For years, indoor riding had a reputation as a boring, mind-numbing, and soul-sucking experience. Then the smart trainer revolution happened.
Compared to the “dumb” trainers of yesteryear, smart trainers are a huge leap forward. They connect you to trainer-based riding apps that are engaging and have their own online communities. All you need is your bike, a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and the right trainer.
Virtual riding has turned me from an indoor riding skeptic to a hardcore user. Smart trainers help me balance training and fitness goals with work and family life. In recent weeks of social distancing and isolation, trainer rides have been my only reliable escape.
Each trainer has advantages and disadvantages and each provides a slightly different ride experience. I’ve put in extensive time on popular apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad, and Sufferfest. Let’s find out how they compare. If you decide that one is right for you, you're in luck because The Pro’s Closet now carries a couple of these trainers.
The Kinetic Road Machine and Saris M2 are wheel-on trainers, while the Saris H3 is a direct-drive (a.k.a. wheel-off) trainer. As the name implies, with wheel-on trainers, you keep the rear wheel on your bike. The wheel drives a roller that provides resistance. To mount a bike, simply replace your skewer with the supplied one (if your bike uses a thru-axle you need to purchase a compatible axle separately).
Direct-drive trainers require you to remove the rear wheel to mount it to the trainer. Your bike’s chain and rear derailleur drive a cassette connected to the trainer's flywheel. You use the existing skewer or thru-axle on your bike, but most direct-drive units require a second cassette or the cassette from your wheel.
Wheel-on trainers are more affordable and a good option first-time indoor riders or those who infrequently ride indoors. Because the trainer is driven by the rear wheel, the rear tire wears faster. Many riders use old/cheap tires or a trainer-specific tire to avoid wearing out nice tires. If you’re using a bike with knobby tread, like a mountain or gravel bike, it will still work, but you will experience more noise, vibration, and tire slip. Riders with knobby tires often temporarily swap to a slick rear tire for trainer use. Wheel-on trainers are also much louder than direct-drive trainers.
Direct-drive trainers are more expensive than wheel-on trainers but tend to be more advanced. The biggest advantages of direct-drive are quieter operation, finer control of resistance, and better “road feel.” Of course, riding a bike on a stationary trainer won’t feel exactly like riding outdoors. But many trainer manufacturers try to get it as close as possible. Direct-drive trainers can use a much larger and heavier flywheel to mimic the real-world feelings of pedaling and momentum. They are the top choice of professionals and hardcore indoor riders.
- Fluid resistance
- Affordable, sturdy, and reliable
- No controllable resistance
Bottom line: A simple, reliable, and great-feeling entry-level smart trainer.
The Kurt Kinetic Road Machine is a classic. In the time before smart trainers, it was the benchmark. This was because of the Road Machine's great fluid resistance unit. Compared to other resistance methods (e.g. magnetic or wind resistance), a fluid resistance unit provides a smoother and more realistic road feel. Fluid resistance means that the resistance increases naturally as you pedal faster or shift into a harder gear, mimicking how a real road feels. In my experience, it’s also a bit quieter than a magnetic resistance unit.
With the Road Machine Smart 2, Kurt Kinetic took the great feel of the original Road Machine and updated it using its inRide 3 Power Sensor. It’s a speed sensor with Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ connectivity attached to the back of the trainer which detects a small magnet installed in the roller. If you have an older non-smart Road Machine, you can upgrade it with the inRide 3 sensor for $50 and have essentially the exact same trainer.
With fluid trainers, a specific speed at the roller corresponds to a specific power level. The sensor converts speed into power using a known power curve. It's not perfect, but compared to a power meter on my bike it is decent. In my experience, it reads a touch high. Keep in mind that the power curve can be affected by how tight you’ve attached the wheel against the roller. If you’ve over-tightened it, it won’t account for the extra resistance and you’ll actually be working harder than the math assumes.
Otherwise, the Road Machine is simple to set-up and the whole unit is sturdy and well-built. Once it’s set-up, it’s easy to connect to most trainer apps with Bluetooth Smart or ANT+. It took a few tries to get Bluetooth to work with my phone, but I had no other issues with the connectivity.
The Road Machine is the trainer of choice for our creative director, Dan. He's a casual indoor rider and it suits his needs well.
The Road Machine Smart 2 senses your power data for virtual worlds like Zwift and app-based workouts. The major downside is that it is not a controllable trainer. This means whatever app you’re using can only receive data. It can’t send any back to tell your trainer what to do. For instance, on Zwift, it won’t automatically increase or decrease resistance when you’re climbing or descending. For some people, this won’t matter. For others, it could spoil the virtual experience or be distracting.
Also, if you’re doing workouts, you won’t be able to use ERG mode, which automatically increases or decreases resistance so you can stay in the same gear to hit power targets. You have to manually change resistance by either shifting or pedaling harder.
Overall, The Road Machine Smart 2 is an inexpensive and easy way to get into indoor training. It works with every major trainer app and gives you the classic feel of fluid resistance. Those looking for a slightly more sophisticated, controllable trainer will need to spend more on trainers like the Kinetic Road Machine Control or the Saris M2. These trainers automatically adjust resistance. To do so they use magnetic resistance instead of fluid resistance, which changes the road feel.
- Easy and consistent set-up
- Affordable for a controllable trainer
- Made in the USA
- ERG mode needs high wheel speed to feel smooth
- Had a few rare data drop-outs
Bottom line: A great mid-range option to get into virtual riding with controllable resistance.
When I wanted to make the step up to a controllable trainer, I considered two options: the Kinetic Road Machine Control and the Saris M2. I chose the Saris due to availability (the Kinetic wasn’t in stock at the time), but the two units are very similar. I’ve been very pleased with the M2, and it’s also very cool that Saris products are American-made in Madison, Wisconsin.
The M2 resistance unit handles up to 1,500 watts and can simulate up to a 15 percent gradient. When using the trainer with virtual riding apps like Zwift, it adjusts the resistance to match the gradient of the terrain and simulated drafting. This provides an enjoyable level of immersion that can keep you engaged and motivated, even if you’re just pedaling aimlessly through a virtual map.
When doing workouts, you can utilize ERG mode. The trainer automatically adjusts the resistance to force you to hit power targets. It doesn’t matter what gear or cadence you are using. You can spend less energy worrying about shifting and the trainer makes sure you’re doing the work.
The biggest downside I’ve noticed with ERG mode on the M2 is that the resistance can ramp up a lot depending on wheel speed. This is true of many wheel-on controllable trainers. If your wheel is moving too slow, it dials up the resistance so much it can feel ridiculous. This is mainly an issue with mountain and gravel bikes with smaller chainrings. They don’t have a hard enough gear to maintain the same wheel speed as road bikes. During hard interval workouts, I would sometimes end up in a situation where the resistance had increased so much that I was too weak or tired to continue turning the pedals. To keep resistance smooth and gradual, it helps to use the hardest gear your bike has. Or you can just get stronger than me.
My riding partner, Steve, uses the CycleOps Magnus (the predecessor to the Saris M2 before it was renamed) to race with me on Zwift. He's getting really fast and it's making me nervous.
My favorite thing about the M2 is how easy it is to mount your bike. The rods holding the axle are spring-loaded. You push the lever like a bolt action rifle, and it clamps down on your bike firmly with one movement. The tension knob for the roller has a clutch that clicks to prevent you from over-tightening. This allows you to achieve the same roller tension every time you mount your bike.
The M2 easily connected to every trainer app I use. Over the 18 months I used the trainer, I did experience a few brief power dropouts, but they were rare. Ultimately, they seemed like anomalies, and I couldn’t reproduce them regularly. My one slight nit-pick is noise. I needed subtitles turned on to watch TV while riding. My downstairs neighbors couldn’t hear it through the floor, but it's pretty loud in the room. It’s about as loud as my fan turned all the way up.
If you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive controllable trainer for virtual riding, the M2 will satisfy all your needs. If you’re serious about spending a lot of time riding in the virtual world or doing structured training, a more refined direct-drive trainer like the Saris H3 or the Wahoo Kickr can enhance your experience. It will, however, be much more expensive.
- Fast and responsive resistance control in ERG mode
- Excellent road feel
- Extremely quiet
- Made in the USA
- Higher price (compared to wheel on trainers)
- Slightly more involved than wheel-on trainer set up
Bottom line: A top-of-the-line direct-drive smart trainer for those serious about training or virtual riding.
Last winter, I realized that dedicated indoor riding was going to be my reality for several months. I decided it was finally time to upgrade to a direct-drive trainer. I was tired of wearing out rear tires on my wheel-on trainer and was interested in trying out more refined resistance control and road feel. I looked at two of the most popular options, the Wahoo Kickr and the Saris H3. I choose the Saris because it’s slightly cheaper ($999.99 vs. $1,199.99), it’s made in the USA, and I already had a great experience using the Saris M2.
The first thing I noticed taking it out of the box is that this trainer is big and heavy. At over 50 pounds, it is harder to move and store than either of my previous foldable wheel-on trainers. Fortunately, the legs fold away if you need and it has a burly carrying handle. Once it’s set up, I won’t have to move it unless someone stays in my guest room. A lot of the weight is due to the massive 20-pound flywheel, which is the heaviest on the market. This heavy flywheel is key to the H3’s impressive road feel. Getting on the power, especially after coasting, feels very smooth and natural, much like riding outdoors. It’s built to handle 2,000 watts and replicate a 20% climbing grade.
I had to purchase a second cassette to use on the trainer. I have the tools to install the cassette (a lockring tool and chain whip) but if you don’t, you’ll have to purchase those as well. It comes with multiple end caps to work with most axle configurations. I like how these end caps screw into the trainer. I’ve lost a few Wahoo Kickr end caps by knocking them off with my bike.
The Saris H3 now has a permanent home in my guest room/trainer dungeon.
The H3 is extremely quiet. Without a fan on, I don’t have to touch the volume on the TV. My fans are way louder than the trainer, which is great when you have a sleeping baby in the next room. It is not affected by wheel speed like a wheel-on trainer, so I can run my chain in the straightest position to further reduce noise and improve chain and chainring wear.
The H3's ERG mode is its most impressive feature. While doing TrainerRoad workouts, I noticed that when an interval starts, the resistance adjusts within a second. I don’t change my pedaling, or really even think. It instantly puts me right where I need to be to hit my power target. With the controllable M2, for short and spiky changes in power, I had to put in a slight kick before intervals to make sure the power ramped up fast enough. The H3 is fast enough that it could handle a workout with abrupt 30-second intervals with barely any lag. With my old wheel-on trainer, I avoided ERG mode for short intervals like this because the lag made me miss my power targets. Now I'm more motivated than ever to do TrainerRoad workouts.
The H3 works very well for virtual riding too. When riding around on Zwift, the feel is excellent — much better than any wheel-on trainer I've used.
There has been one slight annoyance: My rear derailleur barrel adjuster needs a few clicks to shift smoothly on the trainer's cassette versus my wheel. It is not a big deal, but I have to re-adjust it every time I take the bike off to ride outdoors. Depending on your drivetrain and wheel, you may or may not experience this. Overall, this trainer is so good, and it is likely the last trainer I will buy.
So which trainer is for you? If budget is your biggest consideration, look at the Road Machine. It's not the absolute cheapest trainer on the market. But for the price, it’s probably the best feeling wheel-on trainer you can get. The connectivity of the inRide 3 sensor is a great bonus.
The Saris M2 is only $130 more than the Kinetic Road Machine, but looking at the numbers, $500 does feel much harder to swallow than $370. If you’ve never enjoyed indoor riding before, virtual riding on a controllable trainer might change your mind. The M2 is likely the most budget-friendly option to enter this world.
At $1,000, the H3 is a level above the Road Machine and the M2. Whether it’s worth twice as much as the M2 depends on how much you use it and how intense your training needs are. With my current situation, the majority of my riding is done indoors. I’m also still training with big target races in mind, so getting an effective workout is my top priority. Because of those factors, the H3 is my primary trainer, and it was worth the money.
Ask yourself how much you plan to ride indoors. If you’re on the fence, a mid-range trainer like the Saris M2 (or the Kinetic Road Machine Control) is a great option to test the waters and learn the ropes. If you have big long term goals or plan to use ERG mode a lot for structured workouts, a direct-drive trainer like the H3 will make a huge difference in how enjoyable and effective your workouts will be.
Do you ride indoors? What your trainer app or trainer of choice? Let us know in the comments!