The Difference Between a Wheel On and Wheel Off Bike Trainer

Wheel On vs Wheel Off Bike Trainers

Every day there seems to be a new indoor trainer hitting the market. It can be overwhelming to choose from the different brands and models of indoor trainers even for a cycling nut like me.

When shopping for your perfect trainer, it helps to narrow down your choices between a wheel-on and wheel-off the indoor trainer. This will avoid getting drowned in the sea of options that were never going to suit you anyway.

So what is the difference between wheel on and wheel off trainers? The most obvious answer is the way you attach your bike to the trainer. Wheel-on, as the name suggests, you keep your rear wheel on when you connect it to the trainer. With the wheel-off trainer, you must detach the rear wheel of your bike and attach your bike directly to the trainer’s cassette. Wheel off trainers is generally considered to provide more resistance, accuracy, and a better road feel than the wheel on trainers.

So it seems obvious right? Time to go shopping for wheel off trainer immediately right? Not so fast.

When choosing a trainer, you must first consider what you will actually be using the trainer for, and how it fits into your daily routine.

So let’s get down to the differences, and by the end, you will at least know which side of the fence you are on when choosing a trainer.

The pros and cons of using a wheel-on or wheel-off bike trainer

Resistance and noise

Wheel off trainers, also known as direct drive trainers, offer more realistic resistance compared to wheel-on trainers.

In a direct drive trainer, you connect your bike to a cassette. As you pedal, your trainer transmits the resistance from your trainer to your drive train.

Wheel-off or direct drive trainer
Wheel-off or direct drive trainer

This allows the trainer to adjust to the virtual courses climbs, descents and road conditions with more precision.

As a bonus, the lack of a rear wheel also means a quieter ride. That’s great if you are in a small apartment or a busy house.

For a wheel-on trainer, the rear wheel of your bike is set up against a roller attached to a flywheel and some other components.

As you pedal your bike, the wheel presses against the roller and creates the resistance. Slipping, tire wear and temperature can all affect the accuracy of the readings on a wheel-on trainer.

The rubbing and the odd wheel slip also means more noise, and wear and tear on the back tire, especially if you are training five hours a week or more.

Investing in a dedicated indoor training tire will provide a more pleasant riding experience, and avoid some of that noise.

Indoor trainer tires have a minimal tread pattern, so they are quieter on your trainer and help to avoid slipping.

Wheel-on trainer
Wheel-on trainer

Don’t want to spend the money? Check the garage to see if you have an old road tire lying around.

Don’t worry, we have more information on tire choices for your bike trainer here.

No bike trainer is “quiet,” but there is a noticeable difference between the two types of trainers.

Compatibility with your bike

One thing you must consider when getting an indoor bike trainer is compatibility with the bike you ride.

Unless you plan on buying a bike only for indoor training (tempting I know!), then you want to make using the bike indoors and outdoors as comfortable as possible.

Check if the cassette you are getting is compatible with the speed of your bike.

Ensure the trainer works with the wheel size you like to run, not all trainers are compatible with every tire size.

If you are not sure, take your bike to your local bike shop with your choice of the trainer in hand.

They can make sure that everything is compatible, or if not, tell you what adapters you might need.

Pro tip, get them to write it all down for you as well so you can start spitting out bike stats like a pro.

Convenience and space

A wheel-on trainer is a safe choice for you if you live in tight spaces and need to hide away the trainer and bike when you are finished.

With a wheel-on trainer, you align your bike, clamp into place, make a few adjustments, and you are good to go.

If you are in a small space, make sure you consider how easy it is to get from the door to your trainer holding a road bike.

Back a bike in, spinning it 180C, standing on one leg and clamping a bike it will get tiresome very fast.

With a direct drive trainer, detaching your back wheel and attaching the bike to the trainer over and over again may drive you crazy.

It does have the advantage of not having to move bikes in and out though if you are in for a long indoor season.

If you plan on training often and have the luxury of space (lucky you), or an extra bike for your trainer, then a direct drive trainer, for me, is the way to go.

Price

Direct drive trainers are more expensive than a wheel-on trainer.

Prices start at around $1000 for brand new trainers and go much higher than that (of course!).

Not only that, most brands sell their cassettes separately so that will add to the cost even further.

Not to mention the accessories that you may need to buy to make your bike compatible with the trainer.

Compare that to a wheel-on trainer, prices usually range from $100 to $1000.

In the end, it might come down to how serious a trainer you are, or just how jealous you want to make your friends (a serious consideration!).

For the ultimate in simulated road feel, the direct drive trainer is going to the best choice.

But if you are looking only to get some miles in the legs and join in on some virtual rides, a wheel-on trainer will do the job at a much lower price.

The Kinetic Road Machine 2.0 Fluid Trainer was my baby of choice, but the options are endless, so say hello to some late nights of trainer browsing!

In summary

Choosing a good trainer can be tough as there are so many options out there.

By knowing what you need from a trainer you can narrow down your search.

Remember to:

  • Consider the space you will be using it in. Is it easy to get a bike in and our, take tires off, etc? If not, a wheel-on trainer will work best.
  • How much do you want to spend? If the ultimate experience is what you want, then close your eyes, grit your teeth and fork out the money or a direct drive, or wheel-off trainer.
  • Check your bike compatibility with your trainer choice as extra accessories might push the price beyond your budget.

Related questions

What is the difference between a magnetic and fluid trainer? With a magnetic trainer, a metal disk spins in a magnetic field to create resistance. In a fluid trainer, the trainer uses a viscous fluid enclosed in a shell.

What are smart trainers? They are trainers with built-in sensors to communicate with a virtual training application on your mobile device. Some apps can also work with your trainer to simulate a course and let you ride in real-time with others.

Adam Johnson

As a middle-aged, 40 something cyclist, my riding goals have changed over the years. A lover of all things retro, and an avid flat bar cyclist, I continue to live in the glory days of past triathlon glories.

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