Nothing quite beats riding a mountain bike on your favourite trails, but occasionally time or weather can work against our best intentions. In those situations, a turbo trainer can be a really good way to keep your fitness in tip-top condition so you’ll be able to hit the trails faster and further, or just fend off the pounds.
The recent lockdown has also served to highlight the benefits of a turbo trainer for all cyclists, so let’s look at what you need to use your mountain bike on a turbo trainer.
Turbo trainer essential need to know
A turbo trainer is a static device that you attach your bicycle to, allowing you to pedal on the spot. Very basic turbo trainers don’t cost much and you don’t need much else besides, but there’s no limit to how much you can spend if you want the most advanced and immersive experience, and a plethora of accessories to make indoor cycling more enjoyable.
Our advice is to be honest about how much you realistically expect to use a turbo trainer and spend accordingly. If it’s only going to be occasional use then invest in a budget trainer, but if you want to really get into indoor training then better turbo trainers have many advantages
A basic trainer clamps to the rear axle and the tyre spins on a drum. Spend a bit more and you can get adjustable resistance to make it easier or harder by turning a lever on your handlebars. These trainers use a variety of resistance units such as magnets or fluid depending on budget. Cadence and speed sensors can give you basic information on how much effort you’re putting into it. Because the tyre sits against the drum it’s often best to swap a knobbly mountain bike tyre for a slick tyre to get a better experience and reduce the noise.
Direct drive trainers are increasingly popular. By removing the rear wheel and attaching the drivetrain to the turbo trainer you can get a much more realistic pedalling feel and improved power accuracy. They can provide much more stability when you’re pedalling hard or out of the saddle. These are usually a lot more expensive than basic wheel-on trainers but the prices are coming down all the time. You also won’t wear out your rear tyre and on a mountain bike you don’t have to fit a slick tyre – knobbly tyres aren’t ideal on a smoother trainer drum – and they can also be a lot quieter, useful for preventing disturbing the rest of the house or neighbours.
So-called ‘smart’ trainers provide the ability to sync to a computer or smartphone and using an app like Zwift can let the software control the resistance to give a very immersive experience. Magnets in the trainer dynamically alter the resistance so if you’re riding up a virtual hill, the resistance increases to match the gradient. It’s surprisingly effective. You can also manually control the resistance and ride at a determined power, or follow a detailed training plan with intervals and recovery phases.
Another option are rollers. Beloved by old-school roadies they don’t require any modifications to your bike so no compatibility issues. They can be tricky to master though – as the number of roller crash videos will attest to – but do it near a wall until you’ve mastered them and they can be a simple and effective way of getting some indoor exercise. They are usually fairly affordable and fold up compact and don’t require any changes to your bike, so you can be up and riding in no time at all. Once you’ve got over the silliness of falling off them constantly!
Using a mountain bike on a trainer
The good news is that many turbo trainers, from the cheapest to the most expensive, can easily be used with a mountain bike.
Though expensive, direct-drive trainers are often the easiest to use with a mountain bike. The rear axle attaches directly to the turbo trainer and many provide a range of axle options including most regular mountain bike setups through removable endcaps, so you can fit your mountain bike to the trainer. It saves on swapping the knobbly tyre for a slick tyre too.
Most will accommodate 130/135mm quick release and 142×12 and 148×12 Boost hub spacing thru-axles and Shimano HG and SRAM XD freehubs. Some trainers come with all the adapters you need, others require you to buy the specific adapters separately. In some cases cassettes are provided, often you have to supply your own. You can use the existing cassette on your bike or invest in a new one to save swapping bits over all the time.
The benefit of a direct drive trainer is because you’ve removed the rear wheel you don’t need to worry about changing the rear tyre. Your pedals drive a big flywheel inside a unit with a cassette already fitted to the trainer, offering a very realistic and critically quiet ride experience.
The Wahoo Kickr and Tack Neo are two very popular direct-drive smart trainers that offer easy compatibility with mountain bikes, use ANT+ and Bluetooth so can be controlled by a smartphone or computer-based app, offer a realistic pedalling feel and provide pinpoint accuracy.
If the cost of a direct drive trainer is too rich for you, a basic wheel-on trainer will work but we’d suggest either changing the rear tyre from a knobbly to a slick or better yet use an old wheel with a slick tyre for your indoor training sessions. Any slick tyre will do but a turbo-specific tyre will provide less noise and last longer too, so if you have to buy a slick tyre anyway it’s a smart investment. Even if you don’t have a spare wheel and cassette lurking in the back of your shed, often investing in a cheap second-hand setup can still work out cheaper than the more expensive trainers you could consider.
Once you’ve got your mountain bike fitted to a trainer, all you have to do is pedal. It’s that simple. Staring at the garage wall can be boring though, so hooking up a television or stereo is a good idea, or use Bluetooth headphones to listen to music or a podcast.
One of the benefits of a smart trainer and why they’re often worth the extra money is that you can look at using one of the many indoor training apps that will help the time fly and ensure you get the most out of your indoor cycling time.
Zwift, TrainerRoad, Rouvy, Sufferfest, Bkool, FullGaz are just some of the popular apps that are popular right now. Most require a monthly or yearly subscription and most offer a short free trial so you can check them out first. Most are packed with detailed training plans and many offer complete packages based around your goals and ambitions with many geared towards mountain bikes too, whether you want to increase your marathon endurance or focus on racing fitness for downhill or cross-country.
We’ll focus on Zwift for a moment because it recently launched a mountain bike route that lets you steer your virtual avatar using the handlebars of your actual bike. Pretty cool huh?! By simply attaching your smartphone to your handlebars you can control the steering in-game and ride some sweet singletrack on Repack Ridge. It might sound like a gimmick, but it provides engagement and fun and that critically makes riding the turbo trainer easier to live with and will mean the time flies by. It’s no substitute for the real thing, it’s not trying to replace that, but in replicating the experience of riding outside it makes riding indoors a more viable alternative for those times when you just can’t get outside.
You can use a smartphone, tablet or computer to engage with your chosen cycling app. If you’re using a smartphone you can get an adapter to attach it to the handlebars so you can see what’s happening easily and also make changes as you ride. It’s also essential for the Zwift mountain bike feature.
If you’re feeling flush you can invest in a suite of accessories to make the indoor experience even more realistic. Wahoo’s Kickr Climb raises and lowers the front of the bike to make the virtual climbing experience more realistic, and it can automatically adjust to the terrain on your virtual cycling route.
Riding indoors can be hot and sweaty work so you’ll definitely want to invest in a fan. You can buy dedicated cycling fans, some even use Bluetooth to automatically adjust the airflow as your heart rate increases. The Wahoo Kickr Headwind is a good example. You can save money by buying a basic fan from an office hardware store though.
A mat to place your trainer and bike on will protect the floor from marks and sweat and can help reduce noise by isolating vibrations. An old strip of carpet can work or you can buy a dedicated training mat. A sweat cover that stretches from the handlebars to the seatpost will also catch a lot of sweat, but you can use an old towel as well.
Because the rear wheel is held higher by the turbo trainer, a riser block popped under the front wheel will ensure the bike is level. Many trainers come with a riser block but sometimes you have to buy them separately, but they are relatively inexpensive.
Riding indoors can seem like an inconceivable option for many mountain bikers compared to the thrill and pleasure of riding outside in the countryside, but when bad weather prevents playing outside or time-crunched reality makes it hard to justify a day on the mountain bike, an indoor training setup can be invaluable in ensuring you continue to get essential exercise so you’re in good shape for the next outdoor ride.