I’ve been asked the question many times as to which is better, rollers or trainers? However, I find “better” to be a misleading term. Although riders have their preferences, one isn’t any better than the other. They are, in fact, simply different. And depending on what you plan to accomplish during the winter months, or even in-between road rides in the summer, you may find yourself drawn to one or the other. Quite possibly, you’ll eventually end up with both in your quiver.
First and foremost, rollers help with balance. And while you’ll most likely start with them positioned in a doorway, or at the very least near a railing or wall (even Merckx posted up by a wall), after a while, you’ll be able to ride without clinging to any surface for support. This skill takes two things: First, you need to keep your weight from shifting back and forth, which means that you learn to quiet your upper body. Second, your pedal stroke must be smooth and circular. If you’re turning the pedals with choppy squares, you’ll flop all over the rollers. Balance on rollers is created by the gyroscopic effect of the wheels in motion. So, the faster you go, the more stable that you’ll feel.
To this end, rollers assist with leg speed. And unlike a trainer, where you can sit and pedal as slow as you like and not fall off, too low of a cadence on rollers leads to a not-so-graceful catapult off of the side of the drums. Rollers don’t allow dozing. Rollers aren’t for lazy riders. Rollers are work. Your power on the rollers comes from speed, not strength.
That said, there’s more than enough resistance with rollers to get in a good, hard, and fast workout. Buy a smaller (2.5″) diameter roller to increase resistance, and use all your gears. It’s that simple. And although it’s not easy, standing intervals on rollers are possible—just watch riders at the Track World Cups warm up. Truthfully, though, I never rode anything but rollers in all of my time racing track, and never once did my legs complain that they weren’t working “hard enough.” In fact, Japanese keirin riders train on rollers and routinely turn the pedals at cadences over 200RPM. And if you’ve ever seen roller races, well, there are no slackers.
Finally, cyclists often equate indoor training as equivalent to longer sessions of riding outdoors, because you can’t coast and there are no stoplights. Well, on a trainer, you can coast all you want—this is not the case at all on rollers. There is effectively zero downtime, and every pedal stroke counts.
On the other hand, a trainer is completely stable and doesn’t rely on balance to keep you upright. More importantly, perhaps, is that a trainer doesn’t require the same amount of concentration that rollers do. Truthfully, you should be focused on all of your training sessions so that you maximize your workouts. Let’s be honest, though, there are days when all you want to do is spin and watch a movie. This task is much more readily and safely accomplished on a trainer. You won’t find yourself so absorbed in a movie that you stop pedaling only to find yourself toppled over on the floor with your shoes still attached to your pedals.
Resistance is featured in trainers in various ways. It’s either as simple as a knob that increases the pressure of the roller against your tire, or as sophisticated as the BKOOL or Tacx training systems that use an ANT+ interface to control resistance. Additionally, changing gears on your bike also alters resistance. So yes, a trainer offers higher levels of resistance than rollers. Additionally, you’ll feel more stable while performing standing or climbing intervals.
Although you’re able to attach a speedometer to your wheel to pick up speed while riding rollers, unless you have a Quarq, SRM, or PowerTap, watts aren’t available. Many trainers, such as Lemond’s Revolution, are able to read all of the same metrics that you get feedback from while riding on the road.
The final comparison involves tires. It’s true that you have more wear and tear on your rear tire from a trainer than from rollers, but unless you’re using your race tires indoors, it’s not too much of a worry. A trainer-specific tire is the best bet to prevent this.
Ultimately, which one you use depends on your goals. If you want to spend long hours watching movies and multi-tasking, a trainer will work for you. On the other hand, if you’re up for the challenge of riding rollers, doing concentrated interval work, and feeling a bit “pro,” rollers have your name on them.