Direct drive trainers have set the indoor cycling pace with the rise of Zwift and the other apps.
But there’s still a place for wheel-on trainers, especially ones with a smooth, quiet ride, that simulate a nice newly-laid road.
With this as the benchmark, lets look at the best fluid bike trainers. Be aware, there’s not as many as you might expect. In the event, we’ve gone for just three. But they are all top end.
No much time to read the background and guide? Then go for the Saris Fluid 2.
Otherwise, read on or flick through the index.
Which is better, a magnetic or fluid trainer?
If you are looking at buying a wheel-on bike trainer, it will be a tossup between a fluid and a magnetic trailer. The difference?
Basically, the magnetic trainer uses a magnet to slow the rotation of the wheel. While a fluid trainer’s resistance unit uses an impeller in liquid.
Both of them use a hub that is in contact with the rear wheel.
A fluid resistance trainer has several advantages when compared to its magnetic equivalent. Probably the most obvious one of these is noise. Magnetic trainers are usually much noisier.
This is something that will affect you more than you think. Especially if you’re riding your magnetic indoor bike trainer and the kids are upstairs asleep.
The other advantage the fluid trainer has is that the ride is that smoother and more progressive resistance. Sometimes when you’re riding on a magnetic trainer, and go up a gear to increase resistance, it feels like you’ve suddenly hit a small wall. It is the sort of small thing that makes a difference after a while.
What to look for in a fluid trainer
If you are looking to buy a trainer with this type of resistance then it depends on what you want it for. For example, racing on training apps like Zwift, pushing out the miles by yourself, or doing a Trainerroad plan.
A smart trainer will track watts, simulate, an incline, connect all of that with the application and allow the app to control the trainer. A dumb trainer (non-smart) would not be able to do this without adding sensors.
The thing to look for here – whether you are going for this or a magnetic trainer – is whether it tracks power and connects to a computer or mobile device via Bluetooth or ANT+.
If it doesn’t then check it links up with the app you want to use. This list of supported trainers by Zwift is a good benchmark.
Lastly, be aware of wheel sizes. The trainers here all cover 20-inch to 29-inch wheels, i.e., road bikes and mountain bikes.
What’s the difference?
Let’s be honest. Even the top-end trainers fail to give you a road feel from riding outdoors. But all of these products are good value for money.
However, some can also connect to cycling applications. And that is a game-changer for indoor training. However, no worries. All of this
The other thing here is the brand. There are some products here like Tacx, Elite, or Saris that specialize in indoor cycling trainers. Now I’m sure plenty of good companies would be able to recreate a bike trainer like this, but picking one by a specialist is a big plus.
Another essential thing is noise and ride feel. While in addition to the trainer, other accessories like a riser block for the front wheel and a spindle for the hub are all pretty helpful. Some of these even come with bags, which is pretty vital if you take it with you to a ride or race and one-to-one up.
How to assemble them
Both fluid trainers and magnetic trainers are relatively easy to set up. It is really just a case of unfolding the trainer, getting your road bike, and swapping the back wheel quick-release skewer with the one supplied.
It can then be rested within the bike trailer frame with the rear wheel on the trainer roller. The roller itself can be set into position – against the tire – via a tightening knob.
Most trainers work this way. Nice and straightforward, and much more accessible than many direct-drive smart trainers. These require you to remove the rear wheel and install a cassette on the trainer. Frequently cassettes aren’t even included with the trainer.
Lastly, it is helpful if the trainer comes with a riser block. This is effectively a small piece of plastic that the front wheel sits in to keep the bike level.
If you don’t have one of these, it can feel like you are riding downhill. If you don’t have one, it is relatively easy to get some magazines or a telephone directory or something like that to rest on the front.
What’s the best way to use it on Zwift?
If it’s not a smart trainer, can you use it on Zwift? The answer to that is yes, you can. But it’s not going to be as good as a direct drive smart trainer with a power meter.
Firstly, connecting to an app is simple enough. Just get a speed sensor and an ANT+ dongle to receive data for your PC or laptop.
This will estimate how much power you’re producing and how fast you are going on the trainer. It will also work out a rough idea of your speed output.
If, on the other hand, if it is a smart trainer, then all is well. It should be able to connect to the smart trainer via ANT+ or Bluetooth. Once that is done, the application will do everything else for you.
The anything to look at for is restrictions on things like incline and total power. These tend to be a little lower on wheel-on smart trainers.
Are wheel-on bike trainers bad for your bike?
Are there any downsides to this sort of trainer? In terms of wheel-on trainers, they are definitely a step above the early magnetic equivalent. However, there are some excellent magnetic resistance trainers like the Tacx Flow Smart.
One thing that can be a little annoying is the fact that it will wear out your tires. Being wheel-on is excellent because you can just take the bike in or out pretty quickly. Whereas with a direct-drive trainer, it’s a bit of a faff to put the wheel back on and get the indexing right (well, it is for me).
But if you’re planning to use the trainer for an extended length of time indoors, it may well be worth investing in a trailer tire. These just last a long time.
Things to think about when buying one
Bike stand trainers themselves are pretty solid. The main issues you’re going to come up against with any kind of trainer is fatigue and sweat.
There is no polite way to say this, but your bottom will get somewhat sore after an hour or so.
And what if you’re riding outside, the wind will dry off the sweat you produce on the bike? That’s not the case indoors. So a fan is essential.
Picked and Reviewed – Our Three Best Fluid Bike Trainers
Best Smart Trainer – Kurt Kinetic Road Machine 2
The Kinetic Road Machine has been out for a while. But it is still one of the best indoor trainers out there.
The reason for this is that it is smart. It can easily connect to swift and manage your resistance and ERG. It gives an accurate power measurement, and it can handle an impressive resistance of around 1200W.
So even if you’re a really heavy rider stamping on those pedals shouldn’t be a problem in terms of keeping the resistance there.
It has a smooth ride, which you would expect. The only downside to this machine is that it does not come with a riser block.
But then, as stated in other reviews on this site as well, there are better ones to buy than the one Kinetic produces.
- Smart with ERG
- 1200w resistance
- No riser block
Easy Integration with Zwift – Saris Fluid 2
Like kinetic, Saris has been producing trainers for ages. This one is like many of their other wheel-on trainers in that it is an excellent machine.
The downside to this is that it is not smart. But it integrates easily with Zwift as one of its approved trainers. Saris also produce a speed sensor for the machine. So it’s relatively simple to link up.
Saris point to the trainer’s fan as a plus point. Trainers do produce a lot of heat and the company claim this will make it last longer. Most trainers do come with fans.
That said, Saris (or Cycleops as they were called) have always produced good quality kit. I had an old mag trainer that was over 10 years old and still going strong.
This one is nicely put together. One nice touch is the mechanism that holds the back will in place. It’s a case of turning the knob with many trainers, judging how far the mechanism is pushing into the rear wheel tire.
Here it clicks into place once it feels the tire is close enough, and there’s enough pressure.
Overall a good reliable machine. It’s just a shame you need to buy a speed
- Easy Adjustment
- Simple to link with Zwift
- Levelling adjusters for uneven floor
- Not smart
Best Trainer for Keeping Quiet – Elite Qubo
First things first, like the Saris this is not smart. It comes with a sensor for connected training that is with Elite’s own app.
The good news is that it works with a cadence and speed sensor, just like the other trainers. Elite has plenty of heritage when it comes to making trainers, and this is their fluid version.
The standout point of this is that it is peaceful and smooth. It really depends on what time you use, but it is as quiet as anything you’ll encounter. Elite also that this helps with tire wear.
Probably, the most interesting feature is the lateral movement. One issue with many trainers is the static position. Elite claims its ‘Compass’ system adds some sideways movement.
That does make sense as the smoother the ride, the less stress it will put on the rear tire. It also has an gel strips on the roller. This has the benefit of increased grip while reducing tire wear.
Like the other trainers, you can use anything from a 20-inch to a 29-inch diameter wheel.
- Smooth Ride
- Less wear on tire
- Frame moves laterally
- Not smart
Usually, when you are compiling a best-of list like this (at least to me), the done thing is to pick out five products.
The thing is, in this case, I really don’t think there are five. Sure there are a lot of indoor bike trainers out there. But hardly any of them have been made by a reputable brand who really knows indoor cycling like the ones.
As I said above, wheel-on bike trainers are being left behind by direct drive equivalents. This is because they simply provide greater sensitivity and are more precise connectivity with cycling apps like Zwift.
However, there is still a place for fluid trainers. If you want something that is relatively portable and provides a smooth ride, you can’t do any better. Direct drive trainers are simply not designed to be moved around.
These three machines will handle this and more. And if you want to go on Zwift, all you have to do is pick up a cadence and speed monitor. Or grab the Saris.
It’ll work just fine.