The Best Bike Trainers of 2017
There are so many bike trainers and third-party applications, but what's the best one for you? To find out, we scrutinized 30 top models and then bought seven for side-by-side tests. After hundreds of hours in the OutdoorGearLab Pain Cave, we have recommendations for your needs and budget. We evaluated both smart and traditional fluid trainers over a long winter that kept us locked indoors to give you the information you need to make a solid purchase. A trainer is one of the best ways to maintain your hard earned fitness over the winter, and for those who live in cold climates, it is often the only way to get in a ride. We burned thousands of calories and were forced to purchase a mop to clean up the puddles of sweat on the floor. Keep reading to find out which trainers came out on top.
Read the full review below >
Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Smart Trainer
CycleOps Hammer Direct Drive
Want user-controlled resistance, compatibility with almost any bike, and realistic virtual riding experiences on multiple application platforms? Look no further — the Cyclops Hammer Direct Drive is the pinnacle of smart trainer design. It broadcasts on both ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart giving you multiple connection options. PC or Mac? Android or IOS? No problem. The full featured CVT mobile application has loads of options including structured workouts based on power, and user controlled resistance all from your IOS or Android device. With a massive 2000 watts of resistance and a maximum simulated incline of 20 percent, even the strongest riders will not be searching for more. What about Trainer Road and Zwift? No problem, intuitive and a hassle-free connection will have you burning laps in Watopia in no time. With the best road feel and near seamless resistance transitions in both SIM and ERG mode, the Hammer Direct Drive is the closest you are going to get to riding the Alpe d'Huez from your basement pain cave. Solid, fully encased construction, with class leading stability, set the Hammer apart from the competition. The direct drive design protects your wheels and tires from wear while providing the most accurate power measurement of any model we tested. The Cyclops Hammer Direct Drive is the best on the market and the winner of our coveted Editors' Choice Award.
Accurate Power Data
ANT+ and Bluetooth Communication
Great Road Feel
Direct Drive Design
Read review: CycleOps Hammer Direct Drive
Best Bang for the Buck
Kinetic Road Machine 2.0 Fluid
Fast Set Up
No Smart Features
Retailing for $339, the Kinetic Road Machine is a solid training tool that will provide years of tireless service. No fancy applications or electronic resistance control here, just smooth fluid-based resistance. It submerges an encased impeller in a silicone-based fluid provides progressive resistance as the speed of the rear tire increases. Shifting gears increases or decreases resistance. Most fluid trainers are prone to seal failure over time because the impeller drive shaft penetrates the fluid chamber, but Kinetic uses a unique magnetic drive system that eliminates the drive shaft and fluid chamber interface, resulting in a completely sealed fluid unit. The Road Machine folds up for easy storage or transport and is an ideal tool for pre-race warmup as it does not require electricity to provide resistance. A 6.25lb flywheel provides a more road like feel than other fluid resistance models we have tested. The Road Machine is not the answer for virtual training, but it is a reliable, portable, well-built unit. Quality and affordability are not mutually exclusive.
Read review:Kinetic Road Machine 2.0 Fluid
Top Pick Tire Drive
Wahoo Fitness Kickr Snap
Dual ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart Communication
Real Road Feel
Easy to use Native Application
More Affordable than Direct Drive
Power Data not as accurate as Direct Drive
Want a smart trainer and don't want to shell out $1200? Tire drive models are the more affordable ticket to virtual resistance controlled training. If you are looking for a smaller, lighter weight, and more an affordable way to get on Zwift, then look no further than the Wahoo Kickr Snap. The Wahoo Fitness application works with both Android and IOS devices and is by far the most simple and intuitive of all the smartphone applications we tested. If you don't have a smartphone fear not, PC and Mac options are available. Dual ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart communication make connections with your devices easy. The Snap is compatible with Zwift, Trainer Road, and over 20 other 3rd party applications, so you won't have any issues finding a training program or virtual race. Resistance up to 1500 watts kept our strongest testers deep in the pain cave and simulated inclines 12 percent kept most of us more than satisfied. Setup is easy and does not require rear wheel removal. The Snap has the best road feel and smoothest resistance transitions of any tire drive model we tested. If you are not ready to shell out the big bucks for direct drive, the Kickr Snap is the best tire drive model on the market.
Read review: Wahoo Fitness Kickr Snap
Analysis and Test Results
To provide an accurate accounting of the advantages, disadvantages and overall end user experience, we rated on five separate metrics: connectivity and power accuracy, portability, design, road feel, and setup time. We gave each product a score from 1 to 10 for each metric, the scores are about how the products compare to each other. We feel that some of the metrics are more important and thus we have given each a value based on importance. Read on to find out more about each metric, including the value assigned to each and what products score best in each category.
Connectivity and Power Accuracy
When it comes to smart trainers, one of the most important considerations is connectivity with proprietary applications and perhaps even more importantly third party applications. We assigned this category a weight of 30 percent. Basically, How well do they play with others? As we noted in our brief history and introduction, the applications are critical to the overall functionality of the unit as well as to your experience. A smart trainer without applications is a fifty-pound paperweight. They rely on applications and their connections to those applications to control resistance.
The other portion of the category is power accuracy. Smart trainers base resistance on power measured in watts. Each employs a power meter that measures power output. The most accurate way to do this is to read power at the hub. Tire drive models read power farther down the chain at the drum/resistance unit interface and thus do not offer the same level of power accuracy as direct drive trainers that measure power at the hub. Tire drive trainers must contend with more variables when measuring power, primarily the effect that tire drag has on the reading. As a tire heats up the rolling resistance changes, as does the air pressure within the tire. the combination of both factors affects rolling resistance. Because of this tire drive trainers provide a more variable and less accurate measure of power.
The Wahoo Kickr outscored all other products we tested in this category. ANT+FE-C and Bluetooth communication protocols made for easy connections to both the Wahoo Fitness smartphone application and third party applications. Some of our testers described the Kickr as the Apple of the smart trainer world due to its simple and intuitive smartphone application that incidentally works equally well with both IOS and Android devices. Power accuracy was also excellent, rivaled only by the Hammer Direct Drive. We tested all of the products against a Quarq crank based power meter and found the variance of less than one percent with both. The Kickr Snap was the best scoring tire drive model, equaling its direct drive counterpart on ease of connectivity. Power accuracy drove the overall score down, with variance in the 5 percent range. Lower scoring products suffered from less intuitive native applications and in the case of our lowest scoring product the lack of dual communication protocols. The Kinetic Rock and Roll Smart Trainer is the only one tested that does not include ANT+FE-C communication. We found this to be a big disadvantage as it limits use with Windows-based computers. There is a workaround by using your smartphone as Bluetooth bridge, but this adds another device to the mix, which we found to be problematic. Lack of ANT+FE-C control also limits application accessibility. The only industry standard communication protocol is ANT+FE-C. Any device that features the protocol will work with any third party application that supports ANT+FE-C. When it comes to Bluetooth, the communication must be coded, meaning extra work for application developers if they want a Bluetooth-only model to work with their application. In the long run, the compatibility a Bluetooth only models with any application is dependent upon the application developers willingness to do the coding work, which ultimately depends on how many users they have to gain by doing the work. So if the model is popular it is likely that support will continue if not then the application developer may decide it is not worth the effort to continue support.
The non-smart trainers we tested are scored at 0. Don't let that deter you from buying one if you are looking for a simple model — they are not designed to work with applications, control resistance electronically or read power.
How easy is it to move around? Stationary models are a great option for pre-race warups, and you may even consider closing the office door for a quick lunch session if you are really serious about training. Even if you never plan to travel with your trainer, you will likely need to move it around. Few of us have the luxury of a dedicated space for indoor training so putting it away after a workout is standard practice. The portability category is weighted at 10 percent. We took several factors into account when ranking products; weight, ease of carrying, storage size, and the ability to operate without electrical power.
This is one area where the smart trainers do not outscore the lower priced basic models. There are loads of reasons to choose a smart model over a basic unit, but portability is not one. Both the direct drive models we tested weigh nearly 50lbs, and the tire drive smart trainers are not far behind. Heavier flywheels, magnets, and electronics all add up to a good ride, but they are not easy to move around. Surprisingly, we found the heavier direct drive Hammer Direct Drive and the Kickr to be easier to move than lighter weight smart models like the Kickr Snap. This is due to the well designed built-in carrying handles found on both units.
Both the Kickr Snap and the Kinetic Rock and Roll Smart Control are awkward to carry, due to size and unbalanced weight distribution. The Tacx Vortex Smart is a standout, with a compact folded size, and the lightest weight of any smart stand we tested. Another great feature of the Vortex is it doesn't need power. The magnets in the Vortex will provide a steady speed based resistance curve that is more than enough resistance for a good pre-race warm up. The highest scoring product we tested was the CycleOps Jet Fluid Pro it is lightweight, easy to carry and does not require power for use. Lower scoring products include the Rock and Roll Smart Control due to its massive size and unbalanced weight.
When assessing the overall quality of design we took several factors into account; durability, stability, adjustability and, last but certainly not least, wheel and hub compatibility. We assigned the design criteria a weight of 20 percent. Whether you are considering spending $400 or $1200 on your purchase we know that the longevity of the product, as well as the ability to use with multiple bikes, are all considerations.
Durability and Stability
Is this thing going to last? Am I going to tip it over if I go to hard in a sprint? These are questions we had during testing. We found the heaviest models to be the most stable during use, but it should be noted that we never felt at risk of tipping over during testing. The Hammer Direct Drive is a standout product with a fully enclosed design. The resistance unit and flywheel are all protected from exposure to sweat and damage by the plastic shell. The legs have a 19.5" footprint when open, providing excellent stability when combined with weight. Other standout products include the Kickr and Kickr Snap that both have tubular steel frames that provide great durability and stability. Lower scoring products include the Tacx Vortex that has an aluminum channel frame and narrower footprint.
Both the Hammer Direct Drive and the Kickr have adjustable legs to accommodate for an uneven floor. The Jet Fluid Pro has a leg height adjustment on one leg which we found to be less useful than the dual adjust legs found on aforementioned models. Lower scoring products include the Tacx Vortex which has no leg height adjustment. The Kickr also can adjust the height of the trainer to accommodate different wheel sizes to maintain a level bike position without the use of a wheel block.
Wheel and Hub Compatibility
Direct drive models have the advantage here because they do not rely on the rear wheel to drive the resistance unit. The Hammer Direct Drive is compatible with both 130 and 135mm quick release frames, as well as 142 and 148mm through axle frames using included adapters. The Kickr boasts the same level of compatibility but requires the adaptors to be purchased separately. Both trainers are compatible with almost any type of bike available; road, cyclocross or mountain. The tire drive trainers we tested will work with through axle bikes as well but require adaptors, and we recommend you use a slick tire rather than the knobby you probably have on your off road machine.
Road feels ranks right up there in importance with connectivity. The best simulate the sensation of riding on the road. Poor quality models lack the feeling of inertia you get when riding out on the road. Achieving a good road feel is a complicated feat of engineering. Standard and smart models deliver good road feel in different ways.
There is a direct correlation between flywheel weight and the sensation that the user gets when spinning the cranks. In general, the heavier the flywheel the better the road feel. A heavy flywheel mimics the inertia felt when riding outside. The first thing you will notice with an inferior quality product is the sensations of resistance in the pedaling dead spot the back half of the pedal stroke. When riding on the road the forward momentum of the wheels carries you through this spot and it is not noticeable except on steep climbs. Models with poor road feel give the rider the sensation of being on a perpetual climb.
Smart trainers are a bit more complicated than standard fluid ones. The response to the control protocol from the application determines road feel in combination with the flywheel. During testing, we used a test to determine how long the flywheel would spin once pedaling stopped from 200watts. We tested the lowest resistance setting on the smart trainers using the native applications. Those with the longest roll out time also offered the best road feel when used in SIM mode. The Hammer Direct Drive had the longest roll out time at 2:30, and also has the heaviest flywheel of any model we tested. Our testers universally found the Hammer Direct to provide the best road feel across a range of applications both native and third party. It would be easy to assume that the flywheel weight is the only factor at play, but the complex magnetic resistance units and how they interpret the data fed to them by the applications also plays a critical role. The Kickr for example scores higher than the Rock and Roll Smart despite the heavier flywheel and longer roll out time of the Rock and Roll.
All trainers make noise. Some are louder than others. The quietest we tested is the Kickr Snap that put out 54.5 decibels at 230 watts. The Vortex and the Hammer Direct are also relatively quiet compared to the competition. The decibel test is a good baseline, but it is important to note that a low decibel reading can still be a very annoying kind of noise to one user where it would not bother another. The loudest we tested was the Jet Fluid Pro putting out 69.5 decibels at 230 watts.
We are all crunched for time, and any time lost setting up your trainer could have been spent putting in quality training time. Setup time receives 10 percent weighting. We broke setup down into two basic areas for consideration, physical setup and tech setup.
Physical Set Up
We spent a lot of time with these trainers and became intimately aware of the setup procedure and related quirks of each unit. From folding out the support legs to attaching the bike they all have their pros and cons. Overall, we found that direct drive models are the easiest to set up on a daily basis. Despite the need to remove the rear wheel for use, there is no need to mess with tire pressure or drum tension on the rear wheel. With tire drive, the rear wheel does not need to be removed, but you will have to swap out your skewer before mounting the bike. Also, tire pressure needs to be adjusted before each ride, and the drum tension on the rear wheel also needs to be set up just right.
All of the smart models we tested require the user to download the proprietary application before use. The manufacturer's application allows you to update the firmware before use. The other reason you need to download the native application is for calibration. All of the smart trainers we tested require some calibration before initial use, and ongoing calibration after that. Without calibration, power measurement will not be accurate and as a result, resistance will be out of balance to your output. The applications for each trainer are easily found in the App Store on both IOS and Android phones. Once downloaded you will need to follow the instructions within the application to pair your trainer. We found the Wahoo Fitness application to be the easiest and most intuitive to use, with the CycleOps CVT mobile application coming in a close second.
The CycleOps Jet Fluid Pro is the fastest and easiest to set up of all the models we tested. It has a clear advantage as a basic trainer with no need to calibrate or pair to applications. It outscores the Kinetic Road Machine due to its clutch knob that makes getting the proper tire tension on the drum fast and simple. Both the Kickr and the Hammer Direct Drive received high scores due to their direct drive design that limits calibration requirements to a monthly chore. The Kickr comes out on top though due to the awesome Wahoo Fitness application that our testers found to be superior to the CycleOps CVT application. Lower scoring products such as the Rock and Roll Smart are harder to set up and have less intuitive quirky applications that are harder to use.
How to Choose A Bike Trainer for Your Home.
— Curtis Smith
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.
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