What is a virtual bike trainer? Well, they’re basically video games for athletes. This technology isn’t new, however over the last two years it has become very easy for the everyday athlete to set up and operate at home. This is because of a simplified setup and the use of programs such as Cycle Ops’s virtual trainer, Zwift and several others. This is also why the popularity of virtual bike training has climbed significantly and you are mostly likely reading this. This is especially true in regions where year round training is not ideal, such as a place that receives heavy snow for part of the year.
Bike trainers and stationary bikes have been around for years and have a reputation for not feeling like riding on the road, being loud and very boring. With the development of the bike sensors of today and the interface to home computers, tablets and phones that has all changed. That often boring ride has been made social and in many cases competitive. We are now able to ride and race with groups of people from our own living rooms or pain caves. You may even already have most of the items needed to set up a virtual trainer at home.
The setup options change dependent on the equipment you may already own and what you are willing to purchase. My goal here is to guide you through some of the options that will get you up and running specifically around keeping the cost as low as possible.
There are two major setup methods. The first one is the setup that uses what’s called a smart trainer and the second on uses a standard trainer. These are the stationary bike trainers that you would attach your bike to. There are several ways this is done and every trainer is a little different. In keeping with the low-cost theme this is most likely a standard trainer that clamps onto the rear axle of your bike, and then places a small fly-wheel in contact with your tire. The more expensive smart trainers will take the place of your rear wheel entirely.
This next bit is on smart trainers and I’ll keep it brief since it is usually the higher cost option. Only some of the most recent smart trainers put on the market have been aimed at making the setup less costly.
A smart trainer typically uses ANT+ and/or Bluetooth connectivity for sensors and resistance control. Because of dual connectivity and the trainers ability to sence and calculate power, speed, cadence you only need the smart trainer and whatever device of your choosing to run the virtual trainer software. The only cable required is usually just a power cable. These trainers now come in wheel on configurations like the standard trainer mentioned above and wheel off configurations that increase accuracy and lower noise levels. In short this is the simplest method of setting up a virtual trainer. The negative is the higher cost of the smart trainer. They are currently ranging from $600-$1,600 depending on model.
Back to the standard trainer. Most standard trainers have no connectivity on the trainer itself. Resistance is often controlled by the rider through a manual controller or gear changes on the bike. All other data comes from other sensors that you may already have installed for riding on the road. In many cases the only required sensor would be a speed sensor on the back wheel or a power meter installed someplace on the bike. This is the bare bones bike setup.
The speed or power meter are the only required inputs because the virtual trainer software is going to do one of two things. It will either calculate an estimated power required to move your wheel at a given speed using power graph data for your trainer model or it will use the direct power readout from the power meter. Depending on what software your running, this will give you data readouts or make your virtual trainer avatar move on the screen at the appropriate speed for the virtual terrain.
Now so you don’t get all bent out of shape when your Garmin watch reads a lower speed and final distance than you expected after an hour long ride. I’m letting you know this is normal because of the resistance being controlled by gearing and the wheel speed being slower at a perceived effort compared to riding out on the road. There are a lot of variables behind this such as the ability to coast on the road, wind, etc…. The simulator will account for this.
Did I lose you? A smart trainer needs nothing else; a standard trainer needs the speed sensor or power meter. It’s as simple as that.
If you link up other sensors such as HR, cadence etc… you data gets more detailed and accurate.
Rather than go into great detail on all the trainer options I recommend you check out DC Rainmaker’s bike trainer recommendations here.
DC Rainmaker also goes into great detail on the various trainer apps and what they are capable of here.
The setup I use takes advantage of things I already owned before trainer simulations became so popular. I will also cover the computer or tablet option for running the software in this section.
Currently all my equipment uses ANT+ for connecting to the software however you can also use Bluetooth Smart. I’ve never used the Bluetooth option myself and its rumored that some items may communicate with a bike computer or phone but not a computer or tablet depending on what standards are being used. The only way to know for sure is to give it a try.
With ANT+ sensors you need to have a ANT+ dongle or convert the signals. I use the dongle option.
There is also a handy little device called CABLE which connects ANT to Bluetooth Smart (BLE). This device is useful for those who have ANT sensors and would prefer to connect to an iPad through Bluetooth. The details for CABLE can be found here. I don’t own this product and can’t honestly give a review of its operation. It is rumored to work well with multiple sensors connected at the same time.
4iiii also makes a heart rate strap that will convert pass through signals. Again I don’t own this so I don’t know if it works with multiple signals at the same time.
Minimum Equipment List for a standard trainer setup:
- Laptop or iPad/smartphone –
- Smartphone is app specific (Zwift allows remote control using a phone app)
- Speed sensor or power meter
- Bike Computer – not required but I always have it recording anyways to log my workout under specific indoor trainer profile. Just in case something goes wrong with my computer (ie: blue screen of death)
- ANT+ USB dongle to use with your computer – The one I use came with my Garmin FR405 before the ability to sync your watch with your phone was possible. Amazon lists this anywhere from $16-$50. You can also use CABLE to convert signals for the iPad. Note: You may also have other sensors that are already Bluetooth and not ANT+. These may connect directly to an iPad of computer if the computer has the hardware.
- USB extension cable – length depends on your individual setup. This is used to put the USB dongle as close to your bike sensors as possible keeping your compute where you can see the screen and away from your dripping sweat.
Additional sensors I use
- Cadence sensor – I already had this on my bike as a combo unit with the speed sensor when I first did my setup. Since then I’ve changed bikes and now have the newer version from Garmin that is two separate sensors for speed and cadence. The two sensors as a package are $70 on garmin.com. I’ll show photos of both on the setup.
- HR sensor – increases calorie burn accuracy and allows for HR zone training
That’s it for the physical setup. Once you get the first setup done, all you need to do is place your bike on the trainer and open your favorite simulator program.
When it comes down to the computer, it’s the hardware specs that are what’s important. It can determine what virtual trainer program you’re able to run. For example: The CycleOps virtual trainer doesn’t require much for a processor or graphics but does need hard drive space if your going to download course videos. On the other hand, Zwift requires more processing power and a faster graphics card to generate the virtual world you will be riding in. Each program will list the minimum specs on their web site. If your not sure what your reading ask the nearest teenager to decipher the code. I mean spec details.
Once you have your computer identified you need to connect your sensors over Bluetooth or ANT+. As I mentioned earlier I use ANT+ with the dongle on a USB extension cable.
You need to place your computer relatively close to your bike so that you can see the screen but avoid dripping sweat onto it. I originally used the kitchen table and a box to increase the screen height. You can also use an external monitor or a projector for this if you have one available. There are some special table stands available that are marketed specifically for bike virtual trainers as an option. Wahoo sells one of these.
Zwift recently released an iPad/iPhone version of their simulator that will run on the newer apple hardware. If your still using an iPad 2 your out of luck. It just doesn’t have the processing power required. If you are using a newer iOS device this is a great option because it keeps everything very simple and sleek. Especially if you are using Bluetooth smart sensors.
The downside to the iOS version of most virtual trainers applies to you if your use ANT+ only sensors like myself. If this is the case you will require either a lightening to 30 pin adapter and a 30 pin ANT+ dongle or something else to convert your signals.
For some reason no one seems to sell an ANT+ dongle with a lightening connector to fit modern apple products. At this time if you don’t already have an ANT+ connector for your Apple product it makes more sense from a cost perspective to get a signal converter such as CABLE. It’s probably the better long term option since they are priced about the same.
I recently came across an unofficial user manual for Zwift written by www.titaniumgeek.com. The manual does a good job explaining setup how each part of the program works from Challenges, leveling up, etc…
I hope this post helps clarify the basic requirements to get started and helps get you on the right path to an enjoyable trainer ride. As always if you leave questions in the comments I’ll do my best to answer them.
Don’t forget to follow this blog to see new posts when they become available.
Also check out the Ambassador links. Several of them contain discount codes for you to take advantage of. Why pay full price.