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Best turbo trainer 2021: The best smart, direct drive and budget bike trainers

Peter Stuart James Spender
8 Jun 2021
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Want to get fit and keep cycling no matter what the weather? Then a turbo trainer is just what you've been looking for

A turbo trainer allows you to transform your regular bike into a static exercise bike. In its most basic form, a good turbo trainer can be had for under £150. However, if you’re willing to pay a bit more, the best turbo trainers are a gateway into a world of digital coaching and massively multiplayer cycle racing.

But there are a few things to think about before you buy: Do you want controllable resistance? Do you want a smart trainer that’s compatible with apps such as Zwift? With so many turbo trainers available at a range of different price levels, the choice can be overwhelming.

Don’t worry, because we’ve done all the legwork for you (pun not intended). Here you’ll find a roundup of some of our favourite turbo trainers to suit all levels of cyclist, plus a buying guide to determine what type of turbo trainer you need.

Best turbo trainer: At a glance


The best turbo trainers to buy

1. Saris Fluid 2: The best "basic" turbo trainer

Price: £215 | Buy now from ProBikeKit

With a reputation for build quality, relatively quiet operation and easy setup, the Saris Fluid 2 (previously branded as the Cycleops) is something of a benchmark in basic turbo training. Many units at this price point use a magnet to create resistance, but the Fluid 2 uses paddles turning around in oil. Pedal faster and you get more resistance, and because it’s oil and not air being pushed around, the trainer is remarkably quiet.

The gradations of resistance are therefore theoretically infinite, and the power curve – your effort versus wheel-turning speed – feels incredibly smooth and natural, without the jumps associated with lower-end magnetic trainers. That said, you can’t choose the resistance in an indexed fashion, and there is no other built-in way of harvesting metrics, so a speed/cadence sensor or heart rate monitor (available separately) is a good idea to help quantify your effort. With said sensor, you can use the Fluid 2 with Zwift.

Key specs – Connectivity: None; Power source: N/A

Buy now from ProBikeKit


2. Tacx Vortex Smart: A taste of smart turbo training for under £400

Price: £350 | Buy now from Decathlon

The Tacx Vortex Smart offers entry into the world of interactive virtual training at an extremely good price. Compared to the well-loved Tacx Satori Smart, the Vortex offers twice the power reading accuracy at +/- 5%, and an electro-brake that can accurately change resistance to simulate virtual terrain as you ride it.

The Vortex broadcasts cadence and power data in ANT+ and Bluetooth, and can be linked up to multiple devices. It can receive data to change resistance, and can even generate ‘virtual speed’ to match the downhill terrain of a simulated course. The frame is pretty stable and folds away, and while the resistance unit isn’t the quietest, it is solid. Offering a resistance of 950 watts at a simulated 7% incline, it will prove challenging enough for most but may leave some elite riders spinning out on the hardest efforts.

Key specs – Connectivity: ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart (not ANT+ FE-C); Power source: Mains; Brake power: 950 watts

Buy now from Decathlon


3. Tacx Flux S: The best smart turbo trainer under £650

Price: £549 | Buy now from Wiggle


The Tacx Flux S is a fully-fledged smart trainer for £550 that can simulate inclines of 10% and 1,500 watts of resistance, making it fully capable of pushing elite athletes. The Flux is direct drive, meaning you remove your rear wheel and bolt your bike directly to the unit. This makes for a more solid base on which to pedal and provides more accurate power measurement, as you’re not contending with tyres slipping on rollers.

It’s ANT+ FE-C ready, so apps such as Zwift have no problem pairing and taking control of the motor-braked resistance unit. Power measuring accuracy is reported within +/-3%, which is okay for most mere mortals (a gold-standard SRM power meter, as used by professional cyclists, quotes +/-1%) if not up to the standard of pricier turbo trainers. For this kind of money, however, the Flux is a solid, hassle-free step into the world of smart training.

Key specs – Connectivity: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart; Power source: Mains

Buy now from Wiggle


4. Wahoo KICKR: Team Ineos' turbo trainer of choice is something special

Price: £1,000 | Buy now from Snow and Rock

Arguably the original smart trainer, and the choice of Team Ineos (Okay, they get them free, but still, they can always be seen warming down on Wahoo trainers after races), the KickR is now in its fifth generation and is considered by many the benchmark for smart trainers. It’s practically silent and just as stable thanks to its wide stance legs which keep it from rocking side to side, and it has a top end power of 2,200W, meaning even Chris Hoy would struggle to overpower it. New features include auto-calibration, an RJ11 telephone jack port, and the all new KICKR AXIS feet.

Power measurement accuracy is now quoted at +/-1%, and in practice we found the KickR returned consistent power numbers (when testing the previous generation). It folds up to a relatively small size, but like all the smart trainers here, it’s still pretty bulky and heavy. We’d suggest setting it up somewhere and leaving it there.

For those who wince at spending nearly a grand on a turbo, it’s worth considering Wahoo’s KICKR Core. It lacks the foldability and the same level of resistance as the more expensive unit, but offers a considering savings at only £700.

Key specs – Connectivity: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart; Power source: Mains

Buy now from Snow and Rock


5. Elite Drivo II: A stunningly accurate direct-drive turbo trainer

Price: £1,000 | Buy now from Wiggle


It looks a little bit like a collapsed AT-AT from Star Wars, but the Drivo II’s clunky aesthetic belies an incredibly smooth smart trainer. Like the Wahoo Kickr or Tacx Flux, it’s direct drive. Amongst other advantages, that offers the Elite an almost unreal although simulated gradient of 24% and an incredible 3,600 watts at 60kph. That means unless you’re literally the Hulk, on a cracking day of form, you won’t be getting anywhere near fussing this turbo’s top resistance.

The main update compared to the original Drivo is an increase of accuracy from +/-1% to +/-0.5%, alongside greater resistance and a much slicker black colourway as opposed to white. It is compatible with all the Apps you could shake a stick at (including Zwift, of course) and offers automated changes in resistance to suit a virtual course. A boon for more advanced riders is that the Drivo II supports pedal analysis via the bundled app, which can help you develop more efficient pedalling technique.

Key specs – Connectivity: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart; Power source: Mains

Buy now from Wiggle


6. Technogym MyCycling: The ultimate smart turbo trainer

Price: £1,590 | Buy now from Technogym


Made by the Italian gym equipment leviathan, MyCycling is arguably the most stylish smart trainer on the market and has the smoothest pedalling action we’ve ever tested, feeling every bit like actual cycling – albeit on a very smooth road.

It is controllable by desktop apps such as Zwift, but also comes with its own highly advanced app, which helps train pedalling technique, displays left-right leg power and has built-in coaching programs a la TrainerRoad. Technogym says it’s looking to develop this aspect further, expanding the coaching plan database and adding real-world coaches into the mix, who will supply personalised regimes to your app that MyCycling will then enact, a bit like having a remote personal trainer.

Key specs – Connectivity: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart; Power source: Mains

Buy now from Technogym


How to choose the best turbo trainer for you

Are all turbo trainers the same?

No. Broadly speaking there are two main types – traditional, or ‘dumb’ turbo trainers, and smart trainers. Traditional trainers can be as basic as to have no controllable resistance – simply pedal harder and the resistance increases – but normally they have user-variable resistance, either mechanically, through a dial mounted to your handlebars, or digitally, through a wired or wireless head unit. Digital versions usually show speed and cadence as a minimum, and more advanced ones also sync to heart rate monitors – they may also measure power output so that you can see exactly how many watts your legs are pumping out.

Smart trainers have become increasingly popular since the emergence of virtual cycling training apps such as Zwift. They use a variant of the popular ANT+ wireless standard (which is routinely used in heart rate, speed and cadence sensors) called ANT+ FE-C: Fitness Equipment Control. This allows a third-party device such as a laptop or iPad to control the trainer's resistance and emulate real-world riding, racing or specific coaching sessions, so you can feel like you’re actually riding up and down hills without leaving the comfort of your home.

What would a smart trainer setup look like?

Typically a laptop connected to the internet running a desktop app such as Zwift or TrainerRoad, paired to your smart trainer via an ANT+ USB dongle. Some people go the extra mile and hook their laptop up to a TV or projector; others get minimal and run apps off their tablet or phone. If you can’t afford a fully ‘smart’ trainer, there are cheaper ‘half-smart’ trainers which bridge the gap. They broadcast data such as power, cadence or speed to a third-party device, so you can record how far and how hard you’re riding, but cannot be automatically controlled by that device.

What apps can I use with my smart trainer?

There are loads of apps for smart trainers, but TrainerRoad and Zwift are two of the most popular. Both are non-contract subscription services that cost £12.99 (Zwift) and $15 (TrainerRoad) per month.

TrainerRoad is like a digital coach, putting you through turbo trainer sessions like a robotic spin instructor, all the while recording and assimilating that data into a training regime. Zwift is an online massively multiplayer ‘game’ where you can race against yourself and other users on the virtual island of Watopia, spin past the virtual landmarks of central London, or embark on any of the inbuilt training plans for building your strength and speed.

In both instances the apps control your smart trainer, varying the resistance automatically. For example, in Zwift the resistance increases when the virtual course climbs a mountain, so you can have all the fun of climbing endless hills without leaving the house.

Should I buy a smart trainer?

Only you and your mental resolve can answer that one. Some people can stare at a wall for three hours while turbo training, looking at nothing more than a stat-filled LCD display, while others need that extra motivation. And that doesn’t just apply for amateurs. Mark Cavendish turned to Zwift as part of his recovery after he crashed out of this year’s Tour de France, and an increasing number of pros and ex-pros are coming round to the training benefits that virtual cycling can provide.

Can a non-smart trainer get smart?

Kind of. It depends what app you’re intending to run, but as an example, at its most basic Zwift only requires a speed sensor on your rear wheel that broadcasts in ANT+, and a compatible traditional turbo trainer (it has a list of these on its site). If you’re wondering why it has to be a supported turbo trainer, it’s because Zwift needs to know your power output in order to work, so its developers created a mathematical algorithm, dubbed zPower, that estimates your power output based on how fast your rear wheel is spinning. It’s much less accurate than power measured by a fully smart trainer’s in-built power meter, but offers a cheap taster of real smart training without the hefty outlay.

The biggest downside to this approach is that you’ll have to vary your trainer’s resistance manually based on cues from the app, reducing the immersive element. The upside is a half-smart turbo trainer package can be had for around £200, less than half the cost of a fully smart trainer.

What about bike rollers?

It’s worth noting that turbo trainers aren’t your only option for a static bike workout. Bike rollers, as the name suggests, have three drums that roll underneath your bike when you are cycling, a bit like a treadmill. They can be quite difficult to get the hang of initially, and you may be faced with a rather steep learning curve. However, using a bike roller is a good exercise in balance, and also helps you to improve your pedaling and handling of your bike, so they’re good for building technique as well as keeping you fit. We’ve listed a few bike rollers here:

Do I need to buy anything else?

Like all static exercise, turbo training can be boring. So even if you’re not on Zwift or the like, simply popping your trainer in front of the TV does wonders to keep you interested. Beyond that, a powerful fan is all but essential. When there’s no wind to keep you cool you’ll soon realise how much cycling makes you sweat, and you'll want a towel handy to make sure that you don't end up dripping salty, rust-causing sweat all over your stem and handlebars.

Anything else I need to consider?

There is still some disagreement as to whether or not using a turbo trainer puts excessive pressure on a carbon bike frame, leading to faults and breakages.

Regardless of whether or not the claim is a myth, it’s still very important to be aware of your bike manufacturer’s warranty. While some brands (such as Canyon and Giant) have approved their bikes for trainer use, you might be running the risk of voiding your warranty with others. Unfortunately, this isn’t always made completely clear.

In short, our advice is to always read the small print before you strap your expensive bike into a turbo trainer, and to check with your bike’s manufacturer if you are unsure about the warranty.

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