Dumb trainer vs. Smart vs. wheel on vs. direct drive vs. power meter...*sigh*

I submitted this to the podcast, but doubt it will get picked…we’ll see haha.

I’m new to the world of indoor training with power I have a question on the optimal setup based on the options below.


I am a mountain biker - I actually found TR via the Mountain Bike podcast - thanks @Jonathan!

Wow, you can spend a LOT of money getting into this…smart trainers, power meters, etc. So many options, my head is spinning…

I have 2-3 main goals:

  • As little money out of pocket as possible but don’t want to buy twice…
  • Make it easy to get on/off trainer to do work
  • okay, #3, would LOVE for my wife to be able to do her spin classes on the setup (my current trainers has no resistance)

My current setup is a 15 year old Nashbar trainer that was probably $199 new. + a hardtail and trainer tire with wahoo sensors (virtual power). I’m currently 38, have been mountain biking for years and would like to get faster and race locally in North Carolina and be prepared for a few big 25 mile, 2-3k climbing days. I know my fitness will take some time to build up, but I’d really like to be competitive in my 40s…locally at least and maybe more, time/family permitting. Most of our terrain in the piedmont is XC type trails.

So far, I’ve been using TR for about 1.5 months and am in base 2 and just retested FTP last week and went from 198 to 235 #beginnerbump! I’m doing the low volume plan and usually only get 2 days of training in, with another 1-2 days outside!

With all that being said, I’d like to ask about indoor training setups and the pros/cons.

Ideally, I’d like to improve my setup with minimal money out of pocket AND a setup that I could upgrade over time without feeling like I’m wasting money

#1: Kickr Core - I could get one at REI at 20% off + 10% in dividends and then sell my hardtail for about $300 (I currently have 4 MTBs…) and then only come about ($300 out of pocket) for the core (I have a spare cog). My wife is a spin instructor and it seems that she could do spin classes on it with the resistance mode, which would be a plus. I can use my full suspension XC (have extra wheel) on the trainer and reduce bike storage by 1 and … uh… happy wife :slight_smile:

#2: Trade hardtail for road bike and use with wheel on trainer I have or maybe grab a used Kurt Kinetic. Aren’t there a lot of cheaper power arm options on road bikes? Seems like this might be the cheapest option but largest footprint and doesn’t consolidate bike fleet. Plus, I could ride in my neighborhood which is a 3 mile loop - NEVER on main road though, I have zero interest in road riding. ($100 out of pocket) - but no resistance mode for spin classes for the wife…right?

#3: Keep trainer and and hardtail (or trade road bike) buy power meter arms ($250-400 used out of pocket)

#4: Smart wheel on trainers? What other options am I missing?

So, what are your opinions ideas? Thanks in advance!!

My 2 cents is to get a power meter and use something like a feedback sports omnium roller or some variant of an on-wheel trainer starting out. Power meter can be used inside or out and the feedback sports roller can be used to warm up for events and can be stored away easier. I’m heavily biased towards the roller because it doesn’t wear your tyre out and its more useful in other situations.

Its not a smart trainer but you vary your cadence and resistance which helps with people who tend to get bored of indoor training. Also, you get stuff that you can use indoor and out when most indoor equipment is very focused on indoor training.

I used this setup for 2 years and, admittedly, could have used it for another 10. Really great setup that allows you to upgrade without feeling like you’re spending twice. I’d say if you really take to indoor training then go all out for a top of the line direct drive trainer (kickr, Neo, etc). I got a Neo on a once in a lifetime deal so thats why i’m on that now instead.

I went back and forth for awhile, and ended up buying a Kickr direct-drive in fall 2017. Really like the wheel-off trainer for no tire wear and less hassle - just pop off the wheel and mount bike to trainer in less than a minute. No adjustments. Standard/level mode is more like riding on the road, versus resistance mode. Bike has power meter, using PowerMatch and with correct gearing I’ve been able to see the same FTP inside and outside.


Is noise is a concern?
If not, then a on-wheel is probably the cheapest smart trainer… Tacx Flow ( $400ish a friend had it, and said it sounds like a train coming at you)
If you want silence you can get the 4iiii Fliiiight ($500ish). Its decent, absolutely quiet (you would need to shell more $$ for something as quiet) , accurate power, BUT apparently better for people who max FTP will be maybe 250 to 300.

IMO the road bike/power meter is the way to go.

It really comes down to how bad you want a power meter for outdoor use. PM + a wheel on trainer works fine and if you are on a budget and what power all the time is the way to go. A wheel off smart trainer is better, gives you access to erg mode and sim mode (i.e. Zwift). A smart trainer gives you in essence an indoor power meter which is a significant step up from virtual power.

For me, virtual power on my old fluid trainer to a pm on the bike + my same old trainer was a HUGE improvement. that improved indoor training but more importantly revolutionized out door training and riding. 2 years later I got a Kickr Core and I love it and would not go back but it was not as big a leap as just getting a PM and using it on 100% of my rides indoors and out.


I was able to pick up an Elite Direto for $600 last year. It’s by no means a perfect smart trainer, but for my needs it was definitely worth the money. I have my backup road bike as a dedicated trainer on it. I am able to get on and get a high quality workout with no fuss. I had previously used a dumb, wheel-on trainer, and the difference is huge. Training with power in erg mode has allowed me to increase my FTP substantially.

I would go with a smart trainer. Especially if you can get one on sale.

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Thanks for the replies…as for power meter outside…I don’t ride road and I’ve heard PM for MTB isn’t really that useful…has that been your experience in the woods or is the PM really just worthwhile for road?

ERG mode let’s you ‘space out’ during a workout, right? Just push the pedals and it stays at whatever gear and resistance you’re in to hit the numbers, right?

I’m not sure why that would be. It’s really useful for XC, and I’d say most people are XC. On Enduro, the climbs for sure. Doing shuttle runs, not really.

#3. Your old hardtail, you can just leave on the trainer with slicks and get a power meter.

If you’re going to move it between bikes, the most flexible is the SRM X-Power, which are SPD pedals. But, it’s expensive. Crank arms are a bit of a pain to swap, and then the boost vs non-boost parts between bikes as well. So, in that regard, it may just be an indoor power meter.

For the most part, yes. Some intervals, you can’t space out on, such as sprint intervals that are run at ERG (not recommended) but can be done.

Thanks for the MTB PM thoughts. IF I got a PM, I would probably just get it for my XC FS bike. It’s the one I ride most locally and what I race on. Pedals seem uber expensive (new tech though) and ideally I would like a 175 crank arm…seems like easiest route. I also saw that Raceface makes the Cinch PM…looks interesting, guess I would just need to make sure of compatibility…

So you like PM on dumb trainer? Does the PM sync with a Garmin? Mine is about 6 years old (Edge 510 I think). Just trying to figure out what will play nicely…SO MANY OPTIONS!

the thing that bothers me about erg mode is that it promotes unnatural behavior (for me):

  • Erg mode rewards constant cadence, something I don’t do find myself doing very often on a mtn bike
  • Erg isn’t too happy with low-cadence work (40-60rpm) and I have to switch to standard/level or resistance mode to do torquey tempo work
  • Erg rewards me for spinning faster (100+rpm) on short on/off and vo2max efforts, whereas outside I do those intervals with a little more torque at 80-90rpm

On the other hand Erg mode is pretty sweet on long SS workouts, or forcing me to stay in zone1 on recovery rides, or zone2 for aerobic endurance work.

Erg is just one of several tools you have available with a smart trainer.

I use a smart trainer, but many times I’ve really just wanted a trainer with a power meter as I’ve used the PowerMatch feature often. From a cost perspective, it’s prohibitive. The power accuracy is also not that great, so if you have a power meter and can move it between bikes or use the bike for both indoor and outdoor work, that would be ideal. Then you have to question the cost for a smart trainer, when you don’t need the power reporting features. That would just be ERG mode. If you don’t use ERG mode, then what you have is a dumb trainer. The only other difference may be direct mount vs wheel on (like your old Nashbar). I do like direct mount, because tire slip was a pain, when I used to use a Kurt Kinetic.

Yes, a power meter will connect to a Garmin device, except for ones that don’t have ANT+ such as the Edge 200, or whatever that one was. There’s another one like that. Anyhow, my 800 and 830 work fine with power meters.

I do 40-60 all the time, it works fine for me. What problems do you have with it?

I can definitely see this.

the ‘problem’ is that changes in cadence during low-cadence work create a bit of a fight with the Kickr. Thats why I said “Erg isn’t too happy with low-cadence work…” and I prefer to do 40-60rpm torquey tempo using standard mode as it feels like riding outside.

Probably a dumb question, but do they make 175mm crank arms for MTB? Looks like everything is 165mm…I think I’m missing something here…

Yes almost all power meters should work with a 510. My stages worked fine with my 800 I had up until a couple months ago. I think PM for MTB isn’t super useful during the ride unless you have some long steadyish climbs so that you can pace yourself.

But if you are racing then the post race analysis can be useful. E.g. if someone attacks and you couldn’t follow then you can go back and see what the power and duration was that you weren’t able to stick with. It will also be able to give you TSS numbers so that you can better track your overall training load.

But I do all of my indoor training on a dumb trainer with a stages PM and other than noise and convenience I don’t see a reason to upgrade to a smart trainer unless the trainer dies. Sure it’s a bit annoying to have to swap wheels to go from indoor to outdoor riding but it’s and extra 30-60 seconds. That time savings isn’t worth $500 to me.

Have a buddy that have a very cheap steel bike on this trainer and a $4k MTB he rides outdoors.
For you specific purpose that might be the best solution. You can probably pick an old school 8 speed steel bike off ebay of CL for 100, and use the rest for a nice trainer.

PM are still useful on MTB, but arguably less useful than on road (more variable terrain, you dont necessarily sustain power, etc).
I wouldn’t put a MTB PM ahead of a trainer.

I see. I do that all the time, ERG mode, 40-60, never had a problem, so wanted to know what the perceived issue for you was.

“they”? Yes, 175 is available from everyone. 172.5 isn’t.

Edit: 165 is used on some of the more progressive full suspension bikes, probably starting in the last 2 years, because of the low bottom bracket and pedal strikes. hardtails would have a full range, except of course 172.5, which was never available for MTB.