Riding Inside: Rollers vs. Trainer

It’s the season for riding inside, and if you are considering whether to go with rollers or a trainer for your indoor sessions, the following information will help you make the right decision for your needs.

Basics to Look for when Shopping

Three qualities are central to a trainer or rollers that will perform well: quiet operation, road-like resistance, and good quality.

First, and foremost, I highly recommend that cyclists select a high quality set of rollers or trainer with the needed features. You will notice poor quality or missing features every time you ride indoors, and since a trainer or rollers often last many years, you miss these features for a long time. While a top of the line bike will add a few thousand dollars on top of what a basic racing bike costs, a top of the line trainer or rollers are only $100-200 more (not counting the computerized models that measure power or connect to a video game-like interface). So spend the money—it’s worth it!

Now that you know to bite the bullet and pony up a couple of extra Ben Franklins, the two things to look for are quiet operation and road-like resistance.

Quiet operation is simple. Do you have other people living in your house or apartment building that you prefer not to drive crazy? Do you like to be able to hear music or the video you’re watching while riding? Then you want a quiet trainer or rollers. No model is whisper quiet, but some border on jet engine loud due to the mechanisms, fans, or vibrations involved. Higher quality models tend to use designs that are also quieter.

Road-like resistance is the last characteristic to look for. When riding on the road, wind resistance increases exponentially as you go faster, and you want this to be imitated by your trainer. This graph shows how wind resistance increases with speed.

I am a fan of fluid resistance because it imitates on-road resistance well, and as a result of the limitations of the other two popular mechanisms, magnetic and fan resistance. Fan resistance units do a good job of providing road-like feel, but they are really loud. Magnetic resistance is another mechanism used, and it is (usually) quiet but does not provide road-like resistance. As a result, magnetic units often have an adjustment knob/lever so you can increase it for harder workouts or decrease it for easier workouts. These adjustments either require dismounting to adjust or necessitate mounting the knob/lever at the end of a cable so you can reach it while on the bike, making for a more cluttered device. You may also see a combination of resistance units used on a trainer to take advantage of the benefit of each design and limit its disadvantages.

Pros, Cons, and What to Look For

With that background information, this Rollers vs. Trainer PDF gives the skinny on the ups and downs of trainers and rollers, plus some key traits to be aware of when shopping.

SPOILER ALERT: After looking at the chart of pros and cons, it seems obvious to me that the best choice is a trainer for it’s safety and superiority in doing hard workouts. So why will you find me on rollers 90% of the time? Because the balance learned riding rollers can’t be learned any other way, and because it feels like riding a bike outside as it moves more naturally under you, rather than held rigidly in place like on a trainer.

From a coaching perspective, I highly recommend that riders learn to ride rollers, but it is hard to recommend them as a first purchase for new riders because they take a while to learn to ride and do have some inherent risks. If you have a few hundred extra dollars laying around, get both a trainer and rollers!

What I Ride

My rollers are Kreitler Dyno-Myte (now called the Kreitler Alloy with 2.25” drum), and I highly recommend them. They have excellent quality and respectable road-like resistance without having an extra resistance unit to attach. Riding really easy/slow is difficult without a small gear on the bike (due to the high resistance of the rollers) but the resistance works pretty well for doing harder efforts (the Kreitler Alloy 3” provides a little less resistance). They have been very durable and long lasting—mine are nearly 20 years old and likely will last many more years.

My trainer is a CycleOps Fluid 2, which I also highly recommend. They have very good road-like resistance, which has been great for workouts, and their fluid resistance design does not require any additional resistance unit or resistance adjustment. Like many trainers that clamp to the rear wheel, the Fluid 2 does require a strong and simple skewer for the rear wheel as fancy skewer knobs don't fit in the wheel clamp and even strong skewers can bend after many rides with the bike clamped in place well. I recommend finding and using a simple, steel skewer that you only use when riding the trainer (not on the road). If it bends a little, no big deal. The only other downside of the trainer is that it holds my track bike a bit off-angle (bike leans to one side) due to a track bike's narrow rear axle, but it works fine with my road bikes.

Some Last Tips

A couple of things to keep in mind when riding inside:
  • Make sure you have a big fan (i.e. box fan) to use when riding inside as you will get extremely sweaty without one (two or more fans are even worth using if you have them).
  • Don’t use your best tires while riding rollers and especially a trainer. The roller will polish then wear the tire out pretty quickly. Cheap, wide tires usually last longest on a trainer or rollers and are worth buying to save your good tires and even reduce/prevent sticky rubber build up on the roller that happens with those great cornering tires. You can even buy special trainer tires designed specifically for a trainer, which are especially good for long trainer life and keeping the sticky stuff off the roller.
  • Make sure to inflate tires before every ride to help prolong tire life, get the most consistent performance, and maintain the best contact with your tires and the roller(s).
[updated 9-30-11 and 1-29-12 for links and clarity] 


Unknown said...

Rollers and trainers aren't the only option any more. Please check out the RealRyder at our website www.realryder.com

Lucas Wall said...

While you can buy a stationary bike for indoor training, I recommend that bike racers buying their first indoor training set up stick with rollers or a trainer. This lets you use your regular bike, keep the same positioning, bar width, saddle height, crank length, etc. While a stationary bike is appropriate for a health club, the simplicity, portability, and relatively minimal expense of a trainer/rollers is a much better match for most bike racers.