We've built our quads testing bike trainers for the last 3 years, with over 13 different products in hand. This update features 7 of the best quality options on the market today. We take a look at a wide range of options, carefully considering the needs of different riders, the support offered by companies, and the value each trainer provides. To do this, we spent hundreds of hours in the OutdoorGearLab pain cave, tinkering and assembling, sweating, and analyzing with our laptops the best options out there. This comprehensive review doesn't just compare and contrast each product, but we offer our recommendations, too, to help you find the best trainer you need for your ambitions.
The Best Bike Trainers
Best Overall Smart Trainer
Tacx Neo 2 Smart
As with its predecessor, the Tacx Neo 2 Smart sits at the top of its cohort. It's extremely simple to set up directly out of the box, provided you're slightly handy with tools and can install a cassette. But even if you don't know how to do it already, it's an easy process with a few cheap tools or a quick visit to your LBS. Once you get on the thing, it's just unbeatable. Combining the responsiveness, accuracy, road feel, and versatility, it's just hard to find another trainer that can best it. It uses a virtual flywheel to recreate not just massive 25% grades and downhill freewheeling, but it even simulates cobblestones, wooden planks, and off-road segments on training apps like Zwift. Another excellent attribute is its 2200 watt ceiling on power - most of us will never get the chance to even think of testing that limit. But while you're trying to hit that limit, the trainer accommodates you by allowing your bike to sway back and forth just a bit. And when you're done riding and the fans are put away, it folds up quite nicely and stores neatly in a closet or corner.
The obvious drawback to this premium model is its prohibitive price tag. It's also too heavy to frequently hauled around much. If you're looking for a simple and inexpensive way to stay in shape when the weather is poor, this model isn't for you. The Neo 2 Smart is for the dedicated athlete looking for state-of-the-art tech in their bike trainer.
Read review: Tacx Neo 2 Smart
Best Bang for the Buck
Widely regarded as the best choice for an affordable direct drive smart trainer, the Elite Direto brings with it all the top functionality desired in a controllable smart trainer, delivering it at a price far below other top models. Power accuracy is rated at +/- 2.5%, but it rarely strays further than 1%, so you'll get the most out of your training data. Speaking of power, it can take 1400W of hammering and send you up grades as steep as 14%, enough to satiate most riders looking for a few months of indoor training over the winter or reprieve from wet roads. Did we mention it's controllable? It uses Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ FE-C protocols. That means utilization of advanced training features offered by Elite, and you can use the savings to buy years of access to popular programs like Zwift, TrainerRoad, and The Sufferfest, and has app support for at least a dozen other major programs. It's also one of the lightest smart trainers on the market, making it easy to store and easy to haul around. And it wouldn't be near the top of this list if it didn't offer an attractive approximation of road feel.
The Direto doesn't provide the range of power and gradient as our Editors' Choice Award winner, but it's enough for most. Set up can also be a bit of a pain, and while the road feel is impressive, it's not the best in its class. This trainer is hands-down the best for riders looking to get in solid rides when the weather is harsh, or travel and schedules keep you off the road, without shelling out for the premium models.
Read review: Elite Direto
Top Pick Tire Drive
CycleOps Fluid 2
Looking for a simple bike trainer to get you up on your bike in the winter without the hassle and full paycheck? The CycleOps Fluid 2 will do exactly that. It's a straightforward trainer that's super easy to set up and get rolling. We tested it with the speed or cadence sensor (a very worthwhile option) that easily pairs with Zwift, Rouvy, and all the other major training apps so you're not flying blind. And it's not just any old tire drive trainer. It actually feels like you're out on the road. CycleOps has earned its excellent reputation for unmatched road feel in its fluid resistance trainers, and that's on show with the Fluid 2. It follows a basic progressive resistance curve, but it has the perfect amount of responsiveness, inertia, and rollout/spin-down to mimic the road. It's also one of the lightest bike trainers on the market, making it super easy to move around, store, and take out on road trips or to warm up before races.
Of course, the limitations of this model are found across all tire drive trainers. While it's great in comparison to the models in its class, it still can't match the road feel, smart control, and power measurement accuracy of direct drive trainers. But hey, it also doesn't have the price tag. If you're after a practical, easy, natural-feeling tire-drive trainer, it doesn't get much better than the CycleOps Fluid 2.
Read review: CycleOps Fluid 2
Why You Should Trust Us
Our testers Curtis Smith and Ryan Baham are cycling fanatics with a passion for fitness. These two reviewers spend an obscene amount of time in the saddle putting in serious miles. When the weather turns foul in the winter months, both spend their fair amount of time on the bike trainer.
We obsessively tested these bike trainers putting in a huge amount of hours and losing gallons of sweat. We rode these trainers with an eye for smart connectivity with smartphones, computers, and fitness applications. We double-checked all of the power readings with a Quarq power meter. In addition, we had an eye for the portability of each unit, ease of setup, and how the feeling of each trainer compares to the feel of the road. Rest assured, we have all the bases covered.
Related: How We Tested Bike Trainers
Analysis and Test Results
To provide an accurate accounting of the advantages, disadvantages, and overall end-user experience, we rated trainers 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, representing how the products compare to each other. We feel that some of the metrics are more important, and thus, we have weighted the scores in each metric based on relative importance.
Related: Buying Advice for Bike Trainers
The most expensive trainers scored the highest in our review. However, if you don't need many features, we found that many of the cheapest models performed just fine. Typically, as you go down in price, the accuracy of data collected and road feel decreases. Smart control features also are either limited or sometimes not present on the low-priced end of the market. However, these days, most models come with ANT + and Bluetooth connectivity, so you can still use third-party apps like Zwift and TrainerRoad for an engaging session of pain and gains.
After months of testing, the CycleOps Fluid 2 proved to cover most cyclists' needs in a bike trainer at a very competitive price. It has just enough smart features to keep us tuned into our workout at one of the lowest prices in this review. It's also simple to use and lightweight enough to cart around wherever you'd like. However, if you want a taste of the top echelon of bike trainers these days, go for the Elite Direto. It's a clear jump up in features and road feel from the tire drive models and isn't far behind the direct drive models that cost hundreds more.
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? 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, collect data, and provide an engaging riding experience.
The models we tested utilize both ANT+ and Bluetooth communication protocols. Why both? Well, the short explanation is that most smartphones are not ANT+ enabled, but they do have Bluetooth, so trainers need the Bluetooth connectivity for mobile apps. Many computers and tablets also use the Bluetooth protocol, so enabling Bluetooth can provide an adaptor-free method of communication for web-based applications like TrainerRoad and Zwift.
You'll want to check out the capabilities of the third-party programs. Zwift, for example, is less straightforward for Windows-PC users because it doesn't support native Bluetooth communication yet, meaning you need to download the Zwift Companion mobile app to use your phone as a bridge. Luckily an ANT+ connection will allow you to communicate with any device by simply plugging an ANT+ dongle into one of the USB ports. Dual communication protocols provide the easiest connection regardless of what type of display device you're trying to use.
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, which is the method utilized by direct drive trainers. 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. 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 from friction, 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 inherently provide a more variable and less accurate measure of power.
The Tacx Neo 2 Smart and Wahoo Kickr outscored all other products we tested in this category. ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart communication protocols made for easy connections to the Tacx and Wahoo Fitness smartphone apps and third-party applications. Some of our testers described the Kickr as the Apple of the smart trainer world due to its intuitive and straightforward smartphone application that incidentally works equally well with both IOS and Android devices. The Neo apps, however, was slightly less glamorous and could have used a bit more interactivity, but it connected across apps and platforms without issue.
Unique to the capabilities of the Tacx Neo 2, though, is a pedal stroke analysis. This feature allows you to see the power and efficiency of each leg during any given workout to help you further understand your strengths and identify areas for improvement. Your one freeloading leg no longer has a place to hide! However, to utilize this feature, you must use the Tacx app, which isn't our favorite of the bunch. Tacx also looked to the future with this model, adding extra memory to make space for software updates and new features in the future. As bike trainer technology continues to improve every year, we think this is a very smart move.
Power accuracy in both models were also excellent, rivaled only by the Elite Direto and CycleOps H2 Smart. We tested all of the products against a Quarq crank-based power meter and Garmin Vector 3 pedals and found the variance of less than one percent with all four, though Elite itself reports accuracy within 2.5%. 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% range.
Lower scoring products suffered from less intuitive native applications. Their power accuracy also tended to increase significantly, up to +/- 15% on the Tacx Vortex Smart. That said, we welcome the lower end of the market adopting the dual standard communication protocols of ANT+ and Bluetooth, something that wasn't nearly as ubiquitous just a year ago.
Road feel 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 strong 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, or virtual flywheel in the case of the Tacx Neo 2 Smart. During testing, we used a test to determine how long the flywheel would spin once pedaling stopped from 200 watts. We tested the lowest resistance setting on the smart trainers using the native applications.
Those with the longest roll out time usually also offered the best road feel when used in SIM mode. The major exception to this rule was the Neo 2 Smart, using a unique magnetic electromotor to perfectly simulate the road, even going so far as to replicate downhilling, yet its roll out time is only 21 seconds. Returning to the trend, the H2 Smart had the longest roll out time at 2:30, and also has the heaviest flywheel of any model we tested.
Our testers found the H2 Direct to provide the best road feel among traditional flywheels 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.
When it comes to fluid trainers, the flywheel weight makes all the difference. The Wahoo Fitness Kickr Snap has a 10.5-pound flywheel and also provides the best road feel about tire drive trainers. With that said, the top-scoring Tacx Neo Smart blows it out of the water.
All trainers make noise. Some are louder than others. The quietest we tested is the Kickr Snap that put out 54.5 decibels at 20mph. 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 Elite Direto actually put out the most decibels (74.8 dB) at 20 mph, but it wasn't perceived as the loudest model. This might be attributed to the Direto producing more of a fan noise that's perceived as less loud, though it's producing more sound.
When assessing the overall quality of design, we took several factors into account, including durability, stability, adjustability, and wheel and hub compatibility. We assigned the design criteria a weight of 20 percent. Whether you are considering spending hundreds or thousands 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 too hard on a sprint? Am I going to break this thing? Is this thing going to break my favorite two-wheeled toy? These are some of the 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 with any trainers during testing. The CycleOps H2 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.
Both the H2 and the Kickr have adjustable legs to accommodate an uneven floor. 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. Lower scoring products include the Tacx Vortex which has no leg height adjustment.
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 H2 Smart is compatible with both 130 and 135mm quick-release frames, as well as 142 and 148mm through axle frames using adaptors. Most other high-end models also support these expanded axel sizes, but you might need to purchase the adaptors separately. This makes the machines 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.
The CycleOps H2 is the highest scoring product overall for design. Excellent durability, stability, and a well thought out design set it apart from the competition. The Kickr and Neo 2 Smart also score well in this metric. Among the tire drive models, we are most impressed with the CycleOps Fluid 2.
We are all crunched for time, and any time lost setting up your trainer could have been spent putting in quality training time. Setup receives 10 percent weighting. We broke setup down into two primary 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 trainers, the rear wheel does not need to be removed, but you will have to swap out your skewer before mounting the bike and you'll see more tire wear than normal. 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.
Pairing and Applications
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, except with the Tacx Neo 2 Smart, which comes pre-calibrated. All of the other smart trainers we tested require some calibration before initial use, and ongoing calibration after that. Without calibration, power measurement will not be accurate. 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.
Calibration, quite frankly, is a pain. Tire drive models require calibration before each training session to account for tire pressure and drum tension differences from ride to ride. Even a quarter turn on the tensioning knob can cause a huge variance in power readings. Ideally, calibrate tire drive trainers following a 10-minute warm-up period to account for changes in resistance related to heat build up. Direct drive, on the other hand, only need to be calibrated every 30 days. This is a huge advantage that will save you an average of 10 minutes with every session. That time adds up over the course of a week of training; we could all be doing something more productive than calibrating a trainer.
The CycleOps Fluid 2 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. The clutch knob on the Fluid 2 is a unique feature that makes getting the proper tire tension on the drum fast and simple. The Neo 2 Smart also does really well here, largely because it never requires calibration. Also, once it's paired with applications, there's no further upkeep required - not to mention the Tacx app, while not as interactive as Zwift, does provide a ton of great training and support while giving you real world cycling videos, which is pretty cool.
The Kickr and the H2 received solid scores because they only require calibration on a monthly basis. The Kickr comes out higher though, because the awesome Wahoo Fitness application was found by our testers to be superior to the CycleOps CVT application. The initial assembly and installation of the H2 is also a bit more involved than with the Kickr.
How easy is it to move around? Stationary models are a great option for pre-race warm-ups, 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 bike 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 direct drive trainers do not outscore the lower-priced tire drive models. There are loads of reasons to choose a premium model over a basic unit, but portability is not one. The direct drive models we tested weigh between 30 to 50 lbs. 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 H2 Smart 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 and compact folding. But generally, tire drive trainers have an advantage in this measure because they are lighter than the direct drive models.
Models like the Elite Direto and Kickr Snap are awkward to carry, given their 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 Fluid 2. It is lightweight, easy to carry, and does not require power for use.
Finding the ideal trainer is a tough process. Heck, selling yourself on a trainer is a tough process! Trainers need to perform well enough to win the battle against the couch and fridge, and also convenient enough to get your legs spinning within 1 or 2 minutes of you touching your bike. Engineers and programmers have been working hard to solve both of those problems on the actual machines, but it's substantially helped along by training apps like TrainerRoad and Zwift. Bike trainers are also excellent companions for getting in short, hard, structured workouts without having to fight cars, stop signs, and the rest of the charming training interruptions out on the road. Any rider serious about getting or staying fit is well advised to bite the bullet and find something that they're going to use. Don't buy more trainer than is necessary, but don't skimp and buy something that just isn't doing the job of getting you on your bike - frequently - and getting you fit.
— Curtis Smith and Ryan Baham