Like bikes, there isn’t a trainer that’s “the best.” At least not for everybody. But there is a trainer that’s best for you. Even before discussing the different styles of trainers as well as the pros and cons of them, you have to consider your budget. The most popular brands are: CycleOps, Tacx, Wahoo, and Elite.
If you’re looking to spend $600 or less, a wheel-on trainer is the way to go. That’s just what it sounds like -- the rear wheel stays on your bike. Just mount your bike on the trainer and your rear wheel rolls on a cylinder. The trainer will provide resistance via enclosed-fluid or electromagnetic magic.
Wheel-on trainers have a few benefits. For one, they’re light, making them easier to move and/or store when not in use. They’re also better for people who are using the trainer with more than one bike or sharing with other riders. Just put the bicycle on the trainer, adjust the tension, and you’re ready to Zwift.
There are drawbacks to wheel-on trainers, too. Tires can slip during hard efforts. These trainers can also cause significant tire wear. There’s also the noise factor: they’re typically louder than direct drive trainers. Some manufacturers discuss decibel levels in their specs, but you may want to take those with a grain of salt because inflation, tire choice, and even if you ride on a rug or mat will affect noise level.
Some great options for wheel-on trainers are: CycleOps Magnus, Tacx Genius, Elite Rampa, and Wahoo KICKR SNAP.
Direct Drive Trainers
If you’ve been riding rollers or traditional trainers, get ready for a new world. If you’re brand new to trainers, you’re in for a treat. Direct drive trainers are quieter, smarter, and sometimes even more stable. You’ll have to remove your wheel to get your bike on the trainer. Once you do, you’ll never worry about wearing through your good tires or having to switch over to a trainer tire again.
But the proof is in the pedal-pushing. Road feel is superior. It’s the closest you can get to riding outside while being surrounded by four walls and a roof. The great simulation is typically achieved through a heavier flywheel whose inertia mimics riding IRL because of the higher rotating mass. But that flywheel increases the weight of the trainer, a bummer for folks who are moving their trainer around a whole bunch.
Smart direct drive trainers also respond more quickly, are capable of more resistance, and are more accurate. Example? When you reach a hill, your trainer responds, making the hill feel as steep as it looks, and then eases off the resistance as you start to level out again.
You’ll appreciate that accuracy from the get-go when Zwifting. By being able to pinpoint your power accurately, your Zwift rides include all the fun of riding on the road like being able to draft in race and training situations without any of the real world risks of traffic, crossing wheels, and weather.
Some great direct drive trainer options are: Wahoo KICKR, CycleOps Hammer, Tacx Neo, and Elite Drivo.
Smart vs. Classic Trainers
Smart trainers adjust resistance to mimic the grade of the virtual road you’re riding. Going downhill? Less resistance. Uphill? More resistance. They’re responsive and give accurate power readings, tracking your performance in real-time. Smart trainers make rides more fun and life-like.
But classic trainers (sometimes called "dumb" trainers), still have a place in the world of Zwift. Although the trainer won’t adjust to changes of the steepness of the road, Zwift automatically crunches your numbers so your real world output translates to your rider on the screen. Unfortunately, most smart trainers require regular calibration.
Choosing the best trainer depends on a new of factors: your budget, how many different riders or bikes will be using it, and what you’re looking to get out of your training. Of course, it should be Zwift compatible. For most, buying the most trainer you can afford will pay dividends in the form of a better Zwift experience all around. You’ll enjoy your training more. Your training will be more efficient, helping you nail your training goals. That will keep you coming back, make you faster indoors and out, and keep you looking and feeling better on and off the bike.
Zwifters in North America: Take the guesswork out of shopping with a turnkey set-up that include everything you need to start Zwifting.