You can spend a lot of money on an indoor bike trainer or turbo trainer and take your indoor cycling experience close to the real thing.
But, if you are just thinking about trying out Zwift or another indoor cycling application, there are plenty of budget wheel-on turbo trainer options.
And plenty of them will keep you going for quite a while. So to help you we’ve put together a list of the best 5 indoor bike trainer stands.
But when it comes to Zwift and working with indoor cycling apps, not all budget trainers are created equal. Here we’ll look at wheel-on trainers. Some come with smart functionality. Others use magnetic resistance, others use liquid resistance (if this doesn’t make sense there is more on this below).
And line you up with what you need for your riding – rather than useless features that are never used.
There’s a lot here.
So if you want to skip the educational stuff and get right into the bike trainers, there’s an index here.
Different Types of Indoor Bike Trainer Stand
There are two types of bike trainers. One is direct drive. A wheel-on trainer, also known as an indoor bike stand, means removing your rear wheel and putting it in the trainer.
You will probably need to install a cassette.
A direct drive trainer will likely be smart – ie, come with Bluetooth and/ or ANT+ functionality. Connectivity means the trainer can interact with and be controlled by the app. This includes changing resistance, replicating hills, etc.
If you want to find out more, go to this round up of the best direct drive trainers in 2020. It includes some data analysis, using flow charts, showing how they all compare.
Fluid vs Magnetic Resistance Bike Trainers
On a magnetic bike trainer, the resistance is created by a magnet. This can be moved closer or further away from the roller (the wheel’s contact). The closer the magnet is to the roller, the harder the resistance. This is done via a knob.
Many of the lower budget trainers work in this way.
On the right side, they are sturdy and easy to control and set up.
On the downside, there can be a lack of ride quality, resistance variability, and versatility. For example, you can get magnetic trainers to work with Zwift. But once the trainer’s resistance is set – unless you get off the bike and move the magnet – the only way to control your effort is through gear changes.
It is worth noting that smart direct drive trainers use magnetic drives. However, these are more sophisticated and use direct drive technology to regulate resistance.
Fluid Resistance Trainer
On a fluid trainer, the roller connects to an impeller. This is part of a pump that transfers energy from the rider by pushing fluid outwards from the center of rotation.
These are generally regarded as superior to magnetic trainers. They give a better ride quality and are quieter – something to be aware of when buying a bike trainer.
If you want more on this, this article will run you through the basics.
What to look for when buying an indoor bike trainer
Let us be honest. By nature, budget trainers can be reasonably simple. But there are still several factors to consider when buying one.
Most people tend to put a 700c wheeled bike on the trainer. This is a standard road bike.
However, if you have a hybrid or a mountain bike, it might be worth checking up on the specifications. For example, some trainers may be incompatible with 29er Mtb wheels.
Power is basically the resistance you get when pedaling. For example, if you’ ‘re sprinting at 500w, the trainer will need to resist your pedaling with the same power.
Many of the direct-drive trainers can go up to 2000w. While this is plainly ridiculous – I struggle to hit 700w – it can matter if you are a heavier rider, and your weight adds to the downward power on the pedals.
If you can get one that can be controlled from the handlebars, that is a bonus as it saves you using the gears.
On the other hand, if you plan to use Zwift, be aware the bike needs to be in one setting, which might be less critical.
Weight and portability
Not a biggie. But for some of us, you might not have a dedicated place to set the trainer up. In this case, storage and portability are essential.
The trainers generally need to be quite heavy as you are putting a lot of power on it. So it needs to remain steady.
Bike Trainer setup
The recommendations below are quite simple to set up. That’s one of the benefits of wheel-on trainers.
However, we are talking about connecting to Zwift, and there is more to this. If the trainer has no way of connecting to the app, you will need to buy a speed and cadence sensor (see below).
These are simple enough to set up. But the important thing is to get the resistance right. This is so Zwift can match up the speed and cadence and work out your power. Here Zwift has a handy guide for setting up wheel-on trainers without smart capability.
Setting up a non-smart trainer on Zwift
If you choose to go for a non-smart trainer (one that does not come with ANT+ or Bluetooth connectivity), there are still options open to you.
You can access Zwift by buying a cadence and speed monitor. In fact, you can get by with just a speed monitor. Then its a case of calibrating it, so the power matches Zwift’s calculations.
For more information, see how to set up a dumb trainer on Zwift.
Additional indoor cycling accessories
It won’t surprise you to know there are other things to get beside an indoor cycling trainer. There are always things, right?
While buying a trainer will get you cycling indoors. You may find the following accessories helpful.
- Fan – CardioDrift is an absolute pain and, more importantly, can mess with your cycling performance.
- Mat – If you are on concrete, this will cushion you, the bike, and the trainer. Just use a yoga mat if you’re stuck.
- Table – for the computer. Or a phone holder.
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Best Trainer Table and Review Stars
Best wheel-on Smart Trainer on Value and Performance
Tacx Flow Smart
Well, it might have a wheel-on design. But on paper, the Tacx Flux Smart has the features of a more expensive direct-drive bike trainer. This means you’ll have seamless access to apps like Zwift, Trainerrroad, The Sufferfest, etc.
Being Smart, the Tacx Flow Smart comes with ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity. So it can connect easily.
It comes with speed, cadence, and power monitoring. It can also change resistance – so it works with Zwift’s simulation and ERG. This means you can climb Mont Ventoux and feel every rise and fall.
The resistance is also electromagnetic. So it resembles a direct drive trainer and is able to change resistance easily.
The Tacx Flow Smart is a new addition to the Tacx product range. For the price – check it out – it is simply fantastic value.
If you are interested in more information, here is our in-depth Tacx Flow Smart Review.
Pros – connectivity and the fact it has speed and cadence outputs. Easy setup. You simply connect the bike, laptop, boot up Zwift, and ride. And the price is excellent.
Cons – at 800w, the power is a little on the low side. Also, tests have shown the response is a little less than direct drive trainers.
Best Budget Smart Trainer for the Heavier Rider
Kinetic Road Machine Smart 2
There’s not a lot between this and the Tacx Flow Smart in terms of features. However, this fluid trainer comes with a couple of extra features, and it is more money.
Effectively they are almost like for like. Both are smart trainers and can easily connect to Zwift as well as manage resistance and ERG. The difference between them is the Kinetic is a fluid trainer, so it is much quieter and can handle more power (1200w).
On the downside, for the price I’d like to have seen a riser block. You can get a Kinetic one but it costs extra and to be honest I wouldn’t choose it anyway. Saris makes one that is far better.
Lastly, it is a fluid trainer. As a result, it has a smoother ride and is quieter.
Pros – full connectivity, resistance, and it is fluid.
Cons – the Tacx Flow Smart comes with many of the same features, and is newer and cheaper. There is no riser block.
Best Bike Trainer without a Speed Sensor
The first thing to say about the Saris is that it is not a smart bike trainer, ie, it cannot adjust the resistance to match the environment on Zwift.
It can transmit speed and cadence data to Zwift, which in turn calculates your power output. But you will need a cadence sensor and an ANT+ dongle for your laptop or device.
On the right side, this is a reliable machine and very easy to set up. This is true of Saris machines generally.
Like the Kinetic, it is a fluid trainer. So it is silent and smooth in terms of the road feel, we felt this was a big selling point. Noise can be a significant problem.
You need a speed sensor for Zwift. However, it is fairly straightforward getting the resistance right to get an accurate idea of power.
Another really nice touch is the mechanism on the back wheel. It clicks in place once it is close enough to the wheel. Wheel-on trainers require some tinkering with this, sometimes to the point of pushing air out of the tire.
Pros – Connectivity, ride feel, and the overall build. It just feels substantial.
Cons – No power sensor. And you need to buy a speed sensor for Zwift.
Best Non-Smart Fluid Trainer without connectivity
Alpcour Fluid Bike Trainer Stand
Ok, this is one of the more basic trainers listed here. There is no connectivity – you’ll have to bring that in with a speed and cadence sensor. And there are cheaper ‘dumb’ bike stands out there.
So why pick it?
We’re a big fan of fluid trainers. They cost a little more than the magnetic equivalent – and a magnetic trainer will work fine – but the ride experience is so much better. Just a personal view, but mag trainers can feel like hitting a wall when you accelerate.
The Alpcour can also be adjusted from the handlebars, which is a big plus. It also comes with some nice accessories, including a riser block and a bag.
So no, it’s not set up for Zwift. But if you want a fluid trainer and want to test things out gradually (indoor cycling is not for everyone), then this is an excellent way to do it. If you like it, upgrade it with the sensors. Then it will be at least as good as the Saris above.
Pros – an adjustable fluid trainer.
Cons – no connectivity or power output.
Best Bike Stand if you want no-frills and are on a budget
Yaheetech Magnetic Bicycle Trainer
Well, you’re probably not going to get a more low budget indoor bike stand than the Yaheetech. However, it works and will provide you with an excellent introduction to indoor cycling training.
It uses a magnetic resistance, which again will get the job done. But it will be loud – even though it says it is not on the description. Another thing to be aware of is the resistance can only be set on the trainer. So any other change in the effort will have to come from a gear change.
Also, this is a white label product. So there are a ton of these out there under a variety of names.
Not so good so far. So why put it in here?
Because it’s pretty good value in terms of getting you up and running. And with a speed sensor, you will be able to get an idea of how far you are going.
It also comes with a riser block, which is actually quite helpful. Without one you will feel like you are constantly riding downhill. I don’t own one but I have see someone else’s, and it felt fairly solid.
In terms of Zwift, you may have problems aligning it with a power reading. And some events may be barred because the trainer is not smart. However, it will allow you to try indoor cycling out. If you have the budget, you can go for a direct drive machine or one above.
Pros – if you’re on a budget or just want to try out indoor cycling, then this will work. It also comes with a riser block.
Cons – To be honest, if you want to try Zwift you would be better off going for one the others above.