How To Choose the Right Home Bike Trainer

Photo: Marina

From harsh winter weather to the demands of your job, sometimes it can be difficult to find time to ride your bike.

That’s where an indoor bike trainer comes in handy. It allows you to train even when foul conditions or other responsibilities keep you off the saddle. There are a few considerations to make when choosing one. This guide will help determine what kind of bike trainer you need and how to select the right model.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • The difference between a bike trainer and a spin bike
  • The different types of bike trainers
  • The pros and cons of various bike trainers
  • How to get the right fit
  • How fitness apps work with bike trainers

Bike Trainers vs. Spin Bikes

There are two main options for at-home indoor cycling—a bike trainer or a spin bike—and more choices within each category. The first step is to decide between these two categories (though this guide focuses specifically on bike trainers). 

Bike Trainer

A bike trainer is a piece of equipment that allows you to ride your bicycle in place (either by working with your bike’s rear wheel or replacing it entirely). Since you’re riding the same bicycle with the same posture and movements, an indoor bike trainer is more similar to real-world bicycle riding than a spin bike, and it transfers fitness better. In addition, bike trainers are smaller than a spin bike, so it will take up less space when stored.

Spin Bike

A spin bike is similar to the spin machines you’d find at a gym, though it’s designed to more closely mimic the experience of riding a real bicycle. Depending on the manufacturer, some spin bikes have a proprietary fitness program and a screen to show virtual roads and workout stats. Other spin bikes work with a subscription-based app and link to a TV screen to show your progress. Compared to your bicycle, a spin bike’s fit may not be as customizable.

A young man riding on a bike trainer at home Photo: Friends Stock

Types of Indoor Bike Trainers 

There are two main styles of indoor bike trainers: wheel-on and wheel-off. The key difference is how your bicycle attaches to the trainer, and each style has its pros and cons, outlined below.

Wheel-On Bike Trainer

On this type of trainer, the rear wheel rests on a roller that holds the bike in place and provides resistance. Because the rear wheel is attached to the roller, rubbing can cause wear on the tire for cyclists who ride a lot. Compared to wheel-off bike trainers, wheel slip and rubbing mean the ride isn’t as stable and makes more noise. However, this style of a trainer is compact and affordable. Some of the higher-end models connect to training apps, while budget models might not have app compatibility. 

Pro: Affordable, easy to use

Con: Less stable, causes tire wear, noisy

Wheel-Off Bike Trainer

Also known as a direct-drive trainer, this style completely replaces your bike’s rear wheel and attaches at the rear dropouts on your frame. The trainer includes a cassette for your bike’s chain (allowing you to shift gears normally), and it adds resistance to mimic real-world riding conditions, such as hills. Compared with wheel-on trainers, these models create a quieter, smoother, and more stable ride, and most models are compatible with fitness apps. Wheel-off trainers are also more expensive—sometimes double the price of their wheel-on counterparts.

Pro: Stable ride, quiet, connects with trainer apps

Con: Higher price point, more setup involved

Size and Fit Considerations

No matter which style you choose, you’ll want to make sure that your trainer is compatible with your bike.

Wheel-On Trainer

  • Ensure the rollers can fit your bike’s rear tire. Most wheel-on bike trainers fit 26- to 29-inch wheels, so most road and mountain bikes will work, but double-check the fit before making a purchase. 
  • The rear tire being pressed between rollers creates resistance and friction. This causes wear on the tire. Consider purchasing a dedicated indoor training tire for better performance and less wear on your outdoor wheels. 
  • Treadless tires are quieter on the trainer, help avoid slipping, and provide a more accurate reading with training apps. 

Wheel-Off Trainer

  • Make sure the trainer's cassette is compatible with your bike's drivetrain. You’ll need to check the bike’s speed or number of gears for compatibility with the trainer.
  • Some direct-drive, wheel-off models will require that you buy an additional cassette that is compatible. 
  • Depending on the trainer model, thru axles with a fixed lever may require an adapter.

Bike Trainer Fitness Apps

Except for some budget styles, most indoor bike trainers have sensors for wireless connectivity to various fitness and indoor training apps. If you have a favorite app, be sure to check that the trainer is compatible. Fitness apps feature training plans, course simulation, speed and distance tracking, plus feedback from heart rate to other biometric data. Some trainers include a subscription to a training app, but most require an additional purchase. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.