affordable, adjustable, and less likely to overheat than fluid resistance. If you are looking for a simple setup and you’re not worried about noise level or ride feel, magnetic resistance is the way to go. Magnetic resistance also only uses linear scaling, meaning once you set it to one level, it won’t change until you manually do it yourself. Linear resistance can feel strange at first because no matter how fast you are going, the resistance doesn’t change. Overall, magnetic resistance is for people looking for a setup for quick workouts during unruly weather.

Fluid Resistance

Fluid resistance is used in wheel-on trainers for a smoother, quieter ride and realistic feel. Typically more of an investment than magnetic resistance, fluid resistance trainers create a better experience by making the ride more comfortable and lifelike. Fluid resistance is a progressive resistance system which means the harder you pedal, the more resistance you feel, similar to riding outside with the wind. One downside to fluid resistance is they can overheat with extensive use, but the benefits far outweigh the potential issues. If you want to get the most from a wheel-on bike trainer, make sure it has fluid resistance.

Electromagnetic Resistance

Electromagnetic resistance is the best option when it comes to feel, noise, and precision. This type of resistance is found most commonly on smart direct-drive trainers, but it can also be found on some wheel-on trainers. It requires electricity to operate and typically requires the largest investment from riders. However, you do get the most value for your money with the added benefits of nearly silent operation, realistic riding feel, and accurate metric tracking when using smart features. When you want to get the most from your setup and bring the outdoors into your home, go with an indoor bike trainer equipped with electromagnetic resistance.

Additional Info on Bike Trainers

Types of Bikes

List of incompatible bikes like E-bikes, BMX bikes, and fat tire bikes for indoor bike trainers

When looking at bike trainers, it is important to make sure your current bike will work with an indoor trainer. The easiest way to know is to check the hub size and make sure the trainer can fit your bike. Most road bikes should be able to work on a trainer. Avoid cruisers, fat tire bikes, and e-bikes when choosing a bike for your bike trainer. These bikes can have a variety of issues from fenders, tire size, or stress on the hardware so it is best to pick a different bike when creating your setup. Before you pick out a bike trainer, make sure you know the different types of bikes and how to choose a bike for the correct type of riding. Once you have the right bike and hub size, you can start building your bike trainer setup.

App Compatibility

man using training apps like Zwift, ROUVY, The Sufferfest, and TrainerRoad

Interactive workouts and virtual courses are truly a game changer when it comes to using a bike trainer. If this is a feature that you want for your home setup, it is important to double-check that the bike trainer you choose is compatible with the training app you wish to use. There are many popular riding apps like Zwift, The Sufferfest, TrainerRoad, ROUVY, and more. Specific trainers also come with their own apps that offer similar features like metric tracking, workouts, and virtual trails. The easiest way to access these apps is to check out smart trainers which can connect automatically to these apps using ANT+, ANT+ FE-C, Wifi, or Bluetooth®, otherwise there are sensors you can buy for regular trainers, but this requires more setup and research. Make sure before you pick up your bike trainer that you know the app compatibility so you can get the most from your indoor bike trainer. 

Bike Trainer Accessories

woman using bike trainer accessories to improve her setup

If bike trainers are part of your workout routine, there are some accessories that are both necessary and optional to enhance your experience. If you have a wheel-on trainer, we highly recommend switching your rear tire with a trainer tire to avoid burning through the tread on your road tire on the trainer. Other ways you can protect your bike are by using gloves or a sweat cover to stop handlebar corrosion and turning your front wheel 45 degrees every time you workout to avoid stress on the spokes  There are also floor mats to protect your floor and desks to hold devices and other items. With bike trainer accessories, you can take your boring ride staring at the wall and transform it until you won’t want to leave the house.

With all of this in mind, you should be able to choose an indoor bike trainer that will suit your needs. Remember to consider your activity level, price range, noise, comfort, and the smart capabilities of different trainers. When you want to take your bike off the trainer and back outside, make sure you have the right type of bike helmet, know how to tune up your bike, or take it into a SCHEELS service shop for a tune-up. Just contact your local SCHEELS with any questions. If you are afraid of missing out on tracking your metrics outside, learn about the basics of E-bikes and must-have bike accessories to bring your outdoor riding to the same level as your indoor riding. Whatever your reason is for picking up a bike trainer, with this information you will now be able to make the most of it and make bike riding your new passion.