The world of bike trainers and all its accouterments is vast and quite complicated. You're likely here because all you want to do is get something to sure you're not losing fitness on rain and snow days. You needn't worry because we took over domestique duties on this one. We analyzed over 50 of the best models on the market and narrowed it down to the top 8 for in-depth analysis. We looked across the full range, careful to consider what different riders want in a trainer, what companies offered for support, the relative value of training and experience, and various aspects of quality. Our testers spent dozens of hours tinkering, toying, drenched in sweat racing to nowhere and perched behind laptops researching to bring you our best judgment and analysis. Read on to see what's out there to meet your training needs.
The Best Bike Trainers
We spent the last few months pedaling in place on some new bike trainers to continue bringing you the best of what's out there. We added the smart version of Kinetic's Road Machine, the Elite Direto, and Tacx's premium Neo Smart model. These new additions upset the leaderboard, snagging Best Buy and Editors' Choice Awards. And some more good news — Tacx reduced the price of the Neo Smart and Vortex Smart this summer, making both products a better deal than ever. Bring on the rainy days, we'll still be training!
Best Overall Smart Trainer
Tacx Neo Smart
In the battle between willpower and indoor trainers, fuss and hassle loom large. With the Tacx Neo Smart, there is no such issue. The trainer uses incredible power accuracy that never has to be calibrated to ensure you're getting the most out of your training. It uses an electromagnetic virtual flywheel that mimics the real world inertia of riding that even mimics a descent, which is a pretty cool enhancement for Zwift. That functionality comes in handy when simulating rollers or traversing steep valleys where you want to spin down at 50 mph and then shift down for a seven mph climb back up without hitting any sudden resistance walls as you do on other controllable bike trainers. Another significant aspect is a combination of its frame design and mechanical performance. It can simulate climbs up to 25% and take up to 2200 watts. Very few mortals can tag this trainer's upper limits. While you're working on kicking out that wattage, you'll probably be rocking a bit, which is where the frame design comes in: it tilts and sways just enough to let your bike shift and let you work with it, improving the natural feel and helping transport you back out to the road.
There aren't many drawbacks to this premium model, but we came up with a few. Most obvious is the cost, which isn't within everyone's price range. It's also heavy and a burden to transport. That's pretty much where our criticism ends. The Neo Smart is indeed our favorite trainer, making us oddly at peace with rained out Saturday morning shop rides and next snow season knowing that it's there folded up in the closet.
Read review: Tacx Neo 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, all under $1000.
Read review:Elite Direto
Best Tight Budget Buy
Kinetic Road Machine Smart
Retailing at a price more digestible than most in this category, the Kinetic Road Machine Smart is a training tool that will provide years of reliable service at a rock bottom price. What makes this one so great is its simple addition of the inRide sensor unit, which pings off of a small magnet to give smart data like power without needing external power. It connects only with Bluetooth Smart, but it still gives you enough training support to get you through the winter, especially if you're using Zwift, TrainerRoad, or another highly engaging program. The Road Machine Smart is its super easy to use with practical qualities, making it ideal for pre-race warm-ups and perfunctory spins on trips (for those addicts out there that can't go a day or two without bike exposure). It uses a natural-feeling fluid resistance unit, which submerges an encased impeller in a silicone-based fluid to provide 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. A 6.25-lb flywheel provides a more road-like feel than other fluid resistance models we have tested.
For all its qualities, there is a reason why premium models cost more. In our tests, this model's inRide sensor proved less accurate than most models reviewed. Our tires slipped more than with other products, too, which can lead to tire damage long-term. The Road Machine Smart is not the ultimate 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 Smart
Top Pick for a Tire Drive
Wahoo Fitness Kickr Snap
Tire drive models are the more affordable ticket to virtual resistance controlled training, and the best we've found in years of testing is the Wahoo Kickr Snap. The Wahoo Fitness application works with both Android and IOS devices simply and intuitively. 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, TrainerRoad, 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.
This trainer isn't our favorite for portability since it's pretty heavy and requires electric power to function. Being a tire drive trainer, it's also best to stick to road bikes with this one. Lastly, it's not as accurate or versatile as direct drive models. But 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
An objective assessment of the best bike trainers is what you demand, so we continually buy the market's best performers to test side-by-side. To provide an accurate accounting of the advantages, disadvantages, and overall end-user experience, we rate 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 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 and 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.
All but two of the smart 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 phone based applications. 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 allows you to communicate with any device by 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. 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 Tacx Neo Smart and Wahoo Kickr outscore all other products we tested in this category. ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart communication protocols make for easy connections to the Tacx and Wahoo Fitness smartphone applications 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 works equally well with both IOS and Android devices. The Neo is slightly less glamorous and could have used a bit more interactivity, but it connected across apps and platforms without issue.
Power accuracy in both models is also excellent, rivaled only by the Elite Direto and Hammer Direct Drive. 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 percent range.
Lower scoring products suffered from less intuitive native applications and, in the case of the Kinetic models, the lack of dual communication protocols. The Kinetic Rock and Roll Smart Trainer and Kinetic Road Machine Smart were the only trainers tested that don't include ANT+ communication. We found this to be a significant disadvantage as it limits use with Windows-based computers. As we noted, you can use your smartphone as a Bluetooth bridge, but this adds another device to the mix, which we found to be problematic. Lack of ANT+ control also limits application accessibility. The only industry standard communication protocol is ANT+. Any device that features the protocol will work with any third party application that supports ANT+. 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 app 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.
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 primarilyserious 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 metric is one where the high-priced trainers do not boast advantages over the lower-priced models. Some of the direct drive models we tested weigh around 45 lbs, while the tire drive Vortex Smart weighs only 22 lbs. More massive flywheels, magnets, and electronics all add up to a good ride, but they are not easy to move around. Surprisingly, the heavier direct drive Hammer Direct Drive and the Kickr are easier to move than lower weight smart models like the Kickr Snap. Well-designed, built-in carrying handles found on both units and compact folding play a large role here.
Models like the Elite Direto, Kickr Snap, and Kinetic Rock and Roll Smart Control 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 lowest 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 Rock and Roll Smart Control earns the Lanterne Rouge with its massive size and unbalanced weight.
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 $400 or $1400 on your purchase, the longevity of the product and ability to use with multiple bikes are key 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 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.
Both the Hammer Direct Drive and the Kickr have adjustable legs to accommodate an uneven floor. 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 135 mm 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 but require adaptors, and we recommend you use a slick tire rather than the knobby you probably have on your off-road machine.
The Cyclops Hammer Direct 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 also scores well, but the lack of included adaptors for the now common through-axle standards is a big drawback.
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. 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 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 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 Hammer Direct Drive had the longest roll out time at 2:30, and also has the heaviest flywheel of any model we tested.
The Hammer Direct provides 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. 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.
When it comes to fluid trainers, the flywheel weight makes all the difference. The Road Machine Smart has a 6.25-lb flywheel, translating to a solid performance in road feel with a noticeable increase in inertia. The top scoring Tacx Neo Smart, however, blows the fluid trainers 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. As an example, the loudest perceived we have tested at OutdoorGearLab was the (now discontinued) Jet Fluid Pro, but it was only putting out 69.5 decibels at 20mph while the Elite Direto put out 74.8dB at that speed. This might be attributed to the different types of noise where the Jet Fluid emits a whirring noise while the Direto produces more of a fan noise that's perceived as less loud, though it's actually producing more sound.
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, and you'll see more tire wear. 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 app before use. The manufacturer's application allows you to update the firmware before use. The other reason you need to download the native app is for calibration, except with the Tacx Neo 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, and as a result, resistance will be out of balance to your output. The applications for each trainer are found in the App Store on both IOS and Android phones. Once downloaded, 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 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 (or never, in the case of the Tacx Neo Smart). 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 Neo Smart also does really well here, largely because it never requires calibration, and 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 excellent training and support while giving you real-world cycling videos, which is pretty cool.
Both the Kickr and the Hammer Direct Drive receive solid scores because their direct drive design limits calibration requirements to a monthly chore. 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. 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 and Ryan Baham