This is a guest post from Paul Johnson, the Founder of Compression+Design (www.compressiondesign.com), a resource for fitness enthusiasts, cyclists, and runners.
One of the biggest trends in cycling – and definitely the major trend in indoor cycling – is the rise of the smart trainer. Smart trainers allow you to do precision intervals, ride along with a video of your favorite place, or cycle with a bunch of virtual friends, all from indoors.
The first smart bike trainers hit the market in 2008, but it took a few years for them to really catch on. In the past two years, they have been on an amazing growth curve. Today, there is no shortage of smart bike trainers or the apps to go with them. We will provide a quick overview of the more popular options.
Hardware and Software
The first thing to know about the smart trainer market is that it is about both hardware – the trainers themselves – and software – the apps that run with the smart trainers. For best performance, they need to be compatible but are often not the same brand. In fact, many of the cycling app makers don’t even make trainers, although most trainer manufacturers have introduced some form of app. With one exception (Peleton, which will be note below) don’t worry about the brands – just invest the best of breed for your particular needs.
The first thing you will need is a physical trainer to mount your bike on. The trainer market used to be comprised of simple, mechanical trainers that were basic but worked well (explained in-depth, here). Popular brands were Kurt Kinetic and CycleOps, and they were reliable. Those brands still exist, and are as reliable and popular as ever. One thing that has changed, though, is that they have all introduced smart trainer options. Other companies, like Wahoo and Tacx, then entered the market focusing mainly on smart trainers.
As you look for a trainer, you will want to be sure to focus on a smart trainer if you plan to integrate it with online or Ipad apps for your training or virtual social rides. There is a way to make a non-smart trainer compatible with these apps, but it involves a workaround and is clunky, with extra cords and gadgets. We think you are better off spending the extra money on a trainer that is ready to integrate from day one. We especially like the direct-drive trainers, where you remove your wheel and power the trainer directly with your chain. You lose less power this way, and the power measurements are a little more accurate.
Once you have a trainer, you need to look for an app that you like. There are literally 20 smart trainer apps on the market, some way better than others. Things to consider are the number of workouts provided on each app, the type of coaching you will receive, and which apps your friends might be on in the event you want to do “virtual group rides”.
Apps typically charge a monthly fee ranging from $5 to $20. Our favorite, by far, is Zwift. It has been gaining market share for a couple years, and is compatible with virtually every app on the market. It offers social group rides, competitions with other users, structured workouts, and destination video rides. The competition rides can actually get pretty intense, with riders from around the world trying to crank out more power than each other and rise up the leaderboard.
Tacx also offers a good app with plenty of structured and unstructured options, but it doesn’t quite have the user base of Zwift – meaning you are more likely to have friends who ride on Zwift. There are others, but we think these are the two to consider, unless…….
A Note About Peloton
It is hard not to notice Peloton right now – they must have a rich marketing budget. Peloton is everywhere. There is a lot to be said about Peloton – great bikes, lots of users, excellent classes and coaching. People who use Peloton swear by it, and it is almost like a cult. We have two issues with Peloton for the typical, budget-conscious user though. First, it is expensive – the bike costs $2,000, and the service costs $40 a month. Second, you can’t train on your own bike – you get best results on the $2,000 Peloton bike. Actually, you can use your own bike on a smart trainer with the Peloton app, but the experience is comprimised and you might as well just do Zwift.
There are many more options than what we listed above, but we tried to single out the options we felt were the best for riders today. Regardless of which trainer / app combo you choose – or if you splurge on Peloton – we think that moving to a smart trainer can be a gamechanger for your training!