Are you tired of waiting for the weather to clear up to hit the mountain trails on your bike? Or perhaps you’re new to mountain biking and hesitant to venture outside just yet. Whatever the case may be, indoor biking is a game-changer, and bike trainers for beginners are your ticket to a relentless riding experience—rain or shine.
In this comprehensive guide, we will demystify the world of bike trainers for beginners, allowing you to train in the comfort of your home while still honing the skills needed for those challenging mountain trails. From explaining different types of trainers to setup tips and troubleshooting, you’ll find everything you need to embark on your indoor mountain biking journey.
If you’re wondering how to transform your mountain biking experience without leaving your home, you’ve landed in the right place. Buckle up and get ready to dive into the ultimate guide to bike trainers for beginners!
If you love mountain biking like I do, then you’ll want to ensure that your skills are kept sharp throughout the winter months. Furthermore, rainy days, bad traffic, and a number of other reasons might keep you from biking. These are but a few of the reasons why indoor cycling is essential for the avid mountain biker.
Indoor biking using a trainer can keep your skills honed and your endurance high when you can’t ride outside. Moreover, when you use a smart trainer, you can actually push your limits and expand your skills.
There are three basic types of indoor bike trainers. Here’s what you’ll find available:
- Horizontal triple roller trainers.
- Wheel-on, axle mount trainers.
- Wheel-off, frame-mount trainers.
Triple roller trainers are simple. They consist of a side rail frame with three parallel rollers (two for the back wheel and one for the front wheel. Setting the triple roller trainer up is easy, and your bike is not connected to it like the other types.
Road cyclists most commonly use horizontal triple-roller trainers. Road cyclists usually like these trainers because they don’t have to disassemble their bikes, remove the rear wheel, or affix their bikes to the trainer. In other words, you pop your bike onto the trainer when you want to use it, and you can still remove the bike and go for a ride outside without having to adjust or reassemble your bike.
The significant difference between these bike trainers and others comes down to a few points I’ll share:
- The bike is not connected to the trainer.
- The bike is not held upright by the trainer, so you have to balance it.
- Resistance is constant. Many of these bike trainers have little to no resistance or are usually unable to adjust the resistance while riding.
Axle mount trainers are the most common type of trainer. They balance price with function, making them extremely popular. However, due to keeping your rear wheel and tire installed on your bike, these trainers are also the loudest. In order to keep them quiet, you’ll need to swap out your knobby mountain bike tire with a slick one. Not to worry, though. You can leave your front tire the way it is.
I made a video about these standard trainers where I show the unboxing of a Balance bike trainer. I also measure the noise level with a standard MTB tire so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about when I say these are the loudest trainers. In my video, I record the bike trainer noise level at just above 70 decibels, which is louder than most dishwashers, to put it in perspective.
Frame-mount trainers are the quietest and typically have the best features. However, they are also the most difficult to set up and get going. That’s because you need to remove the rear wheel on your bike. Furthermore, you’ll need to install a cassette that fits with your bike frame width at the rear mount. Luckily, most of these trainers are ready for standard bike sizes and often come with a cassette that you can use. Just make sure you read the instructions so you know which cassette you need and if you need to use spacers or anything else like that.
If you’re looking for a smart trainer that you can use in conjunction with a cycling app like Zwift, then the frame-mount trainers are your best bet. Furthermore, I recommend using a frame-mount trainer if you have a rear wheel that installs via a levered quick release. I have a video I made about the unboxing and setup of a Saris H3 bike trainer, so check it out before you make your decision.
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Getting a suitable space set up for your indoor bike trainer experience is critical for your enjoyment. There are a few things you’ll want to consider prior to assembling your new trainer pertaining to the space where you intend to use it. Let’s look at the five most significant considerations.
- Floor Protection
You’re probably wondering why some of these items are included in the space considerations list. Not to worry, I’m about to explain each below.
The first thing I noticed when I used my first indoor bike trainer was how fast I got warm. Riding outside offers the luxury of airflow due to moving at speed. However, when you’re inside on a bike trainer, there’s no air blowing past you as you ride. So, you’ll want to consider a room with windows for airflow. Furthermore, you may want to consider adding a fan to the space to keep you cool and comfortable while you ride.
It might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people get a bike trainer, start to set it up, and then realize that the space they thought would be good just isn’t big enough. Remember that any kind of bike trainer will take up the length and width of your bike but also add to both. That’s because the bike trainer will typically extend past your rear wheel and also to the left and right of your wheels. Consider using the bike trainer in a good-sized room or even in your garage (if you have one with space).
As I show in my video about budget indoor bike trainers, when using a wheel-on, axle-mount type, it can be pretty loud. This fact is exacerbated when you use a knobby tire. The most common type of bike trainer, the wheel-on axle-mount, is also the loudest. In my review, I clock the noise at more than 70 Db. So, if you decide to get this type of bike trainer, consider getting a second rear wheel and use a slick tire on it. That way, you can just swap out your rear wheel to use on the trainer rather than try to change your tire.
A lot of people don’t consider floor protection and regret it later. You have to remember that when you’re riding, you are moving. Although bike trainers are not built to be mobile, the movement of your pedaling is enough to slowly wear away at the points where the bike trainer meets your floor.
Pro-Tip: Before bringing your bike in to use on a bike trainer, ensure that you thoroughly clean your bike. That way, you won’t transfer dirt, dust, and bike lube (I’m thinking of chain grease here) to your clean indoors. Try laying down an old blanket or floor mat to keep any debris from falling onto your clean floor.
This last consideration is usually one that people only think of after the fact. However, you must know that when you ride on an indoor bike trainer, the scenery stays the same. If you’re like me, then you like the changing scenery that only a ride outside can provide.
To maintain your interest and even make things more fun, you can use a cycling app like Zwift along with your bike trainer. Now, only smart trainers will fully mesh with the latest apps, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put a movie or something on while you ride. With that said, consider having a television in the room. A smart TV that you can cast your phone or tablet to works best, especially if you intend to use a cycling app for your indoor trainer rides.
Setting up a bike trainer is the hardest part of using it. Depending on which type of trainer you get, the installation may be simple, or it may be more complex. The following table shows the relative difficulty of the setup of the standard types of bike trainers.
|Bike Trainer Type
|Difficulty of Setup/Bike Installation
|Why I Gave The Difficulty Rating
|Horizontal Triple Roller Trainers
|Wheel-On, Axle Mount Trainers
|It is more challenging than the horizontal roller type, but no bike disassembly is required (unless you switch the rear tire to slick).
|Wheel-Off, Frame-Mount Trainers
|Rear wheel removal is required, and rear cassette installation is needed (most models).
I don’t use the horizontal roller type of indoor bike trainer, so I’ve not assembled one, but they look simple. In the reviews I’ve compiled, they are easily the easiest type of bike trainer to put together.
For information about setting up the rear-axle mount bike trainers, watch my video, Best Budget Bike Trainer (Setup and Testing). I go into how to set one up and give some points to help you reduce noise and enjoy your ride.
For information about setting up a wheel-off, rear frame mount bike trainer, watch my video, Saris H3 Bike Trainer Setup and Review. I dive into unboxing, setup, tips and tricks, and more in this video.
Using a bike trainer is simple – it’s just like riding your bike. However, there are a few differences based on the bike trainer you’re using. For example, you aren’t moving, so the issue of running into obstacles is wholly removed.
Using a horizontal roller type of bike trainer is in some ways most similar to real life in terms of balance. However, these bike trainers are usually used by road riders with road bikes. That’s because the horizontal roller style has little to no adjusting for resistance, so it tends to simulate riding on a level road. Furthermore, these trainers do not attach to your bike, so you’ll have to start and stop carefully to maintain balance.
Rear axle mounted and rear frame mount bike trainers are easier to use than horizontal roller trainers because they attach to the bike and hold it upright. There is little to no concern for balance with these trainers.
In my opinion, a smart trainer like the Saris H3 is the best because it works in conjunction with smart bike apps like Zwift. For more information about my favorite bike apps, read my article, Elevate Your Training: Top Bike Trainer Programs for Maximum Gains.
Bike apps can help you to have an indoor cycling experience that’s more comparable to the real thing in terms of pedaling resistance and workout. You’ll sacrifice the need for balance, but if you’re like me, then balance is an afterthought anyway.
The common concern I hear a lot about from mountain bikers using indoor bike trainers is noise. The rear axle mount trainers are notorious for noise – especially if you aren’t using a slick tire.
A slick tire on your rear wheel will remove much of the noise caused by the tire pressing against the resistance roller. So, most of the time, it’s best practice to have a spare wheel with a cassette and slick tire installed. That way, you can just pop off your knobby mountain bike tire and slap on your slick without having to change tires. Changing tires is the more tedious way of doing things, but it can be frustrating if you don’t have the right tools.
Other issues I’ve heard about deal with setting the appropriate resistance or with mounting to the rear axle. Suppose you have a mountain bike with a quick-release rear axle. In that case, you might need to swap out the axle for one more appropriate for the trainer (often in the box with the trainer, but not all models have one).
What you need to remember when setting up your bike trainer is that the trainer is intended for use in a specific way. In other words, overtightening the axle clamp can cause unnecessary stress on your bike frame. Over time, with improper use, a bike trainer may damage a bike frame. To avoid this, you merely have to follow manufacturer instructions, including ensuring that you have a compatible trainer for your bike or vice versa.
I’ve already given you most of my tips and tricks, but here are a few points to ponder to get a better experience.
One of the biggest problems with indoor trainers is that you sweat. Remember, you’re not flying down a trail with the wind in your face. You’re indoors in stagnant air conditions. That means if you have any kind of workout, you’re going to get sweaty.
Human sweat is made of 99% water and 1% salt and fat. Believe it or not, that’s enough to accelerate rust and corrosion and displace lubricants on your bike. So, it’s a good idea to do two things. First, use a floor mat to catch any sweaty drips. Second, keep a sweat towel or two handy to pat yourself down or wipe down your bike afterward. The bearings and other mechanical components will thank you.
I like to set up an oscillating fan on high when I’m training indoors. I turn it up to simulate the wind whipping me as I would have when I ride outside. That keeps me cooler.
The oscillating function I find to be a bit better than constant fanning because I find that my eyes dry out fast when the fan is on full in my face. I don’t wear sunglasses indoors, so I tend to get drier eyes working out indoors than I do outside. I suppose my mountain biking sunglasses work better than my reading glasses to keep the wind out of my eyes.
So there we have it. You now know the ropes for getting the most out of your indoor bike trainer. Let’s summarize the main points:
- Airflow: Don’t underestimate the need for air circulation. Position your trainer in a room with windows, or make sure to have a fan handy.
- Space: Make sure you choose a location spacious enough to accommodate both your bike and the trainer. A cramped space will only hamper your cycling experience.
- Noise: Be mindful of noise levels, mainly if you’re using a wheel-on, axle-mount trainer. Consider getting a slick tire for your rear wheel to reduce the sound.
- Floor Protection: Before mounting your bike, remember to protect your floor from potential damage by using an old blanket or a proper floor mat.
- Entertainment: To keep yourself motivated and engaged, set up an entertainment system that can include anything from watching a movie to cycling-specific apps like Zwift.
Selecting the right bike trainer and setting it up with precision can make all the difference between a rewarding training session and a frustrating one. Given the variety of bike trainers available, each with its own set of pros and cons, you can now make an informed choice that aligns with your cycling goals and your space.