Indoor cycling: A comprehensive guide

Josh Croxton
Indoor cycling

Indoor cycling, as a concept, might seem somewhat counterintuitive. After all, to some, the whole idea of cycling is about transport, freedom, getting into the great outdoors and enjoying the fresh air with friends.

To the uninitiated, indoor cycling strikes a stereotype of solitary confinement, sweat and suffering, but today's take on indoor cycling is far more entertaining than staring at a blank wall. 

In fact, for a growing number of people, indoor cycling is an integral part of life. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting indoor-cycling boom, cyclists were taking to the turbo trainer in a bid to add structured sessions to their training plans or get their racing or group-riding fix. 

Turbo trainers might be considered a reasonably modern introduction to cycling, but early examples displayed at the Národní Technické Muzeum in Prague, in the Czech Republic, date the technology back to the late 1800s. Today's turbo trainers are a far cry from the original, however.

Buying guides

Cheapest Zwift setup

Best turbo trainers

Best smart bikes

Best Zwift setups





Our story, 'The indoor cycling revolution', gives a detailed explanation of how indoor training went from being universally hated to one of the fastest-growing sectors in cycling, but the rise is primarily down to a revolution in the hardware, and the development of software such as TrainerRoad and Zwift.

How to get started

To begin indoor cycling, there are a few must-haves. Of course, in its literal sense, you simply need a turbo trainer and a bike, but we're going to assume you want to take advantage of those aforementioned tech advancements.

Our guide to the cheapest Zwift setup will guide you through the process of everything you actually need for Zwift, and the most affordable ways to get set up. However, here are the prerequisites to beginning indoor cycling, and taking your training online. 

We've also put together a guide to the best Zwift setups, which explains three of the most popular turbo-trainer setups to get onto Zwift. This considers the full setup, rather than just the turbo trainer itself, such as whether it's better to use a smartphone, laptop, or an Apple TV.

Turbo trainers explained

Our guide to the best turbo trainers will help you choose the right option for you, but, put simply, there are two types: 'smart' and 'dumb'.

Smart turbo trainers

Smart turbo trainers have electronics built-in, as well as Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity, meaning that they can connect to your smartphone, tablet or computer. Your smart turbo trainer will monitor your power output and share this data with the app on your device. The app can then send commands in order to increase or decrease the resistance of your trainer, which in turn can replicate climbs, descents, or structured interval sessions. 

It also enables 'ERG mode', whereby your trainer will continually adjust the resistance to ensure you ride at a given power output, no matter your cadence. After all, power = cadence x torque. You can then lose yourself in a Netflix series or relive your childhood on Disney+ and all you need to remember to do is keep the pedals turning. 

Smart turbo trainers are comprised of two forms: 'wheel-on' and 'direct drive'. Wheel-on trainers use a roller pressed against your tyre (like a dumb trainer) and are often cheaper, but they're also generally noisier, and can often feel like you're pedalling through treacle. They can also chew through tyres, although many brands manufacture turbo-trainer-specific tyres, which are made up of a denser compound to combat this.

Direct-drive trainers remove the rear wheel and your chain connects directly to a cassette mounted onto the flywheel. You need to ensure you have the correct cassette and freehub for your bike, but the resulting gains include quieter operation, no tyre-wear, and a considerably improved road-feel. 

Dumb turbo trainers

Dumb trainers are devoid of electronics and come in two forms: fluid or magnetic. Fluid trainers offer a progressive resistance curve, meaning the harder you pedal, the greater the resistance. Magnetic trainers have a remote shifter and a number of resistance steps that peak at anything from 500 to 1,000 watts, which will still far exceed riders' physical capabilities for longer efforts.

Half-smart turbo trainers

Sitting somewhere between the two are what are best described as half-smart trainers. These still have electronics built-in, and they still talk to your device in order to share real-time data, however, but they can't receive commands. Therefore, the app cannot control the resistance of your trainer, so 'erg mode' isn't available.

Rollers

The alternative option is a set of rollers. These don't fix your bike in place, but instead, your bike simply balances on the rollers in the same way it stays upright on the road. This means they require more mental focus to ensure you don't simply ride off the side and need a good amount of practice before you can sprint on them. They're useful for building core stability while riding, and, like turbo trainers, they come in smart and dumb versions.

Smart bikes

At the premium end of the spectrum exists the smart bike, which is often likened to an exercise bike. Our guide to the best smart bikes will help you work out if one of these is right for you, but they are essentially an all-in-one solution, not requiring a separate bike to be mounted to the turbo trainer. They're often quieter, easily adjustable and have extra features such as connected braking, but they're big and heavy so they're not ideal for apartment dwellers where space is at a premium.

Indoor cycling apps

No longer are we forced to stare at a brick wall while we aimlessly pedal fast but go nowhere. Neither are we faced with the tedium of watching our heart rate or power data. Instead, with the advent of smart turbo trainers came the subsequent rise of applications such as TrainerRoad, FulGaz, RGT Cycling, Rouvy and Zwift. 

The available apps vary in what they offer. Some offer a social aspect, while others focus more on performance enhancement. TrainerRoad, for example, is an all-in-one training platform in which you can build your own training plan based on your goals, then follow structured sessions to help you get there – and, more recently, with the help of your friends

Zwift, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive package for indoor cycling. There are virtual 'worlds', in-built workouts, and organised group rides and races, as well as challenges that enable you to unlock faster bikes and new kit. You can meet up with your friends and ride together, or you can ride with pro riders when they're not racing

Our indoor cycling apps guide will explain the differences, and help you choose the right app for your needs.

What do I need?

As a bare minimum, you'll need a turbo trainer with a bike, and you'll need something that can transmit data to your device. 

If you're using a dumb turbo trainer, then a speed sensor will be required in order to connect to your app and transmit your speed. 

This is then used to calculate your power, and while it's often the most affordable option, it's not the most accurate. A power meter will improve this accuracy, but the cost does start to rise quite sharply in this realm. Our guide to the best power meters will help you choose the most suitable for you. 

If your cycling is going to remain purely indoors, you might be better off spending this extra money on a better turbo trainer. However, if you're going to mix your cycling between inside and outside, then a power meter will offer the same accurate data collection when you venture out of the pain cave. 

If you opt for a smart turbo trainer, you won't need a power meter or speed sensor, as they will transmit this data for you.

Which bike is best for Zwift?

Unless you're using a smart bike, you'll need a bike to affix to your turbo trainer. If you're looking for something that will also get used outdoors, choose a bike that suits those needs best. 

Like in the real world, things like bottom bracket stiffness, power transfer and geometry are important. However, aerodynamics and suspension won't make much of a difference when you're sitting still.

If you're looking for a bike purely for use on the turbo trainer, a smart bike might be a better overall solution, but if you do need a bike-plus-turbo setup, then choose something with a more upright geometry for comfort, and something with extra stiffness, so you don't lose any of those watts through the pedals. Drivetrain efficiency is the new aero, so if your budget can stretch to it, perhaps look for CeramicSpeed bearings. 

When it comes to direct-drive turbo trainers, road bikes, gravel bikes and even mountain bikes are viable options, so most of us will have something that can be used. However, if you're looking for something new, we've got you covered with our road bike buyer's guides.

Our guide to the best bikes for indoor cycling makes case for considering a second bike dedicated to your indoor cycling, and help you to choose the right option for you.

Indoor cycling accessories

As with all aspects of cycling, indoor cycling comes with its own selection of optional accessories that promise to enhance and improve the experience. 

In the great outdoors, you don't need specific cycling sunglasses, but they help. Nor do you need the best cycling shoes, but morale watts are real, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

For indoor cycling, such examples extend to the following:

Fan

While a fan is technically a non-essential accessory, after an hour of intervals, you'll be straight onto eBay looking to buy one. Without the cool breeze that comes from moving through the air, your body will fast begin to overheat, and the subsequent downpour of sweat is far from pretty, it's not enjoyable, and your headset won't thank you.

Smart plugs

You could go down the premium route and buying a Wahoo Kickr Headwind as your fan, which syncs with your heart rate (or speed) and adjusts the fan speed accordingly. However, there is a more budget-friendly approach. Multiple fans, all plugged into smart plugs that can be controlled via an app or designated remote, can be turned on/off as needed.

Towel

A fan is a great tool in the bid to prevent overheating, but a towel is necessary to mop up (or catch) any droplets that form during those harder efforts. Some prefer a sweatband, but a towel draped (carefully, of course) over the handlebars will prevent any drops from landing on your expensive bike components and causing accelerated corrosion.

Sweat protector

Like the towel above, a sweat protector is the dedicated solution to the sweat-droplet problem, protecting your bike's top tube, headset and stem from corrosion caused by salty sweat. We prefer a towel as it then provides something with which to dab your brow, but there's no denying that a sweat protector is a more refined solution.

Turbo-trainer tyre

If you're using a wheel-on trainer, your rear wheel's contact with the turbo trainer's roller will chew through your tyres at a pretty alarming and expensive rate. A turbo-trainer tyre is made up of a more dense compound rubber that will not only slow down the tyre wear but also help to reduce the associated noise. 

Using such a tyre outdoors is not recommended – they tend not to be very grippy in the 'real world' – so to save the effort of swapping tyres every time you want to ride outside, it's a good idea to pick up a spare rear wheel for indoor training, mounted with your turbo-trainer tyre. Someone in your local cycling club will no doubt have an old wheel, or you can usually pick up something on eBay quite cheaply.

Indoor cycling shoes

While your outside shoes will probably work fine, a dedicated pair of indoor shoes can help keep your best cycling shoes in race-ready condition. They are generally made to be more breathable, which helps with the overheating element of indoor cycling, and, depending on your preferences, you can opt for something with a less-stiff sole for greater long-ride comfort, or something hyper-stiff for greater Zwift-race power transfer. 

Our guide to the best indoor cycling shoes will guide you through the options and help you decide what's right for you.

Indoor cycling clothing

You probably don't need indoor cycling clothing, but it's certainly better than wearing your old worn out bib shorts from 15 years ago. When cycling indoors, riders will generally move around less in the saddle (due to lower balance requirements, no cornering, etc.) so any saddle discomfort is even more pronounced, leading to a greater need for high-quality bib-short padding. 

We recently explored the benefits of indoor cycling clothing after Rapha launched an indoor range, before Wahoo teamed up with LeCol to launch their own.

Wireless keyboard

If you're running Zwift on a laptop or Apple TV, it's likely to be out of arms reach. A wireless keyboard will save you from having to dismount your bike every time you want to access the menu, change trainer difficulty, or send a message to friends.

Desk

You'll probably need somewhere nearby to place all of that stuff. While the towel can be draped over your handlebars, and you might be running your app on your Apple TV, you'll still probably need somewhere to put your food, as it's unlikely that you'll be wearing a jersey with pockets.

Indoor cycling: why?

The list of reasons why you should try indoor cycling is ever-growing. We can't tell you what motivates you specifically, but here are a few of the biggest arguments in favour of indoor cycling.

Safety

We're all familiar with the driver vs cyclist debate, and how cyclists 'should pay road tax!' and 'use a bike lane!', right? When cycling outdoors, there is a seemingly ever-present danger of close passes, and whether it's malicious or purely due to inattention, the danger is just the same.  

Danger doesn't just come at the hand of others road-users, though. Wet roads, black ice and even just plain inattentiveness on your own part can be causes of your downfall and result in injury, along with expensive damage, which in turn can lead to enforced time off the bike. Racers, in particular, run the ever-real risk of a crash-induced injury that could spell expensive hospital bills, time off work and, well, the pain.

Indoor cycling removes all those dangers. The only car you have to contend with when cycling indoors is the one you park in your garage, the worst crash you'll experience is a sugar-crash from forgetting to eat, and racers can get their competitive fix on Zwift without the risk of a broken clavicle.

Cost and convenience

As mentioned, racers can get their fix without the risk of crashing. A broken collarbone is one thing, but when your carbon race bike is written off because of some hot-headed dive-bomb by a crazy cat 4 racer, it could be something you struggle to financially recover from. 

Indoor racing is a hugely convenient way to get those competitive endorphins flowing. It is generally free of risk, free to enter, there are races almost every hour, none of them requires a race licence, and you don't need to travel hours to get to the start-line. 

When cycling outdoors during the winter months, it can often feel as though you're spending more time getting dressed than actually riding, especially if you're just heading out for an hour-long HIIT session. Indoor cycling needs little more than bib shorts, socks and shoes to get going, and then, when you're finished, you don't need to give your bike a bath to get it rideable again. 

If you're looking to take on the Zwift peloton in a race, we've got you covered. Our guide on how to train to win a Zwift race will provide training tips, whereas, for setup advice and top tips, you'll want to know how to race on Zwift

Zwift eRacing nutrition tips: How to fuel for a bike race

Training structure

If you're training for an event, the structure that a turbo trainer provides can be invaluable. When indoors, especially when using ERG mode, every pedal stroke can be spent at the desired wattage for your chosen session. When training outside, on the other hand, as much as 30-to-40 per cent of the session can be spent producing little if any power at all, due to negative gradients, traffic lights and other road furniture.

Training doesn't limit itself to improving your physical fitness, however. It is a highly controlled environment that can be used to test equipment and strategy. If you have a goal event that you're training for, you can effectively use indoor cycling time to practise your fuelling and hydration strategies ahead of your all-important race. Our guide to cycling nutrition will explain everything you need to know.