We seek to answer the greatest question known to cycling kind...
I recently concluded that I’m allergic to turbo trainers.
The discovery of my unfortunate affliction occurred after several angst filled weeks where, following a new FTP test result, I just couldn’t hit the power values. I kept hitting a physi-mental wall and pressing ‘pause’, much to the understandable horror of the coach who had devised the sessions.
Before throwing in the towel and adjusting the numbers, I decided to give the same sessions a go on my trusty rollers – and suddenly it all became easy. By easy, I mean I was still hitting 193 bpm at the end of the first interval, but I could finish the set without entering a state of emotional and physical turmoil.
In the interest of honesty, the turbo trainer in question would have cost around £100, five years ago – more modern versions feel a lot less leg-deadening, which was the root cause of most of my issues. Also, none of my mid-winter indoor sessions required me to go over 130 per cent of FTP, above which rollers might start to present a problem.
Regardless, in all but sprint effort focused sessions, they’d be my preference. But what are the pros and cons?
Rollers consist of three drums, where the second and third rotators are connected via a ‘belt’. Once you start pedalling, the rollers move beneath you.
Learning to use the rollers takes a bit of practice – most people start by positioning themselves between a doorframe, which limits the likelihood of coming a cropper. In time, you’ll find you grow in confidence, and can test yourself with tasks like grabbing a bottle from the cage or riding no handed.
Beginner’s guide to riding the rollers
Traditionally, rollers have been very simplistic, you can pick up a set from about £150 but the resistance levels are limited, meaning that efforts far above 120/150 per cent of FTP can be difficult to sustain. Most pairs of rollers don’t have any form of connectivity to be used with training apps.
However, rollers are coming of age – the Elite Arion Digital Smart Rollers (RRP £500) use Ant+ as well as Bluetooth Smart and can withstand up to 1100 watts or replicate gradients of 20 per cent.
Pros of rollers
- Get on without any need to remove wheels or swap tyres
- Encourages good pedalling technique to remain upright
- Trains the full body as core needs to be engaged
- Smoother feeling which can mimic the road more accurately
- Usually easier and lighter to transport (good for race warm-ups)
Cons of rollers
- Takes practice, so unless you’re accustomed, may limit fitness focus for a couple of sessions
- On all but the more expensive versions, resistance is limited
- Only more expensive versions connect with apps via Ant+ and Bluetooth
- Concentration is required so sessions where physical effort eclipses all mental process may not be possible
- Most people can’t get out the saddle so – aside from high cadence spin-outs – sprints are off the cards
Turbo trainers are by far the more popular choice.
There’s now three distinct options: a basic trainer which simply attaches to the bike to allow the user to pedal away, a wheel-on smart trainer which does the same but adjusts resistance to suit a workout and measures power, and a direct drive smart turbo where the rear wheel is removed creating a sturdy base.
On a direct drive smart turbo, a heavy freewheel offers a better ride feel and allows for all-out sprinting.
You can pick up a basic turbo trainer from around £100, and a ‘wheel on’ smart trainer from around £250. Direct drive smart trainers, which can weigh in excess of 20kg, start at around £500.
Regardless which option you choose, turbo trainers don’t require a time investment in ‘learning to ride’ them, you just get on and pedal. You can focus all your attention on the efforts, and there’s zero chance of falling off. You can get out the saddle and sprint, even more so on a direct drive model.
Smart trainers connect to apps like Zwift, The Sufferfest and Trainer Road to adjust the resistance in response to hills, descents, or efforts during a session – though you can turn this off by disabling ERG mode.
We’ve looked at the pros and cons of smart as opposed to basic turbos, since that’s what the majority is now using…
Pros of smart turbo trainers
- Provide power data, handy if you don’t have a separate power meter
- All will pair up with apps to adjust resistance
- Can reach high efforts and sprint just as hard (if not harder) than on the road
- All the effort can go completely into the bike
Cons of smart turbo trainers
- Little need for upper body or core to work unless you consciously engage them
- Non-direct drive versions can feel quite ‘draggy’, direct drive versions are still quite expensive
So – which is best – turbo or rollers?
Rollers are definitely losing the popularity battle.
According to Zwift‘s PR manager, Chris Snook, around 80 per cent of the platform’s users are competing their sessions on smart trainers.
“I enjoy both [rollers and the turbo], but my preference is the smart trainer,” Snook said. “I always have mine setup with a bike on it at home and I can just hop on Zwift in minutes. The smart trainer for me is better for racing on Zwift. It also provides a greater amount of resistance which means I can do a broader range of workouts – including sprint intervals.”
At The Sufferfest, ‘Senior Minister of External Affairs’ (PR guy), Dylan Robbins told us he reckoned around 98 per cent of Sufferlandrians were journeying to the fields of laver and gnashing of teeth (and back) on turbo trainers.
“Unless you have new-fangled rollers with a resistance unit it’s difficult to hit power targets with rollers,” Robbins said. “There’s also a much steeper learning curve with rollers so most people who are looking for an indoor training solution will most likely go for a trainer since they can hop on and go.
“It’s also nigh impossible to do all-out efforts on rollers without significant tooth loss so sprint workouts are pretty much off the table.
“Before I started doing much in the way of structured training indoors I preferred rollers since my primary motivation for riding inside was to improve my form and pedal stoke. Rollers are brutally honest. They throw any choppiness in your pedal stroke into high relief and force you to really focus on keeping things smooth.
“But in terms of allowing you to really nail a structured workout with highly-variable power and cadence targets they’re not ideal.”
If you only have the space or money for one, and want to be able to use your full range of training zones, it seems like it’s going to have to be a turbo.
However, if you’ve got space in your life for both, plan to do all of your sprints and hill efforts outdoors, or you’re an endurance specialist who just doesn’t need to enter the absolute red, then rollers are a great way to add variety and keep it interesting. Plus, they won’t feel like you’re churning through a rock garden, as per the very oldest of cheap turbo trainers.
If you want the best of all worlds and money is no object? A Wattbike might be your calling…