Nowadays, using a best turbo trainer is a way different experience than how it used to be. There was a time when the thought of indoor training sent a shiver down the spine of cyclists – mind-numbing boredom of spinning the pedals in the garage or living room – but the introduction of connected smart trainers and apps like Zwift or Sufferfest mean using the turbo is more engaging and effective than ever before. Some might even call it fun.
What is a turbo trainer? In simple terms, you mount the rear of your bike to a static unit – sometimes by the wheel itself, so the tyre sits on a roller, or by removing the wheel so your chain runs on a cassette attached to the turbo. The result is an indoor exercise bike that rides like a real bike; sort of.
A turbo trainer is not only a great way to keep your fitness levels up in the colder and darker months, it’s also a very effective way to train when you’ve got limited time. Obviously, it also means you're completely safe from traffic, bad weather, potholes and pedestrians. Indeed, many riders now use turbo trainers all year round, because they are such effective training tools.
What is the best turbo trainer?
The Tacx Neo 2 Smart currently tops our round-up of the best turbo trainers, but there’s not much to separate the Neo 2 and the equally excellent Wahoo KICKR. Both offer stunning (and near-silent) performance but for us, Tacx’s flagship design has the edge, and justifies its higher price.
Why the Neo 2? On paper, it boasts the most impressive numbers and the virtual flywheel offers an extremely realistic ride quality. It doesn’t need calibration, many of the features can be used without a power source, and while the physical footprint of the unit is big, it’s extremely stable when sprinting out of the saddle. The key updates to the Neo 2 over the original Neo are internal, with the trainer’s electronics getting revamped, and that’s prepared the unit for a slew of new (and future) software features.
The fact the Neo 2 can simulate road conditions such as cobblestones, dirt roads and even gravel sets it apart from rivals. What’s more, the spaceship design is straight from Star Wars, with a fluoro light show on the ground that changes according to your training effort, from easy blue to full-throttle red.
The updated Wahoo Kickr is well worth a mention here, though. It’s a fantastic smart trainer and sneaks in under a grand. Despite that, we’ve actually included the Kickr Core as our pick from Wahoo’s range – if you want the full smart trainer experience but don’t want to pay top dollar, this is T3’s pick.
Buying a turbo trainer: what you need to know
The Tacx Neo 2 and Wahoo Kickr are two of the most sophisticated turbo trainers on the market. Both are 'direct-drive' trainers, meaning you mount your bike directly on the turbo by removing the back wheel - your chain then runs on a cassette attached to the trainer, completing the drivetrain. They are also 'smart trainers' because they offer built-in connectivity and can be used with third-party apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad and the Sufferfest on your phone, tablet or laptop. It’s this connectivity that’s revolutionised indoor training.
Smart trainers use an app to automatically control the resistance on your trainer - for example, to simulate climbing uphill or if you start an interval in a structured training session. The two-way communication between the app and the trainer works through ANT+ or Bluetooth and makes the indoor training session more like an outdoor ride. Direct-drive turbo trainers also offer a significantly smoother and more realistic ride experience than traditional magnetic or fluid trainers.
The Neo 2 and KICKR, both are virtually silent, come in at around £1,000 but fear not, there are cheaper alternatives. The Wahoo KICKR CORE is our pick from the competitive mid-range market, offering a fully connected and direct-drive experience for less than £700.
Step down another level and something like the Tacx Vortex Smart still offers online connectivity, but instead of a direct-drive system, it needs to be attached to your bike via the rear wheel, with a special skewer normally included for this purpose.
Your rear tyre sits on a small roller in the trainer, which sets the required resistance - either automatically in the case of a smart trainer or via a handlebar-mounted adjustable lever on cheaper, old-school trainers. ‘Wheel-on’ trainers like this offer a less realistic ride experience, are more noisy and can wear your back tyre, but you may consider that a price worth paying in order to save money.
Finally, if you’re looking for an entry-level trainer, there are even cheaper solutions going all the way down to sub-£100 models. These turbo trainers might not be ‘smart’, but they aren't dumb either if you're on a budget or simply want an indoor trainer to keep the pedals turning through winter.
Let’s get down to business then. We’ve focused primarily on smart turbos here because they offer a significantly better experience than traditional trainers, but you’ll find options for all budgets.
The best turbo trainers, in order of preference
The Tacx Neo has been our benchmark smart trainer since it was launched in 2015, topping T3’s round-up of the best turbo trainers last year. Now the Dutch firm has launched the Neo 2 to rubber stamp its position at the head of affairs.
This is a case of evolution, rather than revolution, but Tacx has made a few important upgrades to keep the Neo 2 top of the pile. Most of the work has gone on beneath the Neo 2’s shell, with a more powerful chipset to further improve the realistic ride quality (and progressive resistance control) of what was already a super-smooth trainer. It’s quieter, too, with virtually the only noise being the gentle hum of your drivetrain - ideal if you live in a flat or don’t want to disturb your partner while laying down the power in a set of intervals.
The revamped internals mean the Neo 2 now offers left-right power data and pedal stroke analysis, boosting its position as a pro-grade piece of kit, plus the upgraded electronics future-proof the trainer against further software updates. Additional compatibility for 142x12mm and 148x12mm axles mean you can use the Neo 2 with virtually any bike (rim or disc brake).
Otherwise, the Neo 2 retains all the features that made us love the original, including the ability to simulate rough road surfaces on Zwift (gravel, cobbles etc), and you get a little boost on virtual descents. ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart connectivity ensures the Neo can be hooked up to a range of third-party software, including Tacx’s own app. Finally, data fiends will be happy, with the Neo 2 capable of handling 2,200 watts (whether your legs are, is an entirely different story), with a claimed power accuracy of 1%.
On the flip side, the same sticking points as the original Neo apply here: this is a seriously heavy unit (21.5kg) and while the trainer folds up, when in use the large (and very stable) footprint takes up more floor space than most. There’s no doubt the Neo 2 is expensive too (and the £1,199 RRP still doesn’t include a cassette) but that price tag is backed up by first-class performance.
The 2020 Wahoo KICKR was announced at the right time when indoor cycling is ever so popular due to the global lockdown. Better still, the new KICKR costs exactly the same as the previous iteration and offers more functionality as well as being more precise than its predecessor, making it all the more appealing to potential buyers.
Thankfully, Wahoo only improved a few features and left others untouched: it might not make the new Wahoo KICKR appealing to people who own a V4 and if anything, they might get annoyed that people who'll buy the V5 will get more for the same money they paid for their V4 but at the same time, they have probably been using their V4s for a number of years so really, everyone's a winner here, right?
One thing is for sure: the new KICKR is the most convenient turbo trainer from Wahoo to date. The fact that you don't need to perform a spin down yet the trainer can maintain a +/-1% accuracy is just astounding. Not only you will save time but you also wouldn't have to worry about the data collected not being precise.
The AXIS feet is a great new feature that will most likely please a lot of cyclists. Indoor cycling is getting more and more realistic and the AXIS feet is a step in the right direction (pun intended).
As for completing the Wahoo ecosystem, if you have an extra £64.99 to burn, I would most definitely recommend getting the Wahoo Tickr X heart rate monitor (one of the best heart rate monitors today) and maybe the CLIMB grade simulator, the rest of the peripherals, such as the Bluetooth fan and the table, can be replaced with cheaper alternatives that work almost as well.
For the same price as the Wahoo KICKR V4, the new KICKR is an excellent buy and is highly recommended for serious cyclists.
- Wahoo KICKR (2020) review: more realistic feel, no spin down required, this is the best Wahoo smart trainer yet
- Here is the review of the previous gen Wahoo KICKR: Wahoo KICKR V4 review
Wahoo’s flagship Kickr is virtually neck-and-neck with the Tacx Neo 2 as a pro-level smart trainer - it’s used by Team Sky, after all - so why has the mid-range Kickr Core wrestled the number two spot from its more expensive sibling in the Wahoo range? One word: price.
With the £999.99 Kickr and £499.99 Kickr Snap (a wheel-on trainer) previously making up the line-up, Wahoo was missing out on the crucial midmarket slot, with competitors like the Tacx Flux and Elite Direto gobbling up sales as a result. Enter the £699.99 Kickr Core.
As well as introducing the Kickr Core for the current winter season, Wahoo also updated the Kickr to offer near-silent performance - crucially, however, the new mid-range unit shares the same design, so you turn the pedals with as much vigour as you can muster, without letting the whole street know.
The Kickr Core is still a direct-drive unit, so you get the realistic ride quality you’d expect from a smart trainer like this. That’s helped by the 18kg flywheel, capable of replicating 1,800 watts and a gradient of up to 16 per cent, although naturally those figures aren’t as impressive as the flagship Kickr (21kg, 2,200 watts and 20 per cent respectively).
The Kickr Core is compatible with Wahoo’s Kickr Climb gradient simulator - attach your bike’s fork to the Climb and it will rise and fall with the changing gradient when using software like Zwift. You can also hook it up to Wahoo’s new Headwind smart fan, which automatically adjusts the speed of the fan according to how hard you’re riding. With the trainer, Climb and Headwind in place, Wahoo is calling this a complete indoor training ‘ecosystem’, but you’ll need seriously deep pockets for the whole setup (the Climb costs an additional £499.99 and the Headwind is £199.99).
If you want the very best money can buy, the Tacx Neo 2 is our recommended smart trainer, but if you’ve got a more realistic budget - and still want most of the top-end performance - the Wahoo Kickr Core is our go-to option.
Want the smart trainer experience at a wallet-friendly price? The Tacx Vortex Smart is, well, a smart option. At first glance, it looks like a typical wheel-on turbo, but plug the Vortex into the mains and you’ve got a fully-fledged smart trainer, ready to be hooked up to just about any software you like.
It might be a budget option but the Vortex Smart is still capable of automatically controlling resistance, so as the gradient steepens in Zwift or you hit the next interval in the Tacx app, the trainer will ramp up the effort required to keep the pedals turning. That said, there’s a much tighter limit as to what the 1.6kg flywheel (with an effective resistance of 11.8kg) can handle, with a maximum power output of 950 watts and a maximum incline of seven per cent.
One benefit of a traditional setup like this is that it’s nice and compact when folded down and takes little time to drop your bike into place (although, unlike a direct-drive trainer, the wheel-on design may wear down your rear tyre).
Of course, you don’t get the power accuracy or realistic ride quality of a more expensive smart trainer, nor the ability to handle Cavendish-like sprints, but the Tacx Vortex Smart offers a significantly cheaper route into the latest virtual training software.
You have to love the Wahoo Kickr Snap Bike Trainer. It takes the hassle out of indoor cycling training and makes good use of the road bike you've already got. Unlike indoor exercise bikes, it takes up very little space (when the bike is not mounted on it), just fold it up and store it under the bed.
Setting up the Wahoo Kickr Snap Bike Trainer is dead simple: unfold, mount the bike, plug it in, pair it with phone/tablet and you can start cycling straight away. The whole process takes less than 15 minutes the first time and even less after the initial setup.
The Wahoo Kickr Snap Bike Trainer is also well-connected to third party apps: let it be Zwift, Sufferfest or TrainerRoad, you will find an app you can use to structure your indoor training sessions effectively (full list of apps can be found here)
The Wahoo Kickr Snap Bike Trainer is a versatile and reasonable indoor smart trainer that provides a lot of features, superb build quality and a great cycling experience for cyclists of all abilities.
- Read our Wahoo KICKR SNAP review here
Like the Kickr Core, the Elite Direto is a mid-range, direct-drive turbo trainer, offering all the features even your keenest amateur will require. In fact, Elite says the Direto is the trainer of choice for its sponsored pro teams, rather than the flagship Drivo.
With a maximum power output of 1,400 watts, gradient simulation of up to 14 per cent and a claimed power accuracy of 2%, the numbers are impressive, but the Direto isn’t quite able to match the very latest trainers from Wahoo and Tacx in terms of noise, nor is it as competitive on price.
The visual design of the trainer may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s a strong unit that holds steady when launching all-out sprints, plus the horizontal legs pivot inwards for storage. The grab handle makes the Direto’s 15kg weight easier to lug about, too.
Ok, we’ll hold our hands up here. Strictly speaking the Wattbike Atom isn’t a turbo trainer, it’s an indoor training bike - you may have seen a Wattbike in your local gym - but it provides an alternative, self-contained option for serious cyclists obsessed by data. Non-cyclists who want the latest training hardware will also appreciate the Atom’s ease of use and adjustability.
This is a fully ‘smart’ device and you’d hope so given the substantial outlay, but it’s backed up by serious performance – the Wattbike Atom grabbed the Best Home Fitness Tech prize at the 2018 T3 Awards.
Let’s start with those smart features. The Atom is Wattbike’s response to the growing popularity of online training platforms and, with ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity, is compatible with the most popular apps. Wattbike’s own app also provides a range of workouts and tools to analyse the 37+ data metrics dished out by the Atom, including the smoothness of your pedalling technique. Buttons on the handlebar actuate virtual gear changes, while the handlebar extensions are designed to hold a tablet, so you’ve got everything at your fingertips.
The Atom offers a range of easy adjustments for saddle height and fore-aft position, and handlebar height and fore-aft position, so cyclists should be able to mimic the position of their road bike, and non-cyclists can find a comfortable setup, too. The Atom would be a good option for households with a number of cyclists, or a rider and non-rider who still both want to get quality indoor training time.
The obvious drawbacks are the cost, weight and size of the Atom - you’ll need a dedicated space for this and it’s certainly not something you want to be moving about regularly. Cyclists might miss the realism of actual gear changes and while the Wattbike app will tell you what virtual gear you’re in, that information can currently be displayed in some third-party apps.
Smart trainers may be all the rage but they’ll also take a considerable chunk of change out of your wallet. Thankfully, there are many different turbo trainers on the market and they don't all cost hundreds or thousands of pounds. The CycleOps Mag+ is a classic trainer that offers solid performance for significantly less than £200. Shop around and you’ll get one closer to £100.
As the name suggests, the Mag+ offers magnetic resistance (your back wheels spins on a drum which in turn spins a flywheel with rotating magnets) with five adjustable levels via a handlebar-mounted shifter.
You can still use the Mag+ with Zwift with the addition of a speed sensor to estimate your effort but there’s no power measurement or automatically-controlled resistance here. Sure, it hasn’t got all the bells and whistles, but it gets the job done at a bargain price.