Amid winter days and cold weather, we often feel forced to ride inside to preserve our fitness and our sanity.
But choosing between bike rollers and an indoor bike trainer can be tricky because each has unique strengths and weaknesses. Choosing the right one will depend on several factors, and this guide will help you make the right decision to meet your needs. Below, we outline six key factors you should consider before making your choice.
With its broad footprint and fixed attachment to your bike frame, riding a stationary trainer is easier than actually riding a bike outside. The hardest thing about a trainer is installing your bike on it. Plus, bikes today have evolved to include a number of rear axle widths and attachment styles, which means not all bikes will fit every trainer.
Rollers are more simple to set up, though the spacing of the roller drums has to be set initially for your bike’s wheelbase (and possibly changed if you use more than one bike). That said, they require more skill to ride. At first, you’ll have to concentrate on keeping the front wheel straight. Set them up in a doorway so you can use it for balance as you get the hang of the rollers and, if you’re riding on carpet, lay down an old blanket or towel to prevent tires from damaging your floors if you should happen to slip off one side (yes, cycling rug burn is a thing).
On average, rollers are more affordable than indoor trainers. Generally, they’re about the price of a good, but pretty bare-bones trainer. That’s partly because basic technology of rollers hasn’t changed much in decades.
However, that also means there are fewer options. Resistance is supplied by the size of the drums themselves (larger drums=less resistance); some rollers have added, adjustable, magnetic- or fan-based resistance that can increase the cost. One of the pricier rollers we know of are Inside Ride’s E-Motion Rollers: With the optional ANT+/Bluetooth resistance controller, they’re close to the same price as many high-end trainers. But those are certainly one of the most expensive models; most rollers come in the $300 to $500 range.
Trainers used to be cheaper, and there are still affordable basic models, like the Kinetic Road Machine Smart 2. But the advent of online-based training and social platforms like Zwift has led to a new class of trainers with a much larger feature set that start at the price of a good set of rollers and go up from there. That said, you get more than just connectivity when you spend more; you also benefit from advances in resistance technology that helps create a better ride experience. Overall, the trainer universe is far broader than rollers; there’s a trainer for every conceivable budget, and a vast array of options and features.
3. Ride Feel
Winner: Rollers—For Now
To use a trainer, you have to secure your bike to it, which means your bike doesn’t move underneath you like it would outside. That’s an unnatural feeling that takes time to get used to. Plus, the resistance itself feels subtly different than the way wind resistance works against us on the road. Advanced trainers are continuously getting closer to a better road feel, and some trainers like the Kinetic Rock and Roll Smart Trainer can also pivot side-to-side for a more natural sensation in out-of-the-saddle efforts. Add in the distractions of virtual training apps like Zwift and, well, trainers are getting pretty close now to a realistic ride feel.
With rollers, on the other hand, the bike can move underneath you more naturally because it’s not fixed to anything. The downside is that it’s the rare talent who can stand up on conventional rollers without losing control—that’s right: conventional. On the E-Motion rollers, by contrast, the entire roller apparatus is set on a gliding frame that can move fore and aft. So you can stand up and even sprint and the bike will move underneath you naturally.
4. Storage and Transport
Rollers are typically lighter than trainers (30 pounds is a rough average), and foldable models like those from Elite and SportCrafters can pack up to slightly less than three feet long. Other rollers use an innovative tri-fold system and pack up even tighter. You can easily slide them under a bed or stand them up vertically in a closet, which makes them great for apartments or any living arrangement where space is limited.
Trainers draw their stability in part from heft, and at about 40 to 50 pounds each, they’re a little less fun to lug around. Many do have folding tripod-stance legs, but not all. These are best for home use where you can set them up and leave them in one spot, creating your own indoor cycling studio.
Rollers used to be the winner here: Their simple design and construction lasts for years. Aside from occasional belt replacements, you could barely wear the things out in a lifetime.
All of that is largely still true, but what’s changed is the level of trainer durability. Their resistance units are now much more, well…resistant to heat-based failure, which was the most common problem with older units. The reliability issues that are replacing that now are largely electronic in origin. But we don’t hear a ton about hardware failures, and with the rise of wireless communication, the chances of damaging a connection cord or port by snagging a foot or pedal have lessened dramatically.
6. Performance Attributes
If you’re still undecided, the choice comes down to what each indoor training tool is best at.
Rollers are great for working on your cycling form and developing a smooth, powerful, and consistent pedal stroke. If you pedal squares, or jerky, inconsistent strokes, you’ll bounce on rollers like a rubber ball—creating a natural feedback mechanism that helps you subconsciously pedal more smoothly.
You can also use them for workouts structured around cadence drills: high-power, low-RPM intervals, or trying to raise your cadence with high-RPM “speedwork,” for example. But because a certain amount of effort goes into staying on the relatively narrow drums, rollers generally aren’t the best for very high-intensity efforts (the E-Motion rollers being an exception).
Trainers are best for the kind of highly-structured workouts many riders do during the offseason. Riding inside is often about getting the most return on the minute. That means shorter workouts that are tightly tailored to specific interval structures. The adjustable, computer-controlled resistance of good “smart” trainers today is perfect for those efforts, and since you’re locked onto a stable, heavy base, you can focus exclusively on maintaining that interval rather than staying upright.
In an ideal world, you could have both. Scratch that: In an ideal world, you’d always have time to ride outside and the weather would always be beautiful. But many of us face restrictions we have to work around by riding inside, so you’re better off investing in the right tool for that job.
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