Being a sport scientist and living in the cold of Canada, I’ve had the fortune (or misfortune) of spending a lot of time riding indoors on a wide spectrum of indoor trainers. While some might consider these as torture devices, I really enjoy being able to control my workouts and do very systematic efforts over the course of the winter.
The TruTrainer rollers ride nothing like my old set of double-fan resistance rollers, and the quality and durability are top-notch.
When I started cycling in the mid-1980s, indoor trainers were pretty flimsy, and my first indoor setup had rollers with double fans for resistance. This served me well for a decade or more but, beyond the ability to spin my legs, I never found them to be that enjoyable or realistic.
Why I Do Not Like Rollers
Track riders swear by rollers because of their ability to really spin at high cadences. But for roadies, the big problem with mine and most other rollers was the lack of inertia and resistance. Even with a set of double fans, the windup and acceleration from a standstill to super-high cadence would be nearly instantaneous, followed by a rapid decay in resistance once you’re up to speed. So what ends up happening is that you get a brief spike of high wattage as you spin up, but that spike lasts only a couple of seconds before it drops back to very low levels, no matter what gear or cadence you’re riding.
So with my emphasis on specific indoor workouts, this lack of inertia is a critical weakness of most rollers, and indeed with trainers that do not have a good road feel. Basically, the only thing I could really do with rollers was ride at a fairly low wattage.
The other supposed advantage of rollers – having to control your bike, actually turns out to be more theory than practice. Again because of the low inertia, the roller drums spin up and down so fast that it becomes difficult to really throw the bike naturally side to side while standing. So while I could ride rollers, and did so for more than a decade of winters without falling off, it was never something that I really enjoyed.
The TruTrainers provide a fresh perspective and clean-slate design to the whole concept of rollers.
So with the advent of better trainers that clamped the rear wheel, especially the power-specific ones that I got for my research lab, my past decade of winters have involved using a variety of trainers. So when Ross and Jeff from TruTrainer first called me up about testing their rollers, I have to admit that I was somewhat blasé about the whole prospect, as I couldn’t see how they would be different from what I had used before.
TruTrainer is the brain child of Ross Belloni and Jeff Rhodes, two aerospace engineers from Indiana. As Ross tells it, “My first roller ride was a white knuckle experience. Learned to ride on a cheap set with bright orange plastic tubes. They built up so much static electricity that my hair would stand on end. The experience was nothing like riding on the road and TruTrainer was born on a cold winter night in 1985 while riding those rollers. I hated them, but hated losing sprints to Jeff even more, so I rode them.”
The idea of building better rollers stuck with them through the 1990s, as family, work, and kids took over. Finally, in 2004, they decided to put their engineering skills, not to mention fanatical devotion to quality and design, to work. The first prototypes were built for demonstrations to the Marian University cycling team, and the positive reactions led to a decision to make a go of selling them.
Being engineers first and foremost, Ross and Jeff set out to bring that same focus to the TruTrainer system. Apart from the basic concept of three drums, they went for a “blank slate” approach in their project. And along the way, their fanatical devotion to detail and quality led them to building all the parts themselves in their own shop, save for the bearings, belts, and a few nuts and bolts. Some of the key design features include:
• Large diameter, smooth, hard anodized drums that have very little run-out. This provides a very smooth ride with no wobbling at speed.
• The side rails are powder coated to protect against scuffing and sweat. The rails along the middle of its length have a highly durable rubber non-slip tread to aid in getting on and off. I’m known as a heavy sweater, but there’s been no sign of corrosion or wear on the rails.
• Rather than all three drums being built level to each other like most rollers, such that your rear wheel sits slightly lower than your front, the setting of the drums are adjusted so that your bike ends up level.
• Tons of fore-aft adjustment is possible too in order to fine tune your bike’s position atop the rollers with a single 6 mm allen key. The front rollers can accommodate wheelbases from 95 – 110 cm.
• An optional flywheel quick release with an allen key, permitting removal of roller resistance for track and fixed gear spins.
• Pretty much everything is backed by a lifetime warranty. Given my nearly 1,000 km on it so far, I haven’t seen any reason to anticipate having to call TruTrainer on this.
The folding option gives good portability to this other very heavy unit, and is essential if you’re considering using them outside your basement.
Get on the Platform
My perceptions and bias about rollers quickly started evaporating from the moment I opened the massive box from TruTrainer. Inside was the entire roller system set up ready to go in a VERY heavy package. At over 20 kg for the whole setup, there was nothing remotely flimsy about the TruTrainer. We’ll get to the importance of that weight shortly.
Setting down the TruTrainer, the second thing that struck me like a wallop to the head in terms of “why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?” was the optional platform. Built of high-strength polyethylene and CNC machined, the platform slots perfectly down the middle of the TruTrainer between the front and middle rollers, with rubber feet to prevent them sliding. The platform sits low enough that I could place it right under my 172.5 mm cranks on my De Rosa road bike without anything banging, so it should work for most bikes unless you’re riding super-long cranks.
The platform made it so easy to get on and off the TruTrainer, and is covered with durable non-slip grip.
The platform is super strong and easily holds my weight when getting on and off the bike, meaning that you’re not trying to push off or step onto the narrow side rails. Ultimately, the platform makes getting on and off so simple that I could ride the TruTrainers in the middle of a room without any walls or stools nearby, which certainly opens up the possibilities for where you set up your rollers indoor or outdoor.
Tru Road Feel
For me, what really sets the TruTrainer apart from any rollers I’ve ridden is that they have a terrifically realistic road feel. Unlike rollers with lightweight drums and therefore minimal inertia, the TruTrainer features a very hefty rear roller, and the majority of the resistive load of the basic rollers comes from what’s inside this rear roller assembly.
While I could do most workouts without the optional fork mount, they were a nice bit of insurance for some high power efforts.
This unit contains a flywheel that rotates inside the roller drum to provide a better simulation of a real world bike ride. The flywheel provides a resistive load when the bike wheels are being accelerated and adds a propulsive force when the wheel velocity is decreasing. This is similar to force that is provided by your body’s mass as bike speed is increased or decreased. The flywheel weighs about 13 pounds and its effective mass is increased ~16 times by running at ~4 times the speed of the rear roller via a quiet and efficient micro-V belt-driven pulley system.
The secret of the TruTrainer’s realistic road feel really comes inside the 3rd rollers and its flywheel and pulley system.
At steady state speed, resistive load is primarily a function of the viscous drag in the rear roller assembly’s bearings. The load increases as a power curve of bike speed and matches the drag experienced by an average rider on a flat road with no wind at 20 miles per hour.
In reality, what this means is that it takes time to get the bike rolling at speed, and that the rollers take a long time to decelerate when you stop pedaling, just like out on the road. How long? From riding at 35 km/h, I can coast for 20 s or more before the speed drops to 10 km/h and I need to clip out for balance, just like what happens out on the road. That means that I can do things like drink, stretch, wiggle around, whatever is needed to keep comfortable without constantly having to keep pedaling to stay upright.
The inertia and momentum of the TruTrainers also make standing on the bike much more natural and realistic. With normal rollers, I find the drums spin up and slow down so rapidly that you end up with a really jerky standing motion. With the TruTrainer, I can stand up riding at 150-200 W for a sustained period of time and really throw the bike around.
I haven’t progressed to doing hard stand-up accelerations or sprints yet, but have been assured by Ross and Jeff that it can be done. If you do go with hard in- or out-of-saddle efforts, a nice little bit of insurance is provided by the optional front bumper rollers. I’ll vouch that they work, as I’ve bumped them a few times when too busy watching and reacting to cyclocross races projected onto the wall of my training room.
I’ve hit these bumpers while both sitting and standing and barely noticed, so they serve as nice insurance. This shot also shows the wide range of adjustability for the front drums to accommodate different bikes.
Hard Enough for Ya?
With the basic TruTrainer setup, I’ve been able to ride a variety of workouts, including 1 min efforts at 300 W and 30 s efforts spun out at 350 W or thereabouts, so the resistance is very good.
To give yourself even more versatility in terms of possible efforts, the auxiliary load bar is probably the most valuable of all the TruTrainer options. Consisting of a bar of rare earth magnets laid out parallel to the middle roller drum, the load can be set to 4 additional resistance levels through notches bringing the magnet bar progressively closer to the middle drum.
How much resistance does this add? The closer the magnets to the drum, the exponentially greater the resistance curve. To test this, I tried to keep a steady 90 rpm on my 50×19 gear, and the 5 resistance levels required roughly 150, 180, 230, 270, and 320 W to sustain.
And a popular strength-building workout are “stomps,” where you start from low speed and cadence, then accelerate in a big gear until you reach 80 rpm. Doing so with my compact cranks (50×12) and the load bar set to Level 5, I could do them on the TruTrainer without falling off and at 500 W or so average. Ross and Jeff claim that, at 50 km/h, the max resistance setting can require about 800 W.
Also in terms of pure practicality and ultility, what the TruTrainer enables me to do are a very wide range of workouts, from the typical high cadence spin to steady endurance rides that you can do with other rollers, all the way through to very specific and high-wattage interval workouts.
Doing repeated 1 min efforts at about 320W was quite easy even without the extra load attachment option.
I’ve even been able to “race” on the TruTrainer, and my recent review of the Tour de Giro virtual racing system had most of my rides being done with the TruTrainer. In this TdG race file, I spent the bulk of the 40 km hammering in a 3-up break, with a few simulated hills, attacks to drop one of my break-mates near the finish, then a final 500 m all-out sit down sprint at ~600 W average for the win.
Overall, short of all-out standing sprints, there are not too many indoor workouts that I would be uncomfortable doing on the TruTrainer. And I do firmly believe that the more natural feel of having your bike moving around under you is probably both better for your bike and for your mental sanity and balance on the bike. For the rare times that I do want to ensure that I don’t fly off the rollers through fatigue or the demands of the effort, the final option is a front fork mount.
I will admit that I’ve become very smitten with the natural road feel and just the general fun of having my bike on rollers compared to clamped down on a trainer. I’ve grown so fond of this that I’ve taken to just running the computerized training videos but replicating them on the TruTrainer with my PowerTap or Pioneer power meters.
The TruTrainer with all the options tested here costs just under US$1400, but it is an absolutely high-quality system that should last an entire cycling lifetime, while actually having you enjoying indoor riding and improving your fitness at the same time.
Check them out and order direct at TruTrainer.
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