Ignoring the differences in the amount of resistence and percentage grades that they offer, how much difference is there between a cheap/inexpensive smart trainer and a really good one?
E.g., I just started on TR at the end of last year and picked up a used Saris M2 wheel-on trainer as a starting point. I don’t really have any issues with it and it seems to work well enough – which might be in part because I have a better PowerMeter on my bike already that TR uses for the readings.
One questino I had was whether it would be easier to maintain a consistent/constant power output with a better trainer? Or maybe the fluctuations are just me or the ERG mode responsiveness settings I have in TR.
I’m looking forward to hearing your answers. Thanks in advance!
If you mean cheap wheel on v a DD trainer @kibab as said above there’s a clear winner and that’s a DD trainer. If however you mean a cheaper smart trainer v a more expensive smart trainer, whilst I only have a cheaper smart trainer, I believe the more expensive ones are smoother when it comes to ERG.
The largest difference with higher level wheel-off trainers vs yours comes down to the flywheel.
The M2 has a rather small one that leads to quicker spindown times, and may not have great “road feel”. The smaller flywheel comes to a stop sooner and may have more of that “pedaling through mud” feeling that was stated about similar trainers in the past.
Comparing that to something like the Saris Hammer series is absolutely night and day. These have the largest and most effective flywheel of any wheel-off trainer. That translates to a long spindown time, and a feel that is more like rolling down a flat road with good momentum.
All of the above largely translates to “feel”, but may also manifest in how people can develop power around the circle. I won’t say one is better than the other (such things can be VERY subjective), but they may well be different.
Back to your original question, keep in mind that “consistent/constant power output” is not necessarily a criteria for good, better, best training impacts. There are many factors at play, but aiming for a dead steady power graph may not be something that pays dividends.
I’m not saying there’s no benefit to trying to improve your pedal stroke and related power delivery, but it’s also not likely to be much more than a marginal gain unless you are particularly sloppy. If that is the case, you may well be better served by using the lesser model (M2) as it may show the differences between good/bad stroke since the flywheel will have less ability to “hide” irregularities.
Keep in mind that we as humans are not machines. Power data fluctuation, especially as measured by a decent power meter, will inherently be “jagged”. It’s a decent goal to work on improving and smoothing that out a bit, but there will never be some perfectly smooth data.
The only time we see that is when device makers apply unrealistic smoothing math to the data. It creates false expectations and is something I really wish they would ditch (looking at you Wahoo).
Outside of that larger discussion, things like no wheel slip or tire wear are nice features of wheel-off trainers.
If you’re doing any serious time indoors and want a good experience - spend the money on quality and don’t look back. Don’t let the “I should have spent the money” thought live rent free in your head during every session indoors.
A while back I started testing/reviewing a LOT of cheaper trainers looking for a diamond in the rough… the result? A garage full of trainers that I won’t ever use again. (although I did flood the local market here giving most of them away just before Christmas on the proviso if it doesn’t work, chuck it).
Direct drive trainers are definitely better. I don’t know how plentiful they are, but if you have a power meter on your bike, you could also go for a direct drive dumb trainer. I bought an Elite Volano for $200 some years ago and used that for several years. I only replaced it, because I wore out some bearings and/or the belt.
I’m so used to regulating power myself that I only use erg mode for some rest intervals and endurance rides where I want to switch off.
Go even further and get something like the kickr bike. I got mine about a year ago and have put 9k miles on it so far and it’s awesome. I was hesitant when buying it but I absolutely love it. I went from a wheel on trainer for years to a direct drive kickr core. Rode that for about three years and now the bike. I love it and can’t see myself going back to something else.
I found it to be a huge improvement. Fully adjustable to get in any position, which is awesome if you like to tinker with your bike position. You no longer have to buy new stems if you’re wanting to try it out.
No calibration, climb is built in, ±1% power, and I’m not sweating my acid sweat all over my nice road bike! Can’t beat that.
Thanks for all the feedback! Since I’m just getting back into riding after a 30 year hiatus, I’m still riding my 1990’s Aluminum Trek running all Campagnolo Chorus which made it difficult for me to find a direct drive trainer that appeared to be compatible (though I did buy a nice mountain bike last year so that’s where most of my budget went). Maybe one of the trainers had something compatible, but I figured the wheel-on trainer was good enough to get my feet wet and I could upgrade later.
I’ve definitely noticed that there’s a few things about the feel of the trainer I don’t like, but despite that, I appreciate TR and its help getting me back in shape.
I’m giving the indoor trainer a go after a several year hiatus.
My old trainer is a pretty old Elite wheel on sort of smart trainer. Works with Zwift but won’t do Erg, so pretty useless for TR.
Currently I’ve got a Gen1 Kickr on loan.
Which second hand is probably on par price wise with a brand new wheel on smart trainer.
The Kickr is so much quieter than the wheel on trainer and it’s not even the newer much quieter variety.
The main difference I think though is all to do with the size of the flywheel as to how it rides. with the wheel on it pretty much always feels like you’re riding through mud, especially when the resistance increases and when the wheel speed isn’t high.
You still get that feeling in Zwift as an example if you’re going very slowly up a steep hill but it’s just no-where near as bad on the wheel on trainer. Think of the feeling of pedalling an gym exercise bike with the resistance turned up.
I do wonder if it would make the wheel on trainer better if you could increase the flywheel weight (add weights to your wheel maybe?)
But I’d definitely opt for a secondhand Kickr or the like when I make a proper purchase if I don’t go for a new one. It’s basically the difference between doing a ride indoors or just not bothering.
I started with a “smart” wheel-on (so Bluetooth connection and Erg mode support), and upgraded to a direct-drive when it died. I ride almost exclusively in Erg mode. I didn’t notice a difference in maintaining consistent power output, but there was significantly less faff with the DD. To get a decent ride with a wheel-on you have to make sure the rear tire is always clean and pumped to the same pressure (so I did that every ride), you have to make sure the bike is set up exactly the same way, and you have to wait for it to warm up before you can do anything substantial with it. With a DD, you can just get on and ride.
Other improvements that made a difference for me:
More accurate, more consistent power readings (the consistency is the killer feature there)
Much quieter operation
More responsive power changes (so it doesn’t take 10 seconds to ramp up anymore)
I’ve had 10 campag and 11spd shimano hubbed bikes with DD trainers you only need the correct hub body to make it compatible. (Elite’s one#othersbrandsareavailable) If its a lesser speed bike you’d just need some spacers. Even if you dont go to the wee bit extra expense of getting a campag free hub body for the trainer and just run a standard shimano cassette you could probably run it fine in one gear and let ERG adjust the resistance to that.