As the weather turns towards cooler days and the thoughts of riding your brand new bike through the pending snow, salt and slush has little to no appeal, many cyclists turn their attention towards riding inside during the “off-season.”
If you are a serious cycling veteran, this is something we do every year. And at this point you are likely pretty familiar with the various trainers, tools and technologies for your “pain-cave” set up. Back in the day it was all about heart rate zones, watching your cadence, staring at a blank wall or maybe old Spinervals DVDs to try an help pass the time. Far from a fun and motivating experience.
Today, all this has changed with an abundance of online trainer technologies (Zwift, Trainer Road, etc.,) and the new generation of smart trainers.
Which brings up the question… What is a smart trainer and why is it different than a simple analog or “dumb” (classic) trainer.
Fundamentally, we divide smart trainers into 2 categories; active and non-active.
Active smart trainers are designed to give you a complete interactive ride experience. They “talk” to technologies such as Zwift by broadcasting your power and cadence via ANT+ or Bluetooth, thus allowing Zwift (or similar technologies) to control the resistance on the trainer. For example, when you hit an incline in the Zwift Virtual World, you feel it. And yes, it will get harder to pedal.
Most smart trainers are rather sophisticated and must be plugged in to work, with the rare exception of a few trainers such as the TACX NEO 2T, which will be powered by the watts you are generating. We also see with smart trainers direct drive or wheel drive units
Direct drives require you to remove your rear wheel and your bike is directly mounted to the device. The advantage of this is a much more secure contact between your bike and the trainer, as well at the trainer’s ability to generate higher watts and a greater degree of tactile and resistance feedback. They are also much quieter than wheel-mount trainers.
Wheel mount smart trainers, allow you to run your rear wheel on the trainer, although we do advise you to replace your outside tire with a trainer specific tire. These tires are designed to accommodate the heat which can build-up due to the tire/roller contact point. Given this small contact point, these trainers will not allow for as high a wattage input as the direct drives, but they are certainly a less expensive option.
Non-active smart trainers will also broadcast data to Zwift, and will allow you to ride in a virtual world. But your will not notice a difference in the resistance level of the trainer. Instead, Zwift will run a series of complex algorithms to calculate the amount of power you are generating and apply this to the virtual ride. This will allow the training program to control your perceived speed in the virtual environment. It is often advisable that to get the most to of a non-active smart trainer, adding separate a power detection device to your bike such as cranks, pedals or wheel), with greatly enhance the online experience.
Dumb (or Classic) Trainers
This is where we all came from and many riders still like the simplicity of these devices. Not to mention they are much less expensive.
Because these types of trainers have no way to contact to a virtual trainer program, you will feel no difference in the units resistance unless to change gears. You can creates a virtual connection with the addition of speed, cadence and power sensors. This will not as accurate as a smart trainer, but will still allow you to gain an interaction to virtual ride and training programs.
So, what’s the best choice for you?
This may be a different answer to everyone and certainly depends on your budget and what level of feedback you are looking for while “training” in the off season. Smart trainers have certainly become the “standard” for many riders. Beyond the resistance and dynamic feedback being offer, many users enjoy being able too get together in a virtual “game-like” environment to ride with friends and others from across the globe. This has become so popular that we’re now seeing pro-level virtual racing.
But if you are just looking to “spin the legs” and keep moving over long cold winter months, your basic dumb trainers is more than sufficient.
No mater the choice, enjoy your time in the pain cave. Spring will return once again and we can get back outside and into the fresh air.