Wheel-on vs Direct Drive Trainer: A Detailed Comparison

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Intro

Have you noticed lately that most of your cycling friends aren’t out riding on the roads and enjoying the fresh air and scenery? OK, so I might be kinda joking, but in all honesty, the shift to riding your bike indoors has become all the craze.

Now, if you tell people that know nothing about cycling that you ride your bike indoors, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy; how can you ride your bike inside? You must have an enormous house. What they don’t know is that there are such things as indoor bike trainers.

This article aims to help you understand:

  • What is a direct and wheel-on trainer?
  • What are the differences?
  • What are the main features?
  • Which one is the best for me? and
  • A final verdict to help you make your choice

But the one question that cyclists ask, particularly beginners, is what type of indoor trainer is best for me? That’s right; there are two main types of trainers you’ll have to choose from; either a direct-drive indoor trainer or a wheel-on indoor trainer. 

Quick Summary

In recent years the popularity of indoor bike trainers has increased ten-fold, and the COVID pandemic has boosted the indoor cycling niche to an all-time high. Brands like Wahoo have taken the indoor trainer market by storm, and their tech has only improved.

Long gone are the days of riding on your rollers which were loud, heavy, and downright dangerous; if you weren’t paying attention, you could fall off your bike in the blink of an eye. Although that being said, Wahoo has just released a new set of hybrid rollers. 

Now riders have access to all kinds of fancy apps like ZWift, Sufferfest, and TrainerRoad. All these apps let you ride in a virtual world with other riders in which you can ride solo, join a group ride, select a training program, or even join a race. 

Comparison Table

Direct-Drive TrainerWheel-on Trainer
Esse of UseNoYes
Tire Slippage NoYes
Accurate DataYes No
Calibration RequiredNoYes
ConnectivityBlueToothBluetooth
Easy to TransportNoYes
Realistic Riding Feel Yes Yes
ConnectsThird-party AppsYesYes
Wheel-on vs Direct Drive Trainer Comparison Table

Direct Drive Trainer 

To many of us in the cycling industry, direct-drive trainers are the pinnacle of indoor trainers. They are sometimes referred to as “smart trainers,” but in actual fact, wheel-on indoor trainers are also smart trainers. 

Direct drive indoor bike trainers offer the best and most accurate ride data because the wheel is fixed directly to the trainer, meaning there’s no power loss as with a wheel-on trainer. 

Ease of Use

In order to attach your bike to the trainer, you’ll have to remove the rear wheel and then mount your chain and axle to the cassette that comes with the trainer. 

How difficult is it to hook up your bike to your direct drive indoor trainer? Well, if you’ve ever had a flat tire and had to remove your back wheel, then you’ve already got the necessary skills to attach your bike

Now some cyclists say that direct-drive trainers are messy and take too long to set up, and I agree with that, but let’s be honest, they are the best trainers on the market, so spending some extra time to set your bike is well worth it. 

Realistic Riding Experience

Once you’ve got your bike set up and on the direct-drive trainer, you’re ready to ride, and let me tell you what a ride it is. The ride is smooth, and if you closed your eyes, you would truly believe you were riding outside; it’s that realistic. 

Because the bike is directly attached to the trainer, there is very little sway from any of e components, plus you have to remember that you are still basically riding the same bike you’ve been riding every day. 

The seat, handlebars, frame, and wheels are all the same, which is another reason why the bike direct-drive trainer is comfortable and realistic. 

direct drive trainer

Accuracy of Data And Power

Direct-drive indoor trainers are, without a doubt, the most accurate of all the different types of trainers. Most are accurate to within +/- 2%, meaning they make the perfect trainer for cyclists who perform at an elite level and need to rely on the power data to design their training programs. 

Couple the accuracy of the trainer together with being able to link your cadence, speed, power, and even heart rate sensor, and you have an excellent and accurate training experience. 

It’s great to ride hard and then look down at your ride data knowing the metrics are accurate and you don’t require guesswork anymore. 

Price and Affordability

Direct drive trainers will burn a big hole in your wallet, so you need to be a hard-core cyclist to fork out thousands of dollars. Before spending your hard-earned cash on a direct-drive trainer, you should ensure you’re a dedicated and experienced cyclist. Otherwise, your best option might be to choose a wheel-on trainer, which tends to be considerably cheaper.

However, once you have everything set up correctly, direct-drive trainers ride like a daydream. A direct drive trainer’s most significant advantage is its capability to reproduce a lifelike bike feel. There is nothing worse than riding for hours and hours on a trainer set-up that handles nothing like a traditional road ride.

PROS

  • Accurate ride data and metric
  • Super realistic and natural riding experience
  • Quiet and smooth 
  • No wear and tear to your rear drivetrain 
  • Long-lasting and durable build quality

CONS

  • Price is probably too expensive for most cyclists, even serious ones
  • Can be quite bulky and heavy

Wheel On Trainer

Now when it comes to wheel-on indoor cycling trainers, I can speak from experience because I have been using the Wahoo Kickr Snap for the last four years (you can also read my detailed review of the Kickr Snap or check my setup in the video below). Wheel-on trainers are much cheaper than their direct drive counterparts and make the perfect device for those who are on a limited budget or new to the cycling scene.

While direct trainers are the cream of the crop, I have had no problems whatsoever with my wheel-on trainer, and let me tell you, it gets a daily workout over the long winter months. 

YouTube video

Ease Of Use

One of the primary benefits of using a wheel-on trainer compared to a direct trainer is that you don’t need to take your back wheel and cassette off the bike. This makes wheel-on indoor trainers very easy to set up, even for those cyclists who aren’t the best at handling tools and devices.

Many serious cyclists who attend races and big events love wheel-on trainers because they’re easy to transport and even easier to set up. If you’re a regular racer and travel to races, then I would highly recommend purchasing a wheel-on trainer to use for your warmup and cooldowns. 

The ease of setting up the wheel-on trainers means that you can maximize your time efficiently and keep your much-wanted energy for the race and not a messy direct drive trainer.

Accuracy of Data And Power

Now when it comes to the accuracy of a wheel-on trainer, I can tell you from experience they fall far behind their direct-drive counterparts. Generally speaking, wheel-on trainers have an accuracy reading of anywhere from +/- 3% to +/- 5% depending on several factors like your power meter, the software on your trainer, and even your body weight and the quality of your bike.

The other downside of the wheel-on trainers is that they need to be calibrated after each use. Now while this is very straightforward to perform and only takes a couple of minutes, it is a bit of a hassle. To be honest, I don’t calibrate my trainer after each ride; instead, I do it every couple of weeks or so.

Wheel-on trainers are known for their irregular power reading because your bike‘s rear-wheel often slips on the trainer’s stainless steel cylinder. Sometimes the user has tightened the rear wheel too tight or too loose; this is generally what causes unwanted slippage. 

The wheel on indoor trainers are also pretty noisy, but that’s to be expected because your bike wheel is in direct contact with the trainer’s roller. 

wahoo kickr snap wheel distance

Price and Affordability

Let’s be honest, not every cyclist has the money to spend thousands of dollars on a direct drive trainer; I know I didn’t, which is precisely why I purchased a wheel-on trainer instead. 

If you’re on a fixed budget, then the wheel-on trainer is your best option, and as I said, in my experience, they’re great little trainers, and I’ve had no issues whatsoever with my Wahoo Kickr Snap. There are several reputable brands on the market, so make sure you research before you spend your hard-earned cash.

PROS

  • Much Cheaper than their direct-drive counterparts
  • Easy to use and setup quickly
  • Small and easy to store away
  • Allows you to ride during rainy and winter months
  • Lots of reputable brands on the market

CONS

  • Power and data readings are not as accurate as direct-drive
  • Your rear tire will get worn down pretty quickly
  • Can be quite loud to ride

Detailed Comparison: Wheel-On Vs. Direct Drive

If you’re new to indoor cycling, then you probably have a few questions and concerns about which trainer is best for you and what the differences are between the direct-drive and wheel-on-drive trainers. 

So in this section, let’s take a look at 

  • How do they work?
  • Are they practical, and what about the noise?
  • Price
  • Technology and Apps
  • Are Smart Bikes better than trainers?

So if you’re unsure about the main differences, this section will help clear that up so you can make a better and more informed choice. 

How Do They Work?

Quite simply, a wheel-on trainer does as the name suggests, and you must “put” your bike on the trainer. The rear wheel will clamp directly to the clamps on the back of the trainer and the thru-axle. A word of warning, though, because some newer bikes have differently sized thru-axels, meaning you might have to buy an extra thru-axel to ensure a correct fitting.

Generally speaking, with a wheel-on trainer, your front wheel sits squarely on the floor, but if you’re lucky, your brand might include a wheel holder that sits your front tire off the ground and helps to raise the bike, making the ride feel natural.

You then start pedaling, and the smart trainer will control the power and resistance that is mirrored on the screen from your favorite app, like ZWIFT or Sufferfest. 

Although it sounds challenging to mount your bike, a direct drive trainer is pretty easy once you have some practice. Unlike a wheel-on trainer, you take your wheel off and place your chain on the drivetrain of the trainer. The notable advantage is that your tire is not in contact with the trainer, meaning it doesn’t get any wear and the ride quality is much smoother. 

Direct-drive trainers are also slightly bigger and heavier, but that’s because they have to take the total weight of your bike. The riding experience is realistic, and the trainer is much quieter than the wheel-on models. 

Are They Practical and What About The Noise?

So this question will depend on a couple of factors, and the most important one is how many people will be using the trainer? In my house, for example, my 12yo daughter also rides and uses the trainer, so in our case, it was easy to get a wheel-on trainer because it’s much easier and quicker to change bikes.

Also, with a direct drive trainer, not every cassette fits and is the same size, so it might mean that after you take your bike off and put another one on, you’ll also have to change the cassette on the trainer; a real hassle.

When it comes to noise, there is no doubt that the direct drive is much quieter than the wheel-on trainer, so if you live in a small apartment, then you might want to consider that. However, with that being said, if you take good care of your bike and keep the software up-to-date, the wheel-on trainer can also be very quiet. 

Price and Affordability

There’s no way around it, smart indoor bike trainers are expensive, but here’s the good thing:

  • Ride 365 days of the year, no matter how bad the weather
  • They last a long time and 
  • The whole family can enjoy them

That said, direct-drive trainers are much more expensive than wheel-on trainers, typically twice as expensive in my experience. The price will also vary greatly depending on the brand and how much money you’re willing to spend.

As I said, I have the less expensive wheel-on trainer, which has been great for my family and me. My wheel-on trainer is getting a bit old, and I’m now willing to pay more now for the expensive direct-drive trainer.

If you’re limited on a budget, the wheel-on trainer will give you a great workout, but if you have some extra cash, then definitely get a direct drive trainer. 

Technology and Apps

If you’re serious about getting an indoor bike trainer, then you’re definitely going to want/ need a third-party fitness app like ZWIFT, TrainingPeaks, or Sufferefest. 

If you haven’t seen Zwift, I highly recommend trying to find a video because it’s so amazing how realistic they are. You can ride in races or group rides, choose from a training program, or ride solo if you like. Zwift is very affordable, and I only pay $10 per month, which is great for what you get.

Both wheel-on and direct drive trainers are compatible with all the apps, which is valuable information for potential buyers. 

The trainers connect to the app via BlueTooth, making it seamless and, most importantly, quick. In fact, the apps and training program are so good that every professional cycling teams use the app to help track and monitor the progress of their riders. These apps let you track valuable ride data like power, cadence, speed, calories, distance, and even your heart rate zones. 

Are Smart Bikes Better Than Trainers?

beachbody bike revew featured image
MYX Fitness Bike, a great Peloton Alternative.

Ah, the latest technology is the Smart Bike, but is it better than a smart trainer? I don’t think so, not yet, anyway.

Several brands have released smart bikes over the last couple of years, but many experts in the field, myself included, are not too impressed with the smart bikes. Smart bikes tend to be very expensive, and the technology needs plenty of work to catch up to the smart trainers.

At this stage, I would recommend against getting a smart bike. You are much better off using your money to buy a new bike or even a new trainer.

Which Trainer Is Best For Me?

When it comes to choosing the right trainer for you, it really comes down to two major points:

  • Your budget and
  • How serious a cyclist are you?

Do you live in a small apartment? Are others in the house going to be using the trainer? Direct-Drive trainers are quieter than wheel-on ones but only slightly so. 

Another consideration is the size of your workout room. Wheel-on trainers are generally much smaller than direct drive, so the wheel-on trainer is the better option in this situation. At the end of the day, you have to make the choice that’s right for you.

Top Tip: Don’t spend your hard-earned money on an expensive indoor direct-drive smart trainer if you don’t need to. 

Verdict

Let me be honest; if you have the money and are the only one using the trainer, then your best bet is the direct-drive trainer. It offers the best feel, the ride is realistic, and the data that comes through is extensive and accurate. 

That being said, there is nothing wrong with the cheaper wheel-on trainer, and as I said, my wheel-on trainer is still going strong after four and a bit years. Either way, you’ll stay fit, and that’s the most important thing!

 Happy cycling!

Brenton Barker

Brenton holds a Degree in Sports Coaching from the University of Delaware and was the former Head Advisor for the Japanese Government's Sports Science Institute. Brenton currently consults with several Professional Athletes and clients in Self- Accountability, Health, and Goal Orientation.

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