Direct Drive vs Wheel-on Trainers
These days it seems like more and more of your Strava friendsʼ rides are happening in weird places like Watopia alongside an animated peloton. Thatʼs because the popularity of riding indoors has boomed – not only have indoor trainers become more affordable, but the tech ecosystem surrounding them (namely, apps) has improved by leaps and bounds year on year.
Gone are the days of toiling above a growing pool of sweat in your cold garage to the sound of rollers spinning ʼround. With indoor-training apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad, and Sufferfest gaining immense popularity, riding a trainer has taken on a new and very social dimension.
While choosing an app is fairly straightforward and involves a few moments spent downloading, picking the right trainer is an entirely different affair. Itʼs a big piece of hardware that youʼll want to get right.
There are two types of trainers to choose from – direct drive and wheel-on. Direct drive trainers involve removing your rear wheel and mounting your bike straight on to the trainerʼs cassette. Wheel-on trainers leave your bike intact.
Which trainer is right for you?
Direct Drive Trainers
Direct drive trainers are often referred to as ‘smartʼ trainers because of their ability to give very accurate metrics during your ride. This accuracy is afforded by the fact that to use a direct drive trainer, youʼll need to remove your rear wheel and mount your bicycle directly to the trainerʼs cassette and axle.
If youʼve ever gotten a flat rear tire and successfully changed it, then you already have the skills necessary for mounting your bicycle on the trainer. The obvious downside here is that, besides taking a little bit of work to do, it can be pretty messy. Assuming you regularly ride your bike out on the road too, your chain will be greasy and, when swapping out your rear-wheel, itʼs easy to get black grease on your hands and clothing.
However, once you have everything set up properly, direct drive trainers ride like a dream. Perhaps the greatest advantage of a direct drive trainer is its ability to replicate a realistic bike feel. Thereʼs nothing worse than spinning out hours and hours atop a setup that feels nothing like a regular road ride.
Direct drive trainers are very accurate, with most sporting a +/- 2% accuracy rating that takes the guesswork out of power training sessions. So, when you fire up your latest interval workout on TrainerRoad, you can take comfort in knowing that the numbers donʼt lie.
Lastly, direct drive trainers are silent since they donʼt rely on pressure being applied to your rear wheel to generate resistance. If you like riding in without headphones or live with others who value their peace and quiet, then going the direct drive route is a necessity.
"However, once you have everything set up properly, direct drive trainers ride like a dream. Perhaps the greatest advantage of a direct drive trainer is its ability to replicate a realistic bike feel. Thereʼs nothing worse than spinning out hours and hours atop a setup that feels nothing like a regular road ride."
Wheel-on trainers have their own suite of advantages, but most are related to budget. Put succinctly – wheel-on trainers cost less and therefore make a great option for those looking to ride indoors without dropping a pretty penny doing so.
In contrast to direct drive trainers, wheel-on varieties donʼt require you to mount your bicycle on the trainerʼs cassette, so the set up is a breeze. If youʼre not confident in your ability to reliably change out your rear wheel, then the wheel-on option is a great compromise.
Plenty of bike racers prefer wheel-on trainers because theyʼre reasonably lightweight, making them an excellent option for travel. If you like to warm up before a high-intensity criterium, road race, or group ride, then youʼll want to take a trainer with you. Direct drive trainers are heavy and cumbersome to move whereas wheel-on trainers can be popped into the trunk of your care with less effort.
Concerning accuracy, the latest generation of wheel-on trainers doesnʼt miss much, with many trainers featuring accuracy levels of +/- 3%. On the flipside, youʼll need to calibrate them with each use which, while not difficult, does take a little extra time and attention from each session. Additionally, if your training takes you to high power zones on occasion, you may experience slippage as a result of the high amount of pressure applied to the rear wheel to create resistance.
Because of the way wheel-on trainers create resistance (by pushing against the rear wheel), noise is an inevitability, but it isnʼt much of a concern as long as you arenʼt overly sensitive.
Choosing the Right Trainer
Ultimately, an indoor-trainer is an investment that will benefit your cycling and overall fitness all year long. The right trainer for you depends in large part on budget, whether you need a trainer that you can take on the road, and how willing you are to remove your rear wheel before every indoor ride.
Whether you choose to go with a direct drive or wheel-on trainer, as long as you stick to your training goals, the results will be more or less the same. Donʼt sweat the details, but do sweat during the ride.