The ABC of turbo trainers – A buyer’s guide

Turbo trainer session

It has happened. I have turned to the dark side of cycling and bought a turbo trainer. I shun daylight, vitamin D no longer required. I now ride in my pain cave, aka, my hallway. Is this even cycling?

My first ever turbo session was an hour long zone two challenge. It will also be my last zone two session on a turbo. Why? Well I bought the damn thing for intervals not for pootling about or mimicking rides to the cafe. Yet I was excited whilst also being fairly ill. Man flu ahoy. Bashing out snot covered intervals was not a good idea.

Turbo training is for structured interval sessions otherwise an hour of pedalling without moving seems like a very long time indeed. Longer than any hill climb I’ve suffered that’s for sure. Without the distraction of traffic lights and hills and bends and cars and well, life, a low tempo session is pretty dull. There’s no real feeling of speed either, apart from the speed at which sweat drips from your pores.

A week later and I was looking forward to some structured intervals like a child waking for Christmas, eager to play with his shiny new toys. By interval set two of five, the shine had lost its lustre. I work hard on the road and yet here I was destroying myself five times over. Thirty seconds sprinting all out followed by thirty seconds recovery (ha!) and then repeating this set another four times to make a set of five intervals. Then repeating that entire set of five another three times. Madness.

It’s amazing how long 30 seconds can seem when going full gas and how short 30 seconds can seem when recovering from such an effort. This is the closest I’ve come to time travel since watching Back to the Future 2.

My fluid turbo trainer is quiet, even at top speeds. I, however, am not quiet. Panting and shouting so loud and heavy, my neighbours must think either my sex life has dramatically improved of late or I’m waterboarding myself. If only they knew the torture I was enduring.

The combination of boredom and intense torture make climbing on a turbo incredibly difficult, especially since the weather outside is still very cycle friendly. Yet intervals on a turbo are a lot more efficient than trying to ride intervals in London where the roads are quiet only long after darkness has fallen.

Benefits of turbo training

  • No weather. Of great advantage here in the UK. Rain and wind are a thing of the past.
  • No distractions. Goodbye potholes, cars, other cyclists, curves in the road. Hello interval workout and 100% focus on hitting those targets.
  • Feel like a pro #1. Why not get on the turbo to warm down when you get back from your Sunday ride? Just stick the turbo in the front garden and wave to your neighbours whilst your girlfriend interviews you post-ride. Big white headphones optional.
  • You’re never too far from a water supply. Or the fridge.
  • Feel like a pro #2. Sling your empty water bottle over your shoulder when you’re done. Just watch out for anything precious. Like your girlfriend.
  • Workouts. My trainer really works me over, everything is harder on the legs than when riding on the road. There’s no coasting, no traffic lights to stop and rest at, no wheelsucking.
  • Music, TV, polishing silver. Now you can cycle and can catch up on life. Well you can if you’re not dying from an all out interval session.
  • Internet racing, virtual power and fancy tech distractions. Pretend you’re riding for real or compete with other riders using paid for online training sites such as Zwift or TrainerRoad, sites I plan on testing over the winter.
  • Ride naked. If you wanted to. Just wipe your seat down afterwards. I’d actually recommend wearing a baselayer with sleeves to catch the sweat and keep the chill off when you have the windows open.
  • A mile on a turbo trainer is not the equivalent of a mile on the road. Some say it’s twice as hard, some say more, depending on the turbo you have. In addition to more resistance (I rarely make it onto the big ring on the trainer!), it’s rare on the road when you are pedalling 100% of the distance. Using this neat Strava plugin for Chrome , I can see some rides on the road flicker between 45-75% of the time actually pedalling thanks mostly to traffic. A big difference to 99-100% on the turbo!
  • Time. Structured sessions mean you can achieve a good workout in less than an hour on a turbo, the equivalent of which would take you a couple of hours on the road (particularly in a busy city like London).
  • Riding turbo will make you appreciate any outdoor ride. Literally, any ride!

Turbo training hell

Funny ebay turbo trainer listing

Excerpt from a real ebay listing for a turbo trainer

  • No distractions. I quite like a bit of scenery that’s not my hallway.
  • Sweat. Buckets of the stuff.
  • No spitting. I know, disgusting, but sometimes required on the road. You could always turbo train in the bathroom near a sink I guess.
  • Training wheels, tyres, mats, towels, front wheel lifting things, sweat catchers. Quite the industry.
  • Choosing the right turbo trainer. It’s quite a complicated affair. More on this below.
  • Intervals. Oh the pain and horror.
  • Noise. Your neighbours may think you’ve gone into the porno business such are the yelps, gasps and wheezing emanating from your house.
  • No excuses. Raining outside? Tough, get on the turbo. Icy? Tough, get on the turbo.
  • It’s just not cycling is it?

Should I buy a turbo trainer?

It’s a fact that 50% of all turbo trainers bought are returned or left unused after the first session. At least I’m guessing this is a real statistic!

To some turbo training is hell, misery, perverse. It is not the reason we cycle. It strips back everything we love about cycling and delivers only the pain. On the road we can stomach the pain in return for views, the feeling of speed, social time with others, the smell of the season, the pleasure at seeing the world. The turbo delivers none of this.

Yet a turbo will deliver results if used correctly. All that pain, all the stressing of muscles will make you a better rider. Turbo converts swear by pain machines, like Graeme Obree, he of building bikes using washing machine parts, he of home-made training methods, he of the hour record fame, he a pursuit world champion.

“In my professional days [the turbo] would have been the first piece of equipment I would have saved from a fire. Reaching your full potential will be almost impossible without it.”
Graeme Obree, turbo fan

Is a turbo trainer for you? Try this little quiz. You need to answer yes to at least 8-9 of these 10 questions to be certain of a turbo romance.

  1. I ride to get faster
  2. I am super focused
  3. I enjoy pain
  4. I can follow a plan
  5. The people living with me, and my neighbours, are forgiving folk
  6. I have lots of space for yet more cycling kit
  7. I hate cycling in the rain
  8. I don’t have much spare time in my life
  9. I don’t know any reachable roads where I could ride intervals safely
  10. I don’t mind the taste of vomit in my mouth

Once you’ve passed this test I would recommend attempting a couple of weeks of intervals, either on the road, or preferably, in a gym on a stationary bike. This will give you a strong of sense of whether you will like intervals and should buy a turbo trainer.

How to enjoy turbo training

Sell your turbo. Seriously, you are not going to enjoy turbo training. The only enjoyable part is climbing off the thing. Your task then is to ensure the pain provides a return. That means you need a plan. This can be complicated interval sessions or simply I will ride at time trial pace for XX minutes.

You must approach every session with specific goals in mind that you will religiously stick to. Make space in your life for a couple of sessions a week. That’s two hours of your life that even the most time poor of us can probably manage.

What about rollers?

Want a more realistic road feel? Rollers are for you. Want to improve your pedalling technique and balance on the bike? Rollers are for you. Want to look silly on YouTube the first time you attempt to ride rollers? Yup, rollers are for you.

Want high resistance training and sprint intervals? Most folk will usually direct you towards a trainer although you can get rollers with additional resistance units that should give most riders a good workout. I didn’t go for rollers due to space constraints. Plus I was scared of falling off at the end of a big interval session!

What turbo trainer should I buy?

turbo-1This is not an easy question to answer. First, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Budget. You can easily spend £1,000 of your hard-earned pounds on a trainer and that’s before all of the accessories you may or may not need. More on them later. That said, you can get a very good turbo for £200.
  • Noise. Can you, the people living with you or your neighbours put up with a noisy trainer? Yes? Great, you can buy a cheaper trainer with magnetic resistance which are usually the noisiest turbo trainers. No? Try a turbo trainer with fluid resistance. Mine is very quiet. Forget about air resistance trainers, they are becoming obsolete as they are so noisy.
  • Resistance strength. Got the strength of Sir Chris Hoy? A cat 1 or 2 racer? Just starting out? Check the resistance of the turbo trainer as the last thing you want is to be overpowering the damn thing and spinning away like a hamster. Magnetic rollers offer great resistance except for the very cheap variety. Some fluid trainers don’t offer enough resistance but my Qubo Power Fluid trainer offers double the resistance of most fluid trainers and I rarely get onto the big ring. I’m no Chris Hoy but can put down an above average share of power.
  • Adjustable resistance. Most magnetic turbos come with a little lever on a wire allowing you to adjust the resistance. The beauty of a fluid trainer is that the resistance is controlled by your gears just like on the road.
  • Set-up. A quick-release clamp is essential. It takes me seconds to get the bike set-up on the trainer.
  • Feel. No trainer will feel like riding on the road but some are better than others. Magnetic are the least road like, whilst fluid are the smoothest trainers.
  • Smart trainers. These bad boys will tell you your power and hook up to the internet with all kinds of gadgets and gizmos. This is the future but right now the price is pretty hefty. Some require a plug socket. Besides, with an accessory or two you can still take advantage of online training without a smart trainer.
  • A stable, folding frame. Need to store this thing? A folding frame will help. Check reviews to see if the frame is stable. Most are nowadays above a certain price but some older (and cheaper) models are less stable. Most are quite chunky and heavy.
  • Last year’s model. You can save significant amounts of money by buying last year’s model. Often they will have a slightly different name but little has changed in the tech. Just watch out for old models with unbalanced frames. Ebay is also your friend, there’s plenty of barely used trainers for sale.
  • A spare wheel. A turbo trainer will chew through your best tyres. Don’t believe me? Try it and note the flecks of rubber on your trainer after an interval session. You have a choice, use old tyres or a specific training tyre. Either way that leaves you with a dilemma – change the tyre every time you want to use the trainer or get a spare turbo training wheel? It takes less than ten minutes to change a tyre but it’s a pain. Better budget for a spare wheel. And then a new cassette. May as well get that training tyre too. And that extra inner tube. Done? Don’t forget the rim tape. Now, how about an extra speed magnet? Should I mention the QR skewer now or later?! You’re talking an extra £50 here minimum.
  • More cycle clothing. Before the turbo I only went out for a ride a couple of times a week. Suddenly I was training five times a week. More clothes are required if you want to save your washing machine. You’ll need base layers with long sleeves to catch the sweat. And a towel.
  • Optional accessories. A fan. A thong sweat catcher (seriously!). A riser for the front wheel (I use an old thick book. Argos catalogues are also possible). A rubber mat to dampen noise (I train on a rug!). Training tyre. This won’t reduce noise despite the claims (if you’re already using slicks) but will last longer. Lots of gifts to thank your girlfriend for enduring the sufferfest with you. A spare pair of legs.

Turbo trainer recommendations

I spent way too long scouring the confusing world of turbo trainers before making my purchase. I wanted something quiet (number one priority), reasonably priced (£200 max), a smooth pedalling feel, stable, foldable and with enough resistance for sprint intervals. I wasn’t fussed by smart trainers or trainers that give you power readings.

User and critical reviews focussed on a small handful of trainers:

  • Kurt Kinetic Road Machine II (or III)
  • Cycleops Fluid 2 Trainer
  • Elite Qubo Power Fluid Trainer

There wasn’t a lot between these. After reading the many product reviews and listening to videos on YouTube for evidence of their noise levels (!), I simply chose the one with the best price. The Elite Qubo has met all expectations. It is quiet, smooth to pedal on, easy to set-up, offers more than enough resistance and is very stable. Not bad for an instrument of torture!

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24 thoughts on “The ABC of turbo trainers – A buyer’s guide

  1. The noise issue is not one to be skipped over. I have a fairly cheap and basic mag resistance turbo (recommended by Obree for it’s simplicity and repeatable results) and it sounds like a jet engine when I’m going full gas. At least it drowns out my huffing and puffing…

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    • Yeah, noise was my number one concern and after listening to a few videos I quickly realised a magnetic trainer was not for me, even if the mighty Obree is a fan! The fluid trainers are very quiet. I’ve gone beyond huffing and puffing to screaming and pleading for the interval to end!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for the detailed review of the turbo trainer. I think safety is a plus as well; you never have to worry about punctured tires, getting thrown off the saddle, or attracting speeding cars. Plus, you can get to binge watch The Walking Dead while training. Wouldn’t running from the dead be enough motivation for us to train?

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    • I’m usually the cycling dead on my morning commute, quickly waking up when I traffic! Safety is a very good point, especially now the dark nights and mornings are here.

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  3. “This is the closest I’ve come to time travel since watching Back to the Future 2.” – Hahahahahaha. Brilliant. You do crack me up at times. Great post.

    I brought back to life a trainer that someone offered me on Freecycle a few years ago. It was rusted and around 700 years old. I took it from last rites to something no-one in their right mind would buy…but worked. And it still does. I used my old (and never used) basic mountain bike, from way back when, and keep it ready with a trainer wheel on it. Everything you say above is 100% true.

    The only way I can manage to keep going on it is to have my monitor set up so that I’m ‘riding’ towards it, and I have a variety of ‘virtual’ rides off youtube playing as I pedal. Up to now I’ve enjoyed the Swiss Alps and Oregon the best. It isn’t cycling, but it helps the illusion, especially with headphones on, blasting some T-Rex or the like at you to cover up the noise of the blasted thing and all the shouts of pain and curses.

    – sonmi of Cloud fame. .

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    • Hey Sonmi, sounds like your rescue mission was a success. Plenty of poor turbos need rescuing this time of year. We should set up a charity. Turbo Relief. We’ll take unused turbos and give them to the weak (legged)! I’ve not tried the YouTube trick yet. I’m saving that for deep dark winter when my motivation is at its lowest. I will of course be watching Back to the Future when the time comes!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great stuff – thanks for the zen-like clarity of thought you’ve given me. I’ve just consigned my turbo-trainer to the skip (to be fair I haven’t used it in 2 years and it was just taking up valuable space.) Bring on the British weather!

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  5. I got a turbo trainer in preparation for a cold winter last year and had 4 rides on it before I got bored with it. When I realised that it was mild out there I felt it wasteful not to enjoy riding outside. It was useful to watch TdF & ToB highlights saved from the summer to counteract the boredom. I quickly realised that intervals aren’t my thing (yawn) as I’m not training for anything. Instead, I enjoy the challenge of the biting NE winds and the hard arse reputation that I get at work in Dec/Jan when I arrive at work in bitter weather. My cheap, noisy beast lies redundant in the spare room more in hope than expectation. Kudos for those doing it- I just don’t have the same patience

    Liked by 2 people

    • Four rides is above average by the sounds of it! As you say, much depends on if you’ll enjoy intervals, in fact I am going to update the article to advise anyone considering a turbo to practise intervals first, either on the road or preferably in a Gym. So in the comments we have two dead turbos! Anymore out there? Come on, don’t be shy!

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  6. Gotta look out for vibration too. I tried mine on a second floor last season, had to stop when things on the first floor were rattling off shelves. And a 40 minute TV show seems so much longer when killing oneself on a turbo.

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    • Ha ha, very true. Some turbos are a little like washing machines. Were you using one of the turbo mats, they apparently help dampen vibrations. I just use an old rug. Time certainly slows down on a turbo. I think of it as exercise prison!

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    • I bought a cheapo exercise mat, it’s about 1.5″ thick. It seemed to help a little, but not quite enough. I think my next step is to find a place with a garage.

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  8. Very amusing review! I am a Turbo devotee- originally to get some extra hours in during the winter months before an Alps cycling tour and after enjoying the benefits on road, have stuck with it.
    Another benefit I found is to listen to the ‘engine note’ as you spin away- aim for something that doesn’t change pitch up and down too much through the stroke and its doing wonders for your pedaling smoothness.
    I can recommend TrainerRoad (other ‘virtual power’ based systems are available) to allow training with ‘power’ for a fraction of the cost of a power meter. Following the structured workouts almost makes it fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m hoping to trial TrainerRoad next month. Have been training with HR to date which is fine as a guide but there’s too many external factors to make it accurate. Zwift is also on my list for some fun but I fear is too unstructured for me.

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  11. I use a set of 3 dense foam interlocking squares that are for protecting babies & toddlers when they are playing on hard floors as a turbo mat. They are loads cheaper that official turbo mats and keep the noise down / stop sweat marks on floor. Have used the same 3 squares for 2 years now.
    Ive been using zwift for a while too, it helps pass the time and also keeps a record of your efforts hopefully improving over time.

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    • That’s a top tip for an alternative to a turbo mat, thanks Mike. As an added bonus I can learn how to count at the same time! Mothercare here I come!

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    • Forgot to add I also use the turbo as a work stand when fettling gears / putting lube on chain.
      A work stand is another cycling accessory among many I haven’t got the time/ space/ money for.
      Im using the same turbo as yourself : elite qubo power fluid, but did buy the elite tyre for it in the end on a old wheel for convenience. I think that the elite tyre adds more resistance and is a bit quieter.
      I like the quieter bit but I don’t need any more resistance, especially when trying to ‘compete’ on zwift.
      Thanks for your site I’ve whiled away an afternoon reading decent articles without the usual swearing /willy waving content and comments found on a lot of cycling sites.
      Cheers
      Mike

      Liked by 1 person

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