What’s the difference between a turbo trainer and rollers?

If you’re the sort of person who is determined to abuse him or herself by cycling indoors, you’re probably considering a few options…

  • An exercise bike
  • A turbo trainer
  • Rollers

Pretty much everyone already knows what an exercise bike is (although, within that there are many options) but not everyone is au fait with turbo trainers and rollers, especially those new to the world of cycling.

Both turbo trainers and rollers use one’s ‘outdoors bike’ as an integral part of the equipment but in different ways.

The basics are (in the vast majority of cases) as follows…

Turbo Trainers
A turbo trainer (often shortened simply to ‘turbo’) is a device into which one’s rear bicycle wheel is locked. The wheel sits on a spinning drum, allowing the wheel to spin round. The ‘drum’ can be set to different levels of resistance. This means the rear wheel will require more (or less depending on the setting) power, from the cyclist, in order to turn.

Confusing matters slightly (although offering more choice) some turbo trainers require one to take his/her rear wheel out altogether. The trainer itself will have an inbuilt cassette assembly which one then attaches to his/her bike in place of the rear wheel. This kind of turbo trainer saves any wear on the rear tyre, which is nice.

Generally turbo trainers feature a handlebar mounted unit via which one may manually control resistance.

Some ‘smart’ turbo trainers will work together with pieces of software (or ‘apps’ if you aren’t an old fashioned Luddite like the person writing this) allowing them to automatically control the resistance. An obvious example of this is the cycling trainer/game Zwift. Say, for example, someone is using/playing Zwift and reaches a virtual hill – Zwift will tell a compatible smart trainer to increase the resistance appropriately. Once the hill has been crested, it will then reduce the resistance accordingly. This should all help, in as much as is possible with current technology, mimic actual cycling in a fairly seamless manner. Some turbo trainers will even vibrate a little when one reaches a cobbled or rough area using the likes of Zwift. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Rollers are a slightly different kettle of fish to a turbo trainer. Rather than have a wheel locked into the device, one simply cycles on top of rollers.

It’s something which initially doesn’t sound like it should work  – ‘Hang on, won’t I fall over if there’s nothing at the sides to keep my bike upright?‘ – but it really does.

There’s a certain leap of faith in getting started on rollers but they aren’t as tricky as you may well hear a lot of people claim. Yes, they have a greater learning curve than a turbo trainer would and require more concentration but they’re not the deadly devices some appear to make them out to be.

Rollers (or any we’ve seen) consist of three spinning drums held in a long, fairly thin, frame. The rear bike wheel sits in the ‘valley’ between two, almost adjacent, drums and the bow end of the front wheel perches on a solitary drum at the front of the unit. One of the rear drums and the front drum are joined together by, what is basically, a large elaborate elastic band. This means, when you pedal and spin your back wheel, the drums rotate and make your front wheel turn in sync. All this spinning keeps your bike upright ‘as if by magic’.

One big advantage to rollers is, without one’s bicycle ‘locked in’, there’s no undue stress on the frame. With turbo trainers it’s generally recommended not to put your good carbon bike in it.

Another major thumbs up for rollers is that it improves ones balance and teaches a cyclist to keep his/her line. As turbo trainers are very stable and don’t allow much lateral motion, they’re a wee bit like using stabilisers and don’t really enhance some of the skills rollers would.

That all written, a lot of rollers have the option of buying a ‘fork stand’ for them. This is an attachment which bolts on to the front of the rollers. One then removes his/her front wheel and connects the forks to the stand. This means the back wheel can move freely but the front is locked in place. It also deprives one of some of the benefits of rollers but can help people who initially struggle with rollers get confident before trying them without the fork stand.

Resistance with rollers is usually done by pedalling faster or slower and using your bike’s gears. If you imagine a graph with speed along the x-axis and resistance on the y-axis, it would increase exponentially the faster one pedals, scooping upwards. For the cavemen and cavewomen out there:  fast pedalling = big resistance.

As with turbo trainers, although currently not as common, one may purchase ‘smart’ rollers. Like you’d imagine, they work with apps to vary resistance automatically. Rollers tend not to have the same level of variable resistance as a turbo trainer (or indeed exercise bike) but they can certainly add or remove a few hundred Watts of power.

This is conjecture on our part but we imagine they don’t do ‘big resistance’ because spinning is necessary to keep one’s bicycle aloft. If rollers slowed that down immensely, one’s steed would simply fall over. That would be no fun for anyone.

Some people simply don’t ‘get on’ with rollers. The starting off and dismounting bothers some cyclists and the increased concentration while riding is more than some people can be fussed with. That’s fair enough – different horses and all that. However, for those who do enjoy rollers, they offer an opportunity to practice a lot of practical skills which translate well to outdoors cycling.


Hopefully that helps give you some idea about the differences and pros and cons of turbo trainers and rollers. If you would like to ask us any more about them, we’ll do our best to help if you contact us.

Posted in: Misc