A friend asked me on Facebook:
What turbo trainer do you use Phil? I am looking to invest in one
While answering the explicit question is easy (I use a CycleOps Fluid2) his use of “invest” made me start to question whether the return you get from a turbo trainer is worth the cost.
These are the things you likely need to buy to make use of a turbo trainer:
|Crappy rear wheel||£20|
|Cassette, inner tube||£40|
You can try and do without the spare wheel and even the trainer tyre but it’s a false economy. Regular tyres don’t survive very long on the turbo trainer: they will rapidly overheat, melt, and wear out on a turbo trainer. Relatedly, never try to ride on a trainer tyre as it’ll be you that won’t survive very long. Without a specific wheel you will spend more time changing tyres than training, and the hassle will prevent you from using the turbo trainer. Happily the spare wheel can be fairly terrible: it doesn’t need to be stiff because the turbo trainer clamp makes stiffness irrelevant, and it doesn’t need a braking surface because you don’t need to slow it down.
Don’t skimp on the cassette for the trainer wheel; as with any cassette it will wear the chain if it’s worn and again it’s a false economy to use a cheap cassette; you’ll spend more on chains than you save on cassettes. You’re likely to only use one or two sprockets on the cassette, so keep an eye on it. Of course once you know what that one sprocket is you can use a single rear sprocket instead of a cassette; I am considering getting a conversion kit for that purpose the next time I order some other gear from wiggle.
Other things you need
This is not everything you need: you must have a flat area large enough for your bike and the trainer. That area has to be very well ventilated, near a power socket & not exposed to the weather (so you can use the fan), and it must not inconvenience or endanger anyone else in your household when you are using the turbo trainer (pet + spinning rear wheel = vet; child + spinning rear wheel = A&E; etc). This basically means you need to have a garage with power sockets and a level floor.
Using the trainer
Like most I originally thought that I would only use the trainer to ride inside when the weather outside was poor. It turns out this is not how I actually use the trainer at all: it is qualitatively very different from normal riding and has a very different effect on your fitness. The reason is that on a regular ride you are only pedalling about half of the time, whereas on the trainer you have to pedal continuously. You might think this makes a turbo ride roughly equivalent to a normal ride of twice the distance; in my experience, subjectively, a turbo ride is roughly as draining as a normal ride of three to four times the distance.
Another way of looking at it is that your endurance on the turbo trainer is a good guide to how long you can continuously pedal while out on a ride. If you are knackered after 10 minutes on the turbo trainer you won’t get up any hill that takes you more than 10 minutes to climb. Part of my preparation for the Isle of Wight Randonnée this year was a 75 minute continuous session on the trainer: that gave me confidence that I was not going to pop on the south side’s long uphill drags, which are maybe 20 minutes each.
Using the turbo trainer will make you fitter. So will cycling around outside. But the same time spent on the turbo trainer has a bigger effect, and you can use the trainer when the weather means you don’t want to be outside. It also lets you push yourself to the limit of your endurance and by doing so extend that limit. You can’t really do that on a road ride because the consequences of becoming completely exhausted at a great distance from home are terrible.
And of course time on the turbo trainer is not exclusively usable for cycling: for example you can watch BBC iPlayer or Sky Go on your iPad at the same time. It’s best to pick something which allows you to keep your normal riding position as it will make your training more road-relevant.
Is it worth the investment?
If you have £350 and want to improve your cycling, can you do any better? Perhaps. If you haven’t had it done for a while, or at all, then having your bike properly set up to fit you will pay immediate dividends and cost a lot less, probably only £50 unless you need a new stem or bars. If you’re using flat or toe-clip pedals then a set of SpeedPlay Zero pedals, cleats, and compatible shoes will do you more good than a trainer at a cost of roughly £125. Other pedal systems are available, but they aren’t as good (in my opinion).
Assuming your bike fits well and you’re on clipless pedals already the next most beneficial thing you could likely get for around £350 is a new set of wheels. A Campagnolo Zonda wheelset and a pair of Continental GP 4 Seasons tyres will cost about that and are a huge upgrade for any reasonably priced road bike. But is a wheel upgrade better than a turbo trainer? I think not: I think that the fitness I gained from the turbo trainer make me faster on basic wheels than if I had not gained that fitness and used fancy wheels. But this is just a hunch; it’s a very difficult experiment to conduct.