A comparison of Smart Trainers: Direct Drive Vs. Rear Wheel
So you know you want a smart trainer but now you have to decide which one to get. There are many companies in the market currently. CycleOps, Kurt Kinetic, and Wahoo Fitness all have a few models that will get you rolling with your favorite app.
There are two types of smart trainers (direct drive trainers and rear wheel trainers). To put your bike on a direct drive trainer, you take the rear wheel off your bike and mount it to the cassette and axle that is on the trainer. Rear wheel trainers are used by clamping your rear wheel into the trainer (with the proper trainer skewer or thru axle) and then tightening the roller against your tire. Most of the companies have both types of trainers available. The benefit of direct drive is that you won't have wheel slippage and your tire will stay fresh. The direct drive trainers are quieter, the power is more accurate, they have the best road feel, and they will provide resistance to around 2000 watts. Rear wheel trainers are still pretty quiet, the power is a little less accurate, the road feel is good, and the resistance goes up to around 1500 watts.
CycleOps is the newest to the app-controlled resistance trainer market. They recently released the Hammer and Magnus trainers. The Hammer is a direct drive type trainer. It is claimed to have +/-3% power accuracy and a max resistance of 2000 watts. The Magnus is CycleOp's rear wheel smart trainer. The power accuracy is +/-5% and the max resistance is 1500 watts. The Magnus handles wheel sizes between 26-29x2.0".
Kurt Kinetic is known for the Rock & Roll trainer that allows the bike to lean side to side to add to the real riding feel. They offer the Rock & Roll and Road Machine with Smart Control Power Units attached. If you already have a Rock & Roll or Road Machine then you can buy the Smart Control Power Unit separately to upgrade your trainer. Both of these are rear wheel trainers. Kurt Kinetic does not offer a direct drive trainer but these claim to do up to 1800 watts and power accuracy is +/-5%. They can handle 22-29" wheels. The only limiter I see to using these is that they are Bluetooth only. They do not use ANT+ FE-C which many apps and devices (Garmin) use to communicate/control smart trainers. That being said, Kurt Kinetic has worked with TrainerRoad and Zwift to make sure these trainers are compatible.
Wahoo Fitness kick started the new era of smart trainers. They have the KICKR and KICKR Snap. The KICKR is their direct drive model. It has +/-2% power accuracy and can resist up to 2000 watts (I saw 2500 watts somewhere). It ships with a cadence sensor and an 11 speed cassette. The KICKR Snap is a rear wheel trainer that has best in class power accuracy at +/-3%. These are what we use in the Rocktown Cycle Studio. It will work with wheels between 650c and 29". The limit to the KICKR Snap is that it doesn't work with boost spacing (in case you use your MTB on your trainer). The coolest thing about the Wahoo trainers is the new climbing tower that is coming out this year. It will simulate climbing and descending position on the trainer by raising and lowering the front end of your bike while you ride. It will simulate up to 20% grade climbs and 10% grade descents.
Based on my experience, all of these companies have very competitive products and they price them the same between the comparable models. They all have amazing customer support! We chose Wahoo Fitness products for the studio before the other companies were selling smart trainers. Their products are great and they now have a new GPS bike computer called the Bolt which can double as a remote for the trainers.
My advice on picking a smart trainer is to first decide which type you like. The direct drive trainers are great for people that need higher max wattage or even people that don't want to deal with a slipping wheel. Another reason for someone to pick direct drive is so you aren't wearing out tires. The final reason to choose direct drive would be to get the ultimate road feel. Transitioning from downhill to uphill grades and accelerating and decelerating feels better on the direct drive trainers.
I chose a rear wheel smart trainer because of the cost. It is $600 compared to the $1200 direct drive trainer. Most of the time if you have your tire pumped up and the tension right on the roller then you won't have a wheel slip. I haven't ever noticed additional wear on my tire at 3-5 hours a week on the trainer. I think that the road feel of rear wheel trainers is plenty real for me. I also have never done workouts that put me above 500 watts on the trainer. The most watts I could do are less than the rear wheel trainers max so I am good there.
If you are interested in testing out a trainer come by anytime and we can put you on a Wahoo KICKR Snap rear wheel trainer with any app you please through your phone, our Apple TV, or our iPad.