Best turbo trainer 2018: 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

TODO alt text

Turbo trainers are a brilliant idea that are now catching on in a big way with the cycling cognoscenti. You attach the rear of your bike to them – sometimes the wheel itself, so the tyre then sits on a roller, or by removing the wheel and bolting the rear quick release skewer into the turbo's frame. 

The result is a static exercise bike that rides just like a real bike – because it is one. 

Particularly at this time of year, when at 4pm it seems like it's already midnight, it can be hard to find the time to ride outdoors. Cycling indoors on a turbo trainer not only is a way to keep your stamina up during the winter; it’s also a very effective way to train, and means you're completely safe from traffic, bad weather, potholes and pedestrians.

What is the best turbo trainer?

There is very little to tell between them, but I just prefer the Tacx Neo to the Team Sky-endorsed Wahoo Kickr. Both offer a superb indoor ride.

Many have described the NEO as like a space ship straight from the Star Wars saga, not only from a design perspective but also because this trainer features a flashing fluoro light show on the ground that changes according to your training effort, from easy blue to full-throttle red.

There are three reasons I choose the Neo over its main competitor. It's quieter than the Kickr, meaning you’ll make more friends in the neighborhood, it has a battery, so doesn't need to be plugged in as long as you remember to recharge between rides and it also simulates road conditions such as cobblestones, dirt roads and even gravel.

Buying a turbo trainer: what you need to know

The Neo and the Kickr are two of the most sophisticated turbo trainers on the market. Both are 'direct drive' turbo trainers, meaning you mount your bike on the turbo by removing the back wheel. They're also 'smart trainers' since they function together with third-party apps such as Zwift, TrainerRoad and the Sufferfest on your phone, tablet or laptop. 

Smart trainers use the app to control the resistance on your trainer automatically, to simulate climbing uphill or downhill, for example. 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.

The Neo and Kickr both come in at around £1,000 but fear not: there are cheaper alternatives and you can still find a smart trainer for around £500. 

Mid-range trainers such as the Wahoo Kickr Snap, CycleOps Magnus or the Tacx Vortex still offer online connectivity, but instead of a direct-drive mount system, they'll need to be attached to your bike through the rear wheel, with a special skewer normally included for this purpose. 

The resistance on the rear wheel of your bike is then transmitted by the small roller of the trainer in contact with your tyre. This option makes the ride less similar to an outdoor ride, is more noisy and will wear your back tyre, but you may consider that a price worth paying, in order to pay a lower price.

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.

1. Tacx NEO

Narrowly the best smart turbo trainer

Max Power: 2,200 Watts
Max slope: 25%
Calibration required: none
Weight: 22kg
Dimensions (folded): 620×260×440mm
Reasons to buy
+Quieter than Wahoo Kickr+Simulates road surfaces+Works unplugged
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive-Heavy, with no carry handle

The Tacx Neo is the best smart turbo trainer on the market, and as such you need to be prepared for the price. Looking on the bright side, the even more illustrious Technogym MYCYCLING comes in at an eye-watering £1,600 RRP, so it's cheap really.

The most incredible – and newish – feature here is road surface simulation, achieved through vibrations that the Neo transmits directly into your legs when you’re riding on a gravel, offroad or a cobbled section on virtual gaming apps like Zwift or Tacx Films, so if you’re training for the Tour of Flanders, you can prepare your legs for the shaking, at least to some extent. This is something that no other brand has released yet.  

Another characteristic that makes the Neo a better solution than the Kickr is the noise produced while using it. In a real world, pragmatic test of using the two turbos one after the other at the same effort, it's pretty clear that Tacx got it on this one. Turbo trainers can be really loud, and could annoy the people you live with and your neighbors – especially if you turn the music on to cover the sound of the turbo. That's a lethal combo. 

Be aware that, like other smart, direct-drive turbo trainers, this one is darn heavy at 22 kg, and unlike the Kickr, it doesn’t have a handle for easier lifting and carrying. 

You’ll also have to buy a cassette (gears to be put on the trainer itself) unless you want to remove the one from your own back wheel, and if you have a thru-axle  release system and not a standard quick release, you'll have to make sure yours is compatible with the turbo trainer. The Neo supports both 10 and 11 speed cassettes from SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo, and Tacx's support page will help you check your thru axle is compatible with the turbo trainer. Disc brakes are also allowed, which is a plus.

2. Wahoo Kickr

Best turbo trainer under £1,000

Max Power: 2,000 Watts
Max slope: 20%
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 21kg
Dimensions (folded): 540 x 230 mm
Reasons to buy
+Superb ride+Easier to carry around than Neo+Cheaper than Neo, too
Reasons to avoid
-Pretty damn loud-Fewer simulation features than Neo-No battery, so must be plugged in

The official smart trainer of Team Sky is a great piece of kit and will satisfy most users' needs. The latest incarnation of the Kickr is improved compared to its older siblings, being quieter – though still louder than the Neo – and easier to carry around. The handle introduced to the Kickr in 2016 is definitely a huge help if you don't intend to leave it one place forever, and is something the Neo still lacks.

The Kickr is also smaller than the Neo (54 x 71cm instead of the 57.5 x 75 cm footprint) and thus easier to store. Another plus is that Wahoo has thought to put a cassette in the box of the Kickr so you don’t need to buy an extra one, although note that they ship it with an 11-speed, so if you prefer a 10, you'll have to buy one.

Unlike the Neo, the Kickr does need to be calibrated before use, but to be fair, you can easily do that with a guided spin on Zwift, the Wahoo Fitness app or another Wahoo unit, like the ELEMNT bike computer. 

In terms of max wattage supported, Kickr claims a max of 2,000 watts for its latest model against the 2,200 of the Neo. That's hardly a damning statistic, though. As even Mark Cavendish pointed out in 2010 in an interview with Cycling Weekly, “Most people who say that their maximum is 1,600 watts won’t put out 1,600. My maximum is 1,580, and that is a lot. Not many guys will do more than a hundred more than that. But no one will ever get close to that in a race after 200 kilometres.” 

In other words, the max wattage here is more than enough to support you through your winter of suffering.

The extra excitement around the latest Kickr is that Wahoo has now launched the Kickr Climb accessory. You mount your bike's front wheel on this, and it moves up and down, simulating the inclines of uphill and, to a lesser extent, downhill gradients. Necessary or not – maybe not, in my view – the evolution of the species will go this way no matter what. So why not?

3. Technogym MyCycling

Your third super-high-end option

Max Power: 2,100 Watts
Max slope: not quoted
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 18kg
Dimensions (folded): 570 x 280 x 500 mm
Reasons to buy
+Excellent app+Premium engineering = hardcore workouts
Reasons to avoid
-Even more pricey than Wahoo and Tacx

Technogym offers a lot more than a smart turbo trainer in this pricey package, as the bundle also comes complete with the firm's excellent training app.

Like the Wahoo and Tacx trainers, this is designed to mimic real road riding and features a pinion set that can be hooked up to the bike of your choice, once its rear wheel has been whipped off. An 11-speed cassette is included. 

MyCycling is relatively light at 18kg and has a chic little carry case, so transporting it is easier than its fellow pro-grade trainers.

Inside this gearing system is some precise flywheel technology that offers the same feeling of inertia that you get when out pounding the tarmac. Also, you'll find a series of precision sensors that give readouts on the circularity and symmetry of your pedal stroke, as well as power outputs.

When paired with Technogym's app, the system becomes an extremely powerful training tool, with several 'neuromuscular training' programmes on offer that have been designed to test athlete thresholds and improve pedalling quality.

It's a serious device and that's reflected in the price, but as fantastic as it is, it's still debatable whether it's worth the premium you pay for it compared to the Wahoo and Tacx machines.

4. Wahoo Kickr Snap

Best turbo trainer under £500

Max Power: 1,500 Watts
Max slope: 12%
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 17kg
Dimensions (folded): 740 x 660 mm
Reasons to buy
+Still a very realistic ride+Cheaper than a direct drive
Reasons to avoid
-Even louder than the Kickr-Roller will wear your tyre-Again, no battery option

If you want a reliable smart trainer but don't want to spend upwards of a grand, the Kickr Snap is your best option. It's the little brother of the higher end Kickr, but has everything you need – probably more than most riders need, in fact – to get the legs spinning when it’s cold and dark outside.

The Snap is not a direct drive, but a “wheel on” turbo trainer. You place your bike on the turbo with a quick release skewer included in the box. Wahoo has adaptors for thru axles, but you need to buy these separately.

In terms of size and weight, the Snap is also more convenient for a moveable set up. It does need to be plugged in, since there's no battery, and you need to calibrate it as per the Kickr above. You can use the Snap with Zwift and other third-party apps to make indoor training more compelling.

5. Elite Qubo Power Fluid

Best turbo trainer under £250

Max Power: Not quoted
Max slope: Not quoted
Calibration required: yes
Weight: 9kg
Dimensions (folded): 580 x 460 mm
Reasons to buy
+Very quiet for its category+Resistance set according to rider weight+Great value for money
Reasons to avoid
-Not as realistic as pricier rivals

Taking a very different approach, the Elite Qubo Power Fluid turbo trainer creates resistance on your wheel with the use of a fluid-immersed brake unit that changes according to your speed.

The great thing about this, beside the much more affordable price, is the fact that although you need to tighten the back wheel into the trainer, you don’t need to adjust the rear roller that creates the resistance on your back wheel. Instead, the Elite Qubo uses your own weight to set the right resistance: the turbo front levers are moveable and once you sit on the rear roller they stay where they are, but can move slightly if you put on more or less pressure. This should also result in less stress on your back tyre. 

The Elite Qubo Power Fluid is also one of the quieter trainers in its class, making it a real bargain.

6. CycleOps Tempo H Mag Trainer

Best turbo trainer for around £100

Maximum resistance: Not quoted (5 resistance levels)
Reasons to buy
+Robust and cheap, with a lifetime warranty+Easy setup+No plugs required
Reasons to avoid
-Fairly noisy-Not realistic-More pressure on rear tyre 

Thankfully, there are many different turbo trainers on the market, and they don't all cost 100s or thousands of pounds. You can find very decent ones for £100 or even less. This CycleOps trainer, like most at this price, applies resistance magnetically to a rear, wheel-on mounting system.

It's louder than its more expensive cousins, and liable to put your back tyre under more stress, but still a great deal if you want to train hard for less.

CycleOps magnetically braked option – it also produces fluid and direct drive options – has five different levels of magnetic resistance that you can control with a bar-mounted shifter. Spartan, but it gets it done.