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Training Tips

Choosing the right indoor cycling equipment and content for you

By: Jim Rutberg  November 04, 2021

Colder weather and wintery conditions make riding outdoors harder. What indoor cycling setup is right for you?

As the days get shorter and the temperatures fall throughout large areas of the United States, cyclists are shifting their training to incorporate more indoor cycling sessions. Although indoor cycling used to be primarily a winter activity, the recent explosion in smart trainers, connected devices, and indoor cycling apps (hello, ZWIFT!) has made riding inside an appealing year-round option. Some USA Cycling members and fans are very experienced with indoor cycling, but as we continue to welcome many newcomers to our community, here’s a primer on how to get started with indoor cycling.

What indoor cycling setup is right for you?

Indoor cycling equipment comes in all shapes, sizes, prices, and levels of complexity. There’s almost certainly an option that will fit your budget, goals, and the space you have available.


The original indoor cycling device, rollers require the rider to balance atop metal or plastic rollers as both wheels turn. Some modern rollers feature adjustable resistance.

  • Pros:
    • Engaging – you have to pay attention.
    • Usable anywhere – no electricity or internet connection needed.
    • Technique development – instant feedback on irregularities in balance or pedal stroke.
  • Cons:
    • Advanced skill – higher risk of falling compared to other indoor cycling options.
    • Smooth tires needed – otherwise it’s really loud.
    • Effort level limited by skill – it can be difficult to complete sprints or very high-intensity intervals because of the technical challenge of staying on the rollers.
    • Additional equipment needed to utilize indoor cycling apps – You can ride Zwift and other apps on rollers, but not all rollers are equipped to control resistance based on the app.

Wind/fluid/magnetic resistance trainer:

These trainers are either ‘wheel-on’ or ‘direct drive’. Wheel-on means your bike is clamped into the trainer at the rear quick release or thru-axle and resistance is applied to your rear tire by a roller. Direct drive trainers feature a cassette mounted directly to the trainer, which takes the place of your rear wheel. In either case, resistance is created by a wind, fluid, or magnetic resistance unit attached to the trainer. These resistance units have known resistance curves or levels but are not controlled by external devices or apps.

  • Pros:
    • Economical – less expensive than smart trainers or smart bikes.
    • Usable anywhere – no electricity or internet connection needed.
    • Portable – light (at least comparatively) and foldable, easy to take to races for warmups.
    • Small footprint – great for small spaces or people who need to set up and break down their indoor cycling area for each workout.
  • Cons:
    • Not connected – can be difficult to access all features of indoor cycling apps.
    • Wear and tear – Wheel-on trainers can be hard on tires.

Smart trainer:

Similar to resistance trainers above, except the resistance unit is controlled by a device or app. This means the resistance you experience changes based on the virtual terrain or the programmed workout. The trainers can be wheel-on or direct drive, and there are even a few models of rollers with controllable resistance. When smart trainers were combined with app-driven experiences like Zwift, it was a game-changer for indoor cycling and ushered in the age of virtual group rides and competitive esports cycling competitions.

  • Pros:
    • Immersive experience – compatible with streaming content or virtual worlds.
    • Course reconnaissance – using a .gpx file from a racecourse, you can practice pacing and prepare for the specific terrain of a goal event.
    • Social – some indoor cycling apps incorporate two-way communication between cyclists around the world as you ride.
  • Cons:
    • Technical requirements – electricity and internet connection required for use with most indoor cycling apps.
    • More setup tasks– getting ready to ride can take more time if you need to connect devices, log in, choose routes or workouts, etc.

Branded indoor cycle:

All the aforementioned indoor cycling options utilize a cyclist’s own bicycle, but millions of people ride dedicated indoor cycles like those available from Peloton, Echelon, Soulcycle, and other brands. Similar to indoor cycles found in cycling studios and fitness center classes, these at-home cycles typically feature a heavy flywheel, adjustable resistance via friction or electromagnets, and a direct connection between the cranks and flywheel that eliminates the option of coasting. Some feature app-controllable resistance like smart trainers and smart bikes.

  • Pros:
    • Engaging content – subscription-based and on-demand training content is available 24/7.
    • Community – support and encouragement is readily available.
    • Instructor-led classes – added encouragement and accountability.
  • Cons:
    • High startup cost – middle of the range cycles cost about $2000.
    • Subscription required: many cycles have limited functionality if used without a subscription.
    • Restricted ecosystems – some cycles can only be used with specific branded content.
    • Big footprint and heavy – you typically need a dedicated, permanent space for these cycles.

Smart bike (i.e. Wahoo, Stages, Wattbike):

Combining the best features of smart trainers and indoor cycles, smart bikes incorporate controllable resistance, infinite adjustability (sometimes including crank length), the ability to use your preferred handlebar, and the ability to coast. Some models even simulate ascent and descent angles and allow for programmable “gears” for customizable shifting.

  • Pros:
    • Realism – indoor cycling experience that most realistically simulates outdoor cycling and equipment options.
    • Customizable – can test out handlebar shapes and widths, and new cycling positions, before modifying outdoor bike.
    • Open ecosystems – can be used with streaming content or training apps from multiple brands.
    • Ready for hard efforts – capable of creating very high resistance and constructed for maximum stability.
  • Cons:
    • High startup cost – middle of the range smart bikes cost at least $2000.
    • Big footprint and heavy – you typically need a dedicated, permanent space

Tip: If you are planning on using indoor cycling apps to control your trainer or stream content, your internet connection may be your weakest link. An internet connection that is weak or intermittently drops can wreak havoc with your indoor cycling experience. Some cyclists who set up their ‘pain cave’ in the basement, garage, or shed benefit from Wifi extenders, dedicated routers, or wired internet connections.

Fans and Accessories

Dissipating heat and avoiding hyperthermia are two of the biggest challenges for cyclists riding indoors. Evaporative cooling (sweat evaporating off your skin) is one of the most effective ways your body dissipates heat, and airflow facilitates evaporative cooling. Outdoors there is constant airflow over your entire body as you move forward. Indoors, you have to create that airflow with fans – preferably more than one. Sweat that drips on the floor or your bike doesn’t carry away nearly as much heat as that same volume of sweat evaporating off your skin. The puddle of sweat under your trainer is not a badge of honor; it is a missed opportunity to stay cool.

In addition to fans, there are a number of accessories that can make indoor cycling more enjoyable. An elevated desk or shelf in front of or over your handlebars can be a convenient place for a tablet or laptop displaying content or your chosen app. A keyboard can useful if you want to participate in chat features on certain apps. If you are using a large screen for watching television/movies or streaming content, consider positioning the screen in your normal line of sight while riding outdoors. That way you are maintaining your outdoor cycling position and head position as you train indoors.

Indoor Cycling Content

Just like the variety of indoor cycling equipment, there’s a huge range of content you can use to motivate, entertain, engage, and challenge yourself while riding inside. For the ultimate in simplicity and mental fortitude, a written set of intervals and no entertainment means it’s just you and the bike. If you just want entertainment to help you stay engaged as you ride, turning on music, television, or movies are tried-and-true options. For a more directed experience, you can use streaming or on-demand training content, like video workouts.

The most popular content for modern indoor cycling is interactive and immersive. This frequently involves pairing a smart trainer or smart bike with apps or devices that control the resistance and enable virtual group rides and competitions, along with two-way communication between riders all over the world.

When considering your indoor cycling content choices, it is important to think about your goals for riding inside. Virtual group rides and races can be great for motivation, accountability, intensity, and social connections. However, just like riding too many group rides and races outdoors, they can displace too much structured or purposeful training and hinder long-term progress. Similarly, high-intensity interval workouts are well suited to indoor cycling because of the controlled environment and desire for time efficiency, but it can be easy to overdo it with intensity. For most cyclists 1-3 hard interval workouts per week is plenty, and the rest of your riding should be at more moderate effort levels.

Depending on where you live and your personal preferences, indoor cycling could be an occasional occurrence or the primary way you enjoy and participate in cycling. Gone are the days when riding inside was the less desirable alternative to riding outside. Now it is an essential training tool for competitors, a safe and social cycling experience, and a new and exciting environment for cycling competitions.