Our Indoor Cycle Training Guide: Ride Your Bike in the Comfort of Your Own Home

Winter can be pretty depressing, especially for a cyclist. All that cold weather really sucks! But fear not, because Tweeks are coming to the rescue with a boat-load of indoor training goodness! Turbo trainersbicycle rollers – you name it, we’ve got it! Besides which, indoor cycling be fun at any time of the year so read on if you want to find out what it’s all about!

What are the benefits of indoor cycling?

Indoor training is great – not just because you won’t get rained on (which in the UK is of obvious importance), but also because it can help with techniques like high intensity interval training (HIIT).

With HIIT you’ll be wanting to give maximum effort at some times, and much lower levels at others, which isn’t always possible when you have to slow down for the traffic lights, dog walkers, ramblers, police stingers or low-flying UFOs you might find ‘out there’. An indoor trainer on the other hand means that you can pedal however you want, whenever you want – all whilst avoiding any close encounters.

When the uninitiated think of indoor cycle training, they probably think of a big clunky exercise bike. There’s nothing wrong with exercise bikes in terms of … exercise … but if you’re a keen cyclist and you’re going to be training at home, it probably makes a lot more sense to train on your own bike. Not only does this mean that you don’t have to store an exercise bike somewhere, but also that you’re going to be using the same saddle, pedals and handlebars that you’re used to already (and probably spent quite a lot of time setting up). This is where turbo trainers and rollers come in – and we’re going to tell you all about them.

What’s the difference between bicycle rollers and turbo trainers?

Firstly, it’s important to say that no matter whether you go for a set of rollers or a turbo trainer, it’s going to allow you to get a good home workout. There are a number of differences which will probably make one seem more attractive than the other (depending on your preferences and training goals) – and these are especially important if you’re the sort of person who sometimes lacks a bit of motivation to train (it happens to the best of us, after all). The more you enjoy using the system you purchase, the more you are likely to, well … use it.

If you want to just get on a trainer and ride with no input needed other than what you put in the pedals, then you’ll be wanting a turbo trainer which stabilise the bike so you can’t fall over, and there’s no need to balance to any great extent. This makes them good if you want to use your training time to catch up on your TV viewing (as long as you get a fairly quiet one). You do need to check that the trainer you’re looking at will fit your axle size which is mainly important on mountain bikes.

You can always get in touch for a chat if you’re unsure on which turbo trainer is right for you and your bike.

Rollers on the other hand are a technically challenging form of training. With rollers, the bike is not stabilised and because of this, most riders start off practicing in the middle of a doorframe or similar. They are – as the name suggests – a set of rollers that your bike stands on and spins, and although they look quite daunting at first you’ll get the hang of it surprisingly quickly.

Whilst turbo trainers and rollers can both be a reasonably large investment (with prices starting around the £100-mark), you have to offset this against a number of things. Firstly there’s the cost of a gym membership which is not cheap these days. Then there’s the convenience factor. Even at a well-equipped gym you might have to queue for equipment (especially if you like to train straight after work) and spinning classes aren’t always at the most convenient times for you – if you even get on them, of course.

Finally, an indoor cycle training system is also going to mean that you’re not outside in the dark, wet or cold conditions which can put you at risk from other road users.

What is a turbo trainer, and how does it work?

So-called because they often use turbines to provide resistance, turbo trainers are the simple solution when it comes to indoor cycle training. With a lot of the entry and mid-level range of turbo trainers your rear wheel is lifted off the ground by a frame (which usually connects via a skewer through the hub), and when you pedal, your rear tyre spins a roller. This roller is connected to a resistance unit (the turbo part), which uses one of a number of different methods to counteract the movement of the pedals.

At the opposite end of the range there are a collection of direct drive turbo trainers which take the rear wheel of the bike out of the equation – literally, in fact, it’s completely removed and the rear of the bike is connected into the direct drive trainer. This is a form of training frequently implemented by serious riders and professional teams, using electromagnets to make resistance changes and generating up to a 20% gradient in some cases, and also takes any issues with tyre wear away.

We go through some of the most popular turbo trainer styles below:

Air resistance

Air resistance is the tried and tested method of creating resistance on a turbo trainer and has been around since the very beginning. These units have the benefit of being very simple and often give a very ‘realistic’ feel to your indoor training sessions.

All that is happening here is that the movement of your rear wheel turns a fan which is specially designed to produce drag as it spins through the air. This in turn makes it harder for you to pedal with the resistance increasing as the fan spins faster.

Whilst this type of resistance tends to be quite realistic in terms of ‘feel’, as with many things, this comes at a price (otherwise there’d only be air-based trainers about, and this article would be a lot shorter!). One of the biggest drawbacks of a fan-based system is the noise that it produces. Simply put, you wouldn’t want to have your ear next to most units! Another downside of using air is that the level of resistance can’t be adjusted through the unit itself. For this reason, air-based turbo trainers require you to shift gear on the bike in order to change the resistance meaning that they are less adjustable than other types.

Magnetic resistance

A more advanced way to create resistance involves powerful magnets rather than a turbine, (meaning that strictly speaking, these units are not ‘turbo’ trainers at all). Some do include a turbine but this is generally there to keep things a bit cooler. These units often have the benefit of being adjustable, which is generally achieved by varying the distance between the magnets providing the resistance (often by means of a remote cable).

Although these units work off magnetic resistance, they do tend to create a reasonable amount of noise. This isn’t generally as bad as that produced by an air-turbine trainer, but will often be much noisier than a fluid trainer. Popular magnetic resistance units include the Elite Novo Force and Tacx Blue Matic.

Fluid resistance

Some of the quietest trainers on the market are ‘fluid’ trainers – which use a fan suspended in a viscous liquid (such as oil) to provide resistance. These work off much the same principle as an air trainer but here the noise of the turbine is dampened by the fluid surrounding it. Fluid-based trainers also tend to have one of the most ‘natural’ feels available so you can close your eyes and try to pretend that you’re riding on the road if you really want!

One of the downsides of fluid-based trainers is that – like air based systems – they are not generally adjustable. One way around this potential issue is to purchase a ‘hybrid’ or ‘hydromag’ unit where the quiet operation and realistic feel of a fluid system are combined with the adjustability of a magnetic unit. These are not the cheapest, but do give you the best of both worlds.

Motor brake resistance

Motor brake resistance systems are a recent development in turbo trainer technology, using a powerful electric motor to place resistance on the wheel and many examples are also capable of actually assisting the rider. Whilst this might seem counterintuitive (you came here for pain after all!), it’s not without good reason and it can actually simulate riding down hills as well as up them. This can add quite a lot of variety to your training sessions which is never a bad thing!

Motor brake trainers can also be very accurate in terms of the resistance provided, making them perfect for use in the virtual reality systems we’ll come onto shortly. Not all motor brake systems are created equally, and the latest are even equipped with a system which can send some of the power you generate back into the grid! Talk about doing your bit for the environment!

Virtual reality trainers

Fancy a race through the Alps before dinner? No problem! The very top trainers about at the moment are virtual reality (VR) systems. These tend to have variable resistance (generally the motor brake or hydromag type), and will link this to a real-world riding scenario. Systems now exist which even let you ‘steer’ around a course, overtaking other riders in the process. These riders can either be virtual, or avatars of real people around the world if your chosen system has multiplayer support!

So you could be sat on your bike in Birmingham, racing along the Côte d’Azur with friends and family in Sydney or Hong Kong!

VR bike trainer systems, as you might imagine, don’t come cheap – but – if you consider the amount of motivation that this type of simulation could provide, the outlay starts to make more sense. A VR trainer is going to help you to enjoy training meaning that you’re going to keep coming back for more.

That makes them perfect for anyone who maybe lacks a little motivation when it comes to indoor training.

The benefits of turbo trainers

We’ve covered a lot of the benefits of turbo trainers already, but to summarise:

  • The bike is fixed into position, so you can’t lose your balance
  • Good for those who like to catch up with TV or movies whilst they train
  • Multiplayer virtual reality systems make for high levels of motivation
  • Good for beginners
  • Easy to set up and use
  • Great for interval training
  • Great for building speed and power
  • Easy to transport so you can take them to events to warm up/warm down

What are bike rollers, and how do they work?

In many ways bike rollers are less technologically advanced than turbo trainers, but they do place higher demands on the person riding them. Whilst you can turn your brain off and just pedal on a turbo trainer, try doing that on a set of rollers and you’re going to fall off pretty fast!

What all this concentration means is that you’re going to develop some pretty cool riding skills whilst you’re on the rollers. Not only will your balance and straight line riding ability improve, but rollers are also quite unforgiving when it comes to jerky pedalling, so you’re going to develop a very smooth power delivery.

It can also be a bit less boring than using a turbo trainer because your brain is having to work constantly. This does mean that extended sessions are more difficult to keep up on rollers though so the two training styles don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

To most people, rollers look ridiculously difficult which raises the question: why the hell would you want to try and ride on them?

In all honesty though, they’re really not that tough to master. It helps if you know someone who can give you some first-hand guidance when you start out, but it’s not a requirement. Start off with something to help your balance – a couple of chairs or a doorway, perhaps – and expect to fall off the first few times. Remember how hard it was to ride your bike the first time? Well this is the same sort of thing. Once you have the muscle memory built up, you’ll be rolling like a pro in no time. The practice will pay off when you realise what a realistic riding feel rollers give you. Because your bike is free to move side to side, they offer probably the best simulation of riding on the road available in your living room.

Choosing a set of rollers is a bit easier than choosing a turbo trainer, mainly because of the simplicity of the idea. Top-end rollers tend to offer extra features such as conical drums (to stabilise your wheels), variable resistance or systems which allow the unit to move backwards or forwards to soak up acceleration or deceleration, which can help you to get ‘out of the saddle’ whilst pedalling, without falling off. Although this sounds like a crazy idea, for some reason it really works!

Rollers can be noisy, so the same caveats apply as with the louder varieties of turbo trainer – you wouldn’t want to use these things in the library. It’s probably also best to stick to tyres which have a minimal tread when you’re using rollers.

Although you probably could learn to ride your bike with knobbly tyres on there, you’ll be a lot more comfortable training for hours at a time on a road bike fitted with slicks; and that’s before we’ve considered the detrimental effect that any suspension would have on the ride.

The benefits of bike rollers

To give you a bite sized summary of what we’ve just covered, the benefits of bike rollers are:

  • Improved pedal technique, straight line riding ability and balance
  • Great for building endurance
  • Easy to transport to/from events to help you warm up/down
  • Very realistic
  • Looks really cool (once you can do it!)
  • Not as ‘boring’ as a turbo trainer
  • No excessive tyre wear

Should I choose a turbo trainer, bike rollers, or both?

Ok, which type of trainer would suit you best? Although there are gains (and not to mention a bit of variety) to be had from using both a turbo trainer and rollers, you probably don’t need to go this far unless you’re a fairly serious (i.e. competitive) cyclist. The extra money might be better spent on getting yourself a slightly more advanced trainer, which will probably make your workouts quite a bit more enjoyable.

For mountain bikers who don’t own a road bike, and who don’t intend to own a road bike, the most sensible solution is probably to buy a turbo trainer and training tyre/wheel. This will work much better with your existing equipment, and allow you to work hard against the resistance (because you never push your bike up a hill, right?)

Road cyclists will find that rollers are very well suited to their bikes as they stand, which is always a bonus. They also stand to gain the most from the type of fast cadence (high-RPM) pedalling that goes on when using a set of rollers. But equally, roadies can benefit from turbo trainers which is illustrated by the focus on road routes in the VR software included with top-end models. So really, the choice is yours.

Making the most of a turbo trainer: recommended accessories

In order to get the very most out of your indoor cycle training, a number of accessories have been developed and are available to buy at Tweeks right now, including:

  • A training mat. This will help to cut down on noise and protect your floor against vibration damage. We sell a number of different types which can be found in the trainer and roller accessories section of our website.
  • Sweat protector. Training makes you sweat and sweat damages bikes. A device like the Tacx Sweat Cover will stop your bike coming up with a nasty rash.
  • Turbo trainer tyres. A specially designed turbo trainer tyre like the Elite Coperton Trainer Tyre will cut noise levels and lasts longer than normal bike tyres. Just don’t try and use it out on a ride!
  • Front wheel riser. A simple device that will lift your front wheel slightly, levelling the bike out. Check out the Tacz Skyliner Front Wheel Riser Block, Elite Travel Block or the Elite ElastoGel Travel Block Front Wheel Riser.
  • Laptop or TV. Ok, not exactly a bike accessory but it can help the time to fly by as you put the miles into your legs. Definitely easiest on a turbo trainer, though.
  • Fan. You’ll get seriously hot training indoors, so do yourself a favour and get a fan.

One last top tip…

As with all forms of exercise we recommend a good warm up to prevent any injuries! You should also consult your doctor before training if you have any medical condition(s) that may cause a problem.

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