Saturday, October 11, 2014

Taking the "Pain" out of the "Pain Cave" - Part 3: Drive Types

Image used with permission from Saris Cycling Group.

In part 2 of this series, we discussed the different types of resistance commonly used in trainers, and we also talked about the "classic" trainer design, where the resistance is applied directly to the rear tire.  In this post, we'll delve into some different deviations from the classic design, specifically looking at the different ways the bike connects to the resistance unit.  These include what I would describe as "direct drive" trainers, technologically advanced power trainers, and rollers.

CycleOps Silencer Direct Drive Trainer
Image used with permission from Saris Cycling Group.

Direct Drive

This is a bit different than thinking in terms of how the trainer provides resistance.  The resistance can be provided by different means (fluid, magnetic, or wind), but instead of applying pressure to the rear tire, you take the rear wheel off, put the chain on the directly attached cassette, and mount the frame to the trainer stand via the drops, which are the points where your rear wheel normally attach to the frame.

Direct drive trainers are a relatively new phenomenon, with the LeMond Revolution being the first one of which I was aware.  The Revolution is a direct drive wind trainer, and is known for being loud, but having a good feel.

Advantages of these direct drive trainers include not wearing out tires and not having to be concerned about having your tire pressure just right for accuracy if you are using TrainerRoad Virtual Power or something similar (we'll get to that in a future installment).

One thing to note when purchasing a direct drive trainer is that you'll need a cassette for the trainer.  All of the trainers offer a cassette as an option, and you would most likely try to select one with the same number of speeds and similar gearing as what you have on your bike (usually expressed as 23-11 or 25-12 or something like that, representing the number of teeth on the biggest and smallest cogs on the cassette).  So, you'll either want to opt for a new cassette from the trainer manufacturer, buy one at your local bike shop to match the one on your bike, or steal the one from your bike, if you've got the tools to swap cassettes.

Examples (with MSRP, unless otherwise noted):
LeMond Revolution - $499
Elite TurboMuin - $649 (Performance Bike)
Wahoo KICKR - $1099

A different way of attaching the bike to the trainer.

CycleOps Aluminum Rollers with Resistance
Image used with permission from Saris Cycling Group.


Rollers are another way of attaching the bike to the trainer (or maybe, it's best to start thinking of it as a "resistance unit").  Rollers give a lot more road feel (i.e. people can crash on them in their living room).  They force you to use your postural muscles to keep your balance.  They also allow the bike to move more naturally under you.  You can also do tricks.  As an added bonus, you also get to wear your front tire out, too.

Rollers are a very effective tool, although people new to indoor training might be a bit intimidated by them.  They are certainly harder to ride - you've got to maintain more focus than you would with the solid mount of a traditional or direct-mount trainer.

Resistance is another thing to consider with rollers.  Some of these do not include any kind of resistance unit per se, the resistance is based on the weight of you and your bike putting weight on the rollers.  Others do provide some sort of magnetic resistance.  Essentially, the resistance curve is smoother and doesn't provide nearly the maximum resistance that other stationary trainers can provide.  Because of this, many folks don't feel rollers are especially good for interval training, where you'll vary your resistance dramatically.

Please note that the examples below is a very limited list of rollers available, but these are the ones that are easy to find locally in central Indiana.  The SportCrafters rollers are actually made here in Indiana.

Examples  (with MSRP, unless otherwise noted):
Tacx Antares Rollers - $249 (online pricing)
Elite Arion Mag Rollers - $300 (Performance Bike)
CycleOps Aluminum Rollers - $310
Tacx Galaxia Rollers - $369 (online pricing)

Another different way of "attaching" the trainer to the bike.  Recommended for the more advanced rider doing more steady-state work.
CycleOps PowerBeam Pro
Image used with permission from Saris Cycling Group.

Power/Ergometer/Slope trainers

Training with power can take your indoor training to a new level.  The idea of measuring your power output and adjusting the resistance to simulate a real course is what puts these trainers in their own class.  As you may notice, some of these look like a traditional trainer, while the Wahoo KICKR, as mentioned in the section above, is a direct drive trainer with power measuring and the ability to adjust the resistance, so it gets mentioned here, too.  So, this is where things might get really confusing.  This is also where things tend to get a bit more expensive.  In this section, let's start with a list of examples first:

Elite RealTour - $499 (Performance Bike)
CycleOps PowerSync - $899
Elite RealAxiom - $999 (Performance Bike)
CycleOps PowerBeam Pro - $999 (ANT+.  Bluetooth version is also available)
Wahoo KICKR - $1099
Computrainer - $1629
Elite RealPower - $1699 (Performance Bike)

As you might notice, the Wahoo KICKR is listed here again.  Power is really a separate function from the resistance type or drive type.  Focusing on the hardware, it's hard to talk about this type of trainer without mentioning two aspects of power - measuring your power output, and the amount of resistance the trainer provides.

Measuring your Power
Similar to a crank- or hub-based power meter installed on your bike, these trainers incorporate some sort of power measuring device.  These meters allow you to know just how much power you are producing (usually expressed in watts) and train or race accordingly.

The accuracy of power measurement comes into play, with some devices more accurate than others.  So, don't get to wrapped up in how your number might compare to the numbers you might hear about pro riders or what your friends are posting on Facebook.  The key is that you have a number based on your output on your setup, and you can then improve that number.

Power measurement by itself can greatly improve the effectiveness of your training, as you now have a number that you can work with, using your bike computer or software.  Future installments in this series will delve into the software options available today and in the near future, but I'll give a couple of quick examples here now.

For example, in TrainerRoad, you can choose workouts based on your FTP (functional threshold power, the average power you can hold for one hour).  The workouts can use a variety of power levels to put you in appropriate power zones for effective training.  As you ride, the measurement will be recorded in the workout, as shown in this screenshot:

The blue area represents the prescribed power - what the workout expects me to do.  In this case, it is a shot of the results of me doing the Sufferfest video, "There is no Try."  The yellow lines are the actual measured power and the red line is heart rate, as measured from an ANT+ heart rate monitor.  In my case, this power was measured by my power meter, but you'll get similar output using a trainer that can record this information.

Providing Resistance to your Power
The second aspect is the resistance.  Resistance can be thought of the force that your legs need to overcome to move the bike.  With the traditional trainers, resistance is increased with greater pedaling speed.  From the user perspective, this is dynamic in the sense that it emulates the feel of the road based on your wheel speed.  Most of your trainers are going to be able to provide plenty of resistance, although they will have some sort of maximum resistance.

Magnetic trainers can provide some variable resistance, usually with some sort of handlebar mount control connected via a cable to the resistance unit.  You adjust the resistance level manually.  You'll usually see this on spin bikes at a health club.  Manual resistance adjustment is a nice feature, but frankly, it's not all that meaningful by itself.  It just makes it easier or harder to pedal at a certain speed.  That can be appropriate for interval training.

These ergometer trainers take adjustable resistance to an entirely new level.  They allow the level of resistance to be controlled by software, based on your output and other parameters intended to emulate real world conditions, such as hills.  This intelligent resistance not only takes your training to a new level, but it can also make it really fun.

Referencing the screenshot from TrainerRoad above, you can see a lot of variation in the measured power output (the yellow line) throughout the workout.  That power output is a function of my pedaling speed, gearing, and the resistance provided by the trainer.  In order to increase my power to match the prescribed output expected from the workout, I had to either increase my RPMs or change gears.  If I had used an ergometer type of trainer, I would feel the resistance increase as I hit those taller parts of the blue area.  I could then shift accordingly.

Justifying the Costs
As you can see, these are expensive, but are they worth it?  The Computrainer is the one most people have heard of, and has been around for a long time.  This is what I would like to have in the fitting studio, but they tend to be expensive and when it comes to bang for the buck for my customers, it's hard to really use the data output objectively.  That's another story.  For training purposes, the power/ergometer/slope trainers are amazing tools, but can the cost be justified?

There is a different way of looking at that justification.  You can get the benefits of training with power without the huge initial cash outlay:  CompuTrainer studios.  I did a little "field trip" to The Cycle Studio in Carmel, IN, earlier this week, and plan to discuss this very compelling option in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, get in touch with The Cycle Studio and try a session - they'll let you try it out for free.

Summary So Far

This part ended up being a bit longer and deeper than I hoped, but as you can see, things get quite a bit more complicated as we start looking at the alternatives to the classic trainer.  We've mentioned quite a few different options already, but this list is by no means extensive.  For example, one brand not mentioned here is Tacx, because I am not aware of any local dealers for them.  I've heard very good things about them.

So, what's the best option?  Obviously, budget comes into play.  There are really a lot of good trainers available, and I'd be lying if I said I've tried them all.  I've been on my SuperMagneto Pro, a CompuTrainer a couple of times, bought and returned a wind trainer, and once had a supercheap magnetic trainer.  I do know one thing - the supercheapie magnetic trainer was awful.  It was loud and the resistance was strange.  It wasn't fun to ride it, and having a better magnetic trainer later in life made me realize how bad it was.  Wind trainers are something I don't think I'll be able to ever justify based on a very quick realization that they were too loud.

I don't see the manual variable resistance of some magnetic trainers as being worthwhile.  Having multiple resistance levels is kind of nice with the magnetic units, but unless you're maxing out the resistance of your trainer during intervals, it's a bit gimmicky.  I've played with it a couple of times on my SuperMagneto Pro, but that's about it.

For the direct drive trainers, I have a hard time justifying their cost for direct drive alone.  The direct drive trainers, like the Wahoo KICKR, that have power measurement and computer-controlled variable resistance are much more compelling.

With all that said, I'll try to stay impartial, but break things into three categories based on budget and goals.

The Budget Trainer
For a more "budget" trainer, I would stick with a no-frills magnetic like the CycleOps Magneto ($290) or Kurt Kinetic Magnetic ($299).  But, there is one fluid option I find compelling - the Elite Qubo Fluid+, which can be had for $229 at Performance Bike.  I have zero experience with this, but I like the price.  I also wouldn't rule out rollers, if you're comfortable with them.

The Premium Classic Trainer
If you can afford a bit more, fluid drive is generally worth looking at for smooth and quiet.  Even though I own one, I don't think I would opt for the SuperMagneto Pro again.  I never use the different resistance settings, so that seems to be wasted.  Once again, I tend to gravitate towards simple and no-frills, so the CycleOps Fluid2 ($349), Kurt Kinetic Road Machine ($349), and CycleOps JetFluid Pro ($399) all have good potential.  Is the JetFluid Pro worth an extra $50?  I am not sure.  I do know that the CycleOps Pro models have a very solid frame.  There is also the Kurt Kinetic Rock-n-Roll ($579), which allows for more movement on the bike.  I've heard that people love them.  The fact that the bike can move with you more might mean less chafing and saddle sores.  Is it $180 better?  I'm not sure.

A+ Training
Don't get me wrong - you can get an excellent workout in on an affordable trainer.  Any of them can earn most of us a solid B on our cycling report card, assuming we've done the work to earn that B.  The first part of indoor training is simply getting on the bike and riding, and a lot of people have a hard enough time doing that (hence the reputation of the "pain cave".  All of these options allow that.  The onus is on you to make the effort to ride.

But, if you're more Type A and want that A, using power is the way to go.  If you don't have a power meter, a power trainer can get you a long ways.  Many pro cyclists and triathletes are using CompuTrainers or similar power tools to maximize the effectiveness of their workouts.  At this point, it's not fair to say which of the aforementioned power trainers is the way to go.  We're going to continue to discuss this in a few more posts, as the software provides a lot of what will take your training from a B to an A or A+.

In Part 4, I'll wrap up the elements of solid B training with some thoughts about how to accessorize your trainer for comfortable and safe training.  In Part 5, I'll discuss some ways to make the training more entertaining.  In Part 6, we'll look at alternatives to the home pain cave.

After that, we'll start to get into different ways of using software and power to maximize your training.  The way it's looking, this will probably be about a 12 part series.  I hope you find it useful!

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