Turbo Time: Which Turbo Trainer?
There is a huge range of turbo trainers now available and the choice can be bewildering when you are trying to decide which turbo trainer to buy.
Essentially all turbo trainers do the same thing – they turn your bike into an ‘exercise bike’ which can be ridden indoors. This allows you to train even when the weather is atrocious. It’s never too icy if you’re not actually moving!
If you are into bike racing, turbo trainers can also be quite handy for warming up before a race. When I used to time trial, my standard pre-race warm up was behind the car, on the turbo with the soundtrack to Chasing Legends on the ipod. I actually did this so often that I have become a bit like Pavlov’s dog – when I hear the soundtrack I immediately want to pedal hard!
I have written before about why you might want to turbo and about what you might need to get set up on a turbo. Now it’s time to think about what turbo trainer to choose. Ultimately, this comes down to a combination of what you want the turbo to do, and how much you want to pay. The cost of a turbo trainer can range from £50 to over £1000.
There are a number of different ways in which turbo trainers generate the resistance which you then pedal against. They all ultimately do the same thing, but there are differences in cost and noise.
Magnetic turbos (rather obviously) use a magnetic field to generate resistance. They usually have some form of trigger switch which you attach to your handlebars and which allows you to shift the resistance up and down. Personally, this is one benefit I can manage quite well without as my bike also has gears which also allow me to change the resistance up and down.
Fluid turbos create resistance via a propeller as it spins inside a chamber filled with fluid. The resistance with these models tends to be more stable than with magnetic models and they have more of a road like ‘feel’ to them. Fluid resistance models do not usually have the ability to change the resistance (other than with your gears). They are generally much quieter than air or magnetic type turbo trainers.
These are the real ‘old style’ turbo trainers which use fans to generate resistance. As you might expect, they are very noisy to run! This is fine if, like me, you are out in the garage and the only consequence of the noise of the turbo is that the TV needs to be cranked up pretty loud so I can still hear ER. If you are planning to train indoors in a house where other people have to live or is a flat with neighbours and imperfect soundproofing, they might be best avoided! Generally, air resistance turbo trainers also use just your gears to change the resistance. The great advantage of these models is cost – they are generally the cheapest you can buy. If you are just starting out with turbo training, it is well worth considering these cheaper models. That way, if you really hate it, you haven’t spent a small fortune in finding out that you hate it.
The next major difference in turbo trainers is how you attach your bike to them. There are two options here; ‘traditional’ and direct drive.
‘Traditional’ Turbo Trainers
Traditional turbo trainers use a clamp to attach to the quick release skewer of the bike’s rear wheel. The rear wheel tyre then sits on a roller which is connected to a resistance unit. These kinds of turbo trainers have been around for years. The disadvantage to them is that they wear out your rear tyre so they need either a dedicated turbo tyre or a dedicated turbo wheel. This is fine if you have a bike which you just use on the turbo all winter but it can be a real pain if you are also using your bike outdoors as well. You are then stuck changing the wheel or tyre repeatedly. This is a faff which may well become your best excuse not to turbo.
Direct Drive Turbo Trainers
Direct drive turbo trainers are a more recent development. Instead of the bike being attached by the rear wheel skewers, you remove your rear wheel entirely. Your rear drop outs then sit on the turbo trainer, with the actual turbo trainer taking the place of your rear wheel. This has the great advantage that you do not need to keep changing a tyre or a wheel if you are also using your bike outdoors.
This type of turbo tends to be slightly more stable, although I am not so sure how important this is as I have never even come close to toppling a bike on a turbo (and that is from someone who once managed to fall off a static watt bike!). More importantly, they are also significantly quieter than traditional turbo trainers. They also offer greater levels of resistance. Direct drive turbos also take out the variable of tyre pressure. This allows you to compare your performance without checking that your tyre pressure is the same each time you turbo.
As you might expect, direct drive trainers usually cost more than traditional models.
You will also need a cassette to use a direct drive turbo trainer as these are not included, bear that in mind when you are pricing them.
Gone are the days of being limited to staring at a blank wall or watching dvds whilst on the turbo trainer (although I have to say, I love my dvd boxsets on the turbo and I won’t be giving them up, at least not until I finish the entire ER boxset). You can now buy a range of ‘smart’ turbo trainers which can be connected to your smart phone to provide an interactive experience when turboing.
Smart Turbo Turbos
Smart turbos can connect to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Most models come with their own software and the ability to connect to third party apps, such as Zwift or TrainerRoad. Whichever app you choose, this software can control the resistance of your turbo in order to recreate rides, conduct specific training sessions or even race your virtual friends. The software can then collect and display data such as cadence, speed and heart rate. Many models also calculate power data. Power data is something I personally find incredibly helpful for structuring training sessions, although a smart turbo trainer is not the only way to get this data.
If you decide that a smart turbo trainer is for you then you still have a number of decisions to make. Smart turbos can be magnetic, fluid or direct drive as described above. Of these, the magnetic models are the most basic (and therefore the cheapest). Unlike fluid and direct drive models, these cannot be programmed to mimic a specific power or gradient.
The ‘money is no object’ option
The Tacx Neo Direct Drive Smart Trainer claims to be ‘the world’s quietest trainer. It also claims to be ‘the ultimate in ease of use’. You would certainly hope that it lives up to this with a rrp of £1299.99
The ‘money is a serious object’ option
If you are just starting out on a turbo trainer it is worth buying as cheap as you can. This allows you to give it a go and decide whether you really will stick to it. The cheapest I could find is in Ebay for £32.99. It is not going to to connect to your phone and give you fancy statistics about your session. but it will let you train and let you get an idea whether a more expensive model is for you.
The Cheap(er) but smart option
If you have your heart set on a smart trainer, but do not want to break the bank, there are cheaper options available. Obviously, the less you pay the noisier it will be. Also obviously, the less you pay, the less you will be able to do with your turbo. Be really honest with yourself – how much data do you need and do you really need to be able to race your online mates in order to motivate yourself to turbo (if the answer is yes to this, you had better get saving!).
For under £200 you can pick up an Elite Qubo Power Mag Smart B Plus Trainer.
There are also some good deals to be had at the moment and with 25% off, you can also buy the Tacx Satori Smart Turbo Trainer for under £200.
Buying Second Hand
I would always suggest looking at Gumtree and Ebay to see if the model you have set your heart on is available second hand. It is not uncommon for turbo trainers to come up second hand and the great advantage of this is that you can always sell whatever you buy on again if you do not get on with it.
I have an old Tacx Flow turbo which I absolutely love. It is not a smart trainer (the last time I bought a turbo, smart trainers were not yet on the market!) but it does give power data. I suspect the the power data it gives is not all that accurate, however it is consistent and for me that is all that matters. A quick check on ebay right now shows that these are still in circulation second hand. If you are interested, take a look here and here.