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.
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.
- They are used by cyclists who wish to warm up or cool down before or after a bicycle race or competition.
- 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.
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:
- Roller Bike Trainers (Or “Rollers”)
- 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.