Indoor trainers: What works best?

There are many products available for cyclists to replicate their outdoor workouts indoors, ranging from simple magnetic clamp-on trainers, to basic rollers that look like something a motorcycle’s horsepower is tested on, to highly sophisticated machines that allow the rider to use specialty apps, a smartphone and video. I’ve used them all during my 27 years as a serious cyclist, and here’s what I’ve found.

Early days

Nearly 20 years ago I lived in southeastern Wisconsin. I played competitive soccer from grade school into college and after getting married, so I was accustomed to being outside in the wet and cold conditions. And being half Belgian, I kind of liked riding my bike in similar conditions, although the clothing technology back then was lacking. When ice, snow and dangerously cold temperatures forced me to ride indoors, I purchased a Performance indoor trainer, the kind that clamps to the bottom bracket and fork. The rear wheel rubbed against a roller, which was loud and messy: the rubber would spit out the back, destroying a perfectly good tire all in the name of maintaining fitness.

Then, when I entered my early fixed-gear phase in 1995, I borrowed some Kreitler rollers from a co-worker. Although I’ve suffered from a slight inner-ear imbalance, it made for an incredible workout—when I wasn’t falling off. Positioning myself in a doorway helped, but I was no Eddy Merckx, so I nixed the rollers:

Despite still living in the Midwest, I fought the urge to stay fit over the winter, and gambled on riding outside when the thermometer stayed above 32 degrees. I lost, sadly, and would typically gain 15-20 pounds between Thanksgiving and March, which I’d then work extra hard to lose before Spring arrived. Again, I often lost. I was still young and naive, and tried my hand at several disciplines of racing: criteriums, circuit races, cyclocross, cross-country. I rarely made a dent in the results, but I had fun with friends.

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In 2004, my family and I owned a bike shop in Dayton, Ohio. I decided to sell indoor trainers after a few regular customers asked, and I chose the Minoura rim drive model (pictured above) for several reasons. First, I like Japanese-made products (a carry-over from my days working for Rivendell Bicycle Works). Second, instead of grinding down a good tire (and making noise) the Minoura uses two rubber wheels (similar to what you see on Rollerblades) that rub against the outer rim surfaces. And third, the rider can use a BMX, road, ‘cross or mountain bike after clamping the rear axle into the frame because of the height adjustability of the wheels. A special channeled riser block raises the front wheel level with the rear and keeps it in place.

California dreaming

In 2006 we relocated to northern California, where extreme cold and wet conditions are rare (although we’re enjoying some much-needed and long-overdue rain as I type this). My Minoura rim-drive trainer has collected dust, but my fitness has increased twenty-fold due to the year-round riding weather. My work and travel schedule the past 12 months has forced me to reconsider riding indoors (as an added caveat, I don’t like riding for fitness at night), so I’ve spent time on two popular indoor trainers, the LeMond Revolution and Wahoo Kickr.

Testing, testing 1-2-3

I’m a simple cyclist with simple needs who doesn’t use a heart rate monitor, cycle computer, Strava, or any smartphone apps while I ride. Call me old-school, but my life is spent intertwined with gadgets and gizmos, so when I exercise I want simplicity. I’m not a racer, so I don’t need to know my cadence, watt output or how I stack up against a friend or total stranger online. I’ve dabbled with most of this in the past, and it always took more time than it was worth. And while I never ride on the road listening to music through earbuds, I do on the indoor trainer. And I usually watch YouTube videos of older bike racing to pass the time because riding indoors is something only the criminally insane would choose to do.

LeMond Revolution

For a point of reference, the LeMond Revolution is based on a trainer the young neo pro Greg LeMond received from a neighbor in the early 1980s. LeMond revamped its basic design and brought it to market in 2010, where the budding Garmin professional cycling team chose it as their official trainer. The concept is simple: remove the rear wheel, and attach your bike to the trainer, which has its own cassette installed. A large fan creates resistance, with a belt drive connecting the drivetrain mechanism to the fan. The sturdy base has a small footprint so it won’t take up much room when not in use.

The trainer weighs 32 pounds, and is a bit loud (as are most trainers), but I don’t hear it because I’m usually listening to Metallica or something with punch to wile away the 60-85 minutes I’m spinning. The $549 basic unit is compatible with all drivetrains from Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo (with adapters), but according to the company, the Revolution may not fit bicycles with 140mm rear disc brakes mounted on the inside of the rear triangle (on the chainstay) due to spacing issue of the brake mount.

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I’ve used the LeMond Revolution 15 times or so and found it to be the ideal cocktail of everything I need from an indoor trainer. For an extra $249 you can add the LeMond WattBox, which allows you to display both your speed and power (watts) to your ANT+ device (the WattBox will turn on and off automatically to save power). ANT+ devices are pretty spendy, so research them carefully if you decide speed and power are important things to monitor while you’re pedaling a bike indoors. Limited lifetime warranty.

Wahoo Kickr

Wahoo Fitness is a newer Georgia-based company which introduced technology that allows cyclists to use their smartphones (mainly from Apple) to act as a supercomputer on the road. A couple years ago they married that tech with an indoor trainer that closely resembles the Revolution, taking the basic concept of a direct drive trainer with a small footprint for easier portability. They upped the high-zoot factor by sponsoring Team Sky in 2014 (home to 2012 and 2013 Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome), raising their international profile by partnering with a team well known for its reliance on data, power and cooling down on trainers immediately following a race.

kickruseright

My experience on the Kickr was decidedly different. As I mentioned before, I don’t use apps or computers of any kind while riding indoors or out, so all this tech was lost on me. While I do have a 2nd generation iPad and iPhone 4s, I found the whole exercise confusing and troublesome. It was also hard to get beyond the $1,099 retail price of the Kickr and the fact that it weighs 47 pounds. The flywheel is totally encased, which drops the running noise down a few decibels compared to the LeMond, but not enough to make me do backflips. At nearly twice the price of the Revolution it should offer a bit more bang for the buck.

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Mind you, this is a well-made product, and most likely a godsend to competitive endurance athletes. I used the Kickr 10 times and found its ‘analog’ features quite impressive; I just don’t have the need for its ‘digital’ offerings. Readers of Bicycle Times probably share my sentiment regarding indoor trainers. On Wahoo’s website Lava Magazine gushes “this is a trainer on steroids.” I prefer mine natural, thank you very much.

Verdict?

So, ask a stranger off the street what the differences are between the LeMond and Wahoo, and they’d be hard pressed to provide an answer. For an exhaustive comparison, I leave that to Ray who blogs under the name DC Rainmaker.

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The LeMond certainly provides the smooth pedaling that replicates what riding a bike on real roads typically feels like. And although my Minoura Mag 850 is no longer in production, its able-bodied replacement—the RDA 2429, pictured above—is available for about $300. For cyclists who have no choice but to ride indoors during another Polar Vortex, consider the LeMond Revolution or Minoura RDA 2429 this year. Your legs, butt and knees will thank you for it, as will your wallet.

EXTRA! What Would Mike Ride?

Mike Cushionbury, my co-conspirator on the East Coast and editor of our sister publication Dirt Rag, has been using InsideRide E-Motion rollers for years and wouldn’t use anything else.

“They have a realistic road feel because they move and also have side rollers and a rear wheel catch so if you start weaving under hard efforts you won’t fall,” he said. “They’re also really low to the ground which is cool. Retail is around $900; I think when I got mine it was about $700.”

That said, Mrs. Cush found a used Schwinn Johnny G Elite spin bike for $200 and Mike hasn’t used his rollers in over a year.

“I put a real cycling saddle on it and Speedplay pedals and it kicks ass,” he added. “I can do any and all training sessions on it, plus it’s great for recovery spins with that heavy flywheel. I put 1.5 hours in on it Wednesday when it snowed. I’ll also add that I very seldom ride indoors, even here on the east coast. I’ll go outside all winter.”

What do you use indoors?

 

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