The best MTB smart trainers will keep you race-fit and ready for the trails even if the weather's bad. While we all want to grasp tightly to the remaining days of summer here in the northern hemisphere, we have to accept that winter is on its way.
With that said, the colder months of the year are the best time to work on your fitness riding indoors, and thankfully there's an ever-growing range of indoor trainers and training apps to take advantage of.
To help you choose what's right for you, we've rounded up our pick of the best MTB smart trainers. Read on to find one that suits your budget, bike and needs the best, or scroll down for a full guide to how to choose the best MTB smart trainer.
The best MTB smart trainers available
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 2,200w of max resistance and a max incline of 25 per cent. The metal flywheel is complete with magnetic-powered electronic coils, meaning the more you pedal, the higher the magnet resistance.
The Neo 2T comes 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 percent 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.
If the Tacx Neo 2T is out of your price range, then the Flux 2 is a smart trainer with a lot of the same features at a cheaper price.
The Flux 2 can support a max wattage of 2,000 watts, compared to 2,200w of the Neo 2T, so there's not much difference there. However, the Flux 2 can only support a 16 per cent max gradient. Other than that, the Flux 2 has most of the features you would want on a smart trainer.
This trainer isn't foldable, though it does have a smaller base footprint. It's compatible with standard axle sizes, and you get one month of Tacx Premium software for free with your purchase.
Elite’s Direto XR smart trainer can sustain a max power output of 2,300w and simulate a gradient of up to 24 per cent. The 11lbs (45.1kg) internal flywheel is heavier than the previous model, and 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 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 a quick release as well as a 142x12 thru-axle. 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.
If you're looking for something a bit more budget-minded than the Direto, then Elite's Suito may suit you.
With the smaller price tag comes smaller features, so power output is maxed out at 1,900w, but that's still a lot of watts! The accuracy is +/- 2.5 per cent, and the max incline is only 15 per cent.
The trainer is compatible with all the standard connections and apps, plus when you buy one you get a free one month subscription to Zwift.
Wahoo’s Kickr has been considered one of the best direct-drive smart trainers available pretty much since it was launched. The Kickr V5 employs a 16lb flywheel, pedaling feels natural and the 2,200w 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 a fully immersive experience and also works with the Headwind Bluetooth fan.
The Kickr is quick to change and stabilize 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.
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 1,800w 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.
The Kinetic R1 smart trainer's primary feature is that it moves side-to-side to give the rider a more natural ride feel. The smart trainer is compatible with all of the standard connections, including ANT+ and Bluetooth, and works with all of the virtual ride apps like Swift.
Riders can use their stock through axle, so you don't have to worry about switching axles out, which is a plus. The max gradient is 20 per cent and the max power output is a hefty 2,000 watts.
This trainer is a great budget option as well, compared to its competition, at $699.
How to choose the best MTB smart trainer
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 tire 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 tire needs to warm up and you’ll need to complete a spin down calibration.
Speaking of tires you’re also going to want a trainer tire like the Tacx Trainer Tire or Vittoria Zaffiro Pro Home Trainer Tire which uses 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 tires 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, which 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 do you 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 tires — 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 tire or slick
Wheel-on dumb trainer - you will need
- A bike
- A power meter or speed and cadence sensor for Virtual Power
- A trainer specific thru-axle
- A trainer tire or a slick
What cassette do I need?
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 an 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 of variables like tire pressure, how snug the drum is on your tire and if the tire 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.