Most cyclists enjoy riding their bikes, so they like to ride year-round. But sometimes that is not feasible unless you ride inside. Riding outside during the winter is possible, and it can be lots of fun, but sometimes you just want to ride inside and avoid the hassle.
If that’s the case… have no fear! There are two popular options for indoor cycling – the stationary trainer, and rollers.
Here are the pros and cons of each:
A stationary trainer is a device that attaches to your bicycle’s rear wheel. It holds the bike upright with the rear wheel off the ground, allowing you to ride in place.
The rear wheel is clamped against a roller to provide traction, and there is also a resistance unit attached to the roller, so you can train against heavy resistance levels if you wish.
First, riding a trainer is stable. That’s because the bike is supported by the trainer. So if you are fairly new to riding, or just don’t want to worry about balance, a trainer provides that stability.
That also means you can easily stand, sprint, or even read a book while riding the trainer.
Also, say you want to ride even though you have a broken arm or dislocated shoulder. A stationary trainer is about the only way to do that without extra danger.
Second, you can dial up the resistance for a hard workout. Most trainers have an adjustable resistance unit, usually magnetic or fluid, which allows you to set a level of resistance to pedal against. If you want to push some big gears and do interval workouts, you can.
The problem with being so stable is that a trainer will not improve your balance. Since the bike is held in place, you don’t have to worry much about falling off, which is very different from outdoor riding!
Also, your bike is clamped down pretty tight in one of these trainers. That poses two problems. First, the clamps can scratch and/or break your quick-release levers and possibly your frame. (My road bike’s frame lost a lot of paint chips the first time I clamped it into a trainer!)
Second, the rear tire will wear out very fast from all the pressure. If you are riding a trainer, plan to use some cheap, durable tires so you don’t ruin your good ones. ($5 tires are a good choice.)
Rollers are a cross between a treadmill and a log rolling contest for your bike. Rollers consist of three drums held in a frame. Two drums go under your rear wheel and one under the front wheel, and there is a band connecting them so that your front wheel spins, too.
As you ride, the wheels spin the drums, and you effectively ride like usual, but you stay in one spot.
Riding on rollers provides a very realistic feel. Since your bike is free to move around, it gives you that feeling of riding on the open road. That is a lot more fun than a trainer, where it feels like you’re stuck on an exercise bike.
That freedom of movement brings more benefits, too. It is also great for improving your balance. You have to consciously keep the bike upright, or you’ll fall over! It’s the same concept as balancing while riding outside, but since you’re not moving forward, it’s more difficult.
Similarly, you learn to ride in a straight line. Since the rollers are only 12-18″ wide, you need to ride in a straight line or you’ll fall off the edge. Being able to ride in a straight line is a vital skill for riding in a paceline, and rollers really help you with that.
Consequently, rollers are a great way to improve your pedal stroke. If you have a choppy pedal stroke that doesn’t apply power through the full pedal stroke, it will be very hard to stay balanced on the rollers. So you are forced to pedal in circles or you’ll fall over!
Lastly, there is no excess wear and tear on your bike. The only contact is between your tires and the smooth rollers. There is no extra pressure there, and the surfaces are smooth, so rollers are actually easier on your tires than riding outside.
While rollers are so great for improving your riding skills, they are not beginner friendly. If you just ride your bike to burn some extra calories, you might not want to “fight” the rollers just to do a short ride.
Also, rollers usually don’t have a resistance unit. This can be a setback if you plan to do some very high-resistance interval workouts. (You can get a resistance unit for some rollers, although that can be expensive.)
My Recommendation: Rollers
I highly recommend rollers. Rollers are fun to ride and greatly improve your riding skills.
In my opinion, there really are no downsides to rollers. For example, the learning curve is a good thing because it forces you to become a better rider. And if you have absolutely terrible balance, you can get parabolic rollers, which make it much easier to stay upright, even if you stand and sprint.
You can also get a fork mount for rollers, which would stabilize the bike much like a trainer. So in the event you can’t physically ride the rollers (i.e. a broken arm) you could use this to transform them into a stationary trainer!
And the simple act of riding in the 53×11 combo provides enough resistance for my workouts. If you actually need more than that, you can get resistance units for certain models.
On the flip side, I think trainers are boring and make for excessive wear and tear on your bike.