Virtual Cycling Setup for Winter Indoor Training

I’ve been a fan of virtual cycling for a while, albeit an inconsistent rider in using the turbo trainer. My experiences have mostly been through Zwift, which is great and helped in initially convince me to buy my first smart trainer a couple of years ago.

For those that may be unaware, the virtual cycling software / apps are ones that place you in a world amongst other riders virtually. You link up your bike / turbo trainer and take part in rides, events and workouts. It is a much more interesting setup for myself than simply following a workout mode on a stationary bike, or just looking at numbers on a screen. Zwift is likely to be the most well known, but other players include RGT Cycling and Rouvy (which I am yet to try).

I am not necessarily new to cycling, but would be very far from classifying myself as a cycling enthusiast (or being good at it in any way). It is something that I do on the cardio side of my training, and to get out for rides here and there socially. Being more of a fair-weather cyclist, indoor cycling is great for winter training!

Robert Kinsella cycling in snow, Col de Joux Plane
Attempt to cycle up Col de Joux Plane, France, stopped by snow/ice

My Virtual Cycling Setup

The Basics – Bike and Trainer

First up is the bike trainer (also referred as a turbo trainer) along with my bike that fits in to it. There two main types available – direct drive and wheel-on. A direct drive trainer would be better, but may involve more setup time if you take your bike in and out as you have to take your back wheel off for it. For my setup, I am using an entry-level wheel-on smart trainer, the Tacx Flow, which more than suits my needs.

The smart trainer will connect to the software and other devices via Bluetooth or ANT+ to allow for the resistance to automatically change (through the software workout modes, or say if you are going ‘uphill’) which is a must for me, preventing me from taking it easy if I had to manually adjust the resistance!

The bike and a trainer is generally enough to get started with your chosen virtual cycling software which usually runs via a combination of your tablet, mobile or laptop. It is recommended to use a specific trainer tyre for your rear wheel as there will be more wear from contact with the trainer. The trainer tyres replace your normal tyre, and are more durable. It isn’t something that I currently use however, mostly down to added cost (at least in the short term) and extra effort required in swapping tyres.

Shorter sessions of up to an hour suit my training style (and time constraints) better so I just use one bottle of water, sitting in the bottle cage of the bike.

Virtual cycling setup showing a btwin Triban 3 road bike in a Tacx Flow smart trainer
My trusty btwin Triban 3 in the Tacx Flow Smart Trainer

Peripherals and Accessories for Cycling Virtually

None of the following are essential to get started, but I already have a number of these items available from cycling through the years and they can enhance your sessions or the stats and reporting available from them:

  • Device Stand
    This could be considered an essential. You can buy more expensive tables that are specifically for the purpose of holding your devices for indoor cycling, but I just use a simple IKEA Svartåsen laptop table. It does the job well for me, although seems that they are no longer being sold.
  • Heart Rate Monitor
    A heart rate monitor can be useful in indicating how hard you are working. Your heart rate can also be used to help with the calculation of calories burned during your session (although whether this is taken in to account may depend on the software that you are using for the workout). The heart rate monitor which I use is the Wahoo Tickr chest strap.
  • Cadence Sensor
    Cycling cadence is the number of revolutions of the crank per minute (or how many times you rotate the pedals). There will be efficient cadence rates for different scenarios, and you may be prescribed a rate during different sections of a workout, so a sensor would help here. If you have a smart trainer, it may calculate your cadence, but in my case, it didn’t seem very accurate. My secondary road bike is used on my trainer so I have purchased a cheaper XOSS Cadence Sensor via Amazon which works well for me here.

Taking it on further, you could also add extras such as a power meter which will reflect more accurately your power output (otherwise this will be calculated through your trainer or other connected devices). If you’re in to power meters, etc then you are most likely to be at a more advanced stage than myself or the aim of this post 🙂

Setting up the Riding Environment

Using your own bike on your indoor bike trainer has benefits in consistency if you are using the bike both indoors and out. You can get the same feel of gear changes, clipping in and out being that it is the same bike, yet there are still a number of differences to be aware of, that will also affect your setup.

Temperature and Air Flow

This would be true of any indoor training, whether that’s on the treadmill, stationary bike, crosstrainer, etc, but making sure you have a good flow of air in your room is important. Being that I mostly train in this way through the winter, when it is cold I have been guilty of not opening windows but soon regret it midway through a session when the room is completely steamed up! It just doesn’t feel right having to get off the bike mid-session to sort this out.

As you are cycling indoors, it is generally a good point to remember that you won’t have any outdoor wind to help cool you down a little.

Having a good fan would also therefore be a good idea. My preference is to set the fan up behind myself rather than have it blowing in to my eyes throughout the workout. Keeping a sweat towel to hand, hanging on the bars is something that I also do.

Floor fan used for indoor cycling
A large floor fan, useful during indoor training

Bike Position

As mine did, your trainer may come with a holder for your front wheel to keep it in place. This does the job well, but I always feel like I’m leaning forwards (or downwards) on the bike. If you ever need to sit up briefly then it takes a little more effort. I use some interlocking gym mats beneath my setup, so to help counter this I have two layers of mats under the front wheel.

Virtual Cycling Differences in Comparison to Outdoor Cycling

A large reason for choosing to use your bike in a trainer versus a static exercise bike would be to get the closest feel to riding outdoors as you could get. Obviously, this would be to the extent of using a real bike, and for a number of people, this would also be their outdoor bike.

There are a number of aspects that can’t be replicated indoors however. This would include the fact that there is no braking or cornering. Free-wheeling isn’t really an option either. Some of the more expensive trainers may handle this a little better than mine, but as soon as I stop pedalling the bike quickly comes to a stop.

On real roads I’m poor at going downhill and have never been overly confident in my braking – cycling training indoors isn’t going to help me improve here either!

Most of your time will be spend sat in your seat, rather than standing up and down, changing positions as you would outside. Wearing some good padded shorts you could say is a must for this!