An Overview of Stationary Trainers

A version of this article was originally
published in Triathlete Magazine

I am wondering about the numerous stationary trainers on the market. Can you give me a run down on the top five?

Dear Joel,

Instead of just giving you a run-down of the top resistance trainers, I thought it would be more helpful to review the primary types of resistance trainers available.

The least expensive trainers are fan resistance units where a fan simply rotates with your wheel to create resistance. The advantage of this design is its very low price, often in the $100-$150 range. The disadvantage is that they are noisy and the resistance is not very adjustable or of the same quality as other options.

The next level of trainers are magnetic resistance units. Magnetic units replace the fan with a magnet and flywheel design. With the exception of the Cyclops Magneto, which claims the first progressive resistance in a magnetic trainer, these units usually have manual adjustments on the handlebar or at the flywheel to allow for multiple levels of resistance to be chosen. Magnetic units are quieter and more adjustable than fan, but not as quiet as most fluid units. They tend to provide a wide range of resistance while still being relatively simple in design and at $125-$200 are well worth the extra few dollars over a fan unit. TACX and Cyclops are both consistent performers.

Fluid trainers brought trainers to a new level when they came out in the mid-nineties. Instead of using magnets or fans, they use a circulating oil (fluid) system to provide progressive resistance. These trainers initially had some leaking problems that stained their reputation (and some floors…). However, leaking and blown seals are a rarity now (keep a rubber mat underneath just in case) and good fluid units are reliable and consistent performers. Once warmed up, fluid units are very smooth and progressive and provide a self-adjusting and virtually unlimited range of resistance. While not being silent, these are also some of the quietest units available. Good fluid trainers run $250-$400 and the Kinetic and the Cyclops Fluid2 are the standards.

Electronics are becoming more and more common on trainers. If you already own a PowerTap, SRM or Polar Power Kit, you can use them in conjunction with your trainer to receive many of the benefits of the entry level electronic ergo-trainers. If not, companies like TACX and Cateye offer basic ergo-trainers starting around $375 that allow you to program in resistance levels while recording pertinent training information like power (wattage), cadence, distance and speed. Full-featured units add more data recording, graphing and course downloading abilities while also adding heart rate monitor integration and more pre-programmed or self-designed workout session options. With many of these more advanced units, you can also compete against a pacer or a friend, including remotely through the internet. Prices for more advanced units like the TACX T1620 Excel start about $650.

CompuTrainer offers the widest range of data and the most scientific approach to stationary trainers. They take the features found in the electronic trainers discussed above and expand upon the offerings while providing you with the most detailed analysis of your workouts and technique readily available. When integrated with a PC, a visual representation of the course you are riding is displayed on the screen as you train. You watch (and feel) the road and terrain changes in front of you on a monitor for the closest facsimile to actual riding that is readily available. Like the full-featured electronic ergo-trainers talked about above, you can download courses, build your own course and compete against others via the internet or side-by-side with two systems. TACX offers an accessory called “i-Magic” that can be added to their ergo-trainers that offers similar features and arguably the best graphics for about $800 more.

CompuTrainer does offer two features that distinguish it among ergo-trainers. The first is a new option that allows you to build your own course based upon just about any road in the U.S. by downloading topographical maps. The other is SpinScan. SpinScan provides graphic and numeric representation of your pedaling efficiency as you train. This is a very good technique building tool as you receive instant feedback as to how balanced your stroke is and during what part of the stroke you are most efficient. CompuTrainers that can be integrated with your PC start at $1200.

Finally, in their own category, there are rollers. Rollers are also a very effective way to work on technique and efficient spin as the penalty for not riding smoothly is falling off. Rollers are offered in different size drums, with the smaller size drums having greater resistance (while also being lower to the ground) than the large drums because they increase tire flex. Kreitler makes rollers of exceptional quality in a range of drum sizes that range from $270-$500. They are well worth the money if you plan on keeping them and using them for years. Less expensive rollers, like those made by Cyclops and those offered by Performance, do not have the same tolerances or quality bearings that rollers like Kreitlers have, but they start around $150 and do an adequate job for low to moderate use riders of average weight or less.

In the end, buy a trainer that makes the most sense for the way you train. If you are analytical, like numbers and graphs, or are working on technique, CompuTrainers and electronic ergo-trainers provide an impressive amount of useful information. If you are more into doing focused sessions without the numbers, put a Spinervals video into the VCR and get on your fluid or magnetic trainer. If you want to primarily focus on technique, consider a set of rollers. Either way, make sure to take that expensive Kevlar or tubular tire off your bike and put a cheap tire on as trainers tend to square-off tires and consider using a basic wheel skewer for best retention and to keep your nice skewers scuff free.

Train smart.


Originally published December 2002/Copyright © 2002

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