Winter Survival Guide: Trainers

By now, everyone knows of and is affected by the current drought in the American West, the worst since 1992. Just as publicized is the approach of “The Most Powerful El Nino Ever,” which will either be hydraulic salvation or wash the West Coast into the sea. Why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with cycling? Well, my pedal-spinning friends, brace yourselves, for this winter holds the potential for a lot of down time.

El Nino

El Nino!

We in the Golden State are desperately hoping for a season of record rainfall, but also dread the resulting loss of ride time and ensuing physiological entropy. At least we have our priorities (kind of) straight. If the predictions of an epic El Nino event are correct, refilled reservoirs and abundant almond crops are on the horizon, but at what cost? Withered quads and soft glutes? Wheezing lungs and faded tan lines? Come on, man; we need to ride!

However, even if California gets biblical amounts of rain, and your locale gets cold and wet every year, you don’t have to spend the winter on the couch binge-watching your favorite HBO shows: you can always watch them from your bike during trainer workouts. Plus, there’s a plethora of gear to make winter riding—outside, in the cold and/or rain—endurable and even enjoyable.

To help you get the most out of the off-season, Art’s Cyclery presents “A Cyclist’s Guide to Surviving Winter,” which includes necessary apparel, components, and accessories, along with tips on how to maintain motivation. In this first installment we cover the most important winter accessory: the indoor trainer.

Who will benefit from using a trainer? Which cyclists should invest in one? Unless you reside between latitudes 23°26′14.0″ and 23°26′14.0″, the answer is, you. Even those of us lucky enough to live in beautiful San Luis Obispo, where the average annual rainfall is 19”, put in plenty of trainer hours during the months where daylight is scarce. Piling up the miles outdoors before and after typical work hours is fine in the estival and autumnal months, but in the winter and spring, those time slots are devoid of sunlight. If you are not comfortable relying on supplemental lighting for vision and safety, then you can kiss those miles goodbye. Unless, of course, you own a trainer.

If you still need convincing that trainers are your friends, Jerald presents ten reasons why, in fact, they are your friends here. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, it’s time to decide which type of trainer is best for your needs.

Types of Trainers

a trainer

Kurt Kinetic Rock’n’Roll Smart Trainer

First, ask yourself what is most important to you in a trainer? Realistic feel? Noise levels? Price? Fluid/hydraulic trainers present the most authentic experience, offering up more resistance the harder you pedal—called progressive resistance— just like on the road. Progressive resistance also means there is no input required from the rider to influence a fluid trainer’s performance. Comparatively, magnetic trainers typically have a linear resistance curve, meaning their resistance level is set, no matter how hard you pedal (although higher-end magnetic trainers with progressive resistance are available). To give a wider range of use, magnetic trainers often have several resistance levels, changeable by the rider, either with a handlebar-mounted remote lever or on the resistance unit itself. Finally, wind trainers rely on aerodynamic resistance, and are usually not alterable. Fluid trainers generally cost the most, followed by magnetics, while wind trainers are the least expensive. Noise levels follow the same hierarchy, with fluid trainers being the quietest, and wind trainers downright loud.

Doing the standard fluid trainer one better is Kurt Kinetic’s Rock’n’Roll Smart Trainer. Thanks to its unique design, the Rock’n’Roll lets your bike move side to side, just as it would during sprints and out-of-the-saddle climbs. The Kinetic Turntable Riser Ring, which lets your front wheel lean with your bike, is an important accessory to the Rock’n’Roll trainer.

What type of bike will you be riding? Road, ‘cross, or mountain? Every trainer is natively compatible with the common quick release-type axle still found on most road bikes, but be aware that there are several axle standards, and your bike may require adapters to fit your trainer’s dropouts. Additionally, lower-geared bikes may benefit from magnetic trainers, as they often have higher resistance at lower wheel speeds. Magnetic trainers cover the spectrum from the basic CycleOps Mag Trainer, to the advanced, feature-rich Super Magneto Pro, which features several resistance curves for variety in your workouts.


In addition to the trainer, you may want one or several accessories to help you get the most out of your sessions. Highly recommended is a floor mat, which helps in several ways. Mats will protect your floor against wear from the trainer’s contact points, damp vibrations (especially important if you live in an apartment with downstairs neighbors), and keep sweat off the floor. Speaking of sweat, you won’t believe how much you sweat on a trainer without the wind to keep you cool, so get a fan!

a block

CycleOps Climbing Block. Three levels of lift, stackable for steeper inclines.

While two-by-fours will do in a pinch, front wheel riser blocks are more stable, faster to set up, and can be stacked to simulate riding on an incline. Most trainers hold the rear wheel off the ground so some type of support under your front wheel in required. Each riser block has several different heights so all your bikes will fit (with the exception of your BMX bikes.)

Trainers are notoriously hard on tires and will eat your expensive racing slicks faster than you can say “soft compound rubber.” If you know you’ll be riding indoors exclusively for a while, then simply put a trainer-specific tire on your rear wheel. These tires use a super hard compound to resist wear, and some have surfaces designed to reduce noise. If your trainer workouts are interspersed with real rides, then simply buying a dedicated trainer wheel will make swapping easier.

Training Goals

At first, simply mounting up and riding will be enough of a novelty to keep you going, but this only lasts a few sessions at most. Having a goal for your off-season training is crucial to keep your interest and motivation high. For some, TV intervals will be plenty to engage us all winter long; turn on your favorite shows and sprint during the commercials, then alternate sustained hard efforts with recovery, spinning between advertisements. Others, though, will need specific training goals for their indoor sessions, which is where training videos come in. The Sufferfest ( and CVO ( both offer inspirational videos to boost your speed, endurance, or whatever else needs sharpening.

If you are serious about off-season training and plan on spending a good amount of time on your trainer, then it makes sense to invest in a high-end fluid machine. Beyond the regular amortization justification for spending more, added value comes in the form of smoking your buddies after they have been slacking all winter and you’ve been following work out routines and videos. Plus, a higher-quality trainer lasts a long time, offering many seasons of use, making trainers one of the best investments in cycling.


The business end of a trainer.

If you’re not the adventurous type who doesn’t mind braving darkness, rain, wind, and snow to get their miles in, a trainer is your answer to maintaining fitness during the winter months. Select one in line with your needs and means, get the accessories that will enhance your experience, and prepare to go into next Spring ready to race.