If you’re one of the many people who has looked to training indoors over the past couple of years, then you’ve probably had many questions about what products you need for indoor cycling. Various solutions are available, ranging from simple systems that by themselves are incompatible with apps like Zwift, to the premium options that, while app-compatible, can leave your bank account feeling emptier than your stomach after a fasted ride.
Here we’re going to run through all the options, with a guide on how to get the cheapest Zwift setup, so that you can have the interactivity of the apps without it costing a fortune. If you’ve done any research, you’ll have noticed that the best turbo trainers can easily cost four figures, while the best smart bikes cost even more, but you can absolutely bring your training indoors on a budget. Below, we overview the various ways you can get onto Zwift, the cheapest ways for each, along with any deals we can find to get you rolling indoors on a budget.
But before we start, it’s hard to ignore the impact that COVID-19 has had on the price and availability of turbo trainers. At the start pandemic, many people were forbidden from riding outside, and those still allowed felt a moral obligation to stay indoors to reduce the risk of crashes putting undue strain on the health services. Cyclists turned to indoor cycling to continue their training programs or get their fitness fix, and as a result, there was a huge surge in demand for turbo trainers. At the same time, factories were forced to close, and a stock shortage ensued around the world.
Over a year on, manufacturers are still playing catch up. Despite the mass vaccination roll-out across the world, various countries are still dipping in and out of strict lockdowns and turbo trainer demand remains high, so while stock is currently easier to find, discounts are rare.
And as strict lockdowns continue, factory closures are entirely possible at a moment’s notice, so if you want to take your training indoors, we suggest taking advantage of the stock that is available today.
So, without further ado, let’s dive in and get you onto Zwift.
At the end of the free trial period, Zwift is priced as a monthly subscription of £12.99 / US$14.99 / AU$19.99 per month. However, retailers do offer 3 and 12-month subscription gift vouchers that can save you a bit of money, especially if you can pair them with a discount code for that retailer.
For context, TrainerRoad is similarly priced at US$19.95 per month, although there is an annual subscription of $189.00 which equates to the better price of $15.75 per month. RGT has a freemium business model, allowing unlimited kilometres to be ridden in a pared-down version of the game without any monthly payments, and an annual subscription to Wahoo SUF is $129.00 / £129.00.
So while Zwift itself is reasonably inexpensive, it’s the required hardware that can add up to make getting onto Zwift a rather expensive investment. The most premium setups will cost thousands and that’s before you consider the cost of the bike, possible additions of a computer or tablet, as well as a fan. If you’re planning on running Zwift in an unpowered garage or shed, you may even need to factor in an extension lead, wifi booster, even the light bulbs!
The overwhelming thought of all this investment might put you off, but thankfully, we’re here to help. If you’ve read our guide to Zwift, you’ll know there are a couple of turbo trainer types: direct-drive and wheel-on. You’ll also know that some trainers are smart, meaning the resistance can be controlled by software (Zwift, TrainerRoad, etc), whereas others are ‘dumb’, and will need to be controlled by your gear selection or a manual resistance controller that clamps to your handlebars.
While Zwift is undoubtedly the biggest of the various indoor cycling apps, it’s worth noting that the following setups will work with other training software such as TrainerRoad, The Sufferfest, Rouvy and more, so once you’re set up, you can test out the various platforms for yourself.
Cheapest at-home Zwift setups in price order
Assuming you already have a road bike to use, the cheapest Zwift setup uses a ‘dumb’ turbo trainer and a speed sensor. With a dumb trainer, Zwift calculates power output based on the speed of the rear wheel so the downside is that there will be a delay between power output and your in-game avatar’s response.
This isn’t too problematic for long steady efforts, but for sprint workouts or Zwift races, a ‘smart’ trainer or power meter will offer a better in-game experience.
To fit your bike onto the turbo trainer, you’ll also need an adaptor for the rear axle. This is where it can get a little bit confusing, as you’ll need to use the correct adaptor for your bike. If your bike uses quick-release axles, the most common rear spacing (distance between the dropouts) is 130mm for road bikes. If your bike uses bolt-thru axles (an axle that goes through the hub and threads into the frame), then check the axle itself for size spec (the most common on road bikes is 142 x 12mm).
You’ll also need the speed sensor itself. This simply wraps around your rear hub and will connect to Zwift using either ANT+ or Bluetooth. Find a sensor that speaks Bluetooth to avoid having to buy an ANT+ adaptor for your laptop or tablet.
A slightly more accurate method of using Zwift is with a power meter. It’ll cost more than a speed sensor, but it will come with added accuracy (and immediate responsiveness), along with the benefit of being able to take your power measurement outdoors too. The initial spend might be higher, but if you intend on using your bike outside as well as on the turbo, you will benefit from a single consistent reading of power across all of your training sessions.
We recommend choosing something with Bluetooth compatibility as well as ANT+, because it will communicate with more computers, phones and laptops than an ANT+ only device. You can overcome that with an ANT+ adapter, but that’s an extra cost we’re trying to avoid.
A power meter paired with your device running Zwift will increase the accuracy of your in-game experience and will be a great training tool for intervals and steady-state training, theoretically resulting in long-term performance gains.
Your choice of power meter will depend on your bike and its compatibility requirements. More details can be found in our guide to the best power meters, but here are a few of the best prices we’re able to find.
Power meter pedals
Power meter pedals do the same thing as any power meter, but instead of being built into your crank, hub or bottom bracket, they are built into your pedals, which can be very useful.
They’re generally twice the price of a budget crank-based power meter or the same as a wheel-on smart trainer – however, the benefit to owning power meter pedals over a smart turbo trainer is the flexibility to use it in multiple scenarios: At the gym, at home on your own Zwift setup, outside in the real world, and across multiple bikes.
If your gym doesn’t have smart bikes like a Wattbike, with a pair of power meter pedals and a polite request, your gym might allow you to swap them onto one of their non-smart indoor bikes – the type used for spin classes. Pair them with your Bluetooth enabled phone or tablet and you’ve got Zwift at the gym – great for those who are often on-the-road with work and don’t have the means to take their bike and turbo trainer with them.
Smart wheel-on turbo trainers
The resistance of a smart turbo trainer can be controlled by software and work in perfect harmony with your Zwift experience, meaning when the road points up, pedalling gets harder, just like in the real world.
There are many different smart wheel-on turbo trainers available, but here are a few of the best of the turbo trainer prices we’ve been able to find where stock remains available.
Smart direct-drive turbo trainers
For the ultimate experience and a true road feel, a direct drive turbo trainer really does offer a considerably better experience compared to a wheel-on trainer. Not only does it prevent that laboured pedalling-through-treacle feeling, but it’s also considerably quieter and doesn’t chew through tyres like the cool kids doing skids. The top-spec direct-drive trainers add extra niceties such as vibration (to provide off-road feel in off-road in-game sections) and motorised freewheeling (to prevent the flywheel from stopping, requiring a sprint to get it going again when your avatar is riding downhill) and they generally have higher maximum resistance and incline simulation.
Yes, they’re a far cry from the cheapest Zwift setup that this article promised at the top, but if you’re looking for a premium turbo trainer setup, you can still save money with the following deals.
Rollers are the left-field inclusion here, but one that certainly warrants a ticket to the party. They differ in that your bike isn’t fixed into place, and as such, it requires greater concentration in order to avoid riding off the side. They take a bit of getting used to – just search YouTube for ‘first time cycling rollers’ – but they’re great for working on balance and core strength whilst riding. Also, while not impossible, a sprint session is probably better undertaken on a turbo trainer if raw power is the goal.
Premium solution: Smart bikes
Finally, smart bikes. These all-in-one solutions take the brains from within a turbo trainer and fit it into a complete bike system, removing the need to use your own bike.
The positives are that it’s permanently set up and ready to go. They often use a belt-drive system and electronically-adjusted resistance to mimic shifting instead of a chain-and-derailleur, which combines to decrease noise and increase durability.
They’re not cheap – certainly not the cheapest Zwift setups available – but they’re a great premium solution for indoor cycling’s most dedicated participants.
Alternative: Gym subscription
All of the above options assume you already have a bike ready to be used in conjunction with a turbo trainer, but what if you don’t?
Assuming your local gym is open – we know that’s not a given in today’s society – this can be the cheapest Zwift setup of them all, especially if you’re already paying for a gym subscription anyway.
If you’re a member of a gym, there’s a chance your gym has a Zwift-ready bike with a built-in power meter such as a Stages bike or Wattbike. If you’re unsure, you can either check with the gym’s staff as to the facilities available or just open up the settings on your phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a smart bike is found, it’s likely that it’ll connect up to Zwift without a hitch. Bring a power bank though, as Zwift can be battery intensive and your gym buddies mightn’t appreciate you trailing charging cables across the floor.
What you need for Zwift
For any Zwift setup, you’ll likely need a turbo trainer, if you’re looking for advice on which to get, we have a guide to the best turbo trainers to help.
You can alternatively use a smart bike (our guide to the best smart bikes will help you there) but they’re far from cheap, with a starting price of around £1700 / $2000.
An adapted gym bike will work with a pair of power meter pedals, but we’d only advise trying this option if you have one lying around anyway. The money can be better spent elsewhere.
Rollers aren’t completely out of the question, but you’ll need resistance rollers to avoid spinning 140rpm.
Most turbo trainers will come with a front-wheel riser block, but if not, adding one of these will prevent your weight from being pushed onto your hands. But to save money, so will a block of wood or a couple of books.
Do you need internet for Zwift?
You’ll need an internet connection. This can come in the form of 4G but be careful with your data allowance if choosing this option – in our test, a one-hour-long Zwift ride used approximately 300MB of data.
Running an ethernet cable to the garage mightn’t be the most permanent solution, but it might be the only option you have. If you’re considering this method, a second router or WiFi booster is an alternative idea.
There’s nothing more ’21st century’ than getting dropped due to a poor internet connection, but it’s annoying nonetheless.
You’ll need a Zwift-compatible computer. This can be in the form of a PC, a laptop, tablet, Apple TV, or even your smartphone. The majority of us will already have something that technically can run Zwift, but in our experience, a phone screen is too small to read the data numbers when riding at or near your limit. Check out our guide to the best tablets for Zwift for a few recommendations.
Bluetooth / ANT+
You’ll need one or both of Bluetooth or ANT+ connectivity. If your turbo trainer, power meter or speed sensor are ANT+ only, you’re likely to need an ANT+ adapter for your computer. If you’re using Bluetooth, then there’s a greater chance your device will connect without the need for an adapter.
Do you need mains power for Zwift?
You’ll ideally need a power supply, especially if using a smart trainer. Some of the most feature-rich turbo trainers, such as the Tacx NEO 2T, will work without it but you’ll also want a fan and you don’t want your laptop’s battery life to cut your ride short.
For anyone looking to run Zwift in a garage or outbuilding, a power supply and WiFi connection might not be a guarantee. The options here will very much depend on your circumstances. If you’re unable to run a permanent power supply, an extension lead and temporary ethernet cable might be the only option. You can get a 50m extension lead from Amazon for around $40/£30, and a similar length ethernet cable for around half that.
Why should I use a fan with Zwift?
You technically don’t need a fan, but once you’ve tried cycling indoors without one, we promise you’ll want one more than you’ve ever wanted anything before.
The oncoming air that you get when cycling in the real world performs a huge role in cooling you down. When you take that away by remaining stationary, you very quickly overheat. Your body’s natural response to this is to sweat… a lot.
This gets out of the realm of ‘cheap’, but if you want a real pain cave hack, buy as many fans as your budget will allow, then plug them all into smart plugs with remote control (or Amazon Alexa). This way, you won’t need to get off your bike to switch them on and off, and you can leave them switched off for the first few minutes until you need them.
Things to improve your Zwift experience
You might want a desk. If you’re running a laptop, you’ll need to be able to reach it so you can use the Zwift menu without having to climb off the bike. Brands do make dedicated turbo trainer desks, such as the Wahoo Kickr Desk, but for the budget-conscious, you can often make do with a less dedicated solution, such as an ironing board or some adjustable shelving from your local hardware store.
Should I use a sweat protector?
To protect your bike against corrosion from the cumulative drips of salty sweat, you can get a dedicated sweat protector to catch the drips. The majority of sweat will drip from your face and shoulders, so it’s the handlebars that need the most protection. Therefore, a towel placed atop the bars and stem will generally do a good job – with the added benefit of being able to wipe your brow every so often.
For the budget-conscious, a towel or an old sweatshirt draped over the handlebars and top tube can have the same outcome.
Do I need a turbo trainer floor mat?
Unless you’re in the garage or shed, you’ll probably want to protect your floor from your salty sweat droplets, not to mention the damage caused by the feet of your turbo trainer. A turbo trainer mat will offer this protection and are available pretty cheap, but an old yoga mat or even an offcut of kitchen lino will do the same job – just don’t cut it out of your parents’ kitchen floor! Our tried and tested method is to use interlocking floor mats designed for gyms or garages. Not only do they offer protection, but they also offer a few millimetres of cushioning which helps with your natural rocking motion whilst riding.
Do I need a turbo trainer specific tyre?
If using a wheel-on turbo trainer – especially a cheap one – the roller’s interaction with the soft rubber of your rear tyre can quite quickly churn through your rubber and cause a square edge and ruin the tyre’s on-road performance. Dedicated hard-wearing turbo trainer tyres exist to overcome this very problem. You could invest in a dedicated turbo trainer tyre, or alternatively, if you regularly ride on the road, upgrade your best road bike tyres and recycle your old part-worn tyre for indoor use only.
Where should I spend my money first?
If you’re setting up Zwift for the first time and your budget is limited, our advice would be to invest your money in the trainer and the fan to begin with, then add to the experience later with the peripherals. Look for a turbo trainer deal to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
Any questions / tips?
If you have any Zwift setup related questions, feel free to drop us a comment below – we’ll be sure to answer as many as we can, and if, during your own pain-cave building process, you’ve learned any tips and tricks that will help others looking to invest in a cheap Zwift setup, feel free to share them.