It's been about two and a half years since I took up cycling, and I have just reached (for me, at least) a significant milestone: I have officially logged 10,000 miles, as evidenced by my trusty Sigma cycling computer
and my very anal cycling spreadsheet.
Now, I realize that for a legit, competitive cyclist 10,000 miles isn't all that much. But for someone like me who has never been all that interested in anything other than casual exercise, it is still a very proud moment. To add a little bit of context, 10,000 miles is about the distance from my home in Orem to Key West, FL and back twice.
Actually, a very large amount of that total was spent on an indoor bike trainer. While that doesn't sound as exciting as whizzing down the canyon at 40 mph past beautiful scenery and much slower joggers, it has been a very successful endeavor. And there have been very definite reasons that I decided to make the change to a trainer.
First, the cycling season in Utah is actually not that long. Between the months of extreme cold, sleet, and snow on the one hand, and oppressive heat on the other, my part of the world only offers a few months of good riding weather. Further more, the only good bit of trail is often clogged with runners and long boarders who have not even the slightest idea that other people would like to share the path with them. It also runs along the south side of a major road for a number of miles. This means that you must approach every intersection with great caution as drivers only seem to pay attention to traffic coming from the opposite direction.
One early morning a rather inconsiderate driver (a young female BYU student) plowed through a red light without looking to see if anyone was coming. (Yes it was a BYU student; she was coming out of a parking lot for a BYU building at Freedom and Canyon; but I have made a promise to my wife to lay off the derisive comments about BYU, so I'll say no more) I soon realized that no matter how dire the situation, it is impossible to get your clips out of the pedals fast enough to save your life. I was lucky enough to miss being smeared across the front of her car by a couple of inches and was able to finish the ride.
All of these factors meant that as it was getting close to winter I decided to seek out an indoor bike trainer. I have liked it so much that it has become my defacto method of training. Of course, there are many benefits aside from avoiding the problems that I have mentioned. Your work outs are extremely consistent. You can train any time of the day and regardless of the weather, it's easier to fit a ride into your schedule, it's easier to incorporate Interval Training, and so on.
It has been about two years, and I feel like I have learned a lot. So, if you are thinking about getting a trainer to stay in shape over the off-season or to avoid the reckless BYU students that are everywhere these days, I've compiled a comprehensive guide to help get started.
The Trainer (Required)
This is obviously going to be the most important part of your indoor training regimen. There are several different types, but they all use a pretty similar set up. There is a frame that supports the bike. The rear tire sits on a metal cylinder called a roller. The roller is then connected to some apparatus that provides resistance. The trainers differ from one another chiefly in what provides this resistance.
First, fluid trainers are catastrophically expensive. High-end models, such as Kirt Kinetic or some by Tacx can exceed $1,000. The second problem is heat. Bike trainers generate a lot of heat. The friction by the tire against the roller and the turbine moving through the silicone create problems (I'll deal with the problem of the heat with the roller in the next section). As the fluid in the metal housing heats up, its viscosity changes, and the resistance decreases. Fluid trainers also have the propensity to leak, creating a whole host of problems.
The trainer that I currently use is an inertial trainer made by Wisconsin-based 1 UP USA. I'm really not trying to make a heavy-handed product promotion, but their trainers are freaking awesome! First, it is a really high-quality product. It is very simple to mount the bike, the roller is very large (this reduces wear on the tires), and it generates resistance in a very novel way. The roller is connected to a large, 6lb block of aluminium. It is trying to get this chunk of metal moving that generates resistance. The company claims that it offers the most realistic, road-like feel of any trainer. If you can bike 20mph on the road, you will bike 20mph on this trainer. Do I believe them? Yes, I do.
The are some drawbacks. It is somewhat expensive. Brand new, expect to pay around $300. It is also fairly heavy. And that 6lb piece of aluminium makes for a sure fire way to mangle your ankle bone if you aren't careful when you are moving it.
Those problems aside, it is an amazing bit of kit. It is definitely the one that I recommend.
Trainer Tire (Required)
When I first started with the trainer, I simply hooked up my bike and started off. I didn't occur to me how much heat the roller will create and what affect that would have on the tire. When I had finished, I looked down to see that my expensive Michelin 3 had been thrashed and that my bike frame, the trainer, and half of my apartment was now covered in little bits of rubber. Turns out they make tires especially for trainers. They are not optional. You must have a tire made to handle the heat of your trainer.
Currently, there are three main options available for trainer tires. I have tried all of them for many hours and several thousand miles each and have definitely found a favourite.
Thus started a daily regimen of cleaning the tire with rubbing alcohol before a work out. This reduced the squeak for the first ten miles or so, then it was back. Moral of the story: don't get the Cycle Ops tire.
The next option is the Vittoria Zafiro Pro trainer tire. First of all, it's Italian*, which is cool. It's also bright red, which is cool. The performance is much improved over the Cycle Ops. It's quieter and it lasts much longer. It is by no means silent. I can usually expect to have a bit of tire noise for the first few miles until the rubber warms up. On average you can expect at least 1,200 miles before you should think about swapping it out. I've taken one as high as about 1,400 miles, but that is really its limit. After that the tire becomes kind of sticky and grips the roller too much. I have found this tire at my local shop, but they are a little harder to find locally.
The most recent tire that I've tried is the Schwalbe Insider. Schwalbe is a German brand, and German stuff almost never sucks*. As far as durability, it's right up there with the Vittoria. But it is most definitely quieter. Unlike the Vittoria, the Schwalbe doesn't need to warm up before the performance is optimal. The downside that you need to be aware is that as the Schwalbe wears, you will see little blue bits of rubber begin to break off. It's nowhere near the level of a regular road tire, but it is more than the other two options.
To sum up: the Cycle Ops is crap, the Vittoria lasts the longest, the Schwalbe has the best performance.
* I am aware that all tires are made in factories in south-east Asia, not in Italy or Germany. But your iphone is made by slave labour in a factory in China, not in Cupertino.
This is the last of the "required" hardware elements and kind of a no-brainer. My preference is a road bike, but most trainers will accommodate other types as well. The one thing that I will say about it is this: avoid the temptation to use a crappy bike on your trainer. It's sort of like that adage that chefs always prattle off about cooking with booze: don't cook with a wine that you wouldn't drink. It's kind of the same with indoor training: don't train with a bike that you wouldn't use on the road. Even though you are in a controlled environment, you're still putting lots of strain on the bike. And since the rear tire is pretty much static, the bike frame has to take all of the punishment from your pedaling. Just look down as you are riding and you will see the frame flex back and forth with every stroke. That isn't to say that you have to drop 15k on a new Cannondale Supersix Evo, but in the long run spending a little more for your ride will ensure that you aren't constantly fixing problems.
Fan (Highly recommended)
When you are riding outdoors you are surrounded by hundreds of miles of sky and an endless supply of refreshing cool air. When you train indoors you are in a confined space with walls and a ceiling a few feet away and a small amount of air. Let's not forget that cycling is an intense form of exercise. You sweat a lot. Pretty soon your room is hot, dank, and as humid as Miami in the middle of summer (actual experience). You can open windows and doors to help, but nothing beats a high-quality fan. While not a requirement, it's worth spending $20 on.
Floor mat (Highly recommended)
When I started with the trainer, I was amazed at how much more I sweated. I didn't think much of it, but when I was finished I looked down and saw that I had left two dinner-plate-sized areas of sweat on the carpet. My wife wasn't happy. You can drop a decent amount of cash for an exercise mat, but I have found that an old bath mat works perfectly well at protecting the carpet or wood floors.
Sweat Guard (Highly recommended)
Your sweat will destroy the finish on your bike. It won't happen in a day, but over a winter of indoor training the constant stream of sweat hitting your bike frame will strip the finish and paint. There are actually a number of products that will shield your bike frame:
After already dropping good money for the trainer, I decided to go with a cheap DIY option: just wrap the top of the frame with plastic wrap. It looks really ghetto, but it protects the bike frame for just a couple of cents.
Cycling Computer (Highly recommended)
If you don't already have one, now is a good time to try it. When you are out on the road, it's easy to get a feel for how you are performing as far as distance and speed. On an indoor trainer, not so much. You are stationary. You have no idea how fast you are going. You have no idea if you are doing better than yesterday or worse. A cycling computer almost becomes a necessity. You can track any number of factors such as current speed, average speed, trip distance, cadence, etc. Being able to keep on top of this info helps to motivate me and set goals for my performance.
Again, I'm not going for a big product placement here, but I will say that I have really liked my Sigma computer. They are reasonably priced and there are lots of different models with any number of different features. Like I said before, German stuff almost never sucks. But there are lots of comparable options from other brands. The one feature that you should insist on is that the computer automatically starts and stops as you begin pedaling (some Cateye computers don't).
When I was a kid, I rode my bike all the time. It got me to school, to my friends house, and kept me from getting too bored during the summer. It was comfortable enough and I never had a problem with the seat.
A nice road bike is a different experience. The seat on your road bike might feel firm, but it still seems cushy enough. Once you're on the bike, it takes about two minutes worth of riding to realize that the seat on a road bike is 2.7 times harder than granite. You must wear cycling shorts with a chamois.
Like anything in cycling there are lots of options, some that are much more expensive than others. I've seen shorts sell for hundreds of dollars and some that go for around 20 bucks. I personally have used shorts from Canari and from Pearl Izumi. Also, I like to use short liners and cycling shorts. Not strictly necessary, but it gives a little extra cushioning. You will avoid discomfort and potential damage to your junk by using them. (It's also worth noting that cycling shorts are meant to be worn without underwear.)
Cycling shoes and clips:
I've never spent so much money on a pair of shoes in my life, but shelling out at least $100 on a good pair of cycling shoes is a necessity. You will avoid potential injury to your achilles and hamstring because the shoes keep your feet in the ideal position. Also, you increase your pedaling efficiency because you exert force on both the up- and down-stroke.
Regular socks just don't cut it. Typical cotton athletic socks will lead to blisters. Again, there are lots of options with all kinds of price tags. I personally like the Nashbar brand socks. They've lasted me many many months and only cost around $3.
As you are on the bike, you support a good chunk of your body weight as you lean into the handle bars. After a while that pressure will lead to pain and numbness. I've heard of riders doing permanent nerve damage to their hands. Cycling gloves offer enough cushioning to prevent that. Because you are indoors, you don't need a heavy, full-fingered glove, but don't think that you can get away without using something. I've tried lots of different brands, and generally speaking all of them are fine. Currently, I use Nashbar gloves that have a crocheted upper. Their just a couple of bucks and are minimalist enough to keep me hands cool.
I've mentioned four or five times already that you will sweat a lot will training indoors. Wearing just a regular t-shirt quickly becomes uncomfortable. Cycling jersey is a great option. They are designed to wick moisture away from your body. Personally, I take issue with spending a couple of hundred dollars for a jersey. There are plenty of options online for around $20 to $30 bucks.
Hey, it will keep the sweat out of your eyes and that's a good thing. I picked a regular one up at Sports Authority for a couple of bucks, and it works just fine. I recently tried one that is more geared towards cyclists by a company called Halo. It doesn't really absorb your sweat per se. There is a band of silicone inside the band that redirects your sweat away from your brow. It seems to work well and was only about $10.
This one for me is really close to a requirement, in my opinion. As my workouts have gotten more intense, I have had to deal with moderate to severe leg cramping. Compression sleeves aid both in preventing cramps and decreasing recovery time by increasing blood flow to your calf muscles. Honestly, the first time that I used them not only did the cramps completely go away, but I increased my average speed by 0.50 mph over 25 miles.
I haven't tried many different brands, but I did a fair amount of research and talked to people more knowledgeable than me. I settled on CEP calf compression sleeves (German stuff almost never sucks). Other options are out there, but these have worked well for me.
Thigh compression sleeves are also available, but I haven't had issues with my thighs and have never tried felt the need to use thigh compression. But they are available.
Entertainment (Highly recommended)
Staring at a wall for an hour or two is boring. Staring at your cycling computer as hundredths of a mile tick by is boring. Indoor training is not as exciting as road training, let's be honest. Set your trainer up in front of your TV or grab your computer and put on Netflix. I've watched all the episodes of Top Gear, MASH, Star Trek TNG, and any number of other shows to fend off boredom. If you miss the feel of outdoor training, they even make DVDs of great bike rides from around the world. I personally haven't been inclined to drop 20 bucks on a DVD of some guy riding around the Tour de France route, but they are available.
Nutrition (Highly recommended)
Cycling is a hard demanding sport. Staying hydrated is important and so is fueling your body. One issue that I have had to deal with as the intensity of my rides has increased is the loss of salt.
When you sweat you lose all sorts of nutrients, notably sodium, potassium, and calcium. After a ride your electrolytes get pretty jacked up. The problem is exacerbated by drinking straight water. (Google hyponatremia) This further reduces the level of sodium in your blood. This can lead to cramping, reduced performance, and even water retention. You can avoid this by hydrating with something like Gatorade. Another option that I have used over the last few months is a product call SaltSticks. It's a supplement that has all of the nutrients that you lose as you sweat. You take a couple of caplets during and/or after your workout to help restore your electrolyte balance. It isn't the only option out there, but it has worked for me.
Post workout, you also need to feed your body to aid in recovery. After a ride the two main things that I need to eat are protein and some kind of sugar. I personally make a smoothie with at least a scoop or two of whey protein, a frozen banana, Greek yoghurt, etc. Skip this step and your blood sugar will crash and your wife will complain that you are in a really bad mood. True story.
I hope that this is useful information. Maybe it's crap. But everyone is different and these things work well for me.
Winter is coming. But don't let that keep you from cycling!