Heads up! Massive Sale on Garmin, Suunto, Polar, Trainers and more! There’s two huge sales going on – first is a major Garmin sale, including $100 off new Forerunner 945 and $150 off the Fenix 5 Plus. Along with the Varia Radar, Garmin Edge 130 & 1030, and plenty more.
Plus there’s the big semi-annual 20% off sale, with virtually all major trainers and power meters included. Wahoo KICKR’s, Tacx NEO’s, Elite Direto’s and Suito’s, Saris H3, Kinetic, R1 4iiii Fliiiight, Stages, and many more. Not to mention the GPS units from Garmin, Polar, COROS, Lezyne, Suunto, Apple and others.
The trees are turning colors and the leaves are falling. Except if you live in Australia. But for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere you’re probably thinking about spending more and more time indoors on a trainer, and perhaps looking at a new trainer.
Of course, over the last few years we’ve seen a shift towards year-round indoor training. Certainly many people trained at least part of their workouts year-round indoors, but with apps being more and more engaging (and driver interactions getting worse and worse) – people are simply spending time even on sunny days indoors riding.
Now in years past I’ve covered all trainers, from $70 units up to $1,600 trainers. But for this year’s post(as with last year’s), I’m really going to focus only on smart trainers. Specifically ones that transmit some sort of ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart signal (dual/concurrently), and allow control of the trainer itself (via ANT+ FE-C and/or Bluetooth Smart FTMS). In other words: A company has to follow the well recognized standards to even be considered for this list.
In any case, we saw new smart trainers (or indoor bikes) from virtually every major brand this year, as well as some smaller brands. Some of them made big jumps, while most made more incremental bumps in specs and features. Evolutionary – not revolutionary. And some of them just issued moderately big firmware updates adding new features.
At this point almost every trainer announced this season has started shipping. There are some exceptions though, and as such – I’ll note why those aren’t on the recommended list and where they might stand on a provisional list until I get them in-house to test. Generally speaking, I’m not going to recommend something unless I have a unit in the DCR Cave (exceptions are noted as such). So for things that are still outstanding, it’s tougher for me to recommend them at this time. I have notes at the bottom of this post for all my caveats and why-nots.
Finally, for indoor bikes – specifically the Tacx NEO Bike, Wahoo KICKR Bike, and WattBike ATOM, I have a separate shoot-out post coming up next week that tackles that individually.
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 unless I have a unit on-hand. An example of this being the Elite Tuo – I think it could be a stand-out option in the budget wheel-on category. But my only experience is a couple of minutes of pedaling a prototype at Eurobike. So it’s hard to judge things like accuracy or total ride feel until they’ve got production units (apparently within a few weeks). So in the two specific examples where I think it could be a solid contender but don’t have full testing time, I’ve listed them as ‘Provisional inclusions’. In other words, it’s worth placing a pre-order you can cancel later if my full review finds they fall flat.
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 112 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 and even $700 trainers. I had to change my price bucketing last year to account for this (again). My purpose isn’t so much moving the goalposts, as it is making the groupings more logical. Meaning, someone looking to spend $599 is probably OK spending $699, and someone teetering at $529 might be OK spending that $699 too if the benefits make sense.
Meanwhile, someone looking for a $599 trainer isn’t likely the same person as one looking at a $1,199 trainer. So, here’s the 2019 buckets, aligned to the trends of trainer pricing in 2019:
Budget – Sub-$500: Most of these (all of these?) are wheel-on trainers that have basic smart trainer functionality (including replicating climbs, setting specific wattages, and working with apps). However, they tend to be less powerful trainers and may not be as accurate or as realistic feeling.
Mid-Range $500-$700: These tend to be units that have everything of the price bucket below it, but usually with just a bit more accuracy and a bit more power. Often with that slightly better road feel.
Mid-High End $700-$975: This category exists because there’s a clear line in the sand between the flood of sub-$599 trainers, and the flotilla of $700-$800 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). The key difference here tends to be accuracy and road-feel, once again stepping it up a bit.
High-End $999+: These are the high-end trainers, and primarily distinguish themselves from the mid-range by increasing durability, reducing noise, increasing road-like feel, incline/wattage increases, or just being expensive for the heck of it (i.e., legacy branding/marketing).
Now – you’ll notice the dollar signs, which in this case is implying US pricing. I call this out specifically because the whole pricing business has gotten kinda wonky, especially in the differences between US and European markets. There are specific cases where something may have a price gap in one market (i.e., KICKR vs. NEO in the US), yet be nearly identical in other markets (some European countries). Similarly, the European markets generally get a better deal on European-made products (Tacx/Elite), while US consumers tend to get better pricing on US-made products (Wahoo). All of which ignores the reality of MAP (Minimum Advertised Pricing), which exists in the US and doesn’t exist in Europe.
Next, be wary of purchasing trainers outside your home country (meaning, if in the US, buying from a retailer in Europe). This is because if you have a problem, you’ll be on the hook to pay for shipping of the trainer back across the pond for service. As one who does that regularly, it’s @#$#@ expensive. If you don’t believe me, go and look at the older 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 – at least on vulnerable and load-bearing components/areas. Take for example, the old 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 Wahoo KICKR in that same camp. It’s a beast component-wise. In many ways, the KICKR SNAP frame is the same way – as are the Kinetic frames too.
Inversely though, while the Tacx NEO series shell is made of plastic, directly under that layer is a metal frame. And nobody is kicking the side of their trainer randomly from that angle. Frankly, looking at anything on this list there’s no durability-type issues. The ‘worst’ durability type issue we’ve seen is the stickers (chevrons) on the back of the Wahoo KICKR/CORE trainers flying off the flywheel. Which I feel is almost a badge of honor that you put out that much wattage.
Second, look at the attachment 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 on the mid-range Tacx options:
In the case of trainers that you attach your bike directly into a cassette mounted on the trainer – called ‘direct drive trainers’, be sure that it’ll be compatible with your bike frame. There are only a few edge cases where an incompatibility occurs (primarily higher-end bikes, usually of the triathlon or disc variety), but just be aware of them. Many trainer companies have printouts on their support sites where you can double-check frame compatibility on your bike.
And if you’ve got a disc-brake equipped bike, ensure that the trainer you’re purchasing includes the adapters for that. Generally speaking, most trainers include 130/135 x 5mm & 142 x 12mm adapters, but require you purchase extra adapters for other sizes. Beware if you’re looking at an older unit (like 3+ years old), as many of these didn’t support thru-axle natively, or even at all. These days in 2019 it’s less of an issue.
Speaking of fancy, if you’re going with something like SRAM’s AXS 12-speed bikes, be sure that your trainer works with that. Most companies have adapters (and in many cases finally just released them in the past few months), but not always. I *strongly* encourage you to e-mail the company in question and ask them about your specific bike and the specific trainer to validate compatibility.
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.
Fourth, direct drive or wheel-on? If you went back 3-5 years ago, only the most expensive trainers were direct drive and the rest wheel-on. But these days direct-drive smart trainers are down to $699, and that’s great for consumers. Wheel-on trainers mean that you mount the entire bike, inclusive of your back wheel, to the trainer. Whereas direct-drive trainers mean you remove the back wheel and attach the bike directly to the trainer (via a cassette on the trainer). This means that you generally don’t get any tire slip on direct drive trainers, and for many models you can also get away without having to do calibration/spin-downs.
These days my preference is overwhelmingly direct-drive, but I also totally get that such a trainer may be out of the ballpark of one’s budget.
Fifth, how do you move it around? This might sound silly – but if it’s a heavier trainer (which is most mid-range and above trainers), then is there some sort of handle to move the darn thing around? Most of these trainers come in at nearly 50 pounds (about 23KG) – so they’re beastly.
Again – virtually everything on this list has already taken into account all of these considerations. But still, it’s worthwhile thinking of them and how they factor into your decision-making process.
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:
Compatible devices, such as a Garmin/Suunto/Polar/Wahoo unit can pick up these signals and record them. The same goes for apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad, or Rouvy. Almost all trainer companies now broadcast dual on both protocols concurrently. No trainers in the 2019 guide fail to meet this requirement, to me it’s considered a baseline specification.
Next, for control there are basically two semi-standards that allow trainers to be controlled via apps:
Open/Standard Communication Channel: Via ANT+ FE-C (all trainers use this today) or Bluetooth Smart FTMS (most trainers have this today as well). Private communication channel: Prior to FE-C and and FTMS there wasn’t a standard. So each company did their own thing. Wahoo, CycleOps (now Saris), Tacx, Elite, Kinetic, etc… Most of these companies now support the ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart standard versions, but some of them also support their older variants to help out older apps.
For ANT+ FE-C, devices such as the Garmin and Wahoo cycling units 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.
Meanwhile, for Bluetooth Smart, there’s FTMS, which is basically the same thing as FE-C when it comes to trainers. It’s not quite as widely adopted yet by trainer companies, but is by app companies. On the trainer company side only Elite, Saris, and Kinetic support it across the board. With Tacx having it on some but not all units, and Wahoo having it on no units (but all Wahoo and Tacx trainers support private Bluetooth Smart with all major apps anyway).
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.
Elite: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers. Gravat: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers JetBlack: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers. Kinetic: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers. Minoura: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers. Saris (CycleOps): ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers. STAC: ANT+ FE-C and Bluetooth Smart FTMS on all 2019 smart trainers. Tacx: ANT+ FE-C on all ‘Smart’ branded trainers (except Satori). FTMS on some models (mainly non-NEO series). For remainder of trainers there’s still Bluetooth Smart control that all apps support. Wahoo: ANT+ FE-C on all smart trainers. Gives developers access to private Wahoo Bluetooth Smart control.
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. But ultimately, if you buy any trainer from this guide, it’ll be some variant of dual.
Budget Smart Trainers (sub-$499):
There’s once again been almost no appreciable shift in this category this year, so things stay basically the same as last year. And, there’s really only a few entrants in this category anyway. Only Tacx, Elite, and BKool compete in this realm from a legit smart-trainer standpoint (ones where you can control resistance).
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 have ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart broadcasting of speed, power, and cadence…AND…control of the incline/wattage.
Lastly, this is the one category I don’t have a ton of riding time on either of those units. Both of them have been at trade shows or the like.
The two options that I can recommend are as follows:
Tacx Flow Smart – 239EUR/329USD: This is without question the least expensive smart trainer on the market, though it mostly is only available in Europe (some European companies may ship to the USA). This tops out at only 6% inclines and 800w. The 800w piece probably isn’t too challenging for most people, especially triathletes, but the 6% gradient may be tricky (of course, if you leave defaults on Zwift, you’re unlikely to notice). GPLama/Shane Miller has tested this in a video, and it’s definitely worth a watch. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this for heavier riders, but it might work well for lighter riders that are mostly doing ERG work (structured workouts). Finally, the accuracy spec is only +/- 10%, which is the least accurate unit of the entire bunch. Still, for the price, as Shane says – you get what you pay for – but definitely watch his whole video. Oh, and the Flow supports both ANT+ & Bluetooth Smart and all the goodness you’d expect.
BKool Smart Go – $399USD: This is three years old now, but still a unique option. The unit replicates up to 8% grades and 800w, so pretty similar to the Tacx Flow, but with an oddly unstated (or findable) accuracy specification. Most others have found it fairly variable. I haven’t done a full review of the Smart Go, but have done the other BKool trainers and have things a bit variable. 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.
Mid-Range Trainers ($499-$700):
While this is a very specific price bracket, it mostly captures the entire mid-range market. And to be perfectly clear: They’re all about the same, except one. 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 Bluetooth Smart control, and they all work with Zwift and TrainerRoad.
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. Still, at this level it’s definitely different between these $500-$600 trainers and those a $1,000+.
Now this line-up has mostly remained the same. However, Elite has introduced the Tuo, which based on my brief Eurobike testing seemed to have far better road-feel than I expected at this price point. But it isn’t shipping yet and I don’t have a unit for real testing yet. Last year Elite also had Zumo included in the list provisionally, assuming they worked out some kinks. They didn’t work those out until this past summer (for real). And in fact, it was only this morning that I finally got on a unit with updated firmware to get it tested on two rides. Good news – it’s solid (finally)!
Meanwhile, there’s also 4iiii with the new Fliiiight (previously by STAC). That too was announced at Eurobike and I think it’s super compelling, but I don’t yet have a unit in for testing and they haven’t started shipping yet. It seems to have righted most of the quirks with the original STAC Zero virtually silent trainers (they use magnets instead, it’s cool if you haven’t seen it). But again, definitely provisional until I can get it in to test.
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 Saris Magnus/M2 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 lower-priced options:
4iiii Fliiiight $599 (provisional inclusion) Elite Zumo – $699 (if you’re looking for direct drive at this price bucket) Elite Tuo – $499 (provisional inclusion) Kinetic Smart Control Road Machine 2018 Edition – $569 Saris (CycleOps) M2 – $499 Wahoo KICKR SNAP – $499
Last year I included the Bushido Smart, but it got kicked off the island this year as its price stayed static at $620 despite everyone else going lower, I don’t see any reason to pick up the Bushido Smart at that price. And similarly, the Vortex Smart is at $520, but spec-wise it just doesn’t compete with the others above from a simulation of incline or accuracy standpoint.
I know a lot of folks will want some sort of concrete answer on which of the 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 them 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/M2 is the most accurate of the bunch (plus it has up to 15% incline resistance, which along with the Bushido is the most of the bunch). And the Elite Zumo is the only direct drive trainer of the bunch – which is super appealing.
If I were to really narrow it down, it’d probably be between the Elite Zumo and the Wahoo KICKR SNAP. The SNAP has better road-like feel, while the Zumo has the convenience and accuracy of a direct drive trainer (in that you don’t have to worry about tire pressure. Accuracy of power numbers is equal, but in different ways. I find the SNAP slightly more variable on the whole, whereas I find the Zumo can clip some sprints (meaning, it shorts you a bit). Overall, roughly a wash. Keep in mind though with the Zumo you’re still gonna spend another $50 for a cassette to put on it (and another $20 for tools if you or a friend don’t have them). Which means you’re within a few Starbucks visits of the $799 that is the Elite Suito – a more powerful trainer with better road-like feel that includes the cassette pre-installed. And heck, you even get free 30 days of Zwift, FWIW. More on that in the next category.
Here’s some nifty tables that might help narrow it down. Remember, you can make your own comparison tables here.
This is a tricky category, and where the vast majority of ‘innovation’ is occurring. Though, not necessarily product innovation, but rather just price innovation. Companies continue to pack more and more features and power into sub-$1000 trainers. Especially trainers in the $799-$899 price points.
And in some ways, these companies are slicing and dicing really thinly. For example with Tacx you’ve got the Flux S ($749) and Flux 2 ($899) both in the market. And Elite has the Zumo ($699), Suito ($799), and Direto X ($899). In the case of Tacx, they’ve quietly refreshed the Flux 2 this year to rid it of issues from last year around ERG mode (it was horribly inaccurate). That includes a bunch of internal shifts that actually make it a trainer worth buying, though I haven’t tested one yet and don’t have one here to put through its paces.
But then there’s the KICKR CORE. That came out last year when Wahoo basically took a full 2017 KICKR and made it silent. They then lopped $300 off the price. This meant that you got what up until last summer was one of the best trainers on the market that was loved by most, for $300 cheaper – and now it didn’t make any tangible noise. Well, until it broke. But I think those issues are almost entirely behind us these days for people going out and buying new trainers. I sure as hell wouldn’t touch any used 2018 Wahoo trainers though, god no.
In any case, that pretty much decimated the value prop for the Elite Direto at $899 or the Tacx Flux 2 at $899. Elite dropped their price to $849, though I still don’t think that really does a ton. Instead, they launched the Suito this year at $799 with an included cassette. And I think that’s hitting a bit of the sweet spot. Or, Suito-spot. You get a direct drive trainer that requires zero assembly – pull it straight out of the box, plug it in, and you’re riding. And doesn’t cost anything more. With all the other direct drive trainers in this category you’ll still need to do some assembly as well as adding that $50 cassette (+ $20 in tool costs if you don’t have them).
Wahoo KICKR CORE:
There’s really no surprise this trainer is here. Now, it definitely had a rough winter with after-sales issues that crept up and caused, rightfully so, lots of upset people. A combination of noise issues and electrostatic discharge issues that killed units with merely a single touch. But as we stand here in October 2019, the complaints about those issues for people buying new units have evaporated. Wahoo continues to sell those units in higher volumes than ever before, so given that combination – I think this is solved.
In any case, ultimately, the CORE is essentially a 2017 KICKR that’s been muted. If you had told someone early last summer that they can buy a quiet KICKR for $300 less, albeit with no ability to adjust height – people would have scrambled for it. And, that’s what happened.
Finally, the CORE is compatible with the KICKR CLIMB. The fact that the CORE is compatible with the KICKR CLIMB means that you can get a CORE + CLIMB for $1,500, versus just a KICKR FOR $1,200. Said differently, you can justify to your significant other that you’re saving $300.
Next, we’ve got Elite’s pretty darn smart plan of simplifying the end user experience – rather than just throwing another trainer into the $700-$800 mix. With the Suito you get the cassette pre-installed on the trainer. The only other trainer that has that is the full Wahoo KICKR (at $1,199). Heck, Elite even saves you $5-$10 by tossing in a front wheel riser. All while giving you a fairly capable direct drive trainer. Finally, it folds up easily for storage and comes entirely pre-assembled.
Now the key difference between the Elite Direto/Direto X and the Suito is the lack of power meter within it (called OTS by Elite). But keep in mind, having a power meter in it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not it’s accurate. After all – neither the Tacx NEO or Wahoo KICKR series have power meters in them, and are just fine with accuracy (in fact, Wahoo even ditched the power meter in theirs years ago due to accuracy issues). Of course, nobody is saying the Direto-X isn’t accurate. It is. It’s incredibly accurate.
But with the latest Suito firmware update that I got last week, it too is pretty darn accurate. I have no issues with it from a Zwift or TrainerRoad standpoint, meaning no issues in regular riding, sprints, or doing ERG mode 30×30’s – all of which can be demanding. That said, Elite does seem to be going through some teething pains with the Suito production – with a few people reporting early units back in September having uneven flywheels and other quirks. The number of complaints seems to have tapered off in recent weeks, and Elite seems to swap out any units pretty quickly if people have issues. It wouldn’t keep me from buying it from any reputable dealer.
All in, I think the Suito is this year’s best value for a trainer, especially if you aren’t really sure what you need or want. Sure, the Wahoo CORE has more inertia and thus slightly better road-feel. But the Elite Suito will basically save you $150 once you factor in the cassette cost. Oh, and the Suito does also include a 30-day free Zwift trial, which is oddly hard to get otherwise (Zwift themselves only offers 20 kilometer free trials, for realz). So again, if you don’t really know what you want, it’s an ideal option to play the field.
Tacx Flux S:
Sitting at $150 cheaper than the CORE at $749, the Flux S is basically just the 2016/2017/2018 Flux 1 with a bunch of internal changes and support for longer derailleur cages. And by basically, I mean, that’s all it is. But that’s OK. The Flux 1 was incredibly popular and for good reason. It was the first direct-drive smart trainer below $1,000 when it came out, and supported all the apps people wanted. Thus, it’s an easy pick.
Now between this and the Elite Suito, it’s a tough call. It’s basically a wash price-wise once you factor in the required cassette. Form-factor the Suito wins because it can fold its legs for storage, though the Flux is a bit beefier in terms of stability. I feel like the Flux has slightly better inertia than the Suito, though I also think the Flux sounds a bit more ‘rough’ than the Suito does (a bit more gravelly, if that makes sense).
Neither the Flux S or Elite Suito is silent in the same way the CORE is. But ultimately, all those trainers make some amount of noise once you put a bike on it. After all, there’s still a drivetrain of metal on metal. No doubt the CORE is very quiet, but once you turn on a fan – all of these trainers are quiet in comparison.
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 +/- 1%).
This category has largely remained the same for the three previous years, (both winners and non-winners alike), but finally, Saris manages to join the ranks of the recommended units list here with the H3. Still, the Wahoo KICKR 2018 and Tacx NEO 2T remain incredibly close – both are silent (save the drivetrain), while the Saris H3 isn’t. It’s quite a bit quieter than the Hammer 1/Hammer 2 were though, thankfully. And, it got a lower price. All three of these are accurate (notably so for me with the latest Tacx NEO 2T firmware 0.31).
Essentially though, you’re left with comparing some minor nuances in features (and entertainment/experience/distraction ‘features’).
By that, I mean that we’ve got what I’m going to call the ‘Move it’ addendum. With the Tacx NEO series that’s the ability for the trainer to simulate cobblestones and other road surfaces. It’s pretty cool in a geeky way, albeit without a ton of specific training value. Meanwhile, with the Wahoo KICKR (and KICKR CORE/SNAPv2) you can add their $600 CLIMB accessory, which simulates climbing by lifting the front of your bike up. The Saris H3 doesn’t move by itself, though you can spend an extra $1,200 for their motion platform. But that’s compatible with all trainers.
Tacx NEO Series:
You’ll notice I said ‘NEO Series’, and not just the NEO 2T. Because frankly, all of them are still really solid. The NEO 2 added some minor internal hardware over the NEO 1, and eventually Tacx plans to release Garmin Cycling Dynamics to the NEO 2T and NEO 2 based on that. Whereas the NEO 2T got substantially increased power from an internals standpoint.
With that, Tacx got rid of the low-speed slip-sprint problem of the NEO 1/2. That sub-second issue was rare for most people, but basically occurred if you were at very low speeds (like going up a steep hill, or just easy pedaling on the flats waiting for your buddy) – and then instantly sprinted hard. It would feel like the trainer ‘slipped’ for a fraction of a second. It never really bothered that many people with the NEO 1/2, but either way, it’s gone now. And…that’s it in terms of end-user differences.
Ultimately the NEO 1 and 2 trainers were usually 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 (though, slightly less so with the new blue bottom on the NEO 2). I had some issues with the NEO 2T as I noted back in August when it was first announced, and finally last week they issued a firmware that I’ve been putting through its paces and it’s pretty darn good. I still have some very minor things I can nitpick on (oddly enough, I think it’s actually too powerful in certain cases), but realistically I can nitpick at this level on all these units.
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 both the quietest and most accurate trainer on the market (and most powerful), 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.
Wahoo KICKR 2018
Now here’s the thing. I consider both of these top two options somewhat equal, albeit at different price points and for different people. If you’re planning on buying the KICKR CLIMB, then obviously, get a Wahoo unit. The CLIMB doesn’t work with non-Wahoo trainers. But yes, the CLIMB is fun to ride.
The KICKR 2018 got an increased flywheel size over the KICKR 2017. Additionally, the KICKR 2018 became silent over the previous models. I suspect most people can’t feel the flywheel size difference between the 2017 and 2018, I know I can’t. And GPLama/Shane Miller has said the same. Perhaps in certain scenarios it’ll manifest itself, but I haven’t seen said scenario. And as such, I don’t notice any difference in feeling between a KICKR CORE and KICKR 2018.
Still, if you want the ultimate in upwards/downwards indoor trainer movement, the KICKR 2018 + CLIMB is where it’s at (well, technically the KICKR BIKE has a greater range). Not to mention the fact that unlike the more expensive Tacx NEO, you actually get a cassette included here. Why on earth the NEO doesn’t include a cassette is (still!) beyond me.
Finally, like the KICKR CORE above it – the KICKR 2018 also experienced a rough winter last year. But also like the notes I made about the CORE, I think these issues are largely behind us for any new purchases. But again, I sure as hell wouldn’t buy a used KICKR CORE/2018 off of anybody (Updated note: This does not apply to Wahoo’s own refurbed units. While initially I was skeptical of these, in talking to Wahoo and their specific procedure for handling these, I’m not worried about one of these. They carry the same warranties as new KICKR’s – 1 year in US, 2 years in EU, and while they don’t go back to the factory, they are run through a complete refurb process and functionality check by Wahoo. Which in my mind basically makes them no different than new KICKR’s, except these might have scratches/dings on them.)
Saris H3 (Hammer 3):
Going into this season, I wouldn’t honestly have expected that the Saris H3 would have made the list. After all, it’s always fallen short in years past with the H1 & H2. But this year the company made some minor technological tweaks, but also substantially reduced the price. And that combination put it over the edge.
First up, from the technology side, they reduced the noise. I remember last winter Des of DesFit was at the DCR Cave doing a workout a few days after the Open House, and he curiously picked the then CycleOps H2 trainer as he wanted to give it a whirl as he hadn’t tried it yet. Well, the rest of us that day certainly remember it – because it was so darn loud echoing around the concrete box that is the DCR Cave. Thankfully, Saris did a bunch of work to dramatically reduce that noise with the H3. It’s not as quiet as either the Wahoo KICKR or Tacx NEO, but it’s basically below the noise levels of most people’s fans.
Next, from a technology standpoint, they fixed the sprint overshooting issue this summer. In fact, both the H1 and H2 trainers got that firmware update – but it meant this was more accurate now.
However, the one strength of the Hammer series has always been just how darn good it is at ERG mode. If TrainerRoad were ever to acquire a trainer, I’m pretty sure they’d acquire the Saris Hammer series. Seriously. There’s no trainer that works better on TrainerRoad than the H3. Period. If you live in TrainerRoad, then you’ll love just how good the H3 feels. So smooth, so purposeful as it shifts between intervals. If I wasn’t so lazy moving around trainers, I’d probably ride the H3 anytime I rode TrainerRoad.
Finally, the last thing they did was reduce the price down to $999. This makes sense. They can’t compete on brand recognition with Wahoo or Tacx these days, and they can’t compete on silence. So…you’ve gotta compete on price. $999 is priced perfectly.
First and foremost, this isn’t a list of bad trainers. If you take that away from this section, 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 327 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 Direto/Direto X: Look, this is a great little trainer – and the *only* reason it’s not in the above list is purely because of pricing. At $899, it sits $150 more than the basically equal Flux S (in terms of specs), while the far more capable (and silent) Wahoo CORE sits at $899 – the same price. Obviously, in Europe the pricing game shifts a bit. But it’s hard for me to track Euro pricing as it shifts about every 8 seconds based on whenever a given retailer decides to go even lower. So ultimately, I’d say you can kinda figure out what you value here in terms of price to features. But certainly don’t shy away from a good deal on the Direto or Direto X – it’s solid for the right price.
Elite Drivo II: This is a fantastically accurate and relatively quiet trainer. Really, it is. The only challenge is that it’s up against two also-accurate trainers that aren’t just ‘relatively’ quiet, but actually silent (Tacx NEO 2T & KICKR 2018). Also, they’re up against two trainers that both have unique features (CLIMB compatibility for Wahoo, and road-feel/no-calibration for Tacx NEO 2).
Gravat: Distribution is the main factor here. It’s largely only available in Asia, and while they do actually make some good trainers (see my review on it previously), it’s just hard to include when the majority of the world can’t get it.
Kinetic R1: Oh Kinetic. You had so much potential with the R1. Unfortunately, this unit continues to sit downstairs boxed (it’s been there for months). As GPLAMA found in his review, it’s horribly inaccurate in sprints. And unfortunately, Kinetic has confirmed with me that hasn’t changed. I wish it would. They wish it would, and they’re still working away on the firmware. Until then, I simply can’t recommend it.
Minoura Kagura DT (Not Direct Drive): While this almost made the cut for the mid-range trainer bucket last year, the accuracy was just a bit beyond the price point I’d expect. I think they’re getting closer on it, and depending on where you are (specifically, Japan), this may be a very good option based on the costs of other trainers being more expensive.
Minoura Kagura DD (Direct Drive): Is it even shipping yet?
STAC Zero: This made the cut last year, but I’m pretty sure it’s being phased out. If you can pick up a unit at like sub-$400, then definitely consider it. Check out my review on it from the past. Of course, this unit is being phased out because 4iiii acquired STAC and is now making the 4iiii Fliiiight, which I’ve provisionally included in the $500-$700 bucket.
Tacx Flux 2: This originally came out last year, and after my testing I found ERG mode (such as for TrainerRoad) horribly inaccurate. Like 10-15% inaccurate. Tacx confirmed this was the issue, but weren’t able to fix it. At Eurobike 2019 in early September they quietly released the Flux 2.1, which fixes those issues through a combination of software and internal hardware changes. I have not tested it yet, but I think it’s a harder pitch given it’s still the same price as the KICKR CORE, but is noiser and doesn’t have as good a road feel (anywhere near it).
CompuTrainer: They went out of business (or at least stopped making them) three years ago. 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 $400, and know exactly which apps you’re using and if they’re compatible – then go forth.
LeMond Revolution Pro: The company has folded and ceased operations many years ago. Like CompuTrainer, they’re out of business.
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.
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 way back when – 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.
The only benefit of trainer tires is that some tires will slowly shred tire specks over the course of the winter, depending on both the specific tire and the specific trainer. Not ideal in a carpeted living room, but not even noticed in a garage.
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?
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, sweatproof) and offers some padding to lower sound profiles, that’s really the key thing.
What’s the quietest trainer?
It’s basically a wash between the 4iiii/STAC Halcyon/Zero trainers, the Tacx NEO 1/2/2T, and the Wahoo KICKR/KICKR CORE.
How do you test for accuracy? Or, how can I see if my trainer is accurate?
Simple – follow my full post here where I go into both testing and troubleshooting your trainers and power meters for accuracy.
What about generic rollers, any thoughts?
I don’t have a ton of experience on rollers unfortunately. I have recently tested the InsideRide solution with the floating fork, and I found that super compelling. But it’s hard to recommend that for most people given the accuracy and price limitations.
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).
What about one of those bike protective thong cover things?
Do I look like an Instagram supermodel? No (especially given how little I post). Thus, my bike isn’t either – 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.
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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 $49. For the Wahoo & Garmin products, you’ll need the DCR/CT VIP club to get 10% back in points (which is spendable immediately), but that only takes a moment to sign-up.
You probably stumbled upon here looking for a review of a sports gadget. If you’re trying to decide which unit to buy – check out my in-depth reviews section. Some reviews are over 60 pages long when printed out, with hundreds of photos! I aim to leave no stone unturned.
I travel a fair bit, both for work and for fun. Here’s a bunch of random trip reports and daily trip-logs that I’ve put together and posted. I’ve sorted it all by world geography, in an attempt to make it easy to figure out where I’ve been.
The most common question I receive outside of the “what’s the best GPS watch for me” variant, are photography-esq based. So in efforts to combat the amount of emails I need to sort through on a daily basis, I’ve complied this “My Photography Gear” post for your curious minds! It’s a nice break from the day to day sports-tech talk, and I hope you get something out of it!
Many readers stumble into my website in search of information on the latest and greatest sports tech products. But at the end of the day, you might just be wondering “What does Ray use when not testing new products?”. So here is the most up to date list of products I like and fit the bill for me and my training needs best! DC Rainmaker 2018 swim, bike, run, and general gear list. But wait, are you a female and feel like these things might not apply to you? If that’s the case (but certainly not saying my choices aren’t good for women), and you just want to see a different gear junkies “picks”, check out The Girl’s 2018 Gear Guide too.