As cycling outside during winter in Austria is not an option, I have been riding quite a few trainers over the years and learned a lot about them. Recently, my brother wanted some advice before buying his first one. The main topic we discussed was smart trainers: are they really worth it?
Smart trainers are really a game-changer in indoor biking. The simple fact that your trainer can communicate with 3rd party software makes it a unique experience. However, there are two completely different types of smart trainers: the ones that let indoor apps control your trainer for a fully immersive experience and the ones which don’t.
Brands can sometimes make it really difficult to know which one you are actually looking at. Let’s check that in more detail.
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WHAT IS A SMART TRAINER
A smart trainer gives you the possibility to communicate data from your trainer to 3rd party software. Apps like Zwift, The Sufferfest, or Trainerroad will receive, use, and display those on their apps.
It is one-way communication: from your trainer to your app. Your avatar will move with the power you put into the pedals, but it won’t be a fully immersive experience. If you are on a climb or flat roads, you won’t physically feel any difference.
You can make dumb trainers “smart” by simply adding a cadence and a speed sensor (or a power meter).
Most of the mid and high range trainers will be “smart” out of the box.
As I mentioned, having a smart trainer doesn’t necessarily mean that the app you are using will control your trainer, who is really what you want! For that, you need a specific smart trainer.
WHAT IS A CONTROLLABLE SMART TRAINER
I thought that all smart trainers could control your bike for a long time, but I was wrong!
Unfortunately, there is no universal name for what we are really looking for: two communication ways. The trainer should be able to send data to the apps, and the apps should be able to control your trainer.
So, if you are going uphill in the app, your trainer’s resistance will be automatically adjusted. The same goes for interval training. If you have a higher intensity interval, the app will adjust the trainer accordingly.
I checked the biggest bike trainer brands. This is how they call the trainers who can control the apps:
- Tacx: “automatic controlled resistance”
- Wahoo: “controlled resistance”
- Saris: you will find a “controlled workout” if you are really looking in the description. The name of the controllable trainers is currently including the words “smart trainer” vs. “trainer smart equipped” for the non-controllable trainers (if this is not confusing for beginners…)
- Elite: they are making the difference between an “interactive trainer” (=controllable) vs. a “smart trainer” (= non-controllable). I like this distinction, but it is unfortunately not used by all brands.
If you are ready to spend already $400 on a smart trainer, I would highly recommend that you spend $100-200 more for buying a controllable version or look at second-hand models. You will have a much better experience.
OTHER FEATURES YOU SHOULD LOOK FOR
WHEEL-ON VS DIRECT DRIVE
Having your bike directly attached to the trainer’s cassette (=direct-drive) instead of your rear wheel (wheel-on) will significantly reduce noise. Unfortunately, this type of trainer is also the most expensive one ($600-$1300).
Strangely, not all smart trainers are transmitting cadence information. I would not consider it a deal-breaker because you can fix it by adding a cadence sensor or a power meter (assuming you already have one, otherwise, it would cost you more than the trainer itself).
It can be, however, quite annoying. My wife and I used to share a Kickr Snap. I can see the cadence through my power meter, which is on my bike, but she can’t as she doesn’t have a power meter…
Calibrating your trainer is important for having accurate power readings. Most manufacturers and indoor apps recommend to do it regularly (between once before each ride to once every two weeks). It is especially true for wheel-on trainers where the pressure from the tire on the roller can vary greatly from one ride to another.
You can either follow the manufacturer’s process to calibrate or use one of the indoor apps to do it (most of them will have this functionality).
One feature currently only available on high-end trainers (> $1,000) is automatic calibration, which means that the trainer will do it independently without interrupting your training. Everything else being equal, I would definitely go for the trainer having this feature. It is simply one thing less to think about!
The accuracy range is going from +/- 1% for the most accurate to +/-10 % for the least accurate smart trainers. How much is acceptable is up to you. I would not rely too much on the numbers provided by the manufacturer. Instead, check reviews from DC Rainmaker or GP LAMA. They do an excellent job at that.
INCLINE AND DECLINE
Some trainers can simulate a slope realistically up to 7 %, whereas some higher models up to 25%.
All trainers have limits in the power they can generate. If you are a sprinter, it might be highly relevant to you. If you are a triathlete, you won’t need to train often at very high wattages (+1000 watts), so I would not worry too much about this.
Some add-ons will work only with specific trainers like the Wahoo climb, whereas some are compatible with most trainers (rocker plates, for example). If you already have some add-ons in mind, be sure that they are compatible with your trainer.
If you have never ridden indoors before, you can pick pretty much any controllable smart trainer within your budget. You will be extremely happy with it.
Once you know which features are important for you, the choice will narrow down pretty quickly. For my last purchase, I absolutely wanted one with automatic calibration (my wife and I are using the same trainer, and I didn’t want to recalibrate it each time) and as silent as possible, I had the choice between the Wahoo Kickr V5 or the Tacx Neo 2T.
As they are both really similar, I picked the Tacx Neo 2T (Amazon affiliate link) because it was still in stock. I am overall really happy with it. The trainer is virtually silent; the only thing I hear is my drivetrain’s noise.