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Bicycle Trainers: The Complete Guide

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What is a bicycle trainer? What are the different types of bicycle trainers available? Which type of bicycle trainer is best? And what should you know about bicycle trainers if you plan to purchase one for yourself?

All of these questions will be answered in this long, but detailed article… so just keep reading… or scroll down below to the area that interests you the most.

stationary bicycle trainer cycling

What Is A Bicycle Trainer?

A bicycle trainer (or a “trainer” as they are sometimes called) is a piece of equipment that makes it possible for you to ride your bicycle from a stationary position. Very much like treadmills allow you to run in place, bicycle trainers allow you to cycle in place. But unlike a treadmill, a trainer is not an entirely separate piece of gym equipment. Instead, it is a device that attaches to your regular bicycle so that you can ride your bike in a stationary position.

There are two main ways that bicycle trainers are used.

  1. They are used by cyclists who wish to warm up or cool down before or after a bicycle race or competition.
  2. And even more common, they are used by athletes of all different skill levels so they can ride their bikes inside when the weather conditions are less than ideal, when time is of the essence, or when the cyclist wishes to participate in other activities (such as watching TV, reading a book, or checking his or her email).

On a personal note: Just about every cyclist in the city where I live (including myself) has a bicycle trainer in his or her home. When a big snow storm moves in, you can become trapped in your home for days, and being able to exercise on a bicycle trainer is a great way to stay in shape and not let the passing storm get the best of you.

What Kind Of Bicycle Trainers Are There?

There are a number of different types of bicycle trainers and each type operates in a different way.

There are, however, two major types of bicycle trainers, with several sub-types underneath these two.

two types of bicycle trainers

In the photo above, the cyclist on the left is riding a bike positioned on top of a roller bicycle trainer. To the rider’s left (our right) is a bicycle mounted on a mechanical bicycle trainer.

The two major types of bicycle trainers you will see are:

  1. Roller Bike Trainers (Or “Rollers”)
  2. Mechanical Resistance Bike Trainers

Roller Bike Trainers

Roller Bike Trainers are the most simply-designed bike trainers you will see, as they consist of nothing but a set of rollers that you ride your bike on top of. With rollers there is nothing to hold your bike vertical, so you must maintain your own balance while on the rollers… and as you might suspect, the learning curve on rollers does take some time. When first learning how to use roller bike trainers, it is helpful to have something to hold on to so that you are less likely to ride off the sides of the rollers or fall to the ground while learning to balance.

indoor rooler bike trainer

Shown here: Minoura Action Roller Advance Wide Bicycle Trainer

The Benefits of Roller Bike Trainers:

  • They are usually the least expensive type of bicycle trainers you can buy.
  • They provide a more realistic cycling experience because you have to maintain your balance, just as you would on a normal bike ride.
  • The fact that you can shift your torso from side to side, like you would when on your regular bike, makes it feel like you aren’t riding in place, but that you are out there on the road.

The Drawbacks of Roller Bike Trainers:

  • Learning how to balance and ride on rollers takes some time – even for experienced cyclists.
  • The rollers themselves provide no resistance to your bicycle. The only way to increase your resistance on the rollers is to shift gears.
  • Rollers can not be used with knobby mountain bike tires. They are designed only for road and flat, touring style tires.

Mechanical Resistance Bicycle Trainers

The second major type of bicycle trainer is what is known as a Mechanical Resistance Bicycle Trainer. It get its name because this type of bike trainer uses a mechanism of some kind to resist the motion of the wheels… and it has a frame that holds your rear wheel in a vertical position (making it easier to balance).

The resistance mechanism on these types of trainers come in 3 major sub-types: wind, magnetic, and fluid. I’ll talk about each of these sub-types in just a moment.

Shown here: Elite Real Power CT Indoor Bicycle Trainer

The Benefits of Mechanical Bike Trainers:

  • Because there is a frame to hold your rear wheel in place, keeping your balance on a mechanical bike trainer is a piece of cake.
  • They are relatively small (in comparison to Rollers) and won’t take up a lot of space in your home, basement or garage.

The Drawbacks of Mechanical Bike Trainers:

  • They tend to cost more than Roller Bike Trainers. And depending on which of the three sub-types you get, the costs can escalate even higher.
  • Because the rear wheel is locked in place by the frame of the roller, you don’t get that back and forth “road-like” feel that you get on Roller Bike Trainers.

The Three Main Types Of Mechanical Bicycle Trainers

When it comes to Mechanical Bicycle Trainers, there are three main types that you will run across: Wind, Magnetic, and Fluid – each of which operates in a slightly different fashion.

Wind Bicycle Trainers:

cycloops bike trainer

Shown here: CycleOps Wind Indoor Bicycle Trainer

Generally the least expensive of all the mechanical bicycle trainers, a wind bicycle trainer creates resistance by having the cyclist power a circular fan that blows air onto the wheel.

Because these types of trainers are relatively primitive in their design, they are inexpensive, less-likely to break that some of the more complicated bicycle trainers, and they provide a relatively road-like ride.

The major drawbacks of wind bike trainers, however, are that they 1) create an incredible amount of noise… and 2) because the resistance to the wheel is created by wind and wind alone, the resistance is not as high as some cyclists would prefer.

Magnetic Bicycle Trainers:

magnetic bike trainer example

Shown here: Graber Mag Indoor Bicycle Trainer

A magnetic bicycle trainer functions with the use of a magnetic flywheel on the back of the device. The magnetic pull that this device creates causes resistance to your bicycle’s rear wheel and by adjusting this resistance, you can make the bicycle easier or more difficult to ride.

The benefits of magnetic bicycle trainers are that they are nearly silent to operate (which makes them ideal if you plan to ride your bike while watching TV or making phone calls), but the drawback is that only a certain amount of resistance can be added before the trainer is prone to break.

Fluid Bicycle Trainers:

fluid bike trainer example

Shown here: CycleOps Fluid 2 Indoor Bicycle Trainer

Finally, there are fluid bicycle trainers. Fluid bike trainers are the most complex of the bicycle trainers you will likely run across and because of this, they are more prone to breakage that the types we’ve discussed previously.

Fluid bicycle trains function as a sort of hybrid between magnetic bicycle trainers and a totally separate type of trainer that creates friction with the use of liquid resistance chambers.

The major benefit of a fluid bike trainer is that as you begin to pedal faster and faster, the resistance to the rear wheel begins to progressively increase. This road-like feel is what many cyclists working on a bicycle trainer want to feel, but fluid bicycle trainers do have their drawbacks. Mainly the fact that over time the trainer is prone to overheat, expand, and begin to leak.

Other Types Of Bicycle Trainers:

There are a number of other types of bicycle trainers as well.

There are centrifugal trainers, which like fluid trainers, get progressively more resistance as you increase your speed.

There are special “virtual reality” bike trainers, which are hooked up to electronic video game-type systems that measure the cyclist’s speed, cadence, and other such measurements while at the same time placing the cyclist in a virtual world of some kind via the use of video screens, audio projections, etc.

And there are number other types of trainers in existence.

But for the most part, we’ve covered all the major types of bicycle trainers in this article.

Now the big question is…

Do You Really Need A Bicycle Trainer?

Well, that depends.

It depends on you, your goals for the future, the type of cycling that you do, and how you plan to use your trainer.

As I mentioned at the top of this article, I own a bicycle trainer myself and I use it mainly to ride inside on days when I’m trapped inside due to bad weather or when I simply want to get a workout in and I don’t have the time to actually go on a long, drawn-out ride.

If your goals are similar, then a bicycle trainer might be great for you!

When it comes to whether or not you really need a bicycle trainer, I can’t make that call.

For most cyclists, the use of a trainer may not be entirely necessary. But for cyclists who are serious about what they do, are training for an upcoming race or tour, or simply want a way to ride their bike when the weather outside is less than perfect, then at least giving a bicycle trainer a try is a great idea.

Like I said before: I can’t tell you whether or not you NEED a bicycle trainer. But I’m willing to bet that there are more than a few people reading this article who have experience with bicycle trainers of various types and could weigh in on this subject.

So, if you have a bicycle trainer… or you’ve had a bicycle trainer in the past… and you’d like to answer this question as to whether or not you think bicycle trainers are a valuable asset, then please leave a comment at the end of this article. I’d really like to get your feedback… and I’m sure others who are considering the use of a bicycle trainer would like to hear from you as well.

Which Type Of Bicycle Trainer Is Best?

Just like I can’t confidently tell you whether or not you should buy a bicycle trainer for yourself, I can’t confidently tell you which of the hundreds of bicycle trainers currently on the market is the best.

My opinion, after trying out and reaching dozens of different trainers for myself, is that price is usually a good indication of just how good a bicycle trainer you are getting.

Inexpensive trainers are often times very loud, prone to breakage, and/or in need or repair. While the more expensive bicycle trainers are quiet(er), prove a road-like feel, and will last you a very long time.

Tell me what you think: Just like I asked for feedback from experienced bicycle trainer cyclists in the heading above… I’d like to get your feedback here as well.

If you are currently riding on a bicycle trainer of any kind… or you’ve used a bicycle trainer in the past… what kind of trainer did you have (name and trainer type)? And would you recommend the trainer to other cyclists looking to buy a trainer for themselves?

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

I hope that this information has been helpful to you. If you have any questions, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you with an answer just as soon as I can. Or maybe, just maybe, another cyclist here at Bicycle Touring Pro with extensive trainer experience will weigh in and answer your question as well.

Thanks for reading… and happy cycling!

Photos by Phil Roeder and K. Steudel.

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of BicycleTouringPro.com - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the author of "The Bicycle Touring Blueprint" and three additional cycling books. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

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35 Comments

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  2. Kieran Groeger

    October 3, 2011 at 8:45 am

    I go to the gym maybe five days a week and spend some time cycling there. I find the spinning bikes best. I can stand up and grind out the legs to a musical rhythm. It really helps my legs get stronger, faster, fitter.

  3. Earl G

    October 3, 2011 at 10:39 am

    . . . because you have to maintain your balance, just as you would on a normal bike ride.

    Great article and well timed as just this past weekend I started thinking about getting one of these in case it ever starts raining again in South Texas.

    The only thing I’d like to comment on is the second bullet under “The Benefits of Roller Bike Trainers” . . . because you have to maintain your balance, just as you would on a normal bike ride.

    Just like a motorcycle, you only have to do the balance routine up to around 8-10 mph. Somewhere around those speeds the gyroscopic effect of the spinning tires helps keeps you upright.

  4. Colleen Welch

    October 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I do have a trainer (Minoura Mag 850 w/remote) and I use it a lot. I live in the Pacific Northwest where we are no strangers to rain. Throughout the winter, I keep my road bike on my trainer. That way, I can still maintain my fitness level no matter the weather. I do ride outside in the rain, but that is just when I have someplace I have to go. I prefer to not subject my touring bike to the elements just to do a workout. One advantage to doing a workout on the trainer is that I can listen to music. I don’t have to listen for cars or anything. Another advantage, from a training standpoint, is that the “road” can be whatever you want. You want hills? Increase the resistance. Flatland spinning? Well, you get the idea. While a trainer is great to get that workout in, it does not replace the skills learned by actually getting out on the road. Even if you have rollers, it doesn’t teach you how to ride with traffic and be aware of your surroundings. I say this seemingly obvious point because I know people who think they can do all their training for an event like the Seattle to Portland Bike Ride on an indoor trainer or in a Spin class. A trainer shouldn’t replace actual riding, but it is a great way to stay in shape over the winter so when Spring rolls around you are ready to get out and ride!

  5. Peter Marsalis

    October 3, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    good info, I ride both tandems and recumbents so cannot use the rollers but used to ride them when I was commuting. It is hard to find a magnetic or wind trainer that is stable enough for a tandem. It also is useful as a tuning stand for these types of bikes thus able to do double duty.

  6. Greg Hoover

    October 3, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Do you have any tips on how to use one and how to fight the bordome of riding one?
    I have one but it can get boring and heard to get started. I have the Cycleops wind indoor and the Graber Mag.
    Thank you,
    Greg

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      October 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm

      You are right Greg, getting started on a bicycle trainer does take a little getting used to and it can become a bit boring after a while. When I ride my trainer, I always listen to music, watch TV or do something like that to keep my mind entertained while riding. I think that helps a lot. If I were just on the bicycle and riding while staring at the wall in front of me, I probably wouldn’t last more than a few minutes.

      There are also a bunch of cycling specific videos out there (like these here, for example) that are videos that you watch while you are on the trainer. And the videos give you a sort of POV view of some spectacular bicycle routes all around the world. So you ride your bike, watch the videos while you are cycling, and are kind of taken on a digital bike ride while at the same time exploring a new place through your television set. It is kind hard to explain, so I hope you understand. Do a quick search for bicycle trainer videos and you will find all kinds of these videos – shot in really cool spots all over the world. Try picking out a location that interests you the most and try watching that video in conjunction with your time on the bicycle trainer. I bet it will help a lot to fight whatever boredom you might be experiencing while on your trainer.

  7. Jim McCracken

    October 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    The LeMond Revolution is a direct drive trainer that connects directly to your drive train rather than pressing against your rear wheel. It’s the first real advance in indoor trainers in a long time and is worth considering.
    http://www.lemondfitness.com/product_detail/465/lemond-revolution

  8. Arthur Zack

    October 4, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I bought a fairly expensive stationary bike several years ago that I use a lot in the winter.Other than the feel of being on your own bike, is there a any real advantage from a being in shape standpoint to purchasing a trainer as opposed to using he stationary bike which I can program to give me the resisitance I need to get a good workout?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      October 5, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      The cost of a stationary bicycle vs the bicycle trainers in this article are going to be one of the major differences. And the size as well! I know what when I bought my bicycle trainer, the size of the thing was extremely important to me, as I didn’t want to have to store a really big thing in my tiny home. But I think the biggest difference between a stationary bicycle and a bicycle trainer is that, like you pointed out, with a bicycle trainer you can ride in a stationary position on YOUR OWN BICYCLE. To many cyclists, myself included, this is pretty important, because as you ride with a bicycle trainer, you are actually training to ride YOUR OWN bike. Going with a stationary bicycle might be better if you are cycling just to get in better shape. But using your own bike on a bicycle trainer is the way to go, I think, if you are training for an upcoming ride, race, tour, etc.

  9. chris wathan

    January 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    i bought minoura 850 with remote,living in ontario canada winter can be a real drag,i like that fact i can maintain some of my fitness and keep my butt conditioned.
    although it’s not the same as riding outside i would not be without one. if and when i need a new trainer i will take good look at a kurt kinetic rock and roll trainer,it can move side to side and gives a more road like feel..it is expensive but i think it would be worth it..

  10. Fluid Trenerzy rowerowe

    March 4, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Witam – mam pytanie gdzie mo?na kupi? taki sprz?t i ile kosztuje .

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      March 4, 2012 at 11:21 pm

      Each of these trainers is available in different locations. I am guessing you are in Poland? In that country I’m not sure where you would be able to purchase any of these trainers. You can start by looking at your local bicycle shops.

      Otherwise, you will want to first decide which trainer you want. Then you need to look at that company’s website and see if they have any dealers in Poland or the neighboring countries. Then contact your nearest dealer and see if they will sell you the trainer that you want.

      That is typically how it is done. Good luck!

  11. Jim W.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Personally, I’ve found that I really prefer the magnetic bike trainers. The amount of noise that they produce (or rather, don’t produce) is really great.

    I definitely agree, by the way, that using a trainer is 100x better than using any stationary bike!

  12. Evelyn Maclellan

    May 28, 2012 at 11:40 am

    I live in Nanaimo B.C and I want to change mt road bike into a stationary bike
    I,m 75 and have a knee problem and was told to ride a stationary bike
    I need something thats good and economical

  13. Steve Bienstock

    July 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks I appreciate reading about Bicycle Trainers..I do have an Indoor Bicycle Exerciser by Pro-Form (Wind Wheel that cools you while getting an upper and lower Workout) with hand and arm movement and can disable uper arm easily but no resistance however it’s a pleasure.

    I also have a 21 speed bike that I would like to use indoor with a Bicycle Trainer…Can I use the Gears to create resistance unlike the Exerciser. Though I am 69 …I have some trepidation now riding outdoors in urban traffic unless it’s in the country with very little traffic to contend with..

    Thanks so much for your informative article on Bicycle Trainers.

  14. mary vancura

    September 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    We have been trying to find a wind or magnetic bike trainer that will fit with my fixed gear tour bike and / or my husband’s beach cruiser. Is there such an item or could we get adaptors on regular trainer for our bikes. We tried out a couple but had to return them as they were too large to fit our wheels w/out the gears on the wheel. Thank you. We are both under dr’s orders to get more exercise and b/c of heat in summer and cold in winter and indoor trainer would be ideal. Thank you,

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      September 9, 2012 at 2:05 am

      Most bicycle trainers are designed to be used with road bikes, just because that is the type of person who is probably going to actually want to ride a bike indoors – someone training for a race or event. That’s probably why you are finding it difficult to find a bicycle trainer that will work with your beach cruiser. What you may have to do is, instead of trying to find a trainer that fits your bicycle, find a bicycle (or at the very least, a rear bicycle wheel) that fits on your bicycle trainer.

  15. jane

    September 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    want to buy a trainer , but still not sure which one , i dont like the sound of the rollers, have been doing around 150 miles a week on the road and just love it , had my bike for 6 months, but now the dark nigths are here i am not getting the miles in , so wanted a trainer to work with at home. was thinking of a flywheel but in your report you say they break ,so any ideas , anyone , thanks

  16. Thom

    November 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    This might seem like a really silly question, but when you use the skewer that came with your trainer for your back wheel do you leave it in when you take the bike off the trainer and ride on the road? Or do you switch back to the skewer that came with your bike? Thanks.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      November 20, 2012 at 12:27 am

      I generally switch back to the one that came with my bicycle and the one that came with the trainer just for the trainer.

  17. Trevor

    January 2, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Not much has been said about the features of these trainers. I am currently in the process of building a recumbent and have been wondering about the power outputs of different chain management configurations. I have seen that most trainers have power curves relating wheel rpm and resistance force to power. Are some trainers better at this or have features that would help with power measurements?

  18. Mark

    February 4, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Hi,

    I’m trying to find out some info about the Graber Mag trainer but I’m having no luck. I can’t even find a company website. Amazon has been no help. Anyway, I want to know if the Graber trainer can be used with a 29 inch mountain bike tire. I know the product description claims to be compatible with 26″, 27″ and 700c wheels but will it accept a 700c wheel with a larger tire such as what would be on a 29″mountain bike?

    Thanks,
    Mark

  19. Larry

    March 28, 2013 at 11:28 pm

    I’ve been riding a while, but in the past I would basically stop in the winter, but this year I got myself a bike trainer, I started out with something that got decent reviews, but didn’t cost a lot so I could decide if I liked using a trainer. It’s worked out fairly well so far, I got the Forza F2 Trainer, but I think I’m ready to move up to one of the better trainers.

  20. M Geiger

    June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am

    I have a Minoura 850 that was in storage for a few years. It’s 105º outside today, so I thought I would pull it out and start using it again. The roller doesn’t move at all, and I suspect the mechanism needs a good cleaning. Are there any instructions to be found on how to take one apart and clean it up? All I can find are the user manuals, with no maintenance instructions.

    I just started riding again a couple months ago after being away from it way too long, and would hate to have to severely curtail riding until the weather cools in September.

  21. Edgar

    July 9, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Very good guide, thanks!
    I use Spivi with a cadence sensor attached, does any of the trainers here transmit watts(power) data out for software like Spivi?

  22. Lori

    October 23, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Do you recommend getting a tire that is specific for trainers? I’ve heard that trainers can cause flat spots on the tire.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      October 25, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      I don’t think you necessarily need a trainer-specific tire, but you do need a tire with no tread on it. Trainers are not meant to be used with treaded bicycle tires.

  23. Boab

    October 23, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    I have a bkool virtual reality.trainer..really.good real videos not game style..

  24. Pat McGarrah

    October 23, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Many bike companies will not honor the frame warranty if a carbon fiber bike is used on a fixed trainer. That lack of rocking motion you described puts unnatural stress on the rear seat and chain stays. Carbon Fiber frames were not designed to be held back there. I believe Kinetics has a model called Rock ‘n Roller that some companies will allow with Carbon Fiber bikes. I know of no warranty issues with Carbon Fiber bikes on rollers.

    Of course, not a lot of carbon fiber touring bikes, but many of us have different bikes for different types of riding and maybe some folks have a carbon road machine for non-touring riding.

  25. Mabel Darling

    November 1, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    This article and the comments are helpful. I’ve ridden on rollers a handful of times and tried a spinning class once, but I’m currently less interested in the training/fitness aspect and really hated the amount of balance the rollers require when I just want to warm myself and stay moving while indoors in the winter. Specifically I’d like to be able to read a book propped up on a stand or on my handlebar bag while spinning in place. Have any of you attempted to read while riding on a mechanical trainer?

  26. Craig

    December 24, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Question -is there any way to just replace the small roller on a mag trainer resistance unit other than buyint a whole new trainer? I ride indoors 5 times/wk and wear them out in about 3 years.

    Thanks.

  27. Doug Schneider

    January 25, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    I have a Mag 850 trainer. I train on High for more work load but was wondering what setting is the closest to actual road riding? It has 7 settings Lo 1 2 3 4 5 Hi I set it in training on 5 or Hi.

  28. jen

    February 3, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I am about to have major foot surgery and want to use my cruiser indoors as soon as I am allowed to. Is there a trainer that works with cruiser style bikes? Will lose my mind with non-weight bearing for 6 weeks.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      February 3, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      You’d probably be best off with a set of rollers (as long as you can maintain your balance with the injury). And make sure you have smooth tires on your bike. No tread!

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