Stationary bikes remain one of the most popular home exercise machines on the market. They let you burn calories, give you a great aerobic workout for heart health, and can be a challenging and fun way to work out.
However, they’re not the best choice for competitive bike racers, those who’ve already spent a lot of money on their actual bike and don’t have a lot of extra cash left – or those who simply love the feeling of riding a real bike indoors. Those folks are likely to opt for an indoor bike trainer instead.
Indoor Bike trainers, also known as turbo trainers or bike stand trainers, are relatively simple machines. You just connect your bike’s back wheel to the trainer, which provides resistance as you pedal. You can then ride, brake and change gears just as you would on the open road.
The physical benefits of a trainer are almost identical to those you get from a workout on an upright, stationary or spin bike. But the ride is more familiar and comfortable, a trainer is less expensive, and the experience is much more realistic. That’s a huge plus for both weekend road cyclists and professional racers; the latter regularly use these machines to train in realistic conditions whether they’re indoors in bad weather or nighttime hours, warming up for a competition or cooling down after a race.
There are many types of bike trainers, but even the best won’t set you back the big bucks that an equivalent stationary bike will cost. Here’s Groom+Style’s rundown on how to choose a turbo trainer, and our reviews of the top 5 best bike trainers to consider.
How a Bike Trainer Works
Before shopping for a bike trainer for cardio, it helps to know how these things work.
A bike trainer uses one of three methods to create resistance that the rider pedals against, much like a stationary bike does. The mechanics of a turbo trainer are much less complicated, though, because it’s just a frame that attaches to the rear wheel of a bike (as long as it’s a quick-release wheel). The quick-release cone and lever fit into the frame and lock into place, allowing the wheel to spin freely on the trainer’s resistance roller.
Most bike trainers will have an easily-accessible control to let you change the amount of resistance the trainer provides. High-end models have controls that allow you to tilt the wheel to the left or right so that it’s straight, and adjustable floor levelers so the bike won’t wobble on an uneven surface.
Some models have “articulating” attachments which let the bike pivot on the frame and give the rider the ability to lean from side to side as they would on a real road or course. There are also direct-attachment trainers that “replace” the bike’s rear wheel by attaching right to the bike frame’s rear dropouts; that’s a good way to save the tread on the tire.
Bike trainers create resistance in three different ways:
Wind trainers: As you pedal, you drive a fan that creates resistance. The harder you pedal the faster the fan spins, and the more resistance you experience. These models are usually the least expensive but also the least-adjustable and noisiest, and they don’t faithfully replicate the feeling of the road.
Magnetic trainers: The flywheel is powered by magnets, so resistance will be constant no matter how fast you pedal; you have to adjust the resistance manually or by shifting A few use spring-loaded or electromagnets, though, which do provide progressive resistance. These bike trainers are pretty quiet and pretty inexpensive, although you’ll have to pay more for one that lets you adjust the resistance without getting off the trainer.
Fluid trainers: The most expensive choice, fluid trainers combine a flywheel with chambers containing silicon or another liquid that provide increasing resistance as you pedal faster. They’re the best at accurately simulating the feel of the road, with lots of available adjustments to recreate the experience of biking any type of terrain. They’re also the quietest.
Much less common are centrifugal trainers that create resistance with a complicated mix of ball bearings and pressure plates, and direct drive trainers that have a complicated mix of cogs that replace the bike’s back wheel; we won’t be reviewing those because they’re very expensive and so rarely used. You can also choose to train on what is called a “roller,” which is basically a frame with three rolling cylinders (one for the front wheel, two for the back).
Rollers are great for pros or experienced cyclists because they feel just like the road and help the cyclists practice their balance – but amateurs are likely to just fall off. We won’t be reviewing those either; that’s a subject for another day.
How to Choose a Bike Trainer
The rider’s level of experience and how closely they want their training to resemble actual riding conditions will play the greatest role in choosing a bike trainer. Budget, of course, always factors in as well, but even most high-end turbo trainers will only cost a few hundred dollars. Once you’ve narrowed your selection down by those factors a choice will be relatively easy to make, based on qualities like a trainer’s resistance levels and the bike sizes it can accommodate, plus considerations like construction and stability.
It won’t come as a shock that you can buy bike trainers with bells-and-whistles that aren’t necessary but can make your riding more enjoyable or customizable. Small accessories like front tire blocks (to hold the bike level or simulate hills through the use of multiple levels of blocks), sweat mats and dedicated tire trainers can be desirable, and some riders may want Bluetooth interactivity to save their workout data to an iPad or computer. As with anything, the more you want, the more you’ll pay.
Let’s hit the road.
1. Kinetic Road Machine 2.0 Fluid Trainer
How confident is this company in its fluid trainer? A leak-proof guarantee comes with the trainer, eliminating one of the major worries some bikers have about a unit that has fluid sloshing around as they ride. Kinetic invented the leak-proof technology and patented it, so you know there’s got to be more than just bravado behind the guarantee.
This bike trainer accommodates wheels from 24 to 29 inches and a quick-release skewer designed for the Road Machine is included (as is an extra set of cups), so you can securely fit your bike’s rear wheel into the trainer’s clamp mount if your bike’s skewer’s design isn’t compatible. The turbo trainer is made from powder-coated steel and aluminum (the frame itself is all-steel) and is impressively durable. It comes completely assembled, too.
The ride is also impressive. It’s smooth, steady and realistic, resistance increases progressively just as it should, and is just about as quiet as you’d expect a well-made fluid trainer to be (if you want it even quieter, swap out your normal bike tire for a smooth one). It should satisfy just about any rider, even a pro. If you want more bells-and-whistles, you can purchase the Kinetic inRide watt meter that interfaces with the Kinetic Fit app to make this model a power trainer, as well as a riser for the front wheel. Beginning indoor cyclists won’t want to bother, but they’re nice options.
(If you want an even more realistic experience and cycling-specific core training, you should check out Kinetic’s Rock and Roll 2.0, which costs another $200 or so but allows your bike to move side to side as you ride.)
The Road Machine costs more than most of the other entries on Groom+Style’s list, but the review team believes it’s just about the ideal bike trainer.
Facts and figures on the Kinetic Road Machine 2.0 Fluid Trainer:
2. CycleOps Fluid2 Indoor Bike Trainer
Yes, we’ll be getting to magnetic and wind bike trainers shortly, but the Groom+Style team is partial to the realistic ride on a fluid trainer, so two fluid models top our rankings. The Fluid2 is smaller and somewhat less expensive than the Road Machine and requires a bit of assembly, but it’s still wonderfully-built with a very good road feel and resistance that increases just as it should when you pedal. And the fluid shouldn’t leak, even though the mechanics aren’t patented.
This CycleOps turbo trainer is the quietest choice on our list, there are three settings to choose from for rear dropout spacing, and the 16-gauge steel frame is going to last without rusting. The one major caution we have is that the Fluid2 only accommodates wheel sizes of 26-29 inches and tire sizes up to 2.0 inches, so be sure your bike will fit before buying. The basic trainer doesn’t include any accessories except a skewer, but you can upgrade to packages that include climbing blocks, sweat guard and training mat, or a PowerTap PowerCal and Joule cycling computer combination to turn this into a power trainer.
The Fluid2 is our second choice among fluid trainers, but it might be your first choice when you consider its lower price and performance almost equal to the Road Machine.
More info on the CycleOps Fluid2 Indoor Bike Trainer:
3. Tacx Vortex Smart Ergotrainer With Electro Brake
Surprisingly, the most expensive bike trainer in the Groom+Style rankings isn’t a fluid model. This Tacx is a magnetic resistance trainer – but oh, what a machine. There are 16 built-in magnets and half of them are electromagnets that respond to software that runs on a built-in computer and provides automatic resistance adjustments you won’t normally get with a magnetic turbo trainer.
The software makes this a so-called “smart” trainer ideally suited to those who want to participate in virtual cycling challenge games like Zwift or Strava. It also lets you program power workouts into the trainer and run Tacx or third-party apps that can give you all the data you’d ever want on your performance. But the Vortex costs less than half the usual $1000+ price of most competitors.
Tacx is a well-known name in the industry, and their design and construction is impeccable. The Vortex can be difficult to assemble, but it works like a charm and the solid-steel build is so stable it won’t wobble even on uneven floors. There’s also a great electro-brake that makes the ride even more controllable and realistic. The downside is that the brake can make this trainer even louder than you’d expect from a magnetic-resistance machine, but it’s worth the extra noise. As with the Fluid2, only 26-29 inch rear wheels can be accommodated.
The Tacx Vortex is probably “too much” bike trainer for most people, but it’s a fantastic choice for those who are Zwift fanatics, or want the extra features that a smart trainer can provide.
Digging deeper on the Tacx Vortex Smart Ergotrainer With Electro Brake:
Our budget choice is another magnetic resistance trainer, and it’s a good one that’s stood the test of time. The FDW Trainer Stand has been a popular sub-$100 model for many years not only because of its price, but because it’s easy to set up, jump on and start riding.
This stand is solid, with the riding stand constructed from high-quality carbon steel, and it will accommodate any style of bike with 26”, 27” or 700c wheels. However, as you’ll find with almost any trainer stand, some bikes’ quick-release skewers (the rods and nuts that hold the tires on) may not fit into the stand properly. If you run into this issue, it’s not a problem with the FDW stand, it’s just the nature of the beast. You can easily purchase a compatible replacement skewer at a bike shop or on Amazon for about ten bucks.
The review team found the five levels of magnetic resistance, adjustable on the handlebars via remote control, to be challenging for new riders and just right for those with moderate experience. Expert riders won’t find the experience particularly beneficial for training, and they may also find the narrow stance of this trainer stand delivers an unrealistic ride. Two other notes: when mounted into the FDW stand, most bikes’ rear wheels ride quite high so you’ll want to add a front wheel riser block to your setup, and at high resistance levels this magnetic trainer can be rather noisy.
We wouldn’t recommend the FDW stand for dedicated or competitive bike riders, but it’s just right for weekend bike aficionados who don’t want to lay out a bundle of money.
Specifications for the FDW Bike Trainer Stand:
5. CycleOps Wind Indoor Bicycle Trainer
You can find cheap wind trainers, but most are built in a way that reflects their price. Those searching for a wind bike trainer should do themselves a favor and take a look at the CycleOps wind model. It’s pricier (around the same price as higher-level magnetic trainers) but you won’t end up tossing it in the trash or upgrading after a month – particularly since there’s a lifetime warranty.
The very good performance of the CycleOps Wind is due to its Vortex blade design, which works well to provide better resistance than you’d expect from a wind-powered model and give you more of a realistic feel when shifting gears than you’ll find with any competitor that relies on a fan. The frame is heavy and sturdy, operation is somewhat noisy but not objectionable, and assembly doesn’t take much time. The review team just wishes that it came with a riser block.
This is another high-quality product from CycleOps and while it won’t satisfy a dedicated rider, it’s the best choice for those who want a fan-powered bike trainer that isn’t junk.
A closer look at the CycleOps Wind Indoor Bicycle Trainer:
Ohuhu Magnet Steel Bike Trainer Stand
* Unfortunately, it looks like the Ohuhu Magnet Bike Trainer is not available on Amazon at the moment, please consider another product.
If you don’t have the budget for our first three choices, this Ohuhu should be more to your liking. It’s about one-third the price of the Road Machine, but still earns praise from the Groom+Style review team for its performance, stability (thanks to an extra-wide frame) and one other feature: adjustable resistance.
Even though the Ohuhu is a straightforward magnetic trainer that increases resistance as you pedal harder, it also has a bar-mounted remote that lets you adjust the internal resistance as you ride. We love it. This trainer is quieter than most magnetic models, and in a nice touch that other manufacturers should adopt, it comes with a riser block at no additional charge. Assembly can take a little time, but it’s not too difficult.
The Ohuhu Magnet Trainer won’t provide the challenging resistance of higher-level models but at the price, it’s a steal.
Specifications for the Ohuhu Magnet Steel Bike Trainer Stand: