Since The Chainlink was lucky enough to have one of the area’s top cycling coaches, Kristen Meshberg, share her thoughts on getting in shape for spring, we thought it fitting to talk about a cyclist’s second most important training tool (next to a bike); the stationary trainer.
Meshberg’s popular winter training class, Pedaling with a Purpose, takes place primarily on stationary trainers, and there’s a good reason for this. A stationary trainer allows you to do structured “intervals” (hard efforts) on the bike, without having to worry about traffic, stop lights, potholes, temperature, snow, etc. Freed from these distractions, you can put 100% of your focus into developing a smooth pedal stroke, achieving the optimum cadence (speed at which you turn the cranks), efficient breathing, proper gear selection...and ultimately developing into a faster cyclist.
But what’s the best trainer to choose? Quality trainers start at $169.99 MSRP for a basic CycleOps wind trainer. At the upper end, you can spend $1099 for Wahoo Fitness’ popular direct-drive, smart phone connected KICKR, all the way up to $1629 for a CompuTrainer, which is the commercial-level machine you generally see in gyms that cater to cyclists and triathletes, such as Vision Quest, HPI, and PSIMET’s new training center.
Over the past winter, I’ve been fortunate enough to have at my disposal two stationary trainers that, despite their relatively modest prices, I would happily recommend to riders at nearly any ability level; the Kinetic Road Machine fluid trainer and the SportCrafters OverDrive Pro Rollers.
Both retail for just under $400 and in my experience, both are well-made, smooth, quiet, durable, and (when paired with the right training plan), can reduce you to a quivering puddle of sweat and exhaustion.
So, I’m guessing at this point you’re possibly asking two key questions:
Question #1: Why do I like these two models so much?
Why not a magnetic trainer with five levels of resistance, accessible via a remote, handlebar-mounted shifter. Or what about a standard set of rollers, which can be had for almost $100 less? The answer has to do with a feature these share. It’s a feature that in my opinion makes them well worth the upcharge over entry-level models, and even makes them superior to some more expensive models: “progressive resistance.”
Question #2: If I could only have one, would I choose the trainer or the rollers?
The answer to that is “well, it depends.”
Let’s start with the first question: Why do I like these particular models?
Since my first experience with indoor training took place at a CompuTrainer studio a few years back, I harbored some misconceptions about the avocado green Kinetics I’d often see at friend’s houses, or fire-engine red SportCrafters rollers I’d see people warming up on before races.
My assumption was that they essentially were toys compared to the high-tech, computerized system I was using. The CompuTrainer knew my weight and power output. It could run me through a virtual Barry Roubaix gravel road race (hills and all), or would sadistically increase resistance if I downshifted in an attempt to slack off during an interval workout.
I wrongly assumed the Kinetic and SportCrafters, by comparison, were basically good for spinning in place and burning some calories, and that you couldn't do real workouts on them.
What I didn't realize is that these trainers place a load on the wheel that increases with speed. Because of this, you can do interval work every bit as effective as a CompuTrainer, merely by manipulating gear selection. Specifically, to make pedaling harder, you simply shift up. To make pedaling easier, shift down.
To be perfectly honest, even the least expensive magnetic trainers and basic rollers do this to a degree. But the increase in resistance follows a linear path and eventually maxes out. What this means in a practical sense is that you might wind up feeling a bit too much resistance in the low-to-middle range of your interval efforts. But when you are trying to do a maximum effort (such as a sprint) you’ll feel the trainer reach its point of maximum resistance and you’ll spin right past it. To put it another way, it gives you either too much resistance, or not enough.
Spending the extra $100 or so for the Kinetic fluid model gives you a natural-feeling “progressive” resistance curve that’s designed to mimic what you feel on the road, all the way up to your maximum, vein popping limit. Kinetic claims their curve is based on a 160lb rider pedaling over moderately rough pavement going up a 1% grade. You can see what this looks like on a graph here.
The Kinetic achieves this via a turbine that spins inside a sealed chamber filled with oil. At their factory, they have a machine (humorously called “Crank Armstrong”) that tests each unit for consistency.
Spending the extra $100 for the OverDrive Pro rollers, on the other hand, gets you their upgraded roller drum featuring “Arc Modulation Technology.” What this means is that inside the drum is a magnet. The faster the drum turns, the closer the magnet gets to the drum’s inner surface, in turn increasing resistance. To see how it works, you can watch a video, and see a power graph. As an added feature, if you detach the drum and flip it around so the red cap points to the left side of the rollers, it behaves like a normal roller drum, perfect for pre-race warmup.
As good as these trainers are, you only get out of them what you put into them. So to get the most out of your time and effort, pair either of these units with some training videos (e.g. Spinnervals, Vision Quest, Sufferfest, etc.) and/or work with a coach to provide you with a training plan. A training plan likely will consist of structured, hard intervals a few days per week, coupled with easy, fat-burning spins, a “tempo” ride or two (spirited pace but not crushing it), and a day or two of rest.
Having a power meter on your bike is very helpful, but not totally necessary. But at the very least you’ll want a heart rate monitor, a cadence sensor and wheel sensor so you can know your “speed” while riding indoors.
A cadence sensor, wheel speed sensor, and heart rate monitor are vital equipment. If you have a power meter, even better. (And yes, we know, that bike needs a bath.)
For an extra $130, Kinetic offers the optional inRide power meter. This device installs on the Kinetic fluid trainer. It calculates power based on the speed of the trainer’s drum, and sends the data to a smartphone app. DC Rainmaker did an excellent review of the inRide power meter which you can check out here.
Once you’re finished with your workout, you can save it in Garmin Connect, Training Peaks, etc. to track your progress.
Since I’ve been using these units for the past nine weeks with a training plan of my own, I’ve really had a chance to put them through their paces, and as luck would have it, also try a lower-end magnetic trainer by CycleOps as a basis for comparison.
For the record, CycleOps makes fantastic products. They offer a full-range of quality trainers in a variety of price points, including fluid trainers with progressive resistance, direct drive trainers, trainers with built-in power meters...even a magnetic trainer with a new, proprietary magnetic progressive resistance, which I’m especially curious to try.
That said, their entry-level magnetic trainer was noticeably less smooth than both the fluid trainer and the rollers. And while quiet at most speeds during a workout, it got really noisy during harder efforts. More importantly, you start to spin out during sprint efforts. Incidentally, the owner of this trainer recently upgraded to a CycleOps Fluid2 trainer, loves it and says it’s a huge improvement. I haven’t ridden it, but I’d venture to guess it’s every bit as good as the Kinetic.
So now for the big question: Should you choose rollers or a trainer if you could only own one?
The short answer is that both are amazing and effective training tools. But, they do excel in different areas.
The advantage of the rollers, in my opinion, is that they force you to have a smooth pedal stroke and to be very “quiet” and stable on the bike. They also force you to maintain concentration and hold a straight line, which is something that you could argue is very important when riding in a fast paceline. I was a bit incredulous when I heard that rollers work your core. But especially after the first few times on them, I definitely had sore abs the next day. Another advantage is that you can’t really ever stop pedaling, and it takes a requisite amount of effort merely to keep moving. As a result, even when you’re “recovering” between efforts, you’re still working reasonably hard.
The disadvantage is that (at least at my level of skill on them), the act of staying upright on the rollers takes away from effort I’d be otherwise putting into the actual workout.
For example, I happen to be finishing up a 10-week “Sufferfest” plan (review coming up next week!) A big part of Sufferfest are videos that run you through a variety of race simulations. For example, one video lets you pretend you’re in a breakaway during the final kilometers of a cobbled spring classic. The action starts with a sharp “climb,” where you’re instructed to stand up, out of the saddle in your highest gear, holding a cadence of 70-75. Once you crest the hill, you sit down and downshift several gears for a short flat, where you put out a “threshold” effort at 100 cadence. Then you kick it up a notch for a leadout into a full-gas sprint finish. And when that first one is done, you get 15 seconds of rest and they run you through the sequence three more times.
I’ll be honest, when I’m pushing so hard I can barely see straight, the rollers are a little much for me to handle. And call me a wimp, but when I’m faced with the choice of letting off the gas or not falling, not falling will always win.
The trainer, on the other hand, let’s me easily stand up for the “climbs” as well as unleash my best “trying to rip the handlebars off” sprint without worrying about riding off the rollers and into my TV. As a result, I can definitely feel it in my legs more after a trainer workout.
The trainer also lets me recover a little better between hard efforts, which ironically, allows me push harder during the intervals, where my effort counts the most.
It’s worth saying that over the course of an hour long video, I will have nearly identical cadence numbers and burn a similar number of calories and have similar average and maximum heart rates. The rollers will always yield a slightly higher calorie burn and average heart rate, but we’re talking only 10-15 calories and 1-2 BPM. On both machines, according to my Garmin, I’ve burned more than 800 calories in an hour-long workout.
Eventually, I settled into a pattern where I primarily use the trainer for the race simulation videos, and use the rollers for tempo and endurance work. I occasionally try the rollers for the videos, but find myself not getting the most out of the “climbs” and maximum-effort sprints. I’ve managed to spin up past “42 mph” on the rollers, but my technique isn’t to the point where I can hold a straight line at those speeds...nor can I put a lot of power into the “climbs” where the video tells you to get out of the saddle for extended periods. Hopefully these are things I can improve upon with practice.
Moving on to some nit picky differences, trainers require a special skewer (so you don’t booger up your nice skewer) and it’s good to use an indoor-specific tire, because the trainer will quickly wear a nice flat spot in your road tire. The tire also has a tendency to slip a bit if you don’t have the tension just right. Lastly, the trainer seems to put a fair amount of stress on the bike itself, as evidenced by clunky, rough shifting, as well as noticeable frame flex.
The rollers, on the other hand, seem perfectly kind to road tires, no special skewer is needed, there’s no wheel slip, the bike shifts smoothly, and you’re putting no more stress on the bike than you would outdoors. The downside, obviously, is that they are significantly harder to learn, and you need a place to use them where you don’t risk injuring yourself or damaging your stuff.
So the verdict?
To sum things up in a nutshell, both kick your ass...but the trainer seems to kick your legs’ ass a bit more. The rollers, meanwhile, seem to put extra hurt on your cardio system, work your core, while also improving your bike handling skills.
If my workouts consisted of strictly intervals, tempo work and endurance work, as provided by a coach, I’d probably choose the rollers. I’d also prefer rollers for pre-race warmup.
But I really enjoy working with videos such as Sufferfest, which for me are much easier to do on the trainer. So, if forced to choose, I guess I’d have to go with the trainer. Thankfully, I have access to both...which really is the ideal situation.
For the majority of riders out there, when factoring in ease of use and relative lack of danger, I’d say the trainer is probably the safer bet. But give them both a try to see which works better for you. Either way, I doubt you'll be disappointed.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (email@example.com) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell. His goals for 2015 are to complete the Lumberjack 100 mountain bike race as well as a 600 kilometer brevet.