Indoor Cycling Trainers — Smart vs Non-Smart

Everything you need to know about Smart vs Non-Smart Indoor Trainers
When it comes to choosing an indoor trainer, there are N+1 options to choose from, built by tens of different manufacturers, and all within a massive price range of $200–1500. But how big is the difference between a $200 trainer and a $1500 trainer?

Smart Trainer vs Dumb Trainer

One of the biggest differentiating factors between indoor trainers is smart capability. “Smart” trainers are indoor cycling trainers that attach to your bike and have the capabilities of being controlled by an app, such as Zwift. These trainers measure power, and sometimes cadence as well, using internal sensors, so you don’t necessarily need additional power meters or cadence sensors on your bike.

Smart trainers adjust the gradient to match an indoor cycling harder or easier in accordance with the virtual gradient. A smart trainer will make a +7% grade feel very hard, and a -3% grade feel fairly easy, for example. You can also adjust the degree of trainer resistance, or even turn it off. 100% trainer difficulty means that the trainer’s resistance will match the virtual gradient, making a +7% gradient feel like a +7% gradient (so you’re going to need the little ring).

Users can adjust the trainer difficulty at any time, so you can play with the settings to see which is best for you. Most riders use a smart trainer difficulty setting of 20–50%, as this allows you to climb more virtual hills and tackle 12% gradients without pedaling too hard or running out of gears. For the complete IRL riding experience, some riders use 100% trainer difficulty which feels just like riding outside.

You can also use ERG mode on smart trainers, which is a workout mode where the trainer will automatically adjust its resistance to fit a desired power output. Within a given workout, when the interval says to ride at 200w, the smart trainer will automatically adjust its resistance to 200w, and all you need to do is pedal. The trainer will make minor adjustments to keep your cadence around 85–90rpm, which means that it doesn’t really matter which gear you’re in during an ERG mode interval. This is great for structured workouts, such as the ones that we have here on TrainerDay.

Smart trainers are significantly more expensive than non-smart (i.e. dumb) trainers, which don’t have the internal electronic capabilities, nor an internal power meter. The cheapest smart trainers you can find are wheel-on smart trainers, which start around $300. For a direct drive smart trainer (which takes the place of your bike’s rear wheel and attaches directly to the rear dropouts), the cheapest versions start at $650, with the high-end models such as the Tacx NEO 2T costing $1400.

For a much more affordable option, you can buy a non-smart, or dumb, trainer for less than $250. A dumb trainer is an indoor trainer which attaches your bike to an adjustable resistance drum, but one that cannot connect to external apps. This rear drum is what creates the resistance for your rear wheel, and it is how you adjust the resistance during your ride. However, you won’t typically be able to adjust the resistance during your ride; rather, you’ll set the resistance at the beginning of your ride when you tighten the drum onto your rear tire.

Thus, in order to make your ride harder or easier — such as during a set of intervals — you can shift gears, just as you would on a flat road outside. 
Dumb trainers are significantly cheaper than smart trainers, but they are much less capable. These indoor trainers don’t measure power on their own, and you’ll have to focus on your own effort to hit target wattages, or simulate riding up or down hills.

You can connect to external apps while riding a dumb trainer, but it won’t be the trainer itself that is doing the connecting. Instead, you will need an external power meter (pedals, crank arm, or bottom bracket), a speed sensor, or a cadence sensor. If you choose to go with one of the latter two options, you won’t actually be measuring your power in the app, but rather estimating your speed based on the sensor data.

As you could probably guess, dumb trainers cannot be controlled by external apps. Thus, you’ll never get the feeling of riding up or down hills on a dumb trainer, you’ll just have to shift gears instead. 
For experienced indoor riders looking to simulate real-life riding, perform ERG mode workouts, or train or race competitively, we recommend a smart trainer for that extra level of overall capability.

Beginner indoor riders can certainly start with a dumb trainer which is much cheaper than any smart trainer. You will still be able to perform intervals and change the resistance, but now it’s up to you instead of the app.

Written by Zach Nehr

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