'You young Zwifters, you don’t know you’re born': In memory of life before smart trainers

Cycling Weekly's columnist, Dr Hutch, remembers the torture of indoor training years gone by...

Dr Hutch pedals a turbo in a war zone
(Image credit: Getty Images/Future)
Dr Hutch profile
Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine. 

It is that time of year that one’s thoughts turn towards winter training, and, with a small shudder, towards indoor training.

As you know, I don’t like to overplay my Old Man of the Long Road routine. But for once I’m going to, just to say this: if you think bikes have changed over the last couple of decades, or that clothing, helmets, racing, doping or TV coverage have changed, none of it compares to how turbo training has changed.

Let me tell you about my first turbo trainer. It was a wheel-on  trainer, because that was all there was, and cost about £40. That was where the “reasons to buy” ended. It was flimsy, had a ride feel that could be described as, “Has my back wheel turned square?”, made a noise like a helicopter, and, above all included a “quick release” system that might better have been described as an “surprise release” system.

It could spring open at any time, and the back wheel would drop onto the floor. I didn’t immediately rocket forwards, because I wasn’t in a cartoon. Instead I usually burned a hole in the carpet, fell over sideways and probably broke a couple of spokes as the wheel tangled with the trainer. (Rocketing forward and leaving a Hutch-shaped exit-hole in the kitchen wall would at least have been something to video and put aside for when Instagram got invented.)

I replaced this horror with the king of dumb-turbos, the Cateye Cyclosimulator. It was stable, reliable, had great ride feel and even had a power meter – all of this back in the actual last century.

Of course, it was still so dull it made your brain shrivel. Somehow dumb-turbo training offered even less stimulus than you get in a sensory deprivation tank. You’d imagine that nothing could be duller than doing exactly nothing, but you’d be wrong.

I once did seven hours on it, with no music or television or any entertainment. I did it to prove I could. It showed that excessive turbo-training had reduced my cerebral activity to the equivalent of a clockwork monkey playing the cymbals.

Smart trainers and training / racing apps were a revolution. In a few short years we got direct drive, accurate power measurement, and the opportunity to get outsprinted by a 1400-watt, 30-kilo fibber from Luxembourg. Despite the contempt of several of my “a proper cyclist would be doing a 3-hr ride in the rain rather than mucking about having fun on Zwift” friends, I’m a huge online riding fan. It’s maybe 50% of the mental stimulation of an outdoor ride, but that’s a hell of a change from minus 50%.

On the subject of dumb turbos, I became like the sort of Vietnam vet who tells people that if they weren’t there, they’ll never understand. If you’ve never ridden a dumb turbo, I’d say, you can’t imagine what it’s like. You young Zwifters, you don’t know you’re born.

But then, a few weeks ago I found myself stuck at my parents’ house on a very wet, very windy day. I decided to turbo – specifically, to dumb turbo on that old Cateye machine that has come to rest in the family home. I clamped the bike on and got going.

It turned out that even I couldn’t imagine what it was like. I rode for 40 minutes, but in everyone else’s lives only 15 minutes passed. It gave me an extra 25 minutes on this planet, but I’d rather not have had it.

It left me awestruck by my younger self. His determination to win, the willingness to put himself through that.

I haven’t got half the commitment now that I had back then. I haven’t got 10% of it. I’m a weaker, less focussed bike rider. I have no willingness to do what it takes. And this is a very good thing.

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