Indoor bike trainers are broadly classified into two categories. The traditional bike trainers are mechanical devices with no smart features, whereas the contemporary variants have sensors, and some have onboard computers. But there’s more to smart bike trainers than just the specs.
Indoor bike trainers with smart features offer variable resistance that you can adjust and automate in real time. Also, smart bike trainers offer limitless simulation possibilities and emulate actual cycling or biking experiences in different terrains, riding conditions, etc.
Smart bike trainers are now becoming essential for cyclists, triathletes, fitness enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a practical and enjoyable way to ride indoors, be it for practice, off season training, or plain fun. So, here’s your ultimate guide to indoor bike trainers with smart features.
What Is a Smart Bike Trainer?
If you’re familiar with conventional indoor bike trainers, you know that they don’t have sensors or any smart features. So, you cannot gauge your power output when you ride at different speeds and varying resistance. Also, many traditional bike trainers don’t have adjustable resistance.
Both wind and fluid bike trainers offer progressive resistance based on your riding speed. Only those bike trainers using magnetic resistance allow you to change the intensity levels. But even that isn’t always convenient because not all magnetic bike trainers have a remote adjuster.
Therefore, you have to get off your bike and manually change the resistance level on the unit. That said, some bike trainers like the Blackburn Tech Mag 6 or 5 have a handlebar mounted adjuster you can use to change the resistance. Such remote adjusters aren’t different from a gear shifter.
However, none of these elements matter when you go for a smart bike trainer. You can not only adjust the resistance on smart bike trainers but also the power, gradient, etc. Plus, you get to automate the resistance based on a riding simulation, terrain, and other aspects of your training.
A smart bike trainer is an indoor stand with magnetic or motorized resistance, sensors, wireless connectivity, and two-way interaction with compatible applications. Smart bike trainers are currently the most advanced way to hone your skills while riding off the road.
How Smart Bike Trainers Work
Smart bike trainers work in conjunction with a digital application or app. The integrated sensors of a smart bike trainer communicate with the app to offer you complete control of your training routine. Thus, you won’t just pedal indoors but embark on a fully quantified training session.
Smart bike trainers can assess the following metrics in real time:
- Power (watts).
- Cadence (rpm).
Therefore, you get to know your pedaling rate or angular velocity in real time. This speed at the specific resistance is used by the smart bike trainer and its app to calculate the power output. The gradient also influences the resistance, cadence, and power output, subject to the terrain.
In other words, you get all the metrics to assess your performance during a training routine. You can toggle from one routine to another, select preprogrammed profiles to regulate the functions or settings of the smart bike trainer, and make changes while riding if you want.
Having said that, smart bike trainers have a few distinct features across the brands and various models. These differences determine how a particular smart bike trainer works. Let me walk you through the different types and essential specs before delving further into the smart features.
Types of Smart Bike Trainers
Broadly, smart bike trainers are of two types:
- Conventional or wheel-on.
- Direct drive or wheel-off.
This distinction is based on the mounting system, not on smart features and exact specifications.
Conventional or Wheel-On Indoor Bike Trainers
Wheel-on smart bike trainers use the conventional mounting system. These bike trainers have a roller with a flywheel and magnetic or motorized resistance.
Here’s how a wheel-on smart bike trainer works:
- Set up the smart bike trainer to mount your bike.
- Assemble the rear wheel of your bike with a skewer.
- Adjust the trainer’s cones for the wheel to fit firmly.
- Align the tire and adjust the roller knob accordingly.
- Turn on the smart bike trainer and open the app.
- Pair the trainer with the application to get started.
Direct Drive or Wheel-Off Smart Bike Trainers
Direct drive smart bike trainers exclude the rear wheel. You have to mount your bike with the cassette.
These bike trainers may or may not include the cassette in the kit. If they don’t, you can use the one on your bike. If the kit includes a cassette, you may use whichever you want.
Here’s how a wheel-off smart bike trainer works:
- You set up the direct drive smart bike trainer to mount your bike.
- Remove the cassette and take off the rear wheel of your bike.
- You don’t need to use the bike’s cassette if the trainer has one.
- Assemble the kit or your bike’s cassette on the smart trainer.
- Align your bike with the sprockets or cones and tighten the skewer.
- Turn on the direct drive smart bike trainer, pair it with the app, and ride.
Wheel-On vs. Direct Drive Smart Bike Trainers
The impact of the fundamental difference between the two types of smart bike trainers is more than just preference. The wheel-off mounting system has a few additional steps, which may be a tad tedious for some users. However, these two mounting systems have other consequences.
Here’s a practical assessment of wheel-on vs. wheel-off or direct drive smart bike trainers:
- Tire friction and pressure have no role in a direct drive smart bike trainer. In a wheel-on smart bicycle trainer, the tire’s pressure and alignment with the roller decide the friction. Also, a tire may wear out, and low pressure impairs the riding experience.
- Tire and wheel clearance doesn’t matter in a direct drive smart bicycle trainer. Your bike is directly mounted on a wheel-off smart bike trainer. So, the space under the bike is partly vacant and partially occupied by the trainer itself.
- A wheel-on smart bike trainer is louder due to the tire running on the roller and flywheel noise. A direct drive smart bicycle trainer makes the typical noise of a bike’s chain, gear shift, and pedaling. The trainer’s motorized resistance may have a mild buzz.
- Direct drive smart trainers offer a steadier ride compared to wheel-on variants. A wheel-on mounting system has a firm assembly, but direct drive provides more structural support. Thus, the wobbles, jerks, and lateral unsteadiness are reduced significantly.
- Generally, direct drive bike trainers have better specs for their smart features. Any wheel-on smart bicycle trainer is limited in its rated power, resistance levels, and other features due to the compact size and more moving parts in the mounting system.
- A direct drive smart bicycle trainer offers more accurate measurements, and the riding experience is closer to reality. Both these outcomes are due to the fewer parts and thus interferences in assembling or mounting the setup. There’s less room for error.
- The most significant demerit of a direct drive smart bike trainer is the cost. Almost all wheel-on bike trainers are more affordable than the wheel-off variants. Also, the direct drive mounting system may appear or be more tedious for some users.
- Wheel-on bike trainers are usually much lighter than the direct drive variants. Most wheel-off models aren’t as foldable and easy to carry or store as wheel-on trainers. But the structure, size, and weight of direct drive models are the reason for better stability.
The Essential Features of Smart Bike Trainers
Traditional or classic bike trainers have only hardware. Smart bike trainers have hardware and software. So, the essential features comprise the following:
- Mechanical components.
- Electrical & electronic parts.
- Software or firmware (apps).
While all smart trainers have these types of components, the specific parts and their specs vary. Every smart bike trainer is rated for many of its essential features.
Accordingly, you need to look for the following specifications:
- Power: 800 W, 1,500 W, etc.
- Speed and cadence sensor.
- Accuracy: +/- 3%, +/- 5%, etc.
- Gradient: 6%, 15%, 25%, etc.
- Resistance: type and control.
- Adjustable features, like feet.
- Noise level: 68 dB, 75 dB, etc.
- Weight: trainer, flywheel, etc.
- Compatible applications.
- What’s included in the box.
Smart bike trainers measure your power output in watts. The rated wattage is the maximum any smart bicycle trainer can measure and regulate. So, an 800 W model won’t enable you to train as hard as you can with one rated for 1,500 W or 2,000 W of power.
Thus, this power rating is significant. You can select a power level for a smart bike trainer, and it will adjust the resistance accordingly. If you choose 200 W or 400 W, the power output should be constant, and the smart bicycle trainer will alter the resistance as per your pedaling rate.
The cadence sensor is similar to a speedometer, which measures your pedaling rate or rpm. A speed and cadence sensor isn’t really path-breaking as it has been around for years in activity trackers. However, the accuracy of the cadence sensor is important for serious cyclists.
Smart bike trainers can misread or under-report a cadence sensor’s measurement. You won’t know about this inaccuracy unless you use another measuring tool, the Garmin Vector. Therefore, the sensors’ quality and accuracy are of utmost importance for training.
Accuracy pertains to all the measurements. Generally, smart bike trainer manufacturers offer a range. While +/- 3% to +/- 5% is pretty standard, the actual readings may be more inaccurate in some smart bike trainers, especially when you increase the power, resistance, or gradient.
Cyclists with a plethora of tools can easily detect these inaccuracies by comparing the data. But if you don’t have a reference, your training plan won’t be executed perfectly. Hence, accuracy is a criterion unless you’re willing to recalibrate your plans, accounting for the misreadings.
The gradient or slope you use while using a smart bicycle trainer is basically a simulation of an uphill or downhill ride. Since you don’t have an actual slope indoors, a smart bike trainer alters the resistance to emulate the real world experience. The rated gradient is the max for a model.
Smart bike trainers have adjustable resistance. You may choose to automate this feature based on your power and gradient settings. Alternatively, you may select a resistance level and put in the power necessary to ride at different pedaling rates, gears, and gradients.
This adjustability isn’t about the sensors and software. Bike trainers have adjustable hardware, such as the feet, roller, skewer, etc. Smart bike trainers also have axle adapters and cassettes. So, you may want the trainer to have feet with adjustable height. Likewise, your bike’s cassette has a certain number of sockets, and you may want a direct drive trainer to have the same kind.
No one wants a smart bicycle trainer that is as loud as a motorbike engine. Bike trainers can be as quiet as 65 dB or louder than 80 dB. This noise level is among the primary criteria for most cyclists–including enthusiasts–who don’t want to disturb everyone in their house and beyond.
Weight is a tricky parameter. A larger and heavier smart bicycle trainer is likely to be steadier and more reliable, especially those with a low center of gravity. But such bike trainers are not conveniently portable. Additionally, if some parts don’t fold or retract, you will need a bit of storage space.
A few smart bike trainer manufacturers have their own applications with full firmware support to have a digital interface for easy interaction. Other companies require you to subscribe to an app for the same. Also, every smart bicycle trainer doesn’t necessarily work with all third-party apps.
What’s in the Box
Normally, a smart bike trainer has all the essentials included in the kit. However, some models using the direct drive mounting system don’t have a cassette. Make sure to pay attention to what’s in the box.
For instance, some power cables have an adapter similar to the one you use with your laptop. You can then use an extension cord with this adapter if your smart bike trainer isn’t conveniently close to a wall receptacle. Such minor but practical elements are valuable in reality.
How To Use a Smart Bicycle Trainer
The specific steps to using a smart bike trainer vary, depending on the model and its mounting system. However, here are the broad strokes in simple words about what you need to do:
- Assemble the hardware of the smart bicycle trainer.
- Mount your bike, whether wheel-on or direct drive.
- Connect the power cord to the trainer and receptacle.
- Pair the software or app with the indoor bike trainer.
- Create or customize your profiles and key settings.
- Hop on the saddle and simulate real world cycling.
You can pair a smart bike trainer with its official application or any other compatible app. You can play simulations on a smartphone, tablet, or smart television. Some bike trainers have a digital display and control panel that you can mount on your cycle, like the handlebar levers.
Irrespective of these options, you must program a smart bicycle trainer. Almost all bike trainers with smart features require you to create at least one profile. Otherwise, the sensors and other components won’t know what your baseline is, and you won’t get to utilize the asset extensively.
Functional Threshold Power
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is a standard test to assess your baseline. Most smart bike trainers and compatible apps use this test, but there are other assessments.
Basically, you ride for a specific period with varying intensity levels to determine your normal power threshold. And the resulting FTP factors in your weight. What you get is watts per pound or kilogram.
Generally, a Functional Threshold Power assessment involves the following:
- Warm-up spin.
- Fast cadence.
- Easy riding.
- Full throttle.
- All-out effort.
- Cooling down.
The specific duration of each phase may vary. Also, the total duration of the test is typically an hour. Once you know your FTP, you can try to sustain and improve it through various training routines. Plus, you can use a percentage of the FTP as the target for different rides.
When a smart bike trainer and its app have your FTP, you can use it to automate the resistance at different gears, speeds, and power outputs to maintain the selected level of your Functional Threshold Power. Additionally, you can select intervals and other settings using the baseline.
4 Dimensional Power Test
Apart from the Functional Threshold Power assessment, apps and smart trainers use various ways to measure your current fitness level. If you find the FTP a tad complicated, you can use a ramp test to determine your baseline. The ramp test is significantly easier and can be accurate.
Essentially, a smart bicycle trainer will set a low resistance at the start and increase it gradually until your cadence or rpm drops to nil. The app will measure your progress and calculate your power output. If you don’t want such a basic test, you can check out the likes of 4DP.
4 Dimensional Power (4DP) test isn’t available for all bike trainers and their smart apps. But more apps are now incorporating the fundamentals. This advanced test assesses the following:
- Neuromuscular Power.
- Anaerobic Capacity.
- Maximal Aerobic Power.
- Functional Threshold Power.
The durations and challenges for the different phases of a 4 Dimensional Power test may vary. But such an extensive test goes beyond assessing your baseline. While an FTP test can imply your sprinting, endurance, and aerobic prowess, the 4DP is more holistic and accurate.
Having said that, you shouldn’t be surprised if the results of these tests aren’t identical to such assessments done outdoors. Indoor bike trainers with smart features can use digital simulations and emulate a real riding experience. However, it’s still not an actual ride on the road or hill outside.
Ergometer or ERG Mode
The Ergometer mode isn’t a test like the FTP or 4DP. But it is a handy feature in many smart bike trainers to ride at a constant power without changing the gear or adjusting the resistance.
So, you can change your speed or cadence, and the smart bike trainer will adjust the resistance to maintain the power at whichever gear you are in. Normally, you change gears to increase or decrease your cadence. In ERG mode, you don’t need to do this for the desired power output.
In other words, you can select 200 W or a percentage of your FTP as the baseline for a specific session. The smart bicycle trainer will maintain this, and you can ride the bike at your chosen gear for the entire duration. However, the ERG or Ergometer mode doesn’t test your baseline.
There are ample features and settings you can use with a smart bike trainer, albeit subject to the limitations of what your app offers. These tests and modes are then used to create different training programs, customized profiles, and objective-oriented workout charts.
Smart Sensors and Apps for Bike Trainers
Indoor bike trainers are smart due to the onboard sensors and compatible apps. I have already discussed cadence sensors and some smart features, so here are the other essential elements:
- Apps: Smart bike trainer manufacturer’s or third-party.
- ANT+: The standard wireless frequency for smart trainers.
- Bluetooth: To pair with a compatible device, app, or display.
- Display: Smartphone, tablet, television, monitor, etc.
I discuss the smart trainer apps in the dedicated section below. Bluetooth has been a prevalent wireless connectivity and communication method for decades now. The display is any screen for you to access and navigate all the features and functions of a smart bike trainer.
While Bluetooth has been an industry standard, ANT+ is currently the universal technology for activity sensors, i.e., power meters, cadence, heart rate monitors, and bike computers. So, ANT+ is almost like Bluetooth in wireless connectivity and USB in its universal applicability.
All the bike trainers I talk about later in this guide connect through Bluetooth. And the various activity sensors or trackers that you can use for bike trainers are compatible with ANT+.
Also, you can use ANT+, Bluetooth, and other sensors to convert a classic bike trainer into a smart one. However, you must also have compatible apps, interfaces, and other components for a complete setup. Besides, you will need several separate parts and distinct installations.
So, you can get a smart bike trainer or transform a classic model into its state of the art variant, which will be subject to compatibility and adaptability, of course. Plus, there’s another category that you should know about. This niche is smart trainer bikes.
What Is a Smart Trainer Bike?
A smart trainer bike is a complete setup with a stationary bicycle, similar to what you would use at a spin class. Such bikes have integrated sensors, touchscreen displays, and other features, but they aren’t the same as a smart bicycle trainer, wheel on or off.
Presently, the most renowned brand of smart trainer bikes is Peloton. But these are not smart bike trainers. The terms “trainer bike” and “bike trainer” should not be used interchangeably, irrespective of whether or not either has smart features, like sensors, wireless connectivity, etc.
The other well-known company that makes smart trainer bikes is Wahoo. I touch upon these two brands and their smart trainer bikes later in this guide.
In-Depth Reviews of Smart Bike Trainers
There are more than a dozen reliable smart trainers for indoor training, but you have to shortlist them based on your bike, riding preference, and the plethora of features in every model. Also, the upfront investment and recurring costs are unavoidable criteria.
Here are some of the leading brands of smart trainers and their popular models.
Tacx: Flow Smart, Flux S, and Neo 2T
Tacx is undoubtedly one of the largest players in this niche, and more so since its acquisition by Garmin. The brand has smart trainers for every budget. So, let me pick the three best models based on their prices:
- Tacx Flow Smart: Entry-Level
- Tacx Flux S: Moderately Priced
- Tacx Neo 2T: High-End, Expensive
Here’s a comparison of the specifications of these 3 Tacx smart bike trainers:
|Specifications||Tacx Flow Smart||Tacx Flux S||Tacx Neo 2T|
|Type||Wheel-On||Direct Drive||Direct Drive|
|Power||800 Watts||1,500 Watts||2,200 Watts|
|8 Permanent Magnets + 8 Electromagnets||Improved Permanent Ferrite Magnets and Electromagnets|
|Sensors||Power, Speed, Cadence||Power, Speed, Cadence||Power, Speed, Cadence|
|Communication||ANT+, Bluetooth||ANT+, Bluetooth||ANT+, Bluetooth|
|Accuracy||+/- 5%||+/- 3%||+/- 1%|
|Apps||Tacx, Zwift, Strava, TrainerRoad||Tacx, Garmin, Zwift, TrainerRoad||Tacx, Garmin, Zwift, TrainerRoad|
|Cassette||N/A||Not Included||Hub Included|
|Weight||20.7 lbs (9.4 kg)||50.3 lbs (22.8 kg)||47.4 lbs (21.5 kg)|
|26.6 by 25.6 by 16.1 inches (675 by 650 by 410 mm)||26.4 by 25.3 by 18.1 inches (670 by 642 by 460 mm)||22.6 by 29.5 by 21.7 inches (575 by 750 by 550 mm)|
|Noise Level||~70 dB||<70 dB||Quietest Tacx|
Tacx Flow Smart is the budget-friendly wheel-on trainer for beginners and intermediates. 800 W is more than most enthusiasts need in an indoor smart bike trainer. But the 6% max incline or gradient may be a limiting factor. Also, the Flow Smart isn’t the sturdiest of bike trainers.
If you’re looking for something to get started, the wheel-on Flow Smart is a viable option. Else, you can consider the Flux S, which is more stable, and its measurements have a lesser margin of error. Plus, the Flux S is slightly quieter, but it doesn’t include a cassette.
The Neo 2T is currently the finest smart bike trainer from Tacx. If you want an experience as close to real outdoor or on-road and mountain biking, the Neo 2T won’t disappoint. The apps and virtual simulations, terrains, group riding, and other features are available for all three models.
However, Tacx Neo 2T offers a free trial of the company’s premium membership, which includes their training app. There’s a freebie related to Zwift subscription as well, but these offers may or may not be available all the time.
Saris (CycleOps): M2 and H3
Like Tacx, Saris is a renowned name in the industry. CycleOps, the former brand name, has been a significant player in the classic indoor bike training segment, aka the wind, magnetic, and fluid trainers. So, here are two popular Saris smart bike trainers based on their price tags.
- Saris M2: Affordable
- Saris H3: Expensive
Let me compare the features and specifications of these 2 CycleOps or Saris models:
|Specifications||Saris M2 (CycleOps)||Saris H3 (CycleOps)|
|Power||1,500 Watts||2,000 Watts|
|Resistance||Fast Response Electromagnetic||Fast Response Electromagnetic|
|Sensors||Power, Speed, Cadence||Power, Speed, Cadence|
|Communication||Integrated Dual ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth||Integrated Dual ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth|
|Accuracy||+/- 5%||+/- 2%|
|Apps||Zwift, TrainerRoad, Rouvy||Zwift, TrainerRoad, Rouvy, |
|Weight||20 lbs (9 kg)||47 lbs (21.3 kg)|
|Dimensions||22.8 by 30.3 by 15.7 inches (580 by 770 by 400 mm)||31 by 18.5 by 19.5 inches (787 by 470 by 495 mm)|
|Noise Level||69 dB @ 20 mph (32 km/h)||59 dB @ 20 mph (32 km/h)|
The dimensions are for installed setups, not when the bike trainers are folded or retracted. The direct drive or wheel-on H3 isn’t exactly foldable as only the feet can retract to an extent. Also, the noise levels I’ve stated are Saris’ claims, which are at best conservative, if not unreal.
The actual noise levels for M2 and H3 are louder than the respective 69 dB and 59 dB if you crank up the power. The speed associated with these claims isn’t a concern as the resistance and mounting system are more consequential.
Besides, if you use an old cassette and change gears frequently, the overall noise will spike inevitably. That aside, the Saris smart bike trainers are reliable and have better power and gradient than similarly priced models. The H3 kit still doesn’t include a cassette.
Elite: Suito and Direto XR
Elite makes some of the best smart bike trainers right now, and interestingly their models aren’t among the most expensive ones out there. The brand makes various types of sporting gear and accessories, including classic bike trainers, rollers, etc. However, I’ll focus on the smart trainers here.
While Elite has wheel-on smart bike trainers, their direct drive interactive models are the cream of the crop.
Here are two bestsellers from the Elite ecosystem: Suito and Direto XR:
|Specifications||Elite Suito||Elite Direto XR|
|Type||Direct Drive||Direct Drive|
|Power||1.900 Watts||2,300 Watts|
|Resistance||Electronically Managed Magnetic Resistance||Electronically Managed Magnetic Resistance|
|Sensors||Power, Speed, Cadence||Power, Speed, Cadence|
|Communication||ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth||ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth|
|Accuracy||+/- 2.5%||+/- 1.5%|
|Apps||Elite My E-Training, Zwift, TrainerRoad, Kinomap, etc.||Elite My E-Training, Zwift, TrainerRoad, Kinomap, etc.|
|Weight||32 lbs (14.5 kg)||33.06 lbs (15 kg)|
|Dimensions||22 by 22 by 19.50 inches (560 by 560 by 495 mm)||25.60 by 32.70 by 22 inches (650 by 830 by 560 mm)|
|Noise Level||Only Chain and Gear Shift||Only Chain and Gear Shift|
The accuracy of these two models is exceptionally reliable. Only the likes of Zumo and other entry level bike trainers from Elite have some inaccuracy problems. Also, the Suito and Direto XR kits include a few valuable resources.
You get a 12-month subscription to Elite My E-Training software. These smart trainers can work with every popular app out there, irrespective of the operating system of your device, i.e., iOS, macOS, Windows, and Android.
The other noteworthy specification that I have not mentioned in the table is the flywheel weight. Elite has 7 lbs (3.5 kg) and 11.24 lbs (5.1 kg) flywheels in the Suito and Direto XR, respectively, which contribute to the riding experience, and it feels much like outdoor cycling.
Furthermore, Elite smart trainers are compatible with all types of bikes, including:
Just be sure to check if you need an adapter for a specific type of hub, wheel, or tire. Elite’s technical sheets for all the models provide sufficient information regarding these compatibility aspects.
Wahoo: Kickr Snap, Kickr Core, and Kickr
Wahoo makes smart trainers and bikes. Let me begin with their smart trainers, and the bikes can follow, along with Peloton.
Here are the three most popular Wahoo smart trainers as per their prices:
- Wahoo Kickr Snap: Budget
- Wahoo Kickr Core: Midrange
- Wahoo Kickr: High-End, Costly
Let me put these 3 models in a head-to-head contest:
|Specifications||Wahoo Kickr Snap||Wahoo Kickr Core||Wahoo Kickr|
|Type||Wheel-On||Wheel-Off / Direct||Direct Drive|
|Power||1,500 Watts||1,800 Watts||2,200 Watts|
|Resistance||Magnetic||Automatic Control||Auto Calibrated|
|Sensors||Power, Speed, Cadence||Power, Speed, Cadence||Power, Speed, Cadence|
|Communication||ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth||ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth||ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth|
|Accuracy||+/- 3%||+/- 2%||+/- 1%|
|Apps||Wahoo, TrainerRoad||Wahoo, TrainerRoad||Wahoo, Zwift, etc.|
|Weight||38 lbs (17.23 kg)||40 lbs (18 kg)||47 lbs (21.31 kg)|
|29 by 26 inches (736 by 660 mm)||20 by 23 by 19 inches (508 by 584 by 482 mm)||10 by 28 by 17.3 inches (510 by 710 by 440 mm)|
|Wheel Block||Yes||Not Included||N/A*|
|Noise Level||Typical||Relatively Quiet||Impressively Quiet|
Wahoo Kickr, unsurprisingly the costliest smart bike trainer in this series, offers 5° lateral movement, almost replicating the real biking motion as you pedal faster or ride uphill. Hence, a wheel block is not applicable or necessary.
Plus, Wahoo offers a few wonderful accessories, such as Kickr Axis, Climb, and Headwind, to further enhance your indoor training routines.
Apps and displays, like tablets and touch screen panels, offer virtual simulations. Many apps allow you to have real videos of locations you may be familiar with so that your indoor biking can be as thrilling an experience as outdoors.
Combine these virtual simulations, videos, and training programs with Axis, Climb, or Headwind, and you can incorporate the experiential sensations of real biking. Like the lateral movement of the Kickr, the Headwind is a first of its kind smart fan that works with Wahoo bike trainers.
Smart Trainer Bikes: Peloton and Wahoo
The two main players in the smart trainer bike segment are Peloton and Wahoo. This guide is about smart trainers, but let me briefly talk about Peloton Bike & Bike+ and Wahoo Kickr Bike.
The Wahoo Kickr Bike is more like a spin bike or indoor cycle that has a smart trainer. But the Peloton Bike or Bike+ is like spin bikes with smart features, touchscreen displays, and a few other exercising possibilities, so these are more for fitness enthusiasts and less for cyclists.
None of these models work with your bike or cycle, whether wheel on or off. These smart trainer bikes are for those looking for a separate but self-contained indoor unit. The primary differences aside, a smart trainer bike works for indoor training and recovery routines, including cycling.
However, you aren’t going to ride the bike that you use on the road. And a smart trainer bike is exorbitantly costly, whether Peloton or Wahoo.
Nonetheless, here’s a glimpse of some of the main features of Peloton Bike+ and Wahoo Kickr Bike:
|Specifications||Peloton Bike+||Wahoo Kickr Bike|
|Dimensions||59 by 22 by 59 inches (L, W, H)|
or 150 by 56 by 150 cm
|48 by 30 inches (L and W)|
or 122 by 76 cm
|Footprint||48 by 24 inches (122 by 61 cm)||48 by 30 inches (122 by 76 cm)|
|Bike Height||59 inches (150 cm)||37 to 47 inches (94 to 119.4 cm)|
|User Height||4’11” – 6’4” (150 to 193 cm)||5’ (152 cm) to 6’4” in (193 cm)|
|Crank Length||7 inches (170 mm)||5 levels: 6.5” to 6.9” (165 to 175 mm)|
|Weight||140 lbs (63.5 kg)||93 lbs (42 kg)|
|Construction||Welded Steel||Steel and Aluminum|
|Connectivity||ANT+ and Wi-Fi||ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth|
|Maximum Power||Not Specified||2,200 W|
|Resistance||Magnetic||Electromagnetic & Enhanced Motor|
|Metrics/Sensors||Power, Cadence, Heart Rate, Resistance, etc.||Power, Speed, Cadence, Gradient, Distance|
|Live and On-Demand Classes, Leaderboard, Individual Profiles, Training Programs, Challenges, Workout History, Milestones, Streaks and Badges, Special Events, Scenic Rides, Peloton Radio, etc.||Extendable Top Tube and Height,|
Wahoo Fitness Workout Trainer, PC, iOS, Android (Windows/Mac),Compatible with Kickr Headwind, Wahoo Elemnt GPS Bike Computer, and Third-Party Apps, incl. Zwift, TrainerRoad, etc.
Devices and Apps for Smart Bike Trainers
Smart bike trainers have integrated sensors that you can wirelessly connect to compatible apps and devices. But a few models require you to buy dongles, typically for some of the entry-level and cheapest smart trainers.
The apps and devices you can use with a smart bike trainer depend on the brand and model. A third-party app may have more features than the official training software of a manufacturer. And these apps determine the types of devices you can use, especially the operating systems.
So, here are the devices you can use for smart bike trainers based on compatibility:
- Fitness trackers: Garmin, etc.
- Smartphones: iOS, Android, Windows.
- Tablets: iPad, Android, Windows.
- Smart TVs: To use or stream the app.
- Bike-mounted panels: Compatible ones.
You can use these devices to use a smart bicycle trainer’s branded software or a third party app. Here’s a list of the popular official apps:
- Tacx Training App.
- My Edge – Garmin.
- Saris App (CycleOps).
- Elite My E-Training App.
- Wahoo Fitness Workout Tracker.
- Peloton App (for Bike and Bike+).
A majority of cyclists and enthusiasts prefer third-party applications as they are usually better. Many smart bike trainer brands now collaborate with these software firms, which is why you’ll see that their models are labeled as certified by the ‘x,’ ‘y,’ or ‘z’ app.
It isn’t unusual for a smart bicycle trainer to be compatible with many third-party apps. However, you must bear in mind the subscription cost unless a trainer includes a few months’ worth of free access. Likewise, even the official apps don’t have free access for the cheapest models.
Here are ten popular third-party apps for smart bike trainers:
- Velo Reality
You may want to check out my shortlist of the Top 20 Free and Paid Indoor Cycling Apps to know more.
How To Choose a Smart Bike Trainer
Every cyclist or fitness enthusiast can have a singularly decisive factor in choosing one smart bike trainer brand and model over the others. This criterion could be budget, mounting system, or a critical feature.
If you aren’t sure about the mounting system, you can refer to the wheel-on and wheel-off or direct drive smart bike trainers comparison that I’ve detailed earlier in this guide. Your budget is a discretionary element, but the features and specifications need a thorough assessment.
Here are some aspects of the specifications to remember when you choose a smart bike trainer:
- Select the rated power output based on the ultimate speed and incline. A 2,200 W smart bicycle trainer may appear herculean if a cyclist’s average power is 300 W. But, you must factor in your maximum speeds at the steepest inclines to select the wattage.
- The maximum gradient doesn’t correspond to the minimum decline. E.g., max 15% gradients for inclines or ascents aren’t necessarily for declines or descents, too. The min decline is usually a few degrees less than the maximum incline, so it could be 10% here.
- A larger footprint will always be steadier and more reliable. Indoor spaces are rarely abundant, so many people gravitate towards the smaller models. However, a smart bike trainer with wider feet or a larger footprint offers more stability than the smaller ones.
- A bulkier flywheel offers a more realistic riding experience indoors. Even though a smart bicycle trainer offers adjustable resistance, a wheel-on mount has only a bit of the tire touching the roller, and there’s no headwind. So, a bulkier flywheel feels more real.
- The noise level is almost always higher for wheel-on mounting systems. Wheel-on mounts are easier for many as one doesn’t have to deal with the cassette, axle adapter, etc. But the noise level of wheel-off or direct drive bike trainers is significantly lower.
- A wheel-off or direct drive mounting system needs a few accessories. A wheel-on smart trainer needs a quick release skewer. Adapters aren’t necessary unless you have an incompatible bike, hub, or wheel. In contrast, direct drives need an elaborate fitting.
- Compare the kits and not just the brands or models of smart bike trainers. Smart bike trainers can exclude a few essential components, such as axle adapters, cassettes, etc. These parts aren’t inexpensive, so you must compare everything in the models’ kits.
- Any included fitness software subscription and app access matter. Most smart bike trainer apps have a monthly subscription cost, starting from $10. Premium subscriptions can shoot up to $40 per month. So, freebies regarding apps are definitely welcome.
There are a few more factors I will consider whenever I buy my next smart bike trainer, but such aspects may not be everyone’s personal preference or priority.
For example, if I have an old cassette and chain, I’d go for a direct drive that doesn’t include a cassette. I don’t use a worn-out chain with a new cassette anyway, so there’s no point paying extra for one on a SMART trainer.
The same goes for using a new chain on an old cassette.
I hope this guide to indoor bike trainers helps you choose the most suitable brand and model with all the essential smart features you want. Smart bike trainers are evolving rapidly with more players and collaborators than ever before, so expect everything to get only better from here.