Virtual Indoor Cycling: Is it For You?

Virtual indoor cycling has exploded in popularity. Covid-19 gym shutdowns have people scrambling for home exercise options.

The indoor biking industry has generated plenty of buzz. Maybe you’ve heard of indoor cycling apps like Zwift. Several companies are now producing “smart” bike trainers.

As an everyday rider considering virtual indoor cycling you’re probably thinking: Is this for me? What do I need? Is it only for hardcore bikers? Is it too nerdy? Is it expensive? Is it a gimmick?

In this article we’ll cover the following topics:

  • What is Virtual Indoor Cycling?
  • What Do You Need for Indoor Cycling?
  • Wheel On or Direct Drive Smart Bike Trainer?
  • What’s the Indoor Cycling Experience Like?
  • Why You Should Try Virtual Indoor Cycling
  • Disadvantages of Virtual Indoor Cycling
  • How to Start Virtual Indoor Cycling

Table of Contents

What is Virtual Indoor Cycling?

Classic race in Zwift world.

Virtual indoor cycling is riding a stationary bike indoors, on a smart trainer, while using an app. The app is ether a training program with pre-programmed workouts, or a virtual world with routes and races.

The bike training app talks to your smart trainer and automatically adjusts resistance if you are pedalling up a hill or in a high resistance interval of a training program.

You can use a traditional cycle trainer but this involves power meters, converting power readings, and transmitting them to the app. This setup will not be discussed because I have no experience with it. Also, with all the choices of smart bike trainers available, it isn’t worth the distracting hassle trying to do it old school.

You can also buy complete stand-alone stationary smart bikes with everything built in, but these run in excess of $4000 and are beyond the scope of this article.

What Do You Need for Indoor Cycling?

indoor cycling setup

Typical Virtual Indoor Cycling setup.

The Basics

The only items you truly need for virtual indoor cycling are a smart trainer, bike, app, and something to display the app.

You decide what kind of screen you want to display the app: a phone attached to your handlebars, a laptop or tablet on a table in front of you, or screen mirroring on a TV.

For my setup I run the app on a phone attached to my handlebar then screen mirror to a TV.

I have a second TV to watch shows, both as a distraction during boring parts of the ride, or as background noise.

I use a mat to protect the floor from sweat, grease, and drivetrain grime.

Virtual Indoor Cycling Apps

Several cycling apps are available–choosing the right one can be tricky.

The good news is that new smart bike trainers come with a variety of apps with free trials, so you can figure out what you like.

There are two basic types: pure bike training apps, like Trainer Road and Sufferfest, and open world apps like Zwift.

I have experience with Trainer Road and Zwift. I have friends that use Sufferfest and really like it.

Trainer Road has comprehensive collection of curated biking programs for specific goals (distance endurance, intervals for enduro racing, etc.) with different frequencies and schedules. These are professionally produced with adequate recovery time built in between bigger efforts. These programs need to be followed and I would only recommend them for someone who is serious about tuning their bike fitness.

Although I can appreciate their effectiveness I found them too boring and serious.

For me, time on the bike is simple exercise. Making it serious and dedicated is not something I’m interested in,.

Zwift has various worlds with multiple different routes to choose from. You can climb a mountain or go for a long flat spin through the desert. Zwift has locations based on real life places, like London and New York.

Zwift does have a training program but it is no where near as rigorous as Trainer Road, and is more focused on keeping you entertained than committing you to a serious workout regime. This link explains it well: The Problem with Zwift Workouts and Training Plans.

For me, Zwift is the virtual indoor cycling app of choice. I can jump into any of several different routes depending on how I’m feeling. Maybe I want to do a big elevation day, or maybe I just want to go for a quick light recovery spin.

Zwift also has a selection of races throughout the day, every day. This is one of the best specific options on this app: being able to participate in virtual bike races! The level of engagement and fun is as good as it get on bike apps and is a great way to motivate yourself to push it through sprint races, or plan your surges over longer distance races.

So, depending o your end goals, there are several high quality apps to choose from. They all work extremely well with smart bike trainers.

Wheel On or Direct Drive Smart Bike Trainer?

direct drive trainer

Direct Drive Smart Bike Trainer

Wheel On Bike Trainer

There are two main categories of smart bike trainer: wheel on and direct drive.

A wheel on is literally that–you place your entire rear wheel onto the trainer, clamp the axle, set the smart trainer roller, and that’s it.

The biggest advantage is the cost: they are at least half the price of a direct drive. If you plan on using your bike outside between indoor virtual rides, it is easy to take your bike off and head out.

One of the biggest disadvantages is that they have to be calibrated every ride if you want accurate power measurements. Slight differences in tire PSI, or the roller tension, will have a big effect on your in-app experience. Long story short, accurate power readings are needed for a proper virtual indoor cycling experience.

Something else to be wary of is that the axle clamp and roller put stress on your frame, so you need to loosen them up after each ride.

It is recommended you use a trainer tire designed to handle the heat produced. I, however, never used one. This was so I could take my bike off and head outside at a moment’s notice. The rear tire did get worn down, but was still usable.

But, if you have nice road tires and plan on keeping the bike on the trainer for extended periods, such as through winter, it is probably a good idea to invest in a proper trainer tire

Finally, although they are quiet, they are not as quiet as a direct drive trainer.

Direct Drive Bike Trainer

Direct drive trainers are more expensive but less hassle (if you plan on leaving your bike on the trainer most of the time), more accurate, almost completely quiet, and have better feel.

The cheapest direct drives are about twice the price of wheel on trainers. The most expensive direct drive smart trainers can be up to $2000.

You put a cassette on the trainer itself, take the wheel off your bike, then put your bike on the trainer.

After that, you calibrate it once every two weeks.

They are more accurate. The whole setup is more stable and easier on your frame as well.

The only sound is your drivetrain. The pedalling feel is super smooth.

If you are on a budget but want a direct drive, an option is to buy a wheel on trainer to start with then sell it when you upgrade. Virtual indoor cycling is popular enough that you’ll sell a used quality trainer with little hassle.

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What's the Indoor Cycling Experience Like?

Interact with bikers around the world in Zwift.

I was completely surprised by the experience.

I was expecting a nerdy gimmick. A clunky machine that kind of reflects what’s on screen, but not really. A simple way to get the legs spinning during winter.

I was wrong.

The feel of the trainer is realistic and far better than I expected.

These are not over-priced gimmicky machines; they perform incredibly well.

Even my “entry level” wheel on trainer (Kickr Snap) felt similar to actually riding outdoors.

And the direct drive is a step up from that.

I’m completely impressed with both styles of trainer.

The interaction of the trainer with the screen is spot-on.

The trainer reacts immediately, automatically increasing or decreasing resistance as required.

The power changes are always smooth. The biking apps work well. The training apps deliver–whether that is a refined interval training workout or recovery session.

Zwift feels like you are playing a game while getting exercise. You bike around, check out the sights, feel the trainer increase resistance as you see a hill approaching just like in real life.

The virtual indoor cycling programs monitor your biking strength and adjust training programs as you get stronger. Zwift races are based on power output–developing your power and moving up a category is extremely motivating.

There may be a lot of hype around indoor bike training, but if you’re looking for a great way to maintain bike fitness it really is the best way outside of actually riding your bike. If you’re thinking of it to get you through winter, or to stay in shape, it is highly recommended.

Why You Should Try Virtual Indoor Cycling

There are many reasons to try virtual indoor cycling. Some of the best are the ease and simplicity, “on-demand” nature, low impact, keeping your bike legs going through winter, and increasing your fitness.

You don’t have to be a hardcore biker, or a biker at all, to reap the physical benefits of a smart trainer.

As long as you have space for your bike, you have space for this setup. The trainer takes up little room: just point the bike at your TV, or table with a laptop, and away you go. No waiting for someone to get off a machine, no signing up for expensive spin classes, just hop on anytime you feel like biking.

For a pure cardio workout you can’t beat the low impact of stationary biking, together with the intensity of rigorous intervals and hill climbing. For me, the only way to gain this level of cardio intensity is to run stairs. At 6’3 220lbs this is not something I can do on a regular basis without feeling it.

But, I can maintain the same heart rate, or higher, on a bike for longer with less recovery time. For high intensity low impact exercises, I really don’t know any way to beat biking with a stationary trainer.

Finally, for anyone wanting to keep the bike legs moving through winter, or wanting a structured regime to increase bike fitness, virtual indoor cycling is tough to beat.

Disadvantages of Virtual Indoor Cycling

Although there are many great positives of virtual indoor cycling, it is not without its negatives. I will explain these in more detail, to give the reader an honest outline of what to expect.

Cost

Initial cost. Unless you start with a wheel on smart bike trainer, you will be spending at least $1000 on the trainer alone.

Then add the cost of a bike, if you don’t already have one. Trainers come with a selection of adapters to fit most modern axles widths, and some older ones. So you can shop around and get by with an older bike.

If you are using the bike just for the trainer and only the occasional outside ride, you really don’t have to invest in anything fancy.

The other cost is the app subscription. Zwift is $20 a month. Luckily you have a free trial for most biking apps, so you can try a bunch out before you commit to one.

Lack of Functional Strength

Another disadvantage is the lack of any functional/ balance strength training. Because the trainer holds you still, you are pretty much only using your biking muscles. I’m not an expert, but I recommend cross training with gym sessions if you plan to do most of your exercise on a trainer. You lose all the stability muscles that you would be using if you were riding your bike outside.

Another physical issue to watch out for is screen position and the effect it has on your shoulders and back. While riding outdoors I seldomly have neck issues, but I did have problems when I first started riding indoors. This was easily remedied by switching to a stem that puts me in a more upright position. Experiment with what works for you.

Nerdiness and Social Isolation

On of the more vague problems is that you don’t actually go anywhere, and it can feel nerdy racing against people in a video game while you spin your legs in one place. I know some friends who had this experience and it turned them off from riding a smart trainer.

I had this issue with training programs: spinning in place watching bars on screen was mind numbing and I couldn’t handle it. This is why I prefer Zwift–it still feels like you are doing something and the sights and sounds, and other riders, are a welcome distraction.

Also, virtual indoor cycling is lacking in social appeal. It can be nice going to the gym, or spin class, and being around people and friends. Indoor cycling in your home is isolationist, especially if you are already indoors a lot during winter. Planning Zwift races or rides with friends can be a virtual work around.

Finally, if you do have a cramped space and normally store your bike away from your home, trying to make room for a bike could be a problem. But this is something you will be aware of before you buy a trainer.

How to Start Virtual Indoor Cycling

Many bike shops have smart bike trainer demos set up in store. You don’t get the full benefits of a workout or trying different virtual worlds, but at least it will give you an impression of what to expect.

I’ve been using Wahoo trainers, as have many of my more competitive friends. I also have friends that use TacX. Each have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, whether it be price, customer service, or trainer features, but they all do a good job at being well-performing smart trainers.

Give some thought to your home setup. If your area does not have good natural ventilation consider getting a fan. You build heat quick when you are spinning indoors.

Get a mat. This will absorb your sweat and pieces of grease or dirt that may come off your drive train.

I recommend two screens: one for your app and one for watching TV.

This may sound like a luxury, but staring at an app the entire session, even a distracting one like Zwift, is boredom-inducing. I have one screen for the app and another for whatever TV show I am watching.

So that’s a broad overview of what virtual indoor cycling is, the smart trainers themselves, and the apps.

There’s a reason it’s steadily growing in popularity: it’s a great way to keep in shape even if you aren’t a biker, and it is an engaging way to maintain fitness through the winter months.

If you have any questions, or something you’d like to see in a future article, comment below!

Thanks for reading!

 

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