DC Rainmaker

Annual Winter 2017-2018 Bike Trainer Recommendations

And just like that, it’s already fall.  The summer season is past us (well, unless you’re in Australia), and it’s time to pick out that trainer for the weekend.  Sure, the weather in much of the US and Europe right now might feel warm, but that’ll change overnight.

Which means it’s time for the Annual Trainer Recommendations post!  I started this five years ago, and know many of you are looking for an updated version for this season.  This year was a bit more quiet in terms of major trainer announcements, with instead us seeing a shift towards minor updates across the trainer lineups.  Still, there were some major new entrants – as well as some intriguing accessories.

And unlike last year, almost everything announced this year is already shipping and available – albeit in some cases in limited quantities.  More importantly, I’ve got production units of almost everything as well – making it easy for me to give recommendations…but also product reviews links with a multitude of rides.

Almost lastly, this post will NOT cover trainer apps, rather, I have a dedicated post for that coming up later this month. It’ll be a beast of a post, just like it was last year.

Finally, for those looking for general sports technology recommendations (watches/action cams/activity trackers/scales/etc.…), I tend to publish those in early-mid November, just before the holidays (but after any lingering products have been announced reviewed – though I only expect a handful more this year).  My goal being to wrap up all the new wearable reviews by that timeframe.  Trainer reviews will happen as final versions of trainers come in.  I’ve already posted a few this fall.

How I make trainer recommendations

First and foremost, I only recommend trainers I’ve actually used.  Certainly, there are some trainers that were announced this year that aren’t yet available – you won’t find those recommendations here.  Partially because they aren’t available yet, and partially because I have exceedingly low confidence in either when they will be available or the quality with them (see the ‘Trainers I didn’t include’ section at the end).

Next, there are undoubtedly many other good trainers, great trainers even – especially in the sub-$300 range out there that don’t have electronics in them. But, even with some 20-25+ trainers currently in my possession, I simply can’t try out every one on the market today with any reasonable level of detail or authority.  There are some trainers that I’ve used hundreds of times, and others just once or twice.  My minimum bar for inclusion in this post in some manner is having ridden on it at least once.

When I look at recommendations across all products I make, I try and recommend products to you in the same way that I’d do to friends and family.  I keep it simple and explain exactly why I feel a given way.  My goal is NOT to make a roundup of every trainer on the market, though I will briefly discuss why I didn’t include some trainers in this piece at the end.  This is, again, my *recommendations*, not the holy grail of everything ever made by everyone.  Still, I’m lucky enough to have been able to try almost everything made by all the major trainer companies this year, at least at the mid to upper end (I don’t tend to review the 118 different models of trainers from $75 to $200).

Price Ranges & Currencies:

Over the last few years we’ve continued to see major shifting in price vs feature-set combinations.  For example, functionality and accuracy that used to be reserved for $1,200 trainers has slid down to $900 trainers.  I had to change my price bucketing last year, and I’m slightly doing the same thing this year by adding a mid-upper tier pricing.  My purpose isn’t so much moving the goalposts, as it is making the field more logical.  Meaning, someone looking to spend $599 is probably OK spending $699, and someone teetering at $499 might be OK spending that $699 too if the benefits pay out.

Meanwhile, someone looking for a $399 trainer isn’t likely the same person as one looking at a $899 trainer.  So, here’s the 2017 buckets, aligned to the trends of trainer pricing in 2017:

Budget – Sub-$500: These tend to be basic in functions, and lack automated controls, but some do still have some electronics.  Most apps support these in a basic manner.

Mid-Range $500-$600: These are where we see electronic resistance control, as well as the majority of features and full app integration.

Mid-High End $800-900: This is somewhat of a new category, and largely driven by the Tacx Flux and Elite Direto trainers.  I just don’t think it makes sense to put them in the lower priced category, though the case could easily be made that they compete with the $1,000+ trainers (and are almost universally a better buy).

High-End $1,000+: These are the high-end trainers, and primarily distinguish themselves from the mid-range by increasing durability, reducing noise, or just being expensive for the heck of it (i.e., legacy branding/marketing).

Now – you’ll notice the dollar signs, which in this case is implying US pricing.  I call this out specifically because the whole pricing business has gotten kinda wonky, especially in the differences between US and European markets.  There are specific cases where something may have a vast price gap in one market (I.e. KICKR vs. NEO in the US), yet be nearly identical in other markets (some European countries).  Similarly, the European markets generally get a better deal on European-made products (Tacx/Elite), while US consumers tend to get better pricing on US-made products (Wahoo).  All of which ignores the reality of MAP (Minimum Advertising Pricing), which exists in the US and doesn’t exist in Europe.

Next, be wary of purchasing trainers outside your home country (meaning, if in the US, buying from a retailer in Europe).  This is because if you have a problem, you’ll be on the hook to pay for shipping of the trainer back across the pond for service.  As one who does that regularly, it’s @#$#@ expensive. If you don’t believe me, go and look at the 2015 trainer recommendation post, and see the river of tears for folks who have had to deal with cross-Atlantic shipping of cheap trainers they bought when things went wrong.  By all means, if you understand the risk – buy where it makes sense.  But do understand it’s a very real risk.

And finally, note that I tend to focus on trainers that have some element of technology in them.  It’s not that I think that all non-technology trainers are the same (cause they aren’t…well…except that most are), but it’s because that’s just what I happen to review the most here.

Things to Consider:

There’s a lot of things to look for in a trainer – but some are applicable across the board from a sub-$100 unit to a $1,500 unit.

First and foremost, it needs to be sturdy.  The more plastic involved, the less likely it’s going to last over time.  Take for example, the CompuTrainer, otherwise known as the rock.  A tank really.  I’m certain I could throw that in front of a semi-truck, and it’d probably be fine.  As such, those units last 10-15 years (or more).  In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s ever broken a CompuTrainer frame (ok, ignore the flywheel).  Some electrical components eventually wear out, but the frame is astoundingly sturdy.  I find the KICKR family in that same camp.  It’s a beast component-wise.  In many ways, the KICKR frame is the same way – as is the KICKR SNAP (which I think is overbuilt for its price point).

Second, look at the attach point to your bike.  I’ll start with the ones that leverage a skewer of some sort and don’t require removal of the wheel.  In these cases, try to find one that has a ‘quick-release’ mechanism for quickly locking the trainer into place.  One that doesn’t require you to endlessly spin the tightening lever and try to find an exact spot each time.  See below for an example of a quick-release lever:

In the case of trainers that you attach your bike directly into a cassette mounted on the trainer  – called ‘Direct Drive trainers’ (KICKR/NEO/HAMMER/DRIVO/LeMond/etc…), be sure that it’ll be compatible with your bike frame.  There are only a few edge cases where this occurs (primarily higher end), but just be aware of them.

Third, look at how stable the platform is.  The smaller the base of the trainer, the more likely it is to tip over (and you along with it).  And while tip-overs are extremely rare – they are a problem on lower end trainers ($50-$150) where the base is really small.  This can be further compounded when the trainer mounts the wheel higher up – meaning a higher center of gravity.  It’s not hard to get a situation where you try and reach for a TV remote control, or something off to the side, and fall over.  None of the trainers I’m recommending have this issue, but in general, keep it in mind.

Technical Considerations:

Ok, we’re almost to the recommendations.  But we need to all be on the same table when it comes to some of the technical terms that we’re going to talk about.  Notably, the protocols and communications side of how trainers talk to apps.

In the sports world there are essentially two camps: ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart.  Virtually all devices use one or both of these low-power technologies to transmit and capture information such as heart rate, power, speed, cadence, and more.

In the trainer realm, that means trainers tend to support two types of things over these protocols.  The first is simple broadcasting (one-way) from the trainer to the app/device that you’re using.  This is done for the following on trainers:

ANT+ Broadcast: Power, Speed, Cadence
Bluetooth Smart Broadcast: Power, Speed, Cadence

Compatible devices, such as a Garmin Edge, Wahoo ELEMNT or a Polar V800 can pick up these signals and record them.  The same goes for apps like Zwift or Strava.  Almost all trainer companies now broadcast dual on both protocols, though there are some exceptions – such as the CompuTrainer or Kurt Kinetic Smart Control trainers, which broadcast on neither.

Next, for control there are basically two semi-standards that allow trainers to be controlled via apps:

Private communication channel: Over private-ANT or private Bluetooth Smart, or heck, even wired as in the case of the CompuTrainer.  There is no standard for controlling a trainer for Bluetooth Smart yet, so pretty much every company does their own dance.  That’s fine, but just make sure whichever app you plan to use does the same dance as your trainer company.
Open/Standard Communication Channel: Via ANT+ FE-C (virtually all trainers use this) or the up and coming Bluetooth FTMS.

For ANT+ FE-C, devices such as the Garmin Edge 520/820/1000/etc, as well as the Wahoo ELEMNT/ELEMNT BOLT, support controlling the trainer straight from your head unit.  This also means you can re-ride your outside rides (elevation changes and all) without any other software.

So what about Bluetooth Smart control?  Up until this past summer, companies have largely had to roll their own solutions.  Each company does their own thing and shares it with developers.  So, Wahoo has their variant of a BT Smart control implementation (that everyone supports), CycleOps has theirs, and Elite has theirs, and so on.

But this past spring the Bluetooth SIG finalized the specs for the Bluetooth FTMS standard, which specifies how fitness equipment can be controlled by apps and devices.  In doing so we’ve seen Elite be the first, with the Direto trainer, to support it, and Tacx and CycleOps are poised to quickly follow behind.  Wahoo’s a bit slower here, likely because everyone already supports their variant – so the motivation is lower.

Ultimately, almost all major apps support all companies’ Bluetooth Smart implementations (whichever variant they’re on).  Where the issue matters more is smaller apps that may not have the time to implement all the variants.  Nonetheless, here’s where things stand.

Wahoo: ANT+ FE-C on KICKR SNAP/KICKR.  Gives developers access to Wahoo Bluetooth Smart control.
Tacx: ANT+ FE-C on all ‘Smart’ branded trainers (except Satori). Gives developers access to Tacx Bluetooth Smart control.
Elite: ANT+ FE-C on Drivo/Rampa/Direto, plus various other older units. Gives developers access to Bluetooth Smart control for existing trainers, but Direto uses new FTMS.
CycleOps: ANT+ FE-C on Hammer/Magnus (+ CycleOps Bluetooth Smart Control), older trainers have developers get access to private-ANT control, and Bluetooth Smart control methods.
BKOOL: ANT+ FE-C on all electronic trainers.  Gives developers access to Bluetooth Smart control on applicable newer trainers.
Kurt Kinetic: Does not support any standards on Smart Control trainers, but has offered certain developers access for Bluetooth Smart control.
Minoura: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth FTMS supported on new Kagura trainer.

This all matters when it comes to apps – but the thing you need to know is that you want your trainer to be dual capable, and it should ideally support if you want resistance control across a broad number of apps.  At this stage (at a super high level), every single app supports ANT+ FE-C (on desktop), and virtually every app on mobile supports Wahoo on Bluetooth Smart.  The vast majority also support Elite, CycleOps, and Tacx on Bluetooth Smart for mobile.  Most desktop apps support the CompuTrainer (wired).

Budget Trainers (sub-$500):

There’s been almost no appreciable shift in this category this year, so things stay basically the same as last year.

This is a tricky category, and one in which I’m really going to focus on options that have electronics in them.  But let me be clear – there are TONS of trainers out there for less than $500 that don’t have any smart electronic gadgets in them and work just great.  Really, there are.  But there’s only a few units in this price range (again, looking at USD MSRP) that has ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart broadcasting of speed, power, and cadence.

Tacx Satori Smart

This is the least expensive ‘Smart’ branded trainer from Tacx, at $399US, but significantly cheaper in Europe at about 225EUR.  Their ‘Smart’ trainer lineup broadcasts your power/speed/cadence over ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart.  It does NOT have ANT+ FE-C control though because it doesn’t have automated control. Instead, you have a little lever connected via cable.  But otherwise it’ll give you your power and other metrics and let you connect your Garmin, Polar, or other App to read it.  Accuracy-wise it’s fairly good once you’ve done calibration on it using the procedure in the app.

Now, you’ll notice the caveat about being Euro pricing focused.  That’s because this is an example where the US pricing is way more expensive than the European pricing.  So you may want to figure out what’s most important to you (control or broadcasting power).  The Satori doesn’t allow automated control, but does open-broadcast ANT+/BLE Speed/Power/Cadence.  Meanwhile, trainers starting at $500 allow automated control.

Finally, this is the only trainer I’d feel comfortable ordering from Euro web shops on the cheap and shipping to the US.  That’s because there is no resistance control unit (which is where things usually break).  Thus, the likelihood of this trainer having issues is far less than the ones in the $500+ category.

Minor note: There’s also the Tacx Flow Smart – that’s *only* available in Europe.  That trainer sits at about 239EUR.  I keep trying to get one to test out.  It’s basically the cheapest budget ANT+ FE-C controllable trainer out there for apps like Zwift and Trainer Road and simulates up to 800w and a claimed 6%.  The big box sports store near me only sparingly carries them, and each time I remember to buy one (they don’t allow backorders), it’s out of stock again.  If you have low expectations, this is probably a great unit.  Or maybe it’s just a great unit with medium expectations.  Either way, I hope to someday test it out.

BKool Smart Go:

BKool introduced this last year with a solid $349USD price point.  It uses your own body weight to press the wheel onto the frame, which has its pros and cons.  Usually it means slightly less fumbling because you don’t have to twist-down a force-on knob.  At the same time it’s not quite as ideal for stand-up sprints.

The unit replicates up to 8% and 800w of resistance, and can transmit both ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart.  Since it’s ANT+ FE-C controllable, you’ll be able to have 3rd party apps control it like most of the higher end trainers. Note that I do get mixed reviews from folks on BKool service, so I’d probably be more likely to recommend this to someone that’s confident in their retailer (and their return/support policies).   Also note that I’ve ridden it at trade shows, but haven’t spent a ton of time on it outside of those venues.

STAC Zero:

STAC Zero started off as a Kickstarter project a year ago, and is one of the few to actually deliver and do what they said they’d so.  Far more importantly though – it’s actually silent.  100% truly silent.  The trainer uses magnets that interact with your wheel’s metal rims to create resistance.  The only sound you’d hear is your drivetrain.  I even tested it and all that jazz.  And more recently they announced a trainer for next summer that is also resistance controllable.

The current unit works by using magnets to create an eddy-current that gives resistance.  It means that from a resistance standpoint, no portion of it touches your bike.  Thus the entire thing is totally silent (save your drive train).  It’s really impressive.  They have two versions.  The base is a trainer without resistance control or broadcasting of your power.  While the second variant is a power meter version that does broadcast your power (but still no resistance control this year).  The base version costs $349USD, while the second version costs $449.

I recently got the most current production version in, and all is good there.  I will warn that you do need to ensure you’ve aligned the magnets correctly (which can be tricky the first time), else it’ll feel like crap.  But once you do get it lined up – it’s awesome sauce.

$100-$200 Trainers:

This is a tough category, because there are so many entrants here and I’ve only used a few.  And quite frankly, they’re all pretty similar.

My general recommendation is to check out the Travel Trac Magnetic Trainers that Performance Bike offers (these are also branded under various other names worldwide – usually about $100-$120).  The key thing is that you want to ensure it can handle an appropriate amount of watts.  For that, I’d swag 300w for those just getting into the sport, but probably more like 400-500w if you’ve got a bit more strength.  If you’re on the pointy end already, then you’ll already know your max wattage and already know you probably need more.

The most important thing is ensuring that it meets some of the characteristics that I talked about earlier in the post on things to look at (materials, build, stability, lever for control, etc…).

Finally, if you’re spending more than $200 in this category, you should really be looking at other automated resistance options.  About the only reason to spend more and get less is if you’re trying to get a trainer that supports a very high level of resistance (i.e., 1,000w), which some of the lower end trainers will fail at providing.

Unfortunately, I just don’t have a ton of recent experience in this category, and most of the players don’t tend to innovate very much here.

Mid-Range Trainers ($500-$600):

   

While this is a thin price bracket, it mostly captures the entire mid-range market.  And to be perfectly clear: They’re all about the same.  There are minor nuances between these trainers, for which you’ll want to look at closely depending on your needs.  Specifically, look carefully at these four areas:

A) Maximum incline
B) Maximum wattage
C) Which protocols/standards/types they transmit on (i.e., power, but not cadence, etc…)
D) Flywheel weight

That’s about the only real tangible differences between them.  They all have about the same road feel (and each company will tell you their road feel is better). They all have ANT+ FE-C, and they all work with Zwift and TrainerRoad.  Seriously, it’s mostly a wash.

The flywheel weight, in theory, gives a more road-like feel, but the thing is, at these weights, it’s all kinda wimpy to begin with.  I know a lot of folks want the most road-like feel, but my brain can’t really separate out the fact that I’m still inside looking at a wall going nowhere.  I’d rather have greater accuracy and more app support than the mythical road-like feel.

There are also very minor differences in how you mount your bike to each one in terms of the clasp/lever, but that’s too a wash.  About the only notable difference here is that the CycleOps Magnus has a nifty resistance knob that makes it easy to ensure your bike is at the same resistance setting each time.  It’s actually kinda brilliant.  But no matter, all of these will require calibration about 10-15 minutes into a ride to ensure accurate numbers.

With that in mind, here are your five basic options:

Wahoo KICKR SNAP – $599
CycleOps Magnus – $599
Elite Rampa – $549
Tacx Vortex Smart – $529

There’s also the dark horse from Minoura:

Minoura Kagura – $599

I checked out this one at Interbike, and it could be awesome.  But until they sort out the accuracy issues I saw there, I have to refrain from recommending it.  If they do that (and they could well do it tomorrow), it’s likely to gather my top-spot.

Oh, and yes, there’s the Tacx Bushido Smart at $799, which is nice in that you don’t need a power supply for it.  But honestly, I just can’t justify spending that much more compared to the pile of units noted above.

I know a lot of folks will want some sort of concrete answer on which of the four aforementioned trainers to pick, but the reality is that they are just so darn similar.  That’s obviously on purpose, the companies have largely modeled it after each other, and thus the end-state is basically the same.  I’d be happy with any of these four trainers.  I think the KICKR SNAP is probably the most robustly built of the bunch, whereas I think the Magnus is the most accurate of the bunch (plus it has up to 15% incline resistance, the most of the bunch, though the SNAP V2 is still at 12% which is solid).  The Vortex and Rampa are both the lightest of the bunch, thus the easiest to move around.  I’d say the Vortex is the weakest in terms of specs/resistance (especially depending on your weight), but it’s also the cheapest (even more so in Europe).

Here’s some nifty tables that might help narrow it down.  Remember, you can make your own comparison tables here.

Function/FeatureElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated October 11th, 2017 @ 5:38 amNew Window
Price for trainer$649/€550/£449$599$529$599
Attachment TypeWheel-onWheel-OnWheel-onWheel-on
Available today (for sale)YesYesYesYes
Availability regionsGlobalGlobalGlobalGlobal
Connects to computerYesYesYesYes
Uses mouse/keyboard as control unitYes (with apps)YES (WITH APPS)YES (WITH APPS)YES (WITH APPS)
Uses phone/tablet as control unit (handlebar)Yes (with apps)YES (WITH APPS)YES (WITH APPS)YES (WITH APPS)
Wired or Wireless data transmission/controlWirelessWirelessWirelessWireless
Power cord requiredYesYesYesYes
Flywheel weight2.3KG2.6lbs/1.2kg4.4lbs/2.0kg10.5lbs/4.8KG
ResistanceElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Can electronically control resistance (i.e. 200w)YesYesYesYes
Includes motor to drive speed (simulate downhill)NoNoNoNo
Maximum wattage capability1250w @ 25MPH1,500w @ 20MPH950w @ 20MPH2200W @ 30mph
Maximum simulated hill incline10%15%7%12%
FeaturesElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Ability to update unit firmwareYesYesYesYes
Measures/Estimates Left/Right PowerNoNoNoNo
Can directionally steer trainer (left/right)NoNoNoNo
Can simulate road patterns/shaking (i.e. cobblestones)NoNoNoNo
AccuracyElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Includes temperature compensationNoNoNoYes
Support rolldown procedure (for wheel based)YesYesYesYes
Supported accuracy level+/- 5%+/-5%+/- 5%+/- 3%
Trainer ControlElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Allows 3rd party trainer controlYesYesYesYes
Supports ANT+ FE-C (Trainer Control Standard)YesYesYesYes
Supports Bluetooth Smart control for 3rd partiesYEsYesYesYes
Data BroadcastElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Can re-broadcast power data as open ANT+YesYesYesYes
Can re-broadcast data as open Bluetooth SmartYesYesYesYes
PurchaseElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Amazon LinkLinkLinkLinkN/A
Clever Training Link (Save 10% with DCR10BTF)LinkLinkLinkLink
Clever Training EuropeLinkLinkLinkLink
DCRainmakerElite RampaCycleOps MagnusTacx Vortex SmartWahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)
Review LinkLinkLinkLinkLink

Mid-High End ($600-$999):

There are basically only two trainers at the moment that fit into this category that I’d consider: The Elite Direto and the Tacx Flux.  The Flux came out a year ago, while the Direto came out this past summer.  The specs on them are fairly similar, but there are some key differences.  One is accuracy (the Direto is rated higher), and two is differences in trainer noise pitch.  I say pitch, because the actual decibels are pretty similar – but the Flux sounds more grinding to me than the Direto.  They’re the exact same price at $899.

Note that there’s nothing wrong per se with the Tacx Flux, but I think at this point it’s slightly overpriced purely due to lesser accuracy.  Additionally, while the Flux got off to a rocky start last year with respect to manufacturing quality control issues, that’s long since been resolved.  So if looking at the interwebs around that topic – know that hasn’t been an issue since last spring.

Next, while Elite only claims +/- 2.5% for the Direto, almost universally folks agree it’s actually got higher (better) accuracy than it claims.  It actually even has a power meter in it.  All of which makes it my winner for this category.

Elite Direto Trainer:

As noted above, Elite really nailed it this year with the Direto.  Universally folks are pretty happy with the price and performance combination, and I think if you were to pick any trainer on this list as the best bang for your buck – this is it.  It really does challenge the higher end trainers, heck, even ignoring the $200-$300 cheaper than most of them.  The core difference you’ll tend to see between this unit and those is the max wattage/resistance values (which are still incredibly high for 98% of riders), as well as the road-feel (which is good, but not incredible).

For those trying to decide, here’s the Tacx Flux and Elite Direto side by side:

Function/FeatureTacx FluxElite Direto
Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated October 11th, 2017 @ 6:52 amNew Window
Price for trainer$899USD/€799$899 USD/€849/£749
Attachment TypeDirect Drive (no wheel)Direct Drive (No Wheel)
Available today (for sale)YEsYes
Availability regionsGlobalGlobal
Connects to computerYesYes
Uses mouse/keyboard as control unitYes (with apps)Yes (with apps)
Uses phone/tablet as control unit (handlebar)Yes (with apps)Yes (with apps)
Wired or Wireless data transmission/controlWirelessWireless
Power cord requiredYesYes (no control w/o)
Flywheel weight6.7kg (simulated 25kg)4.2KG/9.2LBS
ResistanceTacx FluxElite Direto
Can electronically control resistance (i.e. 200w)YesYes
Includes motor to drive speed (simulate downhill)NoNo
Maximum wattage capability1,500w @ 40KPH1,400w @ 40KPH / 2,200w @ 60KPH
Maximum simulated hill incline10%14%
FeaturesTacx FluxElite Direto
Ability to update unit firmwareYesYes
Measures/Estimates Left/Right PowerNoYEs
Can directionally steer trainer (left/right)NoNo
Can simulate road patterns/shaking (i.e. cobblestones)NoNo
AccuracyTacx FluxElite Direto
Includes temperature compensationYesN/A
Support rolldown procedure (for wheel based)YesN/A
Supported accuracy level+/-3%+/- 2.5%
Trainer ControlTacx FluxElite Direto
Allows 3rd party trainer controlYesYes
Supports ANT+ FE-C (Trainer Control Standard)YesYes
Supports Bluetooth Smart control for 3rd partiesYesYes
Data BroadcastTacx FluxElite Direto
Can re-broadcast power data as open ANT+YesYes
Can re-broadcast data as open Bluetooth SmartYesYes
PurchaseTacx FluxElite Direto
Amazon LinkLinkLink
Clever Training Link (Save 10% with DCR10BTF)LinkLink
Clever Training EuropeLinkLink
DCRainmakerTacx FluxElite Direto
Review LinkLinkLink

High-End Trainers ($1,000+):

Ahh yes, the vaulted space of the super expensive trainers.  While the upper-mid tier of trainers gets closer and closer to these units in specs, the distinguishing aspects of the high-end trainers tends to be road feel and resistance ceilings (and to a lesser extent these days, accuracy which is equal/better than +/- 2%).

Last year we saw a bunch of changes in this area with the new Elite Drivo, the new CycleOps Hammer, and then a refresh of the Wahoo KICKR (aka KICKR2).  This year though was a quieter year with just another very minor refresh of the Wahoo KICKR (now KICKR3/2017).  All of which join the Tacx Neo in this category.

The thing that changed this year is what I’m going to call the ‘Move it’ addendum.  Last year we saw Tacx add in the ability to shake your trainer to simulate cobblestones and other road surfaces.  It was pretty cool in a geeky way, albeit without a ton of specific training value.  This year we saw Wahoo double-down with their $600 CLIMB accessory, which simulates climbing by lifting the front of your bike up.  With Tacx, you pay more upfront in most countries but get the shaking built-in.  With Wahoo, you’ll have to wait till December to pay the additional $600 for the CLIMB, which is only compatible with Wahoo’s 2017 trainers.

Like the previous category, the remaining contenders (Elite Drivo, CycleOps Hammer) are fantastic offerings.  Seriously, you won’t go wrong with any of them. Period.  It’s just that for most people the conversation becomes why would you purchase a Hammer over a KICKR (since the KICKR has more app compatibility and now CLIMB too), and since they are priced the same…well…yeah, there is no good answer there anymore (it used to be thru-axle, but KICKR3 solved that).  For Drivo, that’s a fantastic trainer with what is probably better road feel than either Tacx Neo or KICKR – and as good accuracy as Neo.  But again, it’s tricky to recommend that (looks aside) to friends/family when the Neo and KICKR+CLIMB options are there.

That said, my recommendation is that either one of the below are awesome – it just depends on what you want…and what you want to spend.

Tacx Neo:

As of today, this is the trainer I turn to when I’m not testing other trainers.  It’s my go-to.  And for good reason: It requires no calibration, it’s really damn accurate, and it just works.  Oh, and it vibrates.  Everyone likes good vibrations.  Technically they’re cobblestones or what-not on Zwift, but you get the point.

Still, I think I value most the accuracy pieces.  I just don’t have to think about it.  There’s not even an option to calibrate it – and nobody has seen any reason for them to include one either.  It just works.  It also folds up relatively small, though the lack of a handle is fairly awkward in the event you’re trying to move it frequently and for long distances.  Did I mention it also looks like a ship from Star Wars?  Cause seriously, that design is worth something.

But of course – its biggest asset it just how quiet it is.  It’s silent.  About the only sound you’re going to hear is your drivetrain and a slight hum.  If you want the quietest controllable trainer on the market – this is it.  If you want the most accurate, this is it.  If you want the most road-like feel…this might be it.  It’s debatable.  Everyone who has ridden this and the KICKR differs on which is more road-like.  I could put 10 well-respected cycling journalists in a room and blindfold them and ride both trainers and they’d likely even have differing opinions ride to ride.

Ultimately, for now, it’s my trainer of choice.

Wahoo KICKR 3 + CLIMB:

Now here’s the thing.  I consider both of these top two options somewhat equal, albeit at different price points and for different people.  I’ve tried out the CLIMB a few times, and while it’s definitely interesting, I’m not 100% sold on it till they get a final hardware version with smoothing sorted out.  I think they’ll do that, but just giving you that warning.

Once they do though – then in many ways it’ll be the ultimate trainer setup (aside I suppose from the $9,000 or so Tacx Magnum).  It might become my combination then – if for no other reason than it’s geeky cool.  Because let’s face it – at this price point that is a very real reason you’re choosing these trainers over the almost equally as functional mid-upper tier ones.

The KICKR series isn’t anywhere near as quiet as the Tacx Neo, but it is cheaper.  In US dollars it’s a lot cheaper – some $400 most of the time.  Whereas in Europe that gap is almost equal in many cases.  And as alluded to above, some say the KICKR has better road-like feel (while others say it’s the Neo).

Once CLIMB ships, I’ll definitely review that (my first look is here), so any decisions you make now about this as a combo package would be under the understanding that it’s not final till the fat lady sings.  Or climbs.  Whatever it is she does.

Function/FeatureTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated November 2nd, 2017 @ 7:13 amNew Window
Price for trainer$1,599USD/€1,399$1,199
Attachment TypeDirect Drive (no wheel)Direct Drive (No Wheel)
Available today (for sale)YesYes
Availability regionsGlobalGlobal
Connects to computerYesYes
Uses mouse/keyboard as control unitYes (with apps)YEs (with apps)
Uses phone/tablet as control unit (handlebar)Yes (with apps)YEs (with apps)
Wired or Wireless data transmission/controlWirelessWireless
Power cord requiredNoYes
Flywheel weightSimulated/Virtual12.5lbs/5.7kgs
ResistanceTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Can electronically control resistance (i.e. 200w)YesYes
Includes motor to drive speed (simulate downhill)YesNo
Maximum wattage capability2,200w @ 40KPH2500w @ 30MPH
Maximum simulated hill incline25%20%
FeaturesTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Ability to update unit firmwareYesYes
Measures/Estimates Left/Right PowerNoNo
Can directionally steer trainer (left/right)With accessoryNo
Can simulate road patterns/shaking (i.e. cobblestones)YesNo (But can use KICKR CLIMB for incline)
AccuracyTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Includes temperature compensationN/AYes
Support rolldown procedure (for wheel based)N/AYes
Supported accuracy level+/- 1%+/- 2%
Trainer ControlTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Allows 3rd party trainer controlYesYes
Supports ANT+ FE-C (Trainer Control Standard)YesYEs
Supports Bluetooth Smart control for 3rd partiesYesYEs
Data BroadcastTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Can re-broadcast power data as open ANT+YesYes
Can re-broadcast data as open Bluetooth SmartYesYes
PurchaseTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Amazon LinkLinkLink
Clever Training - Save a bunch with Clever Training VIP programLinkLink
Clever Training - Save a bunch with Clever Training VIP programLinkLink
DCRainmakerTacx NEO SmartWahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)
Review LinkLinkLink

The why I didn’t include it list:

First and foremast, this isn’t a list of bad trainers.  If you take that away from this paragraph, then you’re mistaken.  In fact, there are some awesome trainers in here.  Instead, this list is to save me time answering the same question 928 times below for each trainer as to why I didn’t include them.  I’m keeping these explanations short and sweet.  In many cases I’ve detailed out longer answers in posts related to those products.

Elite Kura: In a nutshell, it’s been eclipsed by the Elite Direto for roughly the same price.  Also, the Kura wasn’t ANT+ FE-C or Bluetooth controllable.  It had great road feel, but you couldn’t set a given wattage like many other trainers.

Anything older Elite: Basically, if it hasn’t got one of the new names (Rampa, Kura, Drivo, Direto), I’d consider it older tech and simply would focus on the newer stuff.  Now you might find some older units out there for a steal, but validate that it has dual ANT+/Bluetooth Smart, as well as FE-C (if you’re looking for a controllable unit).

CycleOps PowerBeam Pro & PowerSync: These are far too old.  And specifically, the units have single-standard support. A unit is either ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart, but not both.  And none of them support the newer standards (though most apps support their older variants).

CompuTrainer: They went out of business (or at least stopped making them) this past spring.  I generally don’t recommend products that don’t have a sustainable support path.  I do think if you can get a used unit under about $500, and know exactly which apps you’re using – then go forth.

LeMond Revolution Pro: The company has folded and ceased operations too many times in such a short time. Like CompuTrainer, they’re out of business.

BKOOL Air or Smart Pro 2: Neither of these are out yet, so I can’t recommend them yet.  I have low confidence in the Air, though I suspect the Smart Pro 2 will be out sooner and probably just fine.

Tacx Genius Smart: This trainer is different from the other Tacx units in that it can actually spin the wheel by itself, thus simulating downhill sections.  While fun for a ride or two, I don’t find it worth the extra money.  Like anything else, if you find it for what you consider a great deal, then sure there’s no harm in the extra capability…but for MSRP pricing, no thanks.

Tacx Bushido Smart: While it has more incline simulation capability (15% vs Vortex Smart at 7%), that really only impacts you if you’re doing hills above that. It’s about the slow speed, and not actually the total wattage output. I think if it were cheaper, then I might be inclined, but it’s in a weird price point for me at the moment where I’d be more likely to recommend a Tacx Flux or Elite Direto.

Minoura Kagura: This could – and very likely will – make the list of mid-range trainers up above.  But right now I *need* to see the accuracy aspects implemented correctly.  That’s a biggie.  I totally get that the unit I tried at Interbike wasn’t final, but it absolutely should have been at least mostly accurate.  Once they show to me in a unit on my doorstep that it’s accurate, it may even earn one of the top spots in that mid-range lineup.

STAC Zero Controllable Trainer: I showed this at Interbike, but it’s not coming out till next summer.  Thus, too early for now.  Note that their non-controllable unit is out and shipping now and in my recommendations up above.

Jet Black WhisperDrive Smart: I think they could be onto something with this higher end controllable trainer, but they’ve simply gotta ship it.  And that hasn’t happened yet.  Until it does and I can ride it, it’s kinda hard to recommend it.

Kurt Kinetic Smart Control Trainers: I thought they had the right idea last year with offering the upgrade kits for *any* older trainers.  While the upgrade kits were a bit overpriced (by about $100-$150), the theory was sound.  Well, until we found out that it doesn’t follow any standard (ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart ones). If you want the longer story, read my post here and then read through the 200 or so comments.  I had really hoped they’d have made an adapter or something for this year, which would have gotten them back in the game.  But alas, nothing changed.

Wattbike Atom: Yes, it’s awesome.  But it’s not technically a trainer.  Perhaps next year I’ll extend this guide to include non-trainer units like indoor cycles.  If you think an indoor bike is a better fit for you, then check out my full post on it.  As I noted, it’s awesome and awesomely priced.  Though, only available in the UK right now.

Trainer FAQ:

Most of this is from years past, but I wanted to repeat it for this year.  I’ve tweaked things where appropriate and/or where they’ve changed.

What about trainer tires?

I commented on trainer tires a long while back in a Weekly Mailbag post, so here’s what I said then – which still applies today.

I train every day on the stock wheels and tires that came with the bike.  Just normal tires and normal wheels.  In fact, I don’t even bother to swap out for a separate trainer tire.  Why?  Well, my thinking is that I spend 3+ days a week on a trainer, and the last thing I want to deal with is swapping tires or wheels every time I go inside to outside or the inverse (I’m kinda lazy that way).  Further, when you step back and look at the total cost of triathlon or cycling, and the total cost of simply getting a new tire each year due to wear – the new tire is pretty low (between $30-45).

Now, if you’re riding race wheels with expensive race tires – you’ll have to balance the much higher cost of most race tires.

Do trainer tires make it quieter?

Nope, actually, not at all.  And I proved this as part of my Tacx Genius review – some actually make it louder.  I’ve then further confirmed this with a few other tire companies as well.  Most of them kinda silently laugh at the fact that people actually buy expensive trainer tires.  Hint: Just use last season’s tire and toss it at the end of the winter.

Why didn’t you recommend XYZ trainer or software instead?  It’s waaaaay better!

As noted above, it’s likely because I haven’t used it.  I’m pretty strict in that I don’t recommend things I haven’t used or know a lot about.  I know magazines love to, but I don’t.  Sorry!

Any tips or suggestions on where to place remote controls/jelly beans/bike computers/etc. while on a trainer?

Yup, you’re in luck.  I’d recommend either a simple 4-cup OXO measuring cup (silly, I know, but it clips onto almost all road bike bars and triathlon bike aerobars – awesome).  Or, you can build your own like I did here in this post.

What about that desk you use on the trainer?

Ahh yes, that desk is awesome.  More on that here in my in-depth review.

Do you use a trainer pad/mat (floor protector)?

Sometimes.  You can find endless numbers of them online or at your local bike shop – usually around $30.  You can also just use a towel, just be sure that if you’re on carpet that you change the towel regularly, otherwise it’ll eventually stain the carpet below (sweat going down into it).  Here’s the thing, don’t overspend on this – that’s silly.  You don’t need a $70 trainer mat.  As long as it’s waterproof (thus, sweat proof) and offers some padding to lower sound profiles, that’s really the key thing.

What’s the quietest trainer?

Technically, it’s the STAC Zero.  But for resistance controlled it’d be the Tacx NEO, though the Elite Drivo is fairly quiet as well.

What about generic rollers, any thoughts?

I don’t have a ton of experience on rollers unfortunately.  And there’s really only a handful of units I’d recommend – namely the Inside Ride rollers and Elite’s variant of almost the same thing.

In any event, I find that the cross-over between people who really like riding rollers and the people who really like the technology aspect tends to be rather small.  Said differently, roller people tend to be more purists who don’t want technology in the way (not all of course, but most). The one thing I do like about the Inside Ride unit is that the bumpers make it a bit easier to get used to riding rollers versus units without that, plus they support the ANT+ FE-C.  So if I had to pick a pair of rollers, I’d go that direction or the Elite variant.

What about one of those bike protective thong cover things?

No, sorry, I don’t cover up my bike.  I’ve spent A LOT of time on my bike, pouring a lot of sweat – many multi-hour rides.  But you know what?  I’ve never seen any adverse issues due to it.  Perhaps I’m lucky, perhaps it’s not normal.  Either way, I don’t use one.  That said, Tacx released a cool one that actually has a cell-phone holder built in (with a protective plastic cover).  Kinda neat.

Support the site, save 10%!

If you’re looking at any of the above devices, you can support the site by purchasing through any of the below links.  Here’s a handy table of everything mentioned above that I have a review on.  And remember that everything you purchase through Clever Training saves you 10% off your entire cart – so that will definitely help in some of the trainers’ cases.  You’ll use coupon code DCR10BTF and you’ll also get free US shipping for all items over $75.  For the Wahoo products, you’ll need the DCR/CT VIP club, but that only takes a moment to sign-up.

‘2017-2018 Trainer Recommendations’ compatiblePrice for trainerAmazon LinkClever Training - Save a bunch with Clever Training VIP programReview
Copyright DC Rainmaker - Updated October 13th, 2017 @ 12:44 am
STAC Zero Power Meter$449LinkLinkLink
Wahoo Fitness KICKR3 (2017)$1,199LinkLinkLink
Wahoo KICKR SNAP (2017)$599N/ALinkLink
CycleOps Magnus$599LinkLinkLink
Elite Rampa$649/€550/£449LinkLinkLink
Tacx NEO Smart$1,599USD/€1,399LinkLinkLink
Tacx Satori Smart$399LinkLinkLink
Tacx Vortex Smart$529LinkLinkLink

Thanks for reading!  And feel free to drop any questions below, I’ll be happy to answer them.