It’s that time of year when cold weather and short days drive cyclists indoors to suffer in their trainer “dungeons.” Fortunately, we’ve entered the age of smartphones, smart trainers, and virtual riding. Riding an indoor trainer is no longer a miserable chore.
My pain cave is set up to keep me sane all winter.
10 years ago, I used a simple fluid "dumb" trainer and box fan. Now, my trainer dungeon is light years better with a smart trainer, a trainer desk, monitors for Zwift and TrainerRoad, a "blower" fan, and a fancy Saris MP1 platform.
I decided to improve my home setup a few years ago with some suggestions from Matt Gardiner and a few other riders from the Saris | NoPinz eracing team (yes, Zwift racing teams are a thing!). If you’re interested in putting together the perfect trainer dungeon for yourself, check out the gear the most dedicated indoor riders use to make their trainer dungeons feel more like trainer paradises.
The 5 Indoor Cycling Essentials
Matt Gardiner's Zwift racing setup.
I asked Zwift racer and Saris | NoPinz team founder, Matt Gardiner, what the top five essential items are for building a trainer dungeon that you'll actually want to spend time in. Here's the foundation for any good trainer dungeon:
- Direct drive smart trainer
- Powerful blower fan
- Sweat-proof mat(s)
- (a lot of) Towels
- Trainer desk (or equivalent)
1. A Direct-Drive Smart Trainer
The Tacx NEO 2T is one of the most advanced direct-drive smart trainers available.
This should be obvious, but you're going to need a trainer. To take advantage of popular virtual riding platforms like Zwift, TrainerRoad, Rouvy, Bkool, and Sufferfest, you’ll specifically need a smart trainer that can measure power, automatically adjust resistance, and connect to your computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Having spent years trying (and failing) to make riding a traditional "dumb" trainer feel enjoyable, smart trainers that connect to riding apps are on a totally different level. While no indoor trainer can truly replicate the feeling of riding outside, smart trainers do a much better job of keeping you mentally engaged, which makes the miles tick by faster and encourages you to get on the trainer again in the future.
There are many smart trainers on the market, but if you plan to spend a decent amount of time riding your trainer, a direct-drive trainer is the gold standard. These are call "direct-drive" because the trainer replaces your rear wheel so your bike drives a cassette (you'll either need a second cassette or swap your cassette from your rear wheel) mounted on the trainer.
Racers and riders who spend a lot of time riding indoors tend to prefer direct-drive trainers because they are quieter, more accurate, more responsive, have a better “road feel." Because you remove the rear wheel and drive a cassette mounted to the trainer, resistance and power data aren’t affected by things like tire pressure, drum tension, or tire slip. This means they can also handle more power and simulate steeper climbing grades.
Currently, the top, benchmark examples of direct-drive smart trainers are the Tacx Neo and Wahoo Kickr/Kickr Move. As you can probably tell, the main downside to direct-drive trainers like this is cost.
Both Tacx and Wahoo also have more budget-oriented direct-drive alternatives in the form of the Tacx Flux (see our Tacx guide to learn more) and Wahoo Kickr Core.
Another new and friendly direct-drive option is the new Zwift Hub which currently retails for $599. It has the potential to further reduce costs/complication by using an included Zwift Cog and "virtual shifting" with Zwift Click, so riders don't need to purchase a second cassette or swap their cassette from their rear wheel. The major downside to Zwift Click is that it's ONLY compatible with Zwift, so you won't be able to use virtual shifting on any competing virtual riding platforms and will need a cassette (or you can just do workouts in ERG mode).
If direct-drive trainers are just too pricey, wheel-on smart trainer options are more budget-friendly and can still measure power and adjust resistance. Platforms like Zwift also allow virtual riding with classic "dumb" trainers with a virtual power curve (read how it works here).
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2. High-Power Blower Fan(s)
You need “wind” on the trainer to help sweat evaporate and keep you cool. Even if you’re riding in a freezing cold basement or garage, your body heat will rapidly rise without adequate airflow. Getting hot and sweaty is unpleasant and can sap your energy and joy, so having a powerful fan is essential for comfort and performance.
A high-end trainer fan like the Wahoo Kickr Headwind moves a ton of air (it provides air speeds of over 30 mph) to keep you cool, while staying relatively quiet. It also has the option to be "sensor controlled," so as your speed or heart rate increases, the fan speed automatically increases too, keeping your body temp in the ideal range.
Really, you don’t need anything fancy, but standard home fans generally aren’t powerful enough for serious use. The fan that Matt Gardiner recommended to me is the Lasko high velocity blower utility fan. If you listen to the TrainerRoad Podcast, you may have heard them recommend this fan too (and they definitely know a few things about riding indoors).
Lasko High Velocity Blower Fan - 94.99
Blower fans like this often serve industrial needs like drying carpet after water damage. This fan isn’t too expensive, packs a lot of power in a small package, stay pretty quiet, and directs airflow precisely where you need it. For my purposes, one is enough, but there’s nothing wrong with adding more fans for even more airflow.
3. A Lot of Towels
Even with a powerful fan, large amounts of sweat are unavoidable during indoor riding. That’s why you still need towels. Get a few soft, absorbent, small to medium-sized towels and keep them on your frame, handlebars, and/or trainer desk.
Keeping a towel on you frame/bars can keep sweat from migrating into and damaging your headset bearings, frame, and other components. It also puts them within easy reach to wipe away the sweat and other gross stuff (I can’t blow snot rockets indoors!) that will inevitably cover your bike and body.
4. Trainer Mat
Towels will keep sweat off your bike and face, but you will also need a trainer mat to keep sweat off your floor. Trainer mats are waterproof, and they also dampen vibration and noise and keep your trainer from moving around on slippery surfaces.
Towels usually aren’t a good alternative to trainer mats because they will retain moisture, leading to floor damage or unpleasant smells. Cycling-specific trainer mats are pretty affordable, but if you want, yoga mats and exercise/garage floor mats are also a good option.
5. Some Sort of Trainer Desk
If you want to use a virtual riding platform like Zwift or TrainerRoad, it’s a good idea to have some sort of desk to hold your computer, tablet, or smartphone in front of you while you ride. Even if you don't want to stare at a screen, it's nice to have a platform to keep small items or your nutrition and hydration (I usually don't wear a jersey indoors for cooling, so I don't have pockets) within easy reach. Since we're riding inside, it's nice to get things off you body and bike.
Trainer desks are specifically designed with indoor riding in mind. The legs are spaced to clear the front wheel of your bike and the legs are tilted so you can pull the desk portion closer to your handlebars where it’s easier to reach. This way you can grab items or interact with the virtual riding software without having to constantly get on and off your bike.
If a cycling-specific trainer desk is too pricey, many riders build their own or use low-cost alternatives like music stands. I used a cheap music stand for years and it worked fine, but I did have to position it awkwardly to one side to be able to reach my computer or phone during workouts. Now that I have a true trainer desk is next, I'm much happier.
Other Super Nice Trainer Gear to Have
Beyond the five essential pieces of indoor training gear listed above, there are a few other accessories that dedicated indoor riders like to use to improve the indoor cycling experience.
Saris | NoPinz Zwift racers Caroline Murray, Matt Curbeau (the former Zwift USA National Champion!), Ryan Larson, and Anna Russell show off some of their favorite trainer dungeon additions.
Wheel Riser Block
Riser blocks go under the front wheel to elevate the front of the bike. This can improve comfort for riders who have too much weight on their hands or soft tissue in a stationary riding position. Some riders also like high riser blocks to mimic their riding position during climbs. Basic plastic wheel risers are affordable and securely cradle the front wheel. If the height isn’t quite right you can raise it up with hardcover books or wood blocks.
If you want to go crazy and get the ultimate experience, the Wahoo Kickr Climb actually moves the front of your bike up or down to simulate the gradients in virtual worlds like Zwift.
Listening to your favorite music during exercise can amp you up and reduce your perceived exertion during long intervals or races. Watching movies, TV, or bike races during your training sessions can help long sessions on the trainer go by faster.
The problem is, despite how quiet modern trainers are, they still make noise. Add a powerful fan to your set-up, and things can get even noisier. I always use my AirPods to be able to hear to my music, television, or just the environmental sounds in Zwift. Without them, time moves way too slow on the trainer.
If your trainer is set-up in a small or enclosed room, things are going to get muggy. Some riders use dehumidifiers along with their fans to get every performance gain possible. It’s worth considering if performance is your priority, or if you just want to improve the climate in your training dungeon or prevent mold from growing.
Trainer Platform / Rocker Plate
Many riders complain that a stationary bike leads to discomfort or boredom. Resourceful riders started building homemade “rocker plates” that increase realism and comfort by allowing the bike and trainer to rock from side-to-side while pedaling.
A few companies now make rocker plates for purchase, but if you want the ultimate tool for the job, I think it's the Saris MP1 Nfinity trainer platform. This platform has the normal side-to-side movement found on other rocker plates but it adds fore-aft movement for the most realistic virtual riding experience possible.
Many riders like to train and race with the platform as it allows them to do longer sessions and stay more engaged. Matt Gardiner told me a rocker platform can improve his power output by up to 20 watts. Some riders struggle to make power on the trainer and, if you’re one of them, a good platform could help you unlock it. Personally, I found adding a platform made it easier to complete 2+ hour trainer rides and it made me more willing to use my trainer consistently because the experience was more comfortable.
If you have a Tacx Neo or an older Wahoo Kickr, there are also more affordable trainer-specific options that can add a bit of movement. The Tacx Neo Motion Plates are actually one of my favorite new trainer gadgets. They mostly provide fore-aft movement, just like the Saris MP1, which is the key to improving comfort for long trainer sessions.
Wahoo has also recently updated the Kickr trainer line-up with the Kickr Move, which also adds a built-in fore-aft movement to the trainer. I've not tested this new trainer yet, but it looks very promising.
A Large Screen
You could just use you laptop, tablet, or smart phone, but it's so much nicer to use a TV or large monitor connected to a computer. It’s not necessary, but projecting your avatar onto a larger screen can make Zwift or other virtual platforms more immersive and fun. If you have bad eyes like me, staring at a tiny screen can lead to eye fatigue. Plus, if you have more than one screen, it opens up possibilities like watching TV while simultaneously training on Zwift. This is how I binge watch my favorite TV shows without feeling guilty.
This one can cost you nothing but have a very positive effect on your performance. Decorate your training dungeon with anything that will encourage you to get on your bike. This can be old race numbers, photos of loved ones, bright LED lights, and motivational mantras. Having your area feel bright and futuristic or warm and cozy can make it easier to get on the bike. Just because they call it a trainer dungeon, doesn’t mean it has to look like a dungeon. Of course, if a dungeon-like atmosphere suits you, go for it.
What did we miss? What are the essential elements in your trainer dungeon? Let us know in the comments!