Best turbo trainer 2019: why smart trainers are the ultimate fitness gadget for serious cyclists

Turn your actual bike into an exercise bike and burn calories at home, free of excessive sun, rain or traffic

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The humble turbo trainer has changed beyond recognition in recent years. There was a time when the thought of indoor training sent a shiver down the spine of cyclists - the mind-numbing boredom of spinning the pedals in the garage or living room - but the introduction of smart trainers and apps like Zwift and TrainerRoad 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 - because it is one.

In the depths of winter, when at 4pm it seems like it's already midnight, it can be hard to find the motivation to ride outdoors. Cycling indoors on a turbo trainer not only keeps your fitness up during the winter, it’s also a very effective way to train when you’ve got limited time (haven’t we all?), and means you're completely safe from traffic, bad weather, potholes and pedestrians. In fact, many riders now use turbo trainers year-round because they are such an effective training tool.

What is the best turbo trainer?

Once again, the  Tacx Neo - or rather the updated Neo 2 - tops our round-up of the best turbo trainers. There’s not much to separate the Neo 2 and the latest  Wahoo Kickr - both now offer near-silent performance - but Tacx’s flagship design has the edge, despite 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, recently updated so that they are now virtually silent, both come in at around £1,000 but fear not, there are cheaper alternatives. The new 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.

Tacx Neo 2 Smart

1. Tacx Neo 2 Smart

Updated design, still the best smart turbo trainer

Specifications
Max Power: 2,200 Watts
Max slope: 25%
Calibration required: none
Weight: 21.5kg
Dimensions (folded): 620 × 260 × 440 mm
Reasons to buy
+Near-silent, road-like performance+Future-proofed software+Simulates descents and varied road surfaces+Works unplugged
Reasons to avoid
-Premium performance comes with premium price tag-Heavy, with no carry handle

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.

Wahoo Kickr Core

2. Wahoo Kickr Core

Almost all the performance of the flagship Kickr, for a chunk less cash

Specifications
Max Power: 1,800 Watts
Max slope: 16%
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 18kg
Dimensions (folded): 584 x 229 x 533mm
Reasons to buy
+Realistic ride quality+Value-packed, direct-drive smart trainer+Compatible with Wahoo Climb and Headwind
Reasons to avoid
-Some initial assembly required-Not as compact as other trainers

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.

Tacx Vortex Smart

3. Tacx Vortex Smart

The smart trainer experience at a budget price

Specifications
Max Power: 950 Watts
Max slope: 7%
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 9kg
Dimensions (folded): 565 × 410 × 245 mm
Reasons to buy
+Affordable smart trainer+Compatible with latest virtual training software+Lightweight and compact design

Reasons to avoid
-Not as smooth as more expensive smart trainers-Prone to tyre wear-Fairly noisy

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.

Elite Direto

4. Elite Direto

Solid mid-range smart trainer

Specifications
Max Power: 1,400 Watts
Max slope: 14%
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 15kg
Dimensions (folded): Not stated
Reasons to buy
+Realistic ride feel and accurate power measurement+Sturdy, stable design
Reasons to avoid
-Noisier and more expensive than latest trainers

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.

Wattbike Atom

5. Wattbike Atom

Take indoor training to the next level

Specifications
Max Power: 2,000 Watts
Max slope: 25%
Calibration required: no
Weight: 4kg
Dimensions (folded): n/a
Reasons to buy
+Realistic ride quality, with high power output+Adjustable rider position+Less intimidating for non-cyclists
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-Virtual gear changes-Takes up a lot of space

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.

CycleOps Mag+ Trainer

6. CycleOps Mag+ Trainer

Best turbo trainer for less than £200

Specifications
Maximum resistance: Not quoted (5 resistance levels)
Weight: 8.1kg
Reasons to buy
+Cheap, with five resistance levels+Easy setup+No mains power required
Reasons to avoid
-Unrealistic ride quality compared to latest trainers-Wheel-on design prone to tyre slip and wear

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.