I’m sorry to be the one that has to break this to you, but winter is approaching.
The opportunities for riding outside start to dwindle. Work day evenings become dark and cold. Day time riders will gamble with rain, wind and, before too long, dangerous icy roads.
But fear not. Help is at hand.
An implement of torture for some, a beacon of hope for others, it’s time to bring out (or otherwise lay your hands on) the trusty turbo trainer.
And thus, herewith, my ‘Beginners Guide’ to this most noble of training partners for the time-starved indoor cyclist.
What Is A Turbo Trainer?
A turbo trainer is a bit of kit that sits on the floor, attaches to your rear wheel and offers up resistance for you to pedal against. Thus, you stay still as your rear wheel spins, rather than moving forward.
Different turbos work in slightly different ways, but generally speaking you’ll have some sort of frame that holds the bike in place (so it doesn’t fall over) and a roller for your rear wheel to rest on (though some models do away with your rear wheel and have you attach your chain to a cassette integrated within the turbo).
Resistance is generated either by using magnets or oil to slow down the gubbins within the turbo as you attempt to rotate the roller.
How Does A Turbo Differ From Rollers?
Well, rollers are a slightly different (indoor training) beast.
You don’t attach your bike to rollers. Instead you ride, and balance, as normal, trying not to fall off. As you ride, the three rolling pins beneath your wheels rotate so that you don’t move forward and ride into your kitchen wall.
Most rollers don’t have significant, or adjustable, resistance. They’re used more for spinning out the legs than as a hardcore interval session.
How Do I Attach My Bike To The Turbo?
For turbos that require you to use a rear wheel (i.e. most of the reasonably-priced ones), you’ll generally need to replace the quick release skewer that holds your rear wheel to the bike frame with one supplied by the turbo maker.
The new skewer will have more substantial bolts (nipples?) on each side of the wheel around which the arms of the turbo will tighten, holding your bike in place.
What Equipment Do I Need, Other Than The Turbo?
Not a great deal (provided you’ve got most of the usual outdoor cycling gear: cycling shorts, shoes… and a bike).
Turbos tend to raise your rear wheel off the ground. You can buy a front wheel support that levels the bike up. I own a CycleOps Riser Block, which has grooves at three different heights, allowing you to raise up the front end of your bike if you want (i.e. to simulate a climbing position).
In a similar vein, there are mats you can buy to put under the bike and turbo to protect your floor from oil flecks from the chain and sweat flecks from the forehead (and elsewhere).
Sweat can cause damage to your bike (because it is salty) – you can buy a cover that you suspend between your handlebars and the seat post, which its manufacturer has wisely named as a ‘Bike Thong’.
Whilst we’re on the subject of sweating, you might want to buy an electric fan.
On the road, the cooling effect of cycling through air reduces need for your body to sweat as much. This effect doesn’t happen inside. Positioning an electric fan in front of you during a session should reduce the sweatfest somewhat (which is better for everyone).
You might want to buy and fit a turbo-specific tyre to your rear wheel. Some turbos can cause a lot of wear to the tyre on the moving wheel. A more durable turbo tyre reduces the risk of you getting a blow out or simply wearing out your expensive road tyres.
That said, I’ve been using a standard rear wheel tyre on my turbo for over a year without noticing either flecks of rubber on the floor or particular wear on my tyre. My tyre is a reasonable durable one (a Specialized All Conditions Armadillo, to be precise) and my turbo is the Elite Chrono Fluid Elastogel (which I’ve reviewed in detail here).
How Do I Train On A Turbo?
This is a subject for a whole ’nother post. Indeed a series of posts. So that’s what I’m going to do, probably in October or November, as finding time to ride outside becomes more difficult for most of us.
There are a few things to bear in mind about training on a turbo:
Turbo Training Is Boring
I can quite happily ride outside for hours and lose the sense of the world turning. The opposite is true on a turbo. Times passes like treacle.
You can certainly create distraction when you’re static, listening to music or a podcast, perhaps watching TV. But this entertainment only helps so much before the discomforts of riding (discomforts that tend to go unnoticed when riding outside) start to intrude (e.g., and I’m only throwing this out there: ‘numbness in your nether regions’).
So you can only schedule so much time for a session on the turbo. I find I’m incapable of doing much more than 45 minutes currently. In time I might increase that to around an hour. Much beyond that and I think my love-hate relationship with the turbo might turn into hate-hate.
The Quality Of Training Tends To Be Higher
This psychological limit on the time spent turbo training is not a bad thing.
One of the attractions of turbo training is that the environment is controlled, free of inclement weather, unsuitable road conditions and the distractions of traffic. As a result you can concentrate solely on hitting the time and intensity targets you’ve set yourself.
On the whole, turbo sessions tend to be more intense. You’d have to have the mental serenity of a Buddhist monk to complete a 4 hour base endurance ride whilst staring at your garage wall. On the other hand, a 45 minute interval session is doable for most of us.
So, the turbo is a great tool for completing structured, high quality training. Its inherent tedium quotient (technical term) helps us avoid doing too much at any one time.
Where Should I Set Up My Turbo Trainer?
Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of it.
In an ideal world, you would have the turbo set up permanently (see why that’s important, below) in a convenient part of your homestead. That might be a spare bedroom, a conservatory or the garage.
But the world is rarely ideal. Space in the house is likely to be at a premium. Your partner may not approve of a room functioning as nothing other than your personal pain cave.
Ultimately, you just need somewhere with sufficient space to fit an object that is marginally longer than your bike, with room either side for your legs to spin. If you’re going to set up a TV or laptop to help relieve the boredom (or watch motivational videos), you’ll need space to position it in eyeshot and potentially a power socket.
Bear in mind the whole sweat and oil flecks issue – save yourself the hassle by positioning your turbo setup on an easy-to-clean floor (or protect it with the appropriate mat).
What Is The Perfect Turbo Set Up?
There is a danger that, for a certain sort of person (me, say), the optimal turbo set up starts to turn into a peculiar brand of imagineering that tends to end with the suffix, ‘-porn’. Workshop-porn, Lego(-storage)-porn, cabin-porn, bike-porn.
My actual turbo is currently set up (semi-permanently) in the conservatory of our rented house (a conservatory we don’t otherwise use as it’s either far too hot or far too cold). Sometimes (mainly during a certain 23 days in July) I bring in the laptop and rest it on a stool so I can watch (I)TV(4). Mainly I listen to podcasts on my phone.
The following ‘picture painted with words’ is entirely hypothetical.
My perfect turbo set up would be in my dedicated cycling man cave. The other side of my man cave would be a workshop area, with all my tools attached to a pin board. You don’t need to know this.
I would have a bike dedicated to being attached to the turbo. This bike would be set up with the same geometry as my road bikes (-s, plural as we’re talking dream scenario here). The turbo itself would be a high end model – something like the Wahoo Kickr with an inbuilt power meter and no rear wheel (so no need to buy turbo-specific tyres).
(I’m so going to buy a Wahoo Kickr when I win the lottery…)
The bike and turbo would live on a turbo mat, for catching sweat and any spray off the chain. There would be a large fan to my front left, providing a cooling breeze during the session.
In front of me would be my audio-visual-data set-up. I’m not entirely clear how this would look in practice, but there would be a large screen capable of showing important training stats, as well as a relevant entertainment (perhaps a Sufferfest video if I’m doing a hard session, or a random TV programme if I’m spinning out a recovery ride).
How To Break Down The Barriers To Completing A Turbo Session
The single most important ‘rule’ for successfully developing your turbo habit, is to have a bike permanently attached* to the turbo.
(*Clearly, by ‘permanent’ I don’t mean it has to be welded in place; just that it be attached as per the manufacturer’s recommendation.)
There are few things more likely to derail your intention to complete an activity that requires a degree of motivation, than to have a series of chores to complete beforehand. You already need to put on some appropriate clothing (probably lycra-based), fill your water bottle, find your cycling shoes.
If you also have to go through the rigmarole of carrying your bike to the turbo (or your turbo to the bike), switching out the skewers (or potentially your rear wheel) and attaching the bike to the turbo, the risk is that you sack the whole session off as a bad job.
I appreciate that this isn’t going to be feasible for everyone. If you only have one bike, then you’ll need to decide between reducing the ‘barriers to entry’ for doing an outside ride (i.e. by having all set up and ready for the great outdoors) or for a turbo session.
Equally, you might have limited space in which to leave a fully set up bike ‘n’ turbo combo.
If you are limited by bike or space, one solution (which is perhaps towards the anal end of the organisation spectrum) is to think ahead and do the turbo set up well in advance of the session.
If you’re returning from a ride on Sunday and you know that work commitments mean that rides in the week will definitely take place on the turbo, fit the bike to it then, rather than waiting until your first indoor session. Alternatively, if you plan to wake up and turbo first thing in the morning, set everything up the night before.
Like guns (er…), turbo trainers can be used as a force for good or evil.
Unused for a period of weeks, it sits there goading me. If I’m on it every evening, I grow to love it. Thankfully I’m in the latter camp at the moment.
Unless you have an extremely flexible work schedule and an understanding family, training consistently outside through the winter is extremely difficult. Judicious use of the turbo will allow you to achieve this consistency, maintaining fitness for the spring and potentially increasing it.
As mentioned above, I’ll be talking more about training on a turbo in future posts. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing to receive the Sportive Cyclist blog by email. All the details are in the box below this post.
Safe cycling all!