Question: Now that it’s getting dark so early, and the weather is taking a turn for the worse where I live, I’m thinking a lot more about riding inside. Would a set of rollers be better than a stationary trainer? I’ve heard there are advantages and disadvantages to both. – Tim R.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: The “rollers vs. trainers” question is a real quandary. But if I could buy just one indoor training device, I'd definitely get a good fluid trainer.
A model that clamps the bike by the rear dropouts and leaves the front wheel on is much less likely to stress the frame than a model that clamps the front fork and bottom bracket. That’s the original design, which thankfully is rarely seen today. Of course, there are also models today that require removing the rear wheel and attaching your bike to the trainer without it. (Click to see our trainer reviews.)
The advantage of a trainer is the great pedaling resistance it can produce. With good ones you can dial up 700+ watts. And because you don't have to think about balance, you can crank yourself silly without losing control, if that's what your training program calls for.
Of course, with the trainer you lose the biggest advantage of rollers – developing a smooth, even pedal stroke. (Rollers are in effect a treadmill for your bike. You ride on three spinning cylinders with nothing holding you up but your balance.)
On a trainer, though, you can do one-leg pedaling drills that may be even more effective for developing a smooth stroke than riding on rollers.
Also keep this in mind: Studies show that great riders produce most of their pedaling power on the downstroke. They stomp hard, and smoothness has little to do with it. But being smooth does help increase endurance at a moderate power level.
As for balance and bike handling, I think they’re better developed with drills done outside on a grassy field, by riding singletrack or with cyclocross.
The ideal for an inside cycling program would be to have both a trainer and rollers. But if you can buy just one, I recommend a trainer.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.