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Best smart turbo trainer for mountain bikes: get faster on the trails without leaving your home

Smart Trainers for Mountain Biking
(Image credit: Zwift)

Making a purchase of a smart turbo trainer for mountain bikes will allow you to stay race-fit and ready for the trails while also observing the Government’s COVID-19 lockdown guidelines. There’s an ever-growing range of indoor trainers and training apps and, thanks to current events, there’s never been a better time to work on your fitness riding indoors. Take a look at our round-up of indoor smart trainers for mountain bikes and find the one that suits your budget, bike and needs the best.

Read on for our top picks of trainers to use with your mountain bike, or scroll down for a full rundown of the gear you’ll need to get training and setup tips.

Top indoor turbo trainers for mountain bikes

Best Indoor Trainer: Tacx Neo 2T

(Image credit: Courtesy)

Tacx Neo 2T

Feature-rich smart trainer that generates its own power supply

Max wattage: 2200w | Max incline: 25 per cent | Axle adaptors included: 142x12, 148x12 | Mains power required: No | Flywheel weight: 125kg (virtual)

Cordless 
Good riding surface feedback 
Nearly silent
It ain’t cheap

Looking a bit more like a spaceship than a trainer, the Tacx Neo 2T uses a unique electromagnetic drive unit that allows it to simulate up to a 125kg flywheel for a leg-breaking 2200w of max resistance and an incline of 25 per cent without the need for mains power. The metal flywheel is complete with magnetic-powered electronic coils, meaning the more you pedal, the higher the magnet resistance. 

The Neo 2T does come with a power cord and gains a bit of inertia for a more realistic-feeling spin down. To make the whole riding experience even more realistic, the trainer can simulate riding over different surfaces like gravel, cobblestones and wood planks. Tacx has also built in a minor amount of ‘rock’ to minimize the sensation of your bike being bolted to the floor.

It comes in the box with axle adaptors for 142x12 and 148x12 Boost hub spacing, though you'll need to buy an XD driver or an HG-compatible cassette. Tacx says the power measurement is within one per cent without the need for calibration, and the trainer can also provide advanced power metrics such as left/right power balance. Plus it folds up so if your pain cave doubles as a spare bedroom, the Neo 2T can be easily tucked away in the closet. 

Best Indoor Trainer: Elite Direto X

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Elite Direto X

Affordable, accurate, direct-drive trainer that offers more resistance than its price-point competitors

Max wattage: 2100w | Max incline: 18 per cent | Axle adaptors included: 142x12 | Mains power required: Yes | Flywheel weight: 9.25lbs

2100 Watt max resistance 
9lbs flywheel
Mid-range price tag
Boost adaptors not included

While Elite’s Direto X technically falls in as the brand's mid-range direct-drive smart trainer, it can still output 2100w and simulate a gradient of up to 18 per cent. Although the 9.25lbs (4.2kg) internal flywheel is a little light compared to some of its competitors, the Optical Torque System (OTS) does well with what it has to provide quick and smooth modulations in power, without making too much noise. 

The OTS also shows you metrics on how round your pedal stroke is and measures power to +/- 1.5 per cent accuracy. It has a wide 72cm footprint with legs that fold away and a handle to help you move it in and out of storage. Out of the box, it comes with adaptors for 130 and 135mm quick release as well as a 142x12 thru-axle, with a Boost adaptor available for purchase. It’s also one of the better-looking units with the shell being latticed on the drive side, unfortunately, all these edges mean it will likely get a bit dusty. 

Best Indoor Trainer: Wahoo Kickr

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Wahoo Kickr

The king of indoor trainers is quiet, accurate and easy to set up

Max wattage: 2200w | Max incline: 20 per cent | Axle adaptors included: 142x12, 148x12 | Mains power required: Yes | Flywheel weight: 16lbs

Easy setup
Quiet
Comes with adaptors for Boost hubs
Price

Wahoo’s Kickr has been considered one of the best direct-drive smart trainers available pretty much since it was launched. With a 16lb flywheel pedalling feels natural and the 2200w max resistance and 20 per cent simulated grade will surely stand up to even the most vicious sprint intervals. Using a foldable, three-leg base that is height-adjustable, there is no need for a riser block. However, it’s compatible with the Kickr Climb if you want the fully immersive experience and also works with the Headwind Bluetooth fan.

The Kickr is quick to change and stabilise the resistance, whether that be responding to attacks on Zwift or short sharp intervals in The Sufferfest. With adapters for all modern axle standards except for SuperBoost, the Kickr is just about universally compatible, not only with bikes but with training apps and cycling head units too, as it also features ANT+, ANT+ FEC and Bluetooth compatibility. 

Best Indoor Trainer: Wahoo Kickr Core

(Image credit: Courtesy)

Wahoo Kickr Core

Stout mid-level, direct-drive trainer with near-universal compatibility

Max wattage: 1800w | Max incline: 16 per cent | Axle adaptors included: 142x12, 148x12 | Mains power required: Yes | Flywheel weight: 12lbs

Quiet, stable base 
Boost hub adaptors included 
Compatible with Wahoo ecosystem
No height adjustment
Fixed legs

The Kickr Core is a slightly toned-down version of the brand's flagship smart trainer, it lacks a bit of top-end performance and foldable legs, but it's still as reliable and quiet as ever. The flywheel drops from 16lbs to 12lbs, the max resistance is 1800w and the simulated grade is only 16 per cent. While on paper these numbers might not be comparatively impressive, there is more than enough resistance available to extend well beyond most people’s needs. 

The fixed legs and lack of a handle mean it’s not an easy thing to move around, but it’s plenty stable. Although it doesn’t come out of the box with a cassette, that’s not really an issue if you’re planning to use a mountain bike because you’ll need a wide range cassette anyway. It comes with the same axle adaptors as the Kickr and works with the entire Wahoo ecosystem.

Best Indoor Trainer: Kinetic Road Machine 2.0

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Kurt Kinetic Road Machine 2.0

Dumb trainer that can be made smart with only a few bolts and minimal cost

Max wattage: N/A | Max incline: N/A | Axle adaptors included: N/A | Mains power require: N/A | Flywheel weight: 6.25lb

Best-in-class fluid resistance 
6.25lbs flywheel
Foldable 
Resistance-unit upgradable
You’ll need an axel and a trainer tyre or slick

Kinetic trainers are lean, mean, and downright brutal. Not everyone has the budget for an interactive smart trainer and for those that don’t we think the Kurt Kinetic Road Machine is the best bang for your buck, mostly because of the fluid resistance unit. Out of the box, it comes with a 6.25lb flywheel that offers fantastic inertia, it also boasts InRide chip which calculates speed and power, and is Bluetooth and ANT+ FE-C enabled to communicate with the training app of your choice. 

The reason we are fans of the Kurt Kinetic Trainers is that the Kinetic Power control unit can be retrofitted with only a few screws, giving you the option to upgrade later with minimal cost. As standard, the Kinetic Road Machine will suit anything from a 22in wheel all the way up to 29er, though you’ll need a trainer axle like the Kinetic Traxle if your bike uses a rear thru-axle. 

Best indoor trainers for mountain bikes: everything you need to know

Why should you train indoors?

Mountain biking is so much more enjoyable when you’re fit, and if you have more matches to burn getting up that techy climb, you will have that much more to give on the descent. The best way to get fitter is by doing structured interval sessions that are designed to push specific systems of your physiology; the trouble is that doing intervals and hitting specific power targets on singletrack is not really all that feasible. It can be downright dangerous not only for yourself, but also for those around you — plus, it’s a fantastic way to ruin an entertaining bit of trail.

Riding indoors removes all the variables and allows you to complete structured workouts more efficiently; if a workout calls for you to do 320w for 10min, there are no hills, rollers, rock gardens or downed trees in the way and the only thing stopping you from hitting your targets is your legs. 

What are the different types of trainers?

There are three types of indoor trainers, direct-drive smart trainers, wheel-on smart trainers and wheel-on dumb trainers. Direct-drive smart trainers have their own cassette and see your bike attached to the unit itself without the rear wheel. Inside they will have a resistance unit and a power meter that’s controlled by an app, so if your workout calls for 200 watts, it will make you pedal 200 watts. Most smart trainers are ANT+, ANT+ FEC and Bluetooth enabled and speak the same language as apps like Zwift, TrainerRoad and The Sufferfest to provide interactive resistance.

Wheel-on smart trainers grab your bike by the rear axle and press a roller drum against the tyre to create resistance. Similar to their direct-drive cousins, these trainers have electronics built-in, with the same connectivity designed to work with apps and create an interactive ride. Because your drivetrain isn’t directly connected to the trainer, the power readings aren’t quite as accurate; also the tyre needs to warm-up and you’ll need to complete a spin down calibration. 

Speaking of tyres you’re also going to want a trainer tyre like the Tacx Trainer Tyre or Vittoria Zaffiro Pro Home Trainer Tyre which use a hard compound to prolong life and limit noise. They can be pretty hard to find, especially in MTB sizes, so a cheap slick will suffice. We’d also recommend buying the most inexpensive wheel you can find, that way you’re not trying to swap tyres around before you hop on the trainer. If your bike uses a thru-axle, you’ll also need a trainer-specific one like the Tacx E-Thru-Axle, Kinetic Traxel, or a Robert Axle Project Trainer thru-axle.

Then, you have wheel-on dumb trainers, these use the same wheel drum-style resistance unit, but don’t have any electronics. You can still get a solid workout with one of these, but you will have to find the right gearing and cadence to hit your targets. Because there are no electronics, these trainers are also quite inexpensive in comparison to their smart peers.

What you’ll need to get started?

Depending on what trainer you opt for, you may need a few additional bits and pieces to get the most out of your indoor session. For every setup, you will want a BIG fan to prevent yourself from overheating. Depending on your trainer, you may also need a riser block to level out the axles. If not, your rear axle will be higher with your bike in the trainer, pitching your weight forward and putting extra stress on your hands and possibly causing soft tissue pressure on your saddle. Lots of riser blocks are road specific; however, some like the Elite Sterzo or Kinetic Ring Riser works with both MTB and road tyres — the former even allows you to take advantage of the new steering functionally in Zwift. 

Direct-drive smart trainer - you will need:

  • A bike
  • The correct adaptors for your rear hub spacing — most include these in the box
  • A cassette and/or freehub body

Wheel-on smart trainer - you will need:

  • A bike
  • A trainer thru-axle
  • A trainer tyre or slick

Wheel-on dumb trainer - you will need

  • A bike
  • A powermeter or speed and cadence sensor for Virtual Power
  • A trainer specific thru-axle
  • A trainer tyre or a slick

Direct-drive cassettes

Some smart trainers come with a cassette, but it will be a narrow block 11-speed road cluster and standard HG freehub. Because of the 10T small cog on both Sram and Shimano cassettes, your bike also more than likely has a SRAM XD Driver or Shimano Microspline freehub meaning your gears may be incompatible without an extra purchase.

Most trainer manufacturers also make XD drivers for their direct drive turbos, so you can run the same cassette you would outdoors — there are no Microspline options available at this point. We think a better option is to use a cassette that works with a HG freehub body like a SRAM NX or SX cassette, or a third party option like the SunRace MZ90 12-speed cassette. 

What is Virtual Power?

When training apps were in their infancy, our friends over at TrainerRoad made power training accessible for the masses with Virtual Power. Every trainer has a resistance curve, meaning it takes a certain amount of watts to spin the drum at a particular speed. This is a measurable and repeatable metric, and all you need to use this feature is a speed and cadence sensor. 

It’s not a perfect measure because variables like tyre pressure, how snug the drum is on your tyre and if the tyre is warm can affect the reading slightly. Still, for those looking to get into power training, Virtual Power provides a low barrier to entry and gets you within the wattage ballpark. 

Should you lock out your suspension?

Indoor training is all about efficiency, and watts lost to suspension bob means you’ll have to push harder to hit your targets, but there are two schools of thought as to whether or not you should lock out your suspension.

If we are talking about just nailing your intervals, locking out your suspension or firming up the compression will make sure that your bike isn’t wallowing up and down while you suffer through sprint intervals.

Having said that, while you’re out on the trail, your suspension will be active, and one could argue leaving it unlocked on the trainer will provide a more realistic riding and training experience.