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The Sportive Cyclist’s Guide To Turbo Trainers

The Sportive Cyclist’s Guide To Turbo Trainers post image

I’m sorry to be the one that has to break this to you, but winter is approaching.

The opportunities for riding outside start to dwindle. Work day evenings become dark and cold. Day time riders will gamble with rain, wind and, before too long, dangerous icy roads.

But fear not. Help is at hand.

An implement of torture for some, a beacon of hope for others, it’s time to bring out (or otherwise lay your hands on) the trusty turbo trainer.

And thus, herewith, my ‘Beginners Guide’ to this most noble of training partners for the time-starved indoor cyclist.

What Is A Turbo Trainer?

Elite Crono Fluid Elastogel small

My turbo: the Elite Crono Fluid Elastogel (easy for you to say)

A turbo trainer is a bit of kit that sits on the floor, attaches to your rear wheel and offers up resistance for you to pedal against. Thus, you stay still as your rear wheel spins, rather than moving forward.

Different turbos work in slightly different ways, but generally speaking you’ll have some sort of frame that holds the bike in place (so it doesn’t fall over) and a roller for your rear wheel to rest on (though some models do away with your rear wheel and have you attach your chain to a cassette integrated within the turbo).

Resistance is generated either by using magnets or oil to slow down the gubbins within the turbo as you attempt to rotate the roller.

How Does A Turbo Differ From Rollers?

Well, rollers are a slightly different (indoor training) beast.

You don’t attach your bike to rollers. Instead you ride, and balance, as normal, trying not to fall off. As you ride, the three rolling pins beneath your wheels rotate so that you don’t move forward and ride into your kitchen wall.

Most rollers don’t have significant, or adjustable, resistance. They’re used more for spinning out the legs than as a hardcore interval session.

How Do I Attach My Bike To The Turbo?

For turbos that require you to use a rear wheel (i.e. most of the reasonably-priced ones), you’ll generally need to replace the quick release skewer that holds your rear wheel to the bike frame with one supplied by the turbo maker.

The new skewer will have more substantial bolts (nipples?) on each side of the wheel around which the arms of the turbo will tighten, holding your bike in place.

What Equipment Do I Need, Other Than The Turbo?

Not a great deal (provided you’ve got most of the usual outdoor cycling gear: cycling shorts, shoes… and a bike).

CycleOps Riser Block smallTurbos tend to raise your rear wheel off the ground. You can buy a front wheel support that levels the bike up. I own a CycleOps Riser Block, which has grooves at three different heights, allowing you to raise up the front end of your bike if you want (i.e. to simulate a climbing position).

In a similar vein, there are mats you can buy to put under the bike and turbo to protect your floor from oil flecks from the chain and sweat flecks from the forehead (and elsewhere).

Sweat can cause damage to your bike (because it is salty) – you can buy a cover that you suspend between your handlebars and the seat post, which its manufacturer has wisely named as a ‘Bike Thong’.

Whilst we’re on the subject of sweating, you might want to buy an electric fan.

On the road, the cooling effect of cycling through air reduces need for your body to sweat as much. This effect doesn’t happen inside. Positioning an electric fan in front of you during a session should reduce the sweatfest somewhat (which is better for everyone).

You might want to buy and fit a turbo-specific tyre to your rear wheel. Some turbos can cause a lot of wear to the tyre on the moving wheel. A more durable turbo tyre reduces the risk of you getting a blow out or simply wearing out your expensive road tyres.

That said, I’ve been using a standard rear wheel tyre on my turbo for over a year without noticing either flecks of rubber on the floor or particular wear on my tyre. My tyre is a reasonable durable one (a Specialized All Conditions Armadillo, to be precise) and my turbo is the Elite Chrono Fluid Elastogel (which I’ve reviewed in detail here).

How Do I Train On A Turbo?

This is a subject for a whole ’nother post. Indeed a series of posts. So that’s what I’m going to do, probably in October or November, as finding time to ride outside becomes more difficult for most of us.

There are a few things to bear in mind about training on a turbo:

Turbo Training Is Boring

I can quite happily ride outside for hours and lose the sense of the world turning. The opposite is true on a turbo. Times passes like treacle.

You can certainly create distraction when you’re static, listening to music or a podcast, perhaps watching TV. But this entertainment only helps so much before the discomforts of riding (discomforts that tend to go unnoticed when riding outside) start to intrude (e.g., and I’m only throwing this out there: ‘numbness in your nether regions’).

So you can only schedule so much time for a session on the turbo. I find I’m incapable of doing much more than 45 minutes currently. In time I might increase that to around an hour. Much beyond that and I think my love-hate relationship with the turbo might turn into hate-hate.

The Quality Of Training Tends To Be Higher

This psychological limit on the time spent turbo training is not a bad thing.

One of the attractions of turbo training is that the environment is controlled, free of inclement weather, unsuitable road conditions and the distractions of traffic. As a result you can concentrate solely on hitting the time and intensity targets you’ve set yourself.

On the whole, turbo sessions tend to be more intense. You’d have to have the mental serenity of a Buddhist monk to complete a 4 hour base endurance ride whilst staring at your garage wall. On the other hand, a 45 minute interval session is doable for most of us.

So, the turbo is a great tool for completing structured, high quality training. Its inherent tedium quotient (technical term) helps us avoid doing too much at any one time.

Where Should I Set Up My Turbo Trainer?

Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of it.

In an ideal world, you would have the turbo set up permanently (see why that’s important, below) in a convenient part of your homestead. That might be a spare bedroom, a conservatory or the garage.

But the world is rarely ideal. Space in the house is likely to be at a premium. Your partner may not approve of a room functioning as nothing other than your personal pain cave.

Ultimately, you just need somewhere with sufficient space to fit an object that is marginally longer than your bike, with room either side for your legs to spin. If you’re going to set up a TV or laptop to help relieve the boredom (or watch motivational videos), you’ll need space to position it in eyeshot and potentially a power socket.

Bear in mind the whole sweat and oil flecks issue – save yourself the hassle by positioning your turbo setup on an easy-to-clean floor (or protect it with the appropriate mat).

What Is The Perfect Turbo Set Up?

There is a danger that, for a certain sort of person (me, say), the optimal turbo set up starts to turn into a peculiar brand of imagineering that tends to end with the suffix, ‘-porn’. Workshop-porn, Lego(-storage)-porn, cabin-porn, bike-porn.

Turbo trainer set up small

Disclaimer: this shot is staged – I’m pretty sure I’ve never watched anything on my ipad whilst ‘turbo-ing’…

My actual turbo is currently set up (semi-permanently) in the conservatory of our rented house (a conservatory we don’t otherwise use as it’s either far too hot or far too cold). Sometimes (mainly during a certain 23 days in July) I bring in the laptop and rest it on a stool so I can watch (I)TV(4). Mainly I listen to podcasts on my phone.

The following ‘picture painted with words’ is entirely hypothetical.

My perfect turbo set up would be in my dedicated cycling man cave. The other side of my man cave would be a workshop area, with all my tools attached to a pin board. You don’t need to know this.

I would have a bike dedicated to being attached to the turbo. This bike would be set up with the same geometry as my road bikes (-s, plural as we’re talking dream scenario here). The turbo itself would be a high end model – something like the Wahoo Kickr with an inbuilt power meter and no rear wheel (so no need to buy turbo-specific tyres).

(I’m so going to buy a Wahoo Kickr when I win the lottery…)

The bike and turbo would live on a turbo mat, for catching sweat and any spray off the chain. There would be a large fan to my front left, providing a cooling breeze during the session.

In front of me would be my audio-visual-data set-up. I’m not entirely clear how this would look in practice, but there would be a large screen capable of showing important training stats, as well as a relevant entertainment (perhaps a Sufferfest video if I’m doing a hard session, or a random TV programme if I’m spinning out a recovery ride).

How To Break Down The Barriers To Completing A Turbo Session

The single most important ‘rule’ for successfully developing your turbo habit, is to have a bike permanently attached* to the turbo.

(*Clearly, by ‘permanent’ I don’t mean it has to be welded in place; just that it be attached as per the manufacturer’s recommendation.)

There are few things more likely to derail your intention to complete an activity that requires a degree of motivation, than to have a series of chores to complete beforehand. You already need to put on some appropriate clothing (probably lycra-based), fill your water bottle, find your cycling shoes.

If you also have to go through the rigmarole of carrying your bike to the turbo (or your turbo to the bike), switching out the skewers (or potentially your rear wheel) and attaching the bike to the turbo, the risk is that you sack the whole session off as a bad job.

I appreciate that this isn’t going to be feasible for everyone. If you only have one bike, then you’ll need to decide between reducing the ‘barriers to entry’ for doing an outside ride (i.e. by having all set up and ready for the great outdoors) or for a turbo session.

Equally, you might have limited space in which to leave a fully set up bike ‘n’ turbo combo.

If you are limited by bike or space, one solution (which is perhaps towards the anal end of the organisation spectrum) is to think ahead and do the turbo set up well in advance of the session.

If you’re returning from a ride on Sunday and you know that work commitments mean that rides in the week will definitely take place on the turbo, fit the bike to it then, rather than waiting until your first indoor session. Alternatively, if you plan to wake up and turbo first thing in the morning, set everything up the night before.

Conclusion

Like guns (er…), turbo trainers can be used as a force for good or evil.

Unused for a period of weeks, it sits there goading me. If I’m on it every evening, I grow to love it. Thankfully I’m in the latter camp at the moment.

Unless you have an extremely flexible work schedule and an understanding family, training consistently outside through the winter is extremely difficult. Judicious use of the turbo will allow you to achieve this consistency, maintaining fitness for the spring and potentially increasing it.

As mentioned above, I’ll be talking more about training on a turbo in future posts. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing to receive the Sportive Cyclist blog by email. All the details are in the box below this post.

(And if you want to buy an indoor trainer like mine, then you can do so by following this link).

Safe cycling all!

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Lloyd says:

    I’ve had a turbo for years and never used it, I’ve got the luxury of having two Road bikes so have set one up permanently on the turbo now and done a couple of sessions and I like it! I’ve used the videos on Gcn on you tube thay are really good and free as well I would recommend them.

  • backflipbedlem says:

    Great article dude, in my old place we had a cheap spinning bike, which i really enjoyed having a good 60min session on, could really work hard on it.
    I’ve since bought a flat, and have no room for the spin bike! Currently sitting in my mum n dads spare room 🙁
    Just started a £20 14 day trial at Cyclebeat in london, which do really good spinning sessions! And man are they a workout, a great mixture of instructors that all have different methods but really push you! I love it.
    But once this 14 day trial is over, I think I might have to try and convince the wife that we both need the spinning bike back! And that there is plenty of room at the end of our bed for it!
    Not sure what the guy downstairs will make of it though!

    Just wondered, how do you adjust the resistance on a turbo trainer? Do you just shift the bikes gears?

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Thanks backflipbedlem. Good luck persuading your wife and the guy downstairs (which as I type it, sounds like a euphemism…)

      As to changing resistance, it depends on the system. Mine uses fluid resistance (the flywheel spins in oil) so it gets progressively harder to move, the quicker the roller turns. You increase resistance by shifting up the gears.

      For magnetic resistance trainers, you tend to have a controller that you attach to your handlebars, which sets the resistance level in the turbo.

  • Paul T says:

    Good article. I was looking online at CRC at the very turbo trainer. I have just bought my first carbon framed Trek after using a caborn forked bike for the last 18 months and dont want to use the nice bike during winter so thought of a TT in garage using my old bike 🙂

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Good plan. Yes, I have my old bike attached the turbo pretty much all the time.

      I’ve found the Elite a well-priced, simple piece of kit. I’ve been very happy with it.

  • Paul keeler says:

    I got a turbo last year.
    No room in house so I set it up in my fish house(shed with fishtanks into )
    The shed is 26° at least.
    So I have a large fan to the side at head height. I also have a small on blowing on the rear tyre where it meets the roller.(helps stop tyre over heating.
    I then put my kindle fire in front and do a 45 min or a 90 min ( with hill climbs)
    These videos can be downloaded via YouTube.(legally)
    I think the workouts over winter really helped when weather got better and I could get outside.

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Thanks Paul. Following the training theory of ‘specificity’, it sounds like you’ll be perfectly attuned to take part in sportives staged somewhere around the equator!

      • Paul keeler says:

        Thanks Andy I use the CTXC videos.There’s two on you tube . Ones 45mins for short interval the others 90 mins and is longer intervals with a few heavy climbs thrown in.
        I found that using these videos help the time goes faster ,as you are chasing the rider in front.

  • Les Sutherland says:

    I have the same turbo as you and have used it regularly. I can easily do an hour and have been known to do two!
    Now that I have an enlarged garage there is plenty of space to have the turbo setup, my bike will stay on it if I am not planning a road ride.
    Unfortunately my wifi doesn’t reach the garage – thinking of running some cat 6 cable and pinching the wife’s laptop!
    I don’t really find being on the turbo boring, especially if you are following a specific interval programme but if you’re just spinning I can imagine some people struggle with it. Hint: try using the time to solve a maths problem or really think hard about any subject that interests you, time will pass quickly then. It’s. Technique I use on long exercise walks. Ten miles can just disappear!
    I’ll shut up now.

    • Lloyd says:

      I think you only need to do less than an hour on a turbo, there is no real benefit to doing hours on there. I have done spin aswell and 45minutes is hard work. If you do Hiit (high impact interval training) there are plenty on Gcn on you tube.

  • Hi,

    I have been snowed under in work lately and haven’t been able to give your posts the full attention that they deserve, I do apologise. I think that this post is excellent and incredibly helpful.

    Thanks very much,
    Paul

  • Mike says:

    Good stuff Andrew…..I bought myself a TT about a month ago to keep myself busy during the dark nights and winter weather! I’ve only done one session (60mins) so far but can relate the “numbness” comment above, I wasn’t prepared for that at all. I guess its to do with sitting still (almost).

    Decided to sign up to TrainerRoad and follow one their plans to stave the boredom off….not started yet, will try and squeeze a few more weeks out of the UK weather! Looking forward to giving it a try though.

  • […] you need is a either a turbo trainer or a set of rollers. Whilst differing in exactly how they do it, both items allow you to bring your […]

  • Wes Fallan says:

    Great article Andrew. Unarchived my trainer last week in fact, although I have to confess I went for the rollers over a turbo. The Elite Parabolic Roller to be precise. Not too expensive.

    http://www.chainreactioncycles.com/us/en/elite-parabolic-rollers/rp-prod30010

    To be honest, the boys in Condor gave me the hard sell in the summer of (London) 2012 that went something like “You know Chris Hoy uses this one”! I have used both since and agree with your commentary, though it is worth noting that whilst they are, as you say, more of a ‘keep the legs moving’ trainer, going through the gears does do a decent job of adding resistance. They do benefit from just putting your road bike straight on the rollers, plus I am told it does wonders for your ‘core’ keeping the bike stable.

    On the downside, after about 50 uses, it still takes some concentration (you need to fix your eye on a point straight ahead to avoid ‘drifting’). I tend to position myself in a door frame. I’ve come off twice – once taking out a large bookshelf in the process. Maybe Hoy has put in a few more hours than I have?! There are some great You Tube videos of people training very skilfully on them.

    As for distraction, I purchased some Sufferfest videos at the time ( http://www.thesufferfest.com/training-videos/cycling-training-videos/ ) which are great, though I understand there are many free options available nowadays.

    Hope all well Sir.

    Wes

  • […] (By the way, if you’re new to turbo trainers, and want to know more, check out my post from last month: The Sportive Cyclist’s Guide To Turbo Trainers.) […]

  • Phil Vickers says:

    Thanks for a very informative article Andrew. I found my way here after watching a short You tube video of you connecting your bike to the said Elite Chrono Fluid Trainer. These seem incredibly good value at the moment from Wiggle and I’d love to get one but wonder whether it would actually fit the type of bike I own. It is a Ridgeback Speed Hybrid bike which doesn’t have QR release levers on the wheels. The wheels are secured by15mm locking nuts on a threaded shaft with about 5mm of shaft extending outside of the nut. I would appreciate any suggestions you might be able to offer.

    • Andrew Montgomery says:

      Hmm, good question Phil. And not one I know the answer to, off hand. I open it up to the floor.

      The other site to check out would be DC Rainmaker. The writer, Ray, knows everything there is to know about sports tech (including indoor trainers). Read his trainer posts and perhaps drop him a line.

  • Lloyd September 18, 2014, 1:44 pm

    I’ve had a turbo for years and never used it, I’ve got the luxury of having two Road bikes so have set one up permanently on the turbo now and done a couple of sessions and I like it! I’ve used the videos on Gcn on you tube thay are really good and free as well I would recommend them.

    • Andrew Montgomery September 19, 2014, 10:47 am

      Thanks Lloyd. I’m going to check out those GCN videos.

  • backflipbedlem September 18, 2014, 3:34 pm

    Great article dude, in my old place we had a cheap spinning bike, which i really enjoyed having a good 60min session on, could really work hard on it.
    I’ve since bought a flat, and have no room for the spin bike! Currently sitting in my mum n dads spare room 🙁
    Just started a £20 14 day trial at Cyclebeat in london, which do really good spinning sessions! And man are they a workout, a great mixture of instructors that all have different methods but really push you! I love it.
    But once this 14 day trial is over, I think I might have to try and convince the wife that we both need the spinning bike back! And that there is plenty of room at the end of our bed for it!
    Not sure what the guy downstairs will make of it though!

    Just wondered, how do you adjust the resistance on a turbo trainer? Do you just shift the bikes gears?

    • Andrew Montgomery September 19, 2014, 10:54 am

      Thanks backflipbedlem. Good luck persuading your wife and the guy downstairs (which as I type it, sounds like a euphemism…)

      As to changing resistance, it depends on the system. Mine uses fluid resistance (the flywheel spins in oil) so it gets progressively harder to move, the quicker the roller turns. You increase resistance by shifting up the gears.

      For magnetic resistance trainers, you tend to have a controller that you attach to your handlebars, which sets the resistance level in the turbo.

  • Paul T September 18, 2014, 5:32 pm

    Good article. I was looking online at CRC at the very turbo trainer. I have just bought my first carbon framed Trek after using a caborn forked bike for the last 18 months and dont want to use the nice bike during winter so thought of a TT in garage using my old bike 🙂

    • Andrew Montgomery September 19, 2014, 10:56 am

      Good plan. Yes, I have my old bike attached the turbo pretty much all the time.

      I’ve found the Elite a well-priced, simple piece of kit. I’ve been very happy with it.

  • Paul keeler September 18, 2014, 7:47 pm

    I got a turbo last year.
    No room in house so I set it up in my fish house(shed with fishtanks into )
    The shed is 26° at least.
    So I have a large fan to the side at head height. I also have a small on blowing on the rear tyre where it meets the roller.(helps stop tyre over heating.
    I then put my kindle fire in front and do a 45 min or a 90 min ( with hill climbs)
    These videos can be downloaded via YouTube.(legally)
    I think the workouts over winter really helped when weather got better and I could get outside.

    • Andrew Montgomery September 19, 2014, 10:58 am

      Thanks Paul. Following the training theory of ‘specificity’, it sounds like you’ll be perfectly attuned to take part in sportives staged somewhere around the equator!

      • Paul keeler September 20, 2014, 10:58 am

        Thanks Andy I use the CTXC videos.There’s two on you tube . Ones 45mins for short interval the others 90 mins and is longer intervals with a few heavy climbs thrown in.
        I found that using these videos help the time goes faster ,as you are chasing the rider in front.

  • Les Sutherland September 19, 2014, 8:19 am

    I have the same turbo as you and have used it regularly. I can easily do an hour and have been known to do two!
    Now that I have an enlarged garage there is plenty of space to have the turbo setup, my bike will stay on it if I am not planning a road ride.
    Unfortunately my wifi doesn’t reach the garage – thinking of running some cat 6 cable and pinching the wife’s laptop!
    I don’t really find being on the turbo boring, especially if you are following a specific interval programme but if you’re just spinning I can imagine some people struggle with it. Hint: try using the time to solve a maths problem or really think hard about any subject that interests you, time will pass quickly then. It’s. Technique I use on long exercise walks. Ten miles can just disappear!
    I’ll shut up now.

    • Lloyd September 19, 2014, 10:20 am

      I think you only need to do less than an hour on a turbo, there is no real benefit to doing hours on there. I have done spin aswell and 45minutes is hard work. If you do Hiit (high impact interval training) there are plenty on Gcn on you tube.

  • Paul O' Brien September 22, 2014, 9:53 am

    Hi,

    I have been snowed under in work lately and haven’t been able to give your posts the full attention that they deserve, I do apologise. I think that this post is excellent and incredibly helpful.

    Thanks very much,
    Paul

    • Andrew Montgomery September 22, 2014, 10:42 am

      Thanks Paul. Apology accepted….

  • Mike September 22, 2014, 8:01 pm

    Good stuff Andrew…..I bought myself a TT about a month ago to keep myself busy during the dark nights and winter weather! I’ve only done one session (60mins) so far but can relate the “numbness” comment above, I wasn’t prepared for that at all. I guess its to do with sitting still (almost).

    Decided to sign up to TrainerRoad and follow one their plans to stave the boredom off….not started yet, will try and squeeze a few more weeks out of the UK weather! Looking forward to giving it a try though.

    • Andrew Montgomery September 23, 2014, 9:15 am

      Excellent news Mike. Let us know how the TrainerRoad plan goes – it looks like a good service.

  • Wes Fallan October 3, 2015, 4:56 pm

    Great article Andrew. Unarchived my trainer last week in fact, although I have to confess I went for the rollers over a turbo. The Elite Parabolic Roller to be precise. Not too expensive.

    http://www.chainreactioncycles.com/us/en/elite-parabolic-rollers/rp-prod30010

    To be honest, the boys in Condor gave me the hard sell in the summer of (London) 2012 that went something like “You know Chris Hoy uses this one”! I have used both since and agree with your commentary, though it is worth noting that whilst they are, as you say, more of a ‘keep the legs moving’ trainer, going through the gears does do a decent job of adding resistance. They do benefit from just putting your road bike straight on the rollers, plus I am told it does wonders for your ‘core’ keeping the bike stable.

    On the downside, after about 50 uses, it still takes some concentration (you need to fix your eye on a point straight ahead to avoid ‘drifting’). I tend to position myself in a door frame. I’ve come off twice – once taking out a large bookshelf in the process. Maybe Hoy has put in a few more hours than I have?! There are some great You Tube videos of people training very skilfully on them.

    As for distraction, I purchased some Sufferfest videos at the time ( http://www.thesufferfest.com/training-videos/cycling-training-videos/ ) which are great, though I understand there are many free options available nowadays.

    Hope all well Sir.

    Wes

  • Phil Vickers November 21, 2015, 5:38 pm

    Thanks for a very informative article Andrew. I found my way here after watching a short You tube video of you connecting your bike to the said Elite Chrono Fluid Trainer. These seem incredibly good value at the moment from Wiggle and I’d love to get one but wonder whether it would actually fit the type of bike I own. It is a Ridgeback Speed Hybrid bike which doesn’t have QR release levers on the wheels. The wheels are secured by15mm locking nuts on a threaded shaft with about 5mm of shaft extending outside of the nut. I would appreciate any suggestions you might be able to offer.

    • Andrew Montgomery November 22, 2015, 6:42 pm

      Hmm, good question Phil. And not one I know the answer to, off hand. I open it up to the floor.

      The other site to check out would be DC Rainmaker. The writer, Ray, knows everything there is to know about sports tech (including indoor trainers). Read his trainer posts and perhaps drop him a line.

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