Training with a Budget Bike Trainer

Posted on November 23rd, 2019 by Jeff Whitfield | Comments

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my bike training. With winter here, I’ve started back on the TrainerRoad Century specialty program using just a basic wheel-on fluid trainer and a PowerPod power meter. A lot of thoughts have been whirling in my mind about this setup. Main thing on my mind is whether or not I really need to upgrade to a smart trainer.

Last month I wrote a blog post on Why Wheel-On Smart Trainers Suck. I tried a Wahoo KICKR SNAP which didn’t end up being all that great of an experience. Since then, I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience with smart trainers. A couple of questions came to mind that I had to answer. Let’s start with the first one.

Can I get by with just a basic bike trainer?

I’ve had the Elite Qubo Fluid Trainer that I bought from Performance Bike for a little over a year now. I purchased my Marin Nicasio bike just before that at the same store. I had read a bit about the use of bike trainers and figured it would be a valuable thing to have as part of my training. After a bit of research along with a look at all the deals Performance Bike had at the time, I purchased the Elite Qubo trainer (which I got for a song, btw!).

When I started out, I had to figure out how to get the trainer to work with programs like Zwift and TrainerRoad. While speed and cadence sensors will work, I wanted to take the extra step in getting a compatible power meter.

I had my eye on a Velocomp PowerPod which is one of the more budget friendly power meters on the market. The PowerPod has an indoor training mode that allows you to select a trainer to model the power output with. Fortunately, the Elite Qubo Fluid is listed as an option.

Keep in mind that, while I’m using a PowerPod, you can use pretty much any direct force power meter as well. So long as you can Bluetooth all your sensors to a computer, tablet, or phone then you’re set.

And you don’t necessarily need a power meter to use a fluid trainer either. You can actually get by with just cadence and speed sensors. While having a power meter helps, programs like TrainerRoad and Zwift know that not everyone has the luxury of using a power meter. As such they feature virtual power that is based on your wheel speed and cadence. It’s not super accurate but, as you’ll soon learn, it doesn’t really have to be.

After using the Qubo for a while I can safely say that it works quite well for what it is. It’s not a smart trainer though and doesn’t have the same road-like feel. It doesn’t have a fly wheel and doesn’t adjust the resistance automatically. Resistance basically ramps up the faster your wheel spins so shifting to higher gears equates to more resistance. Nor is it likely to be as accurate in terms of power output as a smart trainer. But it does the job nonetheless. That’s the thing with a budget trainer though. There’s a level of compromise with every trainer type...and a price.

Smarter trainers can get pretty expensive pretty quick. For a decent smart trainer, you have to spend around $350-$500 for a decent on-wheel version. Up from that, a direct-drive smart trainer will start at around $900 and goes up to $1,200 or more depending on features. Whereas a basic fluid trainer can be purchased for less than $250. Heck, I got mine for less than $200 with additional promotions on top of that. Bang for the buck has been outstanding!

There is a caveat though to a basic fluid trainer. If you’re getting super serious with your cycling and/or want to compete then investing in a solid smart trainer solution might be the best option. While a budget trainer works, it’s still not going to be as accurate as a smart trainer. That applies heavily to things like Zwift competitions where power accuracy is required to compete properly.

Otherwise, yes, you can get by with just a basic trainer. If your needs are simple and you just need something to improve your fitness with then it’s fine. I use mine with TrainerRoad and it works well enough for my needs at the moment.

Does a trainer even have to be accurate in power?

Like I mentioned above, a good smart trainer is likely to be more accurate in power readings than a fluid trainer. But that’s not to say that a fluid trainer is a waste of time. Sure, you might not get accurate power readings but, then again, does it really matter?

What I have found is that consistency in power readings is the key to training. It doesn’t matter if the fluid trainer and power meter you’re using are off compared to a higher-end smart trainer. The reason is that power readings are largely relative to the training you are doing.

You could have a $200 fluid trainer is reading 200 watts whereas the same output on a $2,000 smart trainer might be 180 watts. That’s a 5% difference, which is huge. But it’s still the same amount of effort regardless. Whatever baseline FTP test you do will be on that same trainer. If one trainer is off by 5% then it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, especially if you’re only using just that one trainer. What you do is only relative to the trainer you’re using.

What really matters is the consistency in readings between training sessions. It’s one thing to have two different trainers that are off, but it’s an entirely different thing when the same trainer is off between sessions.

Let’s say one day you do a steady state workout with intervals at 200 watts pedaling at around 90 rpms. Then, a few days later, you do a similar workout with intervals at 200 watts but you find that you have to pedal around 95 rpms to hit it. The problem is that if the trainer can’t reproduce resistance in a consistent manner then your ability to produce the same power in the same manner will be off. If it’s off by even 5% then that’s huge.

So, while the trainer doesn’t have to be accurate with other trainers per se, it does have to be consistent between sessions for each and every workout. Otherwise, you’ll end up with wildly inaccurate results in your training which obviously won’t work.

Most of the accuracy requirement applies to the trainer itself. If you get a good trainer then you shouldn’t have to worry too much about whether it’s working well or not. A good 5 to 10 minute warmup of the trainer should do the trick. I typically just do that as part of the 10 minute warmup at the beginning of my workouts. Once the main interval begins, it’s usually a good 15 minutes in anyways so resistance levels should be accurate at that point.

As I mentioned in the last section, the use of power meters isn’t a requirement either. While it can help in terms of get a more accurate power reading, you don’t necessarily need one to get consistent training results. With the virtual power features of many training programs, all you need are some speed and cadence sensors. Power then is calculated based on your wheel speed and how fast you’re pedaling. After all, how do you think those stationary bikes do it?

Summary

As I mentioned in my previous post on wheel-on smart trainers, knowing what your goals are with your cycling is the best place to start. If you’re goals are simple and you don’t intend to compete (real world and/or virtual) then a simple fluid trainer might work just as well as one of the more expensive smart trainers. But keep in mind that it will only work if your power readings are consistent. A quality fluid trainer that delivers consistent resistance is the only real requirement. Match that up with some speed and cadence sensors (power meter is optional) and you’re set!

Now get busy training!