The best indoor bike turbo trainers reviewed

Finding the best turbo trainer for your cross-training needs can at first appear like a confusing place to the uninitiated runner. With buzzwords like ‘direct drive’ and ‘wheel-on’ to contend with, it’s no wonder that you might give up looking before you’ve even properly started. And that’s before you throw ‘smart’ into the mix.

But persevere you should. Indoor cycling is a brilliant way to improve your fitness in a low impact manner, can be a great alternative to running if the weather isn’t playing ball, and takes up less space than another staple of indoor cardio training – the treadmill. Plus, if you get into the spin (sorry) of things, you might even consider giving a duathlon or triathlon a go.

Before your eyes glaze over with talk of ‘max watts’ and ‘power accuracy’, we’ve put together a handy indoor cycle trainer guide together, as well as our picks of the best turbo trainers you can currently buy.

What is a turbo trainer?

In its purest form, a turbo trainer transforms a bike you’d use out on the road (or off-road) into a static bike such as the one you’d find in a gym. It does this in one of two ways – direct drive or wheel-on (more on which below) – but in essence, it enables you to simulate a real-world ride within the comfort of your own home.

Resistance is applied by the turbo trainer and can be adjusted to replicate inclines or sprints, and you can use your bike’s gears to make things easier or harder.

What are the different types of turbo trainers?

As already alluded to, there are two common types of turbo trainers – direct-drive and wheel-on. There is a third variety called rollers – where you literally ride along on a two big rolling pins and have to throw balancing into the mix – but these are quite a specialist type.

Direct drive turbo trainers require the rear wheel of the bike to be removed and for the rest of the drivetrain (the chain, chainring, cranks and pedals) to be connected directly to the indoor trainer via a pre-installed cassette (the cogs on a rear wheel). Around for just over a decade, direct drive turbo trainers have revolutionised indoor cycling, improving training accuracy and possibilities while consigning common wheel-on turbo trainer issues such as tyre slip and tyre wear spots to the past.

Sound good? They’re also expensive. The upfront cost of a direct drive turbo trainer is what puts most people off and that’s before you factor in the additional cost of a cassette, what with the majority of models not coming with one pre-installed.

If you’re just after a cheap and easy way of creating a static bike out of your current ride, then you might be better suited to a wheel-on turbo trainer instead. Unlike the direct drive alternative, you don’t need to remove any parts of your bike to use one – you simply slot your back wheel into the turbo trainer’s frame, make the necessary adjustments and you’re all set to spin away on the machine’s roller.

Historically, resistance was changed using a lever, which would alter the distance between the metal roller and a set of magnets – the closer the magnets, the harder it is to ride. Today, it’s possible to buy wheel-on trainers where those magnets are altered automatically, but all wheel-on turbos still suffer from the downsides mentioned above. It’s also worth noting that, while it might sound like a more convenient installation process than a direct drive model, it’s recommended that you use a turbo trainer-specific tyre to minimise wear spots on your road-worthy rubber; the time spent swapping tyres between indoor and outdoor riding negating any benefits you might get from attaching your bike to a wheel-on model.

What do smart turbo trainers do?

Before we get into our favourite indoor cycling set-ups, it’s worth delving into the world of smart turbo trainers. Essentially, a smart turbo trainer can be connected to training platforms such as Zwift, Wahoo Systm and Rouvy.

Any turbo trainer can be turned into a smart one with the addition of speed and cadence sensors to your bike (these Lifeline ones are the cheapest around at £25), which can be synced up with a computer, tablet or phone via Bluetooth. At this most primitive level, the power you lay down in your pain cave is translated into the virtual space, powering an online avatar around a virtual world and making your training experience a bit more engaging in the process.

There are ‘smarter’ turbo trainers though that adjust the resistance levels depending on a pre-set workout or mimic the gradients and environment in your chosen training tool – the highest end ones even simulating the feeling of the real-life thing down to the vibrations from riding over virtual cobbles or gravel.

Put plainly, if you’re looking for a Zwift turbo trainer, make sure it’s a smart one or at least invest in some sensors to turn it into one.

Now you’re armed with all the essentials you need to make an informed decision, here’s our pick of the best direct drive and wheel-on turbo trainers you can currently buy.

THE BEST DIRECT DRIVE TURBO TRAINERS

KICKR CORE Smart Turbo Trainer

Wahoo
sigmasports.com

£699.99

  • Great specs for the price
  • Seamless shifts in resistance
  • Cassette not included
  • Isn’t collapsible

The set-up: Cassette not included. Suitable for Shimano & SRAM 8-11 spd cassettes. Other freehub bodies are sold separately.
Resistance: 1800W
Power accuracy: +/- 2%
Gradient: 16%
Flywheel weight: 5.4kg
Noise: NA
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Measures speed, distance, power and cadence without any other sensors, compatible with other Wahoo indoor training accessories

The Kickr Core is in our eyes the best Wahoo turbo trainer. Sure it doesn’t have the resistance, power accuracy and gradient specs of its big brother (see below), but you’d have to be a professional rider to truly notice. Plus, you can invest that £300 you’ve saved in other essential ‘pain cave’ accessories (such as a fan and a mat) and still be left with change. The ride feel and resistance shifts are just as smooth as the Kickr, and while you can’t fold it away, this is only an issue if you’re really short on space. It doesn’t come pre-installed with a cassette, but you can buy the very same Shimano and SRAM-compatible 11-spd SunRace one that’s installed on the Kickr for just £44.99.

Tacx Neo 2T Smart Trainer

Tacx
wiggle.co.uk

US$1,399.99

  • Industry leading maximum resistance and gradient
  • Fully immersive riding experience
  • Expensive
  • Similarly specced alternatives available for less

Set-up: Cassette not included. Suitable for Shimano & SRAM 9-11 spd cassettes. Other freehub bodies are sold separately
Resistance: 2200W
Power accuracy: +/- 1%
Gradient: 25%
Flywheel weight: Virtual
Noise: NA
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Pedal stroke stats, trainer vibrates to simulate the feeling of riding on different road surfaces, such as cobblestone and gravel, no calibration required, collapsible

The top-end Tacx turbo trainer is the biggy. The most expensive turbo trainer currently available on the market, it’s jammed full of features and a pro-level build that almost justifies its price tag (we say almost because there are similarly specced alternatives available for less). So what do you get for your money? The maximum resistance (2200W) is Chris Hoy-level, while the maximum gradient (25%) is so steep it would leave even Chris Froome with a nosebleed; you can rest assured you’ll never be left wanting. It’s probably the most immersive turbo trainer around thanks to a cool trick that means it vibrates to simulate riding on different road surfaces. If you’re considering buying one it’s worth noting that, despite that hefty price tag, you’ll also need to add a cassette to your basket.

Wahoo KICKR Smart Turbo Trainer

wahoo
sigmasports.com

£999.99

  • Amazingly realistic ride feel
  • Latest version adds leaning to the equation
  • Expensive
  • Cheaper Wahoo that’s more suited to most

The set-up: 11-spd cassette compatible with Shimano and SRAM included. Suitable for Shimano & SRAM 8-11 spd cassettes. Other freehub bodies sold separately.
Resistance: 2200W
Power accuracy: +/- 1%
Gradient: 20%
Flywheel weight: 7.3kg
Noise: NA
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Axis feet, collapsible, calibration free, measures speed, distance, power and cadence without any other sensors, compatible with other Wahoo indoor training accessories

The the V5 is the latest iteration of the Wahoo Kickr smart turbo trainer – the direct drive turbo that revolutionised indoor cycling for the masses. Ready to go out of the box (if you have an 11-speed Shimano or SRAM groupset), the Kickr is an amazing bit of kit that seamlessly simulates the feeling of outdoor riding. Its new Axis feet take this up a notch by adding a degree of side-to-side movement into the equation, meaning you’re not fighting against the turbo when out of the saddle. There’s no escaping that, like the Tacx Neo 2T, the Wahoo Kickr has a pro-level price tag. But if you have to have the best (aka most expensive) and can live without haptic feedback, then this might be the one for you.

Saris H3 Silent Smart Turbo Trainer

Saris
halfords.com

£599.00

  • Super quiet
  • Relatively cheap direct drive turbo
  • Doesn’t look as refined as others
  • Cassette not included

The set-up: Cassette not included. Suitable for Shimano & SRAM 8-11 spd cassettes. Other freehub bodies sold separately
Resistance: 2000W
Power accuracy: +/- 2%
Gradient: 20%
Flywheel weight: 9kg
Noise: 59 decibels at 20mph
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Measures speed, cadence and power, built-in front wheel block, foldable legs

The best CycleOps turbo trainer on the market, the CycleOps H3 (which is now called Saris after a rebranded a few years ago) goes about its business quietly (literally) when compared to the likes of Tacx and Wahoo. The turbo is ideal for those who don’t want to make a racket when training indoors, and its 59 decibels will be roughly as loud as a normal conversation – perfect if you’re living in close quarters and don’t want to disturb other members of your household or downstairs neighbours. In terms of specs, it gives its rivals’ top-end models a run for their money, all while being a fraction of the cost.

Elite Direto Smart Turbo Trainer

k edge
wiggle.co.uk

US$544.99

  • Plastic construction
  • Cassette not included

The set-up: Cassette not included. Suitable for Shimano & SRAM 9-11 spd cassettes and 12-spd Shimano Road cassettes. Other freehub bodies sold separately
Resistance: 2200W
Power accuracy: +/- 1.5%
Gradient: 24%
Flywheel weight: 4.2kg
Noise: NA
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Compatible with Elite Rizer, pedalling analysis, cadence, speed and power data, foldable legs

Italian manufacturer Elite produce a number of different direct drive turbo trainers and it can be a bit confusing to know where to start. Although older than the latest Elite Suito turbo trainer, the Direto is what our money’s on. Its maximum resistance (2200W) and gradient (24%) pretty much match the top-tier Tacx Neo 2T, and the only drawback is slightly less power accuracy (+/- 1.5%). Sure, it might not look as premium as those at the top of our round-up, but at a third of the price, the Elite Direto smart turbo trainer is the most cost effective way of getting your hands on a direct drive set-up.

THE BEST WHEEL-ON TURBO TRAINERS

Tacx
wiggle.co.uk

US$269.99

  • Smart wheel-on with automatically adjusting resistance
  • Resistance limit fine for most amateurs
  • Cheaper, similar specced alternatives available
  • Requires additional adapter for most modern disc brake bikes

The set-up: Wheel-on. 130mm and 135mm QR compatible. Thru axle adapter sold separately
Resistance: 800W
Power accuracy: +/- 5%
Resistance method: Magnetic
Gradient: 6%
Flywheel weight: 1.6kg
Noise: NA
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Speed, cadence and power measurements, automatic resistance, front wheel block

Wheel-on models have come a long way in recent years. The Tacx Flow smart turbo trainer is a case in point. Yes, it’s not a direct drive turbo trainer, but like its more advanced cousins, it too can provide you with live speed, cadence and power measurements, while adjusting resistance automatically during a workout or spin around a virtual world. It still suffers from the drawbacks of wheel-on turbo trainers mentioned above, but it’s a world away from the lever-controlled trainers of old.

Elite Novo Smart Turbo Trainer

Elite
halfords.com

£219.00

  • Great maximum resistance for wheel-on
  • Measures power and cadence
  • Limited gradient
  • Wont work with some wheels

The set-up: Wheel-on, compatible with 26”, 28” and 700c wheels
Resistance: 900W
Power accuracy: +/- 5%
Gradient: 6%
Resistance method: Magnetic
Noise: NA
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Standout features: Power and cadence measurements, automatic resistance levels

An exclusive Halfords turbo trainer, the Novo is the best of Elite’s wheel-on options. In terms of specs, it matches the Tacx offering above in the gradient and power accuracy deparments, and has the edge when it comes to resistance – making it great for all-out sprints. If using with Zwift, the Elite Novo smart turbo trainer’s limited gradient simulation will soon become apparent when hitting the hills of Watopia, but it’s a price worth paying if you’re simply in the market for a budget turbo trainer.

Saris Fluid2 Turbo Trainer with Smart Kit

Saris
halfords.com

£185.00

  • No power source required
  • Sub-£200
  • Resistance can’t be controlled by virtual platforms

The set-up: Wheel-on. 130mm and 135mm QR compatible. Thru axle adapter sold separately
Resistance
: 900W
Resistance method
: Fluid
Gradient
: NA
Flywheel weight
: NA
Noise
: 69 decibels at 20mph
Connectivity
: Speed and cadence sensor included and connect via Bluetooh and ANT+
Standout features
: No power source required

Unlike all of the other models in our list, this sub-£200 fluid turbo trainer from Saris isn’t smart out of the box. It also doesn’t work like a magnetic wheel-on turbo trainer – instead of a magnet adjusting the resistance, the difficulty is determined by how fast your wheel is spinning on the roller; the harder you go, the more the resistance increases. Buy from Halfords and you’ll get a speed and cadence sensor at no extra cost, making our cheapest inclusion a smart one too.

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