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There are a variety of reasons why cyclists turn to indoor cycling. For most, it’s about beating the weather or maximising the training potential for a small window of time. Mat Hayman famously took to an indoor trainer to prepare for his 2016 Paris-Roubaix victory because of a broken arm and so have a number of other riders recovering from broken collarbones. Indoor cycling allows cyclists to incorporate the structure and specificity into a ride that’s more efficient than riding outside on the road – especially when it’s cold and wet outside.
Anybody that is new to indoor cycling is faced with two broad choices: rollers or a trainer. In historical terms, both devices have been in service for over a century though rollers probably enjoy a richer tradition, especially amongst track riders. True to that tradition, rollers have essentially remained unchanged since their inception while a variety of innovations have been developed for trainers, especially in recent years.
Importantly, neither device manages to precisely replicate the riding experience. After all, there is more to riding than simply turning over the pedals, but of the two, rollers bring the rider closer to the on-road experience because they must maintain their balance on the bike at all times.
While both devices fall short as far as the richness of the on-road experience is concerned, they allow the user to focus on and train specific aspects of the activity. And that’s the best way to think of rollers and trainers: as a training tool.
At face value, rollers and trainers share a number of similarities. Both are reasonably portable and don’t require a lot of storage space (though trainers tend to be more compact than rollers). Both don’t require a lot more room than the bike itself. And both are typically less expensive than a stationary bike and allow the buyer to make use of their own bike.
There are, however, a number of significant differences between the two, and the decision for one or the other really depends on the individual’s training goals. In general terms, rollers allow the user to concentrate on his or her spinning technique and are very effective for developing base fitness. By contrast, trainers are far more effective at providing variable resistance workouts for developing strength and power.
For most, a trainer will have more appeal, if only because of the variety of recent innovations. The rise of “smart trainers” in recent years has brought new sophistication to indoor cycling with highly structured workouts in a virtual environment. On the downside, such innovations don’t come cheaply.
Rollers may appear decidedly lo-fi by comparison but they still have a lot to offer the cyclist. For example, sound core strength is critical for maintaining balance on a set of rollers, so users develop their finesse on the bike rather than brute strength. It won’t come quickly though, and new users will need a few sessions before they start to feel confident on rollers (a doorway makes it easier to practice).
Those riders that like to jump out of the saddle to practice all-out sprint efforts will want a trainer rather than rollers. Trainers don’t require a lot of concentration either, so the user is free to flip through channels on the TV, read a magazine, and send text messages. It’s also easier to jump on and off the bike for a break.
Rollers require more caution than a trainer and the rider must concentrate in order to keep the bike on line. This is not a device for practising violent efforts out of the saddle, and while the bike can come unstuck pretty easily, there’s no risk of sling-shotting into the wall or TV (the momentum of the wheels is no match for the weight of the rider but they will still fall over).
Some find that the extra engagement that rollers demand can help the time pass a little quicker. However, time seems to slow when riding indoors on either device, such that five or ten minutes can seem like an eternity. Having a structured workout with power or heart-rate targets can help move the session along on both devices (such as The Sufferfest and TrainerRoad), as can a training video or new virtual environments, like that provided by Zwift.
Finally, trainers are hard on the rear tyre so it will wear out very quickly. Some manufacturers offer trainer-specific tyres with a harder rubber compound for extra durability but fitting it can cut into precious training time. If the bike is still being used outdoors, then a spare wheel will come in handy, or buyers can take a look at direct-drive trainers (though these are more expensive).
The range of products in this part of the market is large enough to overwhelm the uninitiated, but there is a simple rule of thumb: more features mean more money.
The majority of trainers on the market are one or the other. Magnetic resistance units tend to populate cheaper trainers and can produce a noticeably uneven pedal stroke. Fluidic trainers tend to be pricier but offer a smoother action.
Riders can use their gears to increase resistance for their workout but there is a limit to how much resistance can be produced in this way. Cheaper trainers offer some manual adjustment on the resistance unit but frequent users will find a remote adjuster far more convenient.
These trainers provide a substitute for the rear wheel (though buyers must supply a cassette) and offer sophisticated control over the resistance of the unit with innovative features and a high asking price.
These trainers provide an electronic interface for a training program or app that automatically varies resistance but it adds to the expense of the unit.
Trainers raise the rear wheel off the ground so some kind of block is required for the front wheel to level out the bike. A stack of books is a cheaper alternative but won’t steady the front wheel like a purpose-built product.
Overall, there are not a lot of options for rollers in the current market, which keeps things simple for the buyer.
Resistance increases as the size of the drums decreases. The majority of rollers on the market have 3-4 inch drums for a reasonable amount of resistance.
There are a couple of rollers on the market that allow the user to adjust resistance, however there is no remote or automatic adjustment for this feature. The rider makes a selection at the beginning of the session or must get off the bike to change it.
Elite has championed this design, which provides a raised edge to the drum to make it more difficult for the wheels to wander off the rollers.
Beginner – Tacx Antares T1000 Training Rollers
Enthusiast – CycleOps Aluminium Roller (With Resistance Unit)
Extravagant – Elite Arion Digital Smart B+
Beginner – Elite SuperCrono Power Mag ElastoGel
Enthusiast – CycleOps Jet Fluid Pro
Extravagant – TacX Neo Interactive T2800 SmartTrainer
Both rollers and trainers can generate a lot of noise. If nothing else, a spinning rear wheel starts to sound like a turbine, so it won’t be easy if other people need to share the training area. Watching TV or videos can also be difficult without headphones too.
It’s worth putting down some kind of mat or sheet under the rollers or trainer to make it easy to clean up the training area. Grit, rubber, and lube will collect around the rear of the bike, while plenty of sweat will drip onto the floor.
Expect to sweat a lot, which means that it’s important to keep plenty of liquid on hand for long training sessions. Having a towel nearby is a necessity too, and it’s worth considering installing a fan (or two) in the training area.
Finally, there’s room for riders to consider owning both devices. Each one provides a distinct kind of workout for more rounded conditioning, especially for those cyclists that are trapped indoors for winter. In addition, switching from one to the other will help break up the monotony of indoor training.