Do you need a smart turbo trainer?

Thanks to interactive apps, the days of staring at a garage wall are gone; but how much do you need to spend to get the most out of turbo training?

The idea of a turbo being ‘smart’ will be an anathema to the traditionalist who views it as an instrument of torture that requires you to switch your brain off before getting on it, but with the rise of apps such as Zwift, Skuga and Strava, suddenly indoor training is becoming not only more sophisticated, but also more fun.

A smart turbo trainer pairs with other tech such as computers and smartphones to enable you to get more from your workout. Via ANT+ and Bluetooth as well as your home WiFi, two-way interaction with smartphones and computers allows a whole host of new possibilities.

>> Subscribe to Cycling Weekly this Autumn and save 35%. Enjoy the luxury of home delivery and never miss an issue <<

Zwift, which has a downloadable app with a monthly subscription, is the leader in this field, letting you ride with other cyclists in a virtual environment. Combining training with gaming has already banished the old hatred of the turbo for the new generation of cyclists.

But does this change in attitude towards turbo training mean you have to buy a turbo that costs more than some people spend on a bike?

“To get started on Zwift you don’t need a smart trainer — the minimum requirement is a speed and cadence sensor,” says Chris Snook of Zwift. “If you‘ve got a basic set of rollers or a basic turbo trainer you can get started on that. The thing you do lack is the automatic resistance adjustment towards the terrain you’re riding.”

Zwift has simulated gradients built into its courses so that if you hit a hill, a smart trainer will auto-adjust the resistance so that you need to pedal harder or change down.

A ‘dumb’ trainer or rollers won’t auto-adjust — the user has to change the resistance manually, losing the virtual reality element by doing so.

Snook continues: “What can be difficult is if you’re on rollers [rather than a smart trainer] and you’re on a group ride, the game will suddenly require that you need to pull out 300 watts to get up a climb.

That’s quite difficult to do on a set of rollers without any resistance. You’ve got to change up to increase the resistance instead of changing down as you would on a real hill.”

However, among the 30 per cent of non-smart trainer-using Zwifters there are some riders of note: “Lionel Sanders, a triathlete who did a monster bike leg at Kona, uses rollers,” says Snook.

“Obviously if you’re riding on your own it doesn’t matter that much because you’re pushing and hitting the zones you need to.

Former pro Dean Downing, now a coach with TrainSharp, says: “I hate turbo trainers but I did train a lot on a Wattbike during my racing career. Working as a coach, many of my clients work full-time and have families so they don’t want to go out at 8pm in the dark and cold.

“It ultimately comes down to personal preference,” says Downing. “One of my clients uses a Wahoo KICKR and Zwift, while another trains with a Stages power meter on a standard turbo. It’s about breaking the boredom down.”

Expert take

Chris Snook – Zwift

“At Zwift we do advocate using a smart trainer. On the whole we find that the real engaged Zwift users are using smart trainers just because they get the most from it.

“We’re expecting the number of users worldwide to grow significantly this winter — partly due to the fact that indoor training is more popular in winter and the majority of Zwift users are in the northern hemisphere with the notable exception of Australia.

“But it’s true that the price of smart turbos is a potential limiting factor for Zwift’s future growth. The overall goal is to grow the indoor trainer market enough that the demand is there for smart trainers and the price comes down — ideally to about £300 [currently a direct-drive smart trainer such as the Wahoo KICKR, Tacx Neo or CycleOps Hammer will cost upwards of £1,000].

“A smart trainer is still a considered purchase but it’s not up there with the price of a new bike.

“Do you need a smart trainer? You don’t actually need one but if you want to use Zwift you’ll get much more out of it if you have one.”

Our take

The main reason for using a smart trainer is to open up your indoor training to platforms like Zwift, which turn training into gaming and allow you to ride virtually with other users.

However, if you are motivated enough to nail intervals on the rollers with nothing but bricks and mortar to entertain you, we salute you.