Turbo trainers have seen extreme and rapid development over recent years. Around 10 years ago, the best turbo trainers required manual resistance changes, were noisy and would chew through tyres at an expensive rate.
The advent of the smart turbo trainer and accompanying software meant indoor cycling as a discipline underwent a revival. Nowadays, the best turbo trainers are ‘smart’, meaning they connect to your computer via Bluetooth or Ant+ and the resistance at which your turbo trainer is set can be controlled by software.
Gone are the days of trying to balance enough focus to hit the prescribed workout with enough distraction to take your mind off the pain. Nowadays we are awash with indoor cycling apps to guide you through highly targeted workouts if you’re training. There are even connected video games that react to your pedalling input, meaning indoor cycling has opened up to recreational cyclists who want more than just suffering from their time on a bike.
So popular has the discipline become, the UCI has introduced an e-sports world championships, and a lockdown-edition of the Tour de France was held via the indoor platform, Zwift.
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Best turbo trainers: Direct drive
For direct drive turbo trainers to function, you’ll need to remove your rear wheel. The turbo trainer will have a cassette fitted, and you’ll connect your bike to the trainer in the same way you’d fit a rear wheel. This means your pedalling turns the flywheel directly, rather than relying on friction between your tyre and a roller.
Wahoo’s Kickr Core sits in the just under the brand’s flagship direct-drive Kickr model. It’s quite a bit cheaper and the main differences are the lack of folding legs, height adjustment, the slightly smaller flywheel at 12lbs / 5.4kg (the same size as the 2016 and 2017 Kickr), and you’ll have to supply your own cassette.
What the Kickr does offer is universal training app compatibility, 1800-watts of electromagnetic resistance, a simulated grade topping out at 16-per cent and claims of a +/- 2-per cent power accuracy. Once you’ve installed your cassette, it works with quick release, and thru-axle rear ends and offers smooth transitions in resistance and a surprisingly realistic road feel.
Should you want to take your indoor riding to another level still, it’ll work with the Kickr Climb and Kickr Headwind too.
The Flux 2 is positioned in the mid-tier of Tacx trainers, above the slightly cheaper Flux S and beneath the Neo 2T, which makes it into our list below.
We think the Flux 2 offers slightly better value for money than its more budget sibling thanks to the increased power accuracy, 500 extra watts of resistance, six per cent extra incline simulation, and the almost doubled maximum torque. It also includes compatibility for 142 and 148mm thru-axles.
With so many good direct-drive smart trainers currently on the market, the Elite Direto X makes a serious case for itself as far as affordability, performance and reliability are concerned – it’s a looker too with unique visual attributes that separate it not just from its rivals but its Elite stablemates too.
The integrated Optical Torque System (OTS) power meter is accurate and reliable, the platform is stable and the riding experience is glitch-free, realistic and audibly softer than its predecessor.
Compared to some of its rivals the Direto X is one of the most universally accepting smart trainers and can play nicely with 130 and 135mm quick-release frames as well as those that employ 142x12mm thru-axle configurations – the supplied skewer/axle endcap adapters will ensure the best fit.
If your pockets are deep enough, the Tacx Neo 2T turbo trainer is a Zwift or Rouvy lover’s best indoor companion. Offering a degree or two of movement in the freewheel, the Neo 2T can also recreate road surface sensations with some clever electronics.
Using electromagnetic resistance, Tacx says it can simulate up to a 125kg flywheel and offers 2200-watts to fight against and a max incline of 25-per cent. It’s also compatible with 135×10, 142×12 and 148×12 mm axles without the need for extra adaptors. It can also be unplugged and still continue to function, so it can be taken to races for your pre-race warmup.
Instead of using a belt to spin the freewheel like most other direct drive trainers do, the freehub Neo Smart 2 turns the flywheel, which Tacx says allows the trainer to offer power accuracy within one per cent without calibration — Tacx is so sure of this, it doesn’t even provide an option to calibrate. The Neo 2T also offers advanced power metrics like left/right balance and pedal stroke analysis.
Wahoo Kickr recently updated the top-tier model in its range, introducing the Kickr V5. With it, the already-highly-popular Kickr V4 is improved upon without any increase in price.
The key highlights all remained the same, including the 7.3kg flywheel, maximum 2,200 watts of resistance, 20 per cent incline, and the design of the body and foldable legs. However, Wahoo introduced AXIS; removable cushioned feet that allow up to five per cent of lateral motion to allow for natural pedalling motion and thus, an increase in comfort and road feel… on early tests with the Kickr V5, it’s noticeably better.
It also added an ethernet port, which doesn’t actually do anything at the moment, but will soon connect to laptops or televisions to help prevent mid-ride dropouts, making it great for competitive racers.
With a substantial 20lb flywheel to drive, the Saris H3 combines real-world inertia with electromagnetic resistance to offer 2000-watts of interactive resistance from your favourite training app.
The H3 sees integrated speed and cadence (and of course power) sensors and offers smooth transitions in power. The standout figure is the low noise, promising just 59 decibels at 20mph, the H3 is arguably the best turbo trainer for those looking to keep neighbours happy.
The legs fold away, and there’s and carry handle so you don’t throw out your back trying to move the 21.3kg unit. It comes with end caps to suit most modern rear ends (except super boost).
Elites Drivo II takes power seriously, with an accuracy claimed to be within +/- 0.5-per cent. The Italian outfit says the built-in Optical Torque Sensor takes measurements from 24-points and can even measure the smoothness and roundness of your pedal stroke.
With 2300-watts of resistance, up to a 24-per cent simulated grade, the Drivo features built-in speed and cadence sensors too. It does require a bit of assembly out of the box, and the fold-out legs provide for a stable pedalling platform for those trying to target that maximum wattage.
The trainer plays nice with a host of third-party training apps, and the trainer comes with a 36-month membership to Elite’s My E-Training app.
Best turbo trainers: Wheel-on
Put simply, wheel on turbo trainers connect via your bike’s axle. Your rear tyre is placed against a roller so that when your pedalling input spins your rear wheel, it in-turn spins the roller.
While Wahoo’s Kickr direct drive turbo trainers are likely some of the first that comes to mind (for good reason), the brand’s wheel-on Kickr Snap is no chump.
With both ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity, Wahoo makes the unit compatible with basically every training app under the sun and the Kickr Snap plays nicely with iOS, Android, Windows and Mac.
At +/-3 per cent accuracy, the power measurement of the V2 edges in just above much of the competition and in the ERG mode, the Snap adjusts the resistance at the rear wheel to match what your app of choice dictates.
The frame is sturdy and doesn’t feel as though you’re going to tip over when the intervals get tough, but the legs are foldable for easy storage.
Kurt Kinetic’s Rock and Roll turbo trainer offers an indoor riding experience that many people attempt to replicate with a rocker plate. The unique frame sways from side to side, forcing you to engage your core as you would in the real world. On the downside, if space is at a premium, the Rock and Roll has a massive footprint and does not fold down.
Kinetic is offering the Rock and Roll trainer with a Power Control unit which features a 12lb flywheel and app-controlled interactive resistance. Even better, if you’ve already got a Rock and Roll, or any other Kurt Kinetic trainer you can upgrade it with the Power Control Unit.
The Kurt Kinetic Rock and Roll Control has a maximum resistance of 1800-watts and maximum simulated incline of 10-per cent. There is plenty of leg-burning power on tap.
Coming from the same umbrella company that brought you PowerTap is the Saris (formerly CycleOps) M2, which offers good power accuracy through its electromagnetically controlled resistance unit.
With 1500-watts of resistance and 15-per cent simulated grade, there is plenty to push up against as you race up Zwift’s Epic KOM mountain or chase down breakaways with Sufferlandrian Director Sportif Gunter Von Agony telling you to ride faster.
When it comes to connecting your bike to the trainer, the M2 has three quick settings for typical hub spacing on both road and mountain bikes, and a two-inch roller for up to a two-inch tyre in 650b, 700c, 26in, 27in, and 29er.
The Elite Tuo is easily the best turbo trainer for the style-conscious or those who want their turbo trainer to blend in with their home decor.
However, it’s not just a pretty face. With a claimed accuracy of +/- 3-per cent, slope simulation of 10% and a maximum resistance of 1250 watts, it holds its own as a great training tool too.
The Tuo is compatible with bikes from 130mm quick-release up to Boost 148x12mm thru-axle. It has a large footprint for stability during high power efforts, yet if you do decide to hide it away, it folds up to a compact package.
Not all smart turbo trainers have to be expensive, and the Tacx Flow smart is one of the most budget-friendly trainers out there. Using electromagnetic resistance, the Flow Smart provides interactive resistance from the training app of your choice or the brand’s own proprietary training app.
For apartment dwellers, the folding legs make for compact storage, and the elastogel core roller helps to dampen noise and vibrations, and limit the passive-aggressive notes your downstairs neighbour slides under your door.
While the Flow Smart doesn’t offer quite the level of resistance, simulated grade or power accuracy as some of the more expensive units, it’s also only a little more than half the price. For someone looking to get into indoor training, the Tacx Flow Smart is a great starting point.
How to choose the best turbo trainer
Turbo trainers can be a confusing minefield of options, but that’s where we can help. Firstly, you’ll need to decide between smart and dumb. The best turbo trainers of today are all smart, which means they can connect (usually via Bluetooth or ANT+) to your electronic device (phone, laptop, tablet and most of the best cycling computers) to offer variable resistance which is controlled by apps such as Zwift or sessions uploaded to your device.
When buying, look for connectivity specs and compatibility claims. If it has Bluetooth/ANT+ mentioned, or it claims to be compatible with Zwift, then you’re looking at a smart turbo trainer.
Simple turbo trainers forego this connectivity and are much cheaper. They either offer a variable resistance curve (the harder you pedal, the harder it gets), or a manual controller, which is not dissimilar to dragging your brakes. Of course, if you have a power meter or speed sensor, you can still pair that with your Zwift-running device, but the interactivity is lost. For more information on this, we’ve put together a guide to the cheapest Zwift setup which explains what you need to ride on Zwift (and others) and the cheapest way to make it happen.
Within smart turbo trainers, there are two options, wheel-on and direct drive. Just as the names suggest, wheel-on places a roller against your rear tyre to provide resistance while direct-drive connects a cassette to the trainer itself, and removes the rear wheel entirely.
The most significant factor in determining which turbo trainer is best for you will be how much you’re willing to spend. Direct drive turbo trainers are often more expensive, the wheel-on smart variety is more budget-friendly, and dumb turbo trainers are regularly the cheapest.
Of course, there is a trade-off. The wheel-on trainers are usually louder and don’t offer the same accurate power measurement their direct drive cousins do and most direct drive trainers require power calibration before each use, generally in the form of a ‘spin down’.
Smart turbo trainers can also offer ERG mode where the trainer will tailor the resistance curve to help you hit your target power. For example, let’s say you’re riding using TrainerRoad and your target power is 200 watts, ERG mode will provide the right resistance for 200 watts regardless of whether you’re pedalling at 60RPM or 150RPM.
This means you can focus more on the pedalling and less about shifting, cross chaining and blowing your interval because you got a bit too involved in whatever you were watching on Netflix.
When it comes to communication with your device, almost every trainer can connect via Bluetooth Smart or ANT+ and now, ANT+ FEC. While Bluetooth Smart has been able to broadcast data and control your trainer from the outset, ANT+ only transmits data and ANT+ FEC allows for your device or training app to send orders to the trainer.
As of around 2016, virtually every trainer on the market was dual-band, meaning they worked on both protocols, so no matter if you’re using a Garmin cycling computer or your laptop, your smart turbo trainer should be able to speak the right language.
Bikes use a variety of axle and free-hub standards these days it’s also essential to make sure you’ve got the right adaptors. Most direct-drive trainers come with a variety of end caps to suit multiple axles; however, wheel on trainers may require a special axle, either one from the respective trainer company or a third-party universal option.