What is Online Cycling?

Online cycling simulates cycling outdoors while you use your trainer at home. You use a desktop computer or laptop and an online cycling service such as Zwift, Rouvy, RGT or Sufferfest to display a virtual road on the screen in front of you, including other cyclists on the road too. The other cyclists represent people who are doing the same as you, riding their trainers. The harder you pedal your trainer the faster you go on the virtual road on the screen – just like in real life.

My bike, smart trainer and laptop in my messy garage, ready to ride.

Just like in the real world, you can arrange to start a ride at the same time as your cycling buddies, and then ride as a group. On your screen you will see representations of the others in your group when they are in front of you. Just like in the real world, you can try to be first to the top of a hill, or to win a sprint to a telegraph pole. Or you can all just ride together.

If you have a smart trainer such as a Wahoo Kickr or similar then your computer will control the trainer resistance automatically to match the virtual road. Resistance will increase when the road goes uphill, and decrease when it goes downhill or you sit in behind another rider. The computer screen will also display your speed and power, and your cadence and heart rate too if you have the appropriate sensors.

If you have a classic turbo trainer then it’s up to you to manually control the trainer’s resistance.


Why Online Cycling?

If you can’t ride outside or have limited time, then online cycling is a great way to keep fit and to stay in touch with your cycling buddies. Without online cycling you just get on your trainer and ride it for an hour, but that’s just about the most boring mind numbing activity you can do. Who looks forward to a session like that? Online cycling changes it completely. With a virtual road in front of you and virtual riders around you the ride becomes more like outdoors, and you’ll find that an enjoyable hour goes by quickly.

You can link almost all of the online cycling services to your Strava or Training Peaks accounts if you wish, so the data from your trainer rides will be automatically added to your performance records there.

If you haven’t tried it yet you might think online cycling is not very interesting, but actually it’s good fun and really engaging especially if you do it as a group. In the current circumstances where you can only go out riding by yourself (and even that may be curtailed at some point) regular online bike rides provide an excellent way to keep fit, keep in touch, and keep sane!


So what do I need?

The absolute minimum required is:

  • An indoor trainer. A classic turbo trainer will work, but a modern smart trainer is better.
  • A bike. If you’re using a classic turbo trainer then the bike must have a wireless speed sensor on the rear wheel.
  • A computer with Bluetooth and an internet connection. It can be a Windows PC, an Apple computer or iPad, or (for some services) an Apple TV.
  • An account on an online cycling service. See below for more information on this.

If you use a classic turbo trainer then you are in charge of setting the trainer resistance. However, the computer you’re using must be able to measure the ‘speed’ of your bike so you will need a wireless speed sensor at the bike’s rear wheel. Any of the sensors that attach to the hub of your rear wheel or attach to the frame with a magnet on the wheel will do, but it must be ANT+ or Bluetooth compatible. See below for more information about ANT+ and Bluetooth.

Setup with a classic turbo trainer.


A speed sensor on the rear wheel is required if you’re using a classic turbo trainer.

If you use a smart trainer then everything is already built in. The smart trainer will communicate via wireless with your computer to provide power and speed information, and to allow the computer to control the resistance of the trainer.

Setup with a smart trainer.

Nice-to-have but not essential equipment includes:

  • A higher power computer and a good internet connection will usually give you better video images.
  • A stand to hold your computer screen directly in front of you when you’re on the trainer.
  • A big screen for the computer. Big screens make the experience more immersive and more enjoyable.
  • A smartphone. Some online systems allow you to use a smartphone as a kind of remote control, instead of trying to press keys on the computer while you’re riding the trainer.
  • If you have a cadence sensor or a heart monitor, most of the online systems will pick those up too.
  • If you have a power meter on your bike you can probably get the computer software to use that, instead of the power measurement from your smart trainer.

A bike computer (Garmin Edge or similar) is not required. Your desktop or laptop computer takes the place of it, picking up the sensor values and displaying them to you.


Quick start

If you want to jump right in, this very brief summary will get you started.

  1. If you have a classic trainer: Get a bike speed sensor, and check that it and your computer both have ANT+ or both have Bluetooth. If not, get an ANT+ or Bluetooth USB dongle for your computer.
    If you have a smart trainer: Check that your trainer and your computer both have ANT+ or both have Bluetooth. If not, get an ANT+ or Bluetooth USB dongle for your computer.
  2. Get an account on your chosen online cycling service and install the software onto your computer.
  3. Start the software on your computer. Make sure your computer and trainer + bike are near each other.
  4. When requested by the software, provide your details and let it find your sensors and/or smart trainer. If you have a classic trainer, make sure the speed sensor on your bike is woken up. If you have a smart trainer, make sure it’s turned on.
  5. In the software, select a route or course to ride.
  6. Get on your bike and ride!


ANT+ and Bluetooth

ANT+ and Bluetooth (also called Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) are two separate wireless technologies for connecting sensors and computers together. All modern wireless sensors for heart rate, speed, cadence, power etc use one or both of these. You only need an ANT+ or a Bluetooth connection between a sensor and a computer – you don’t need both. Most modern desktop and laptop computers have Bluetooth built in, but only a few have ANT+. This means that Bluetooth sensors should connect easily to your computer, but you might have difficulty connecting a sensor that has ANT+ only.

If you have a classic turbo trainer, with a wireless speed sensor on your bike, then you need to check that you can connect the speed sensor to the computer you’ll be using. If the speed sensor is ANT+ only (no Bluetooth) then you may need an ANT+ dongle plugged in to a USB port on the computer.

If you have a smart trainer it almost certainly has both ANT+ and Bluetooth built in, so if your computer has Bluetooth the online cycling software should make the connection to your trainer without problems.


The logos tell you this HR strap can use either ANT+ or Bluetooth.


ANT+ and Bluetooth logos and indicators on a Wahoo Kickr smart trainer.

If you need an ANT+ dongle for your computer they are cheap and easy to find. Zwift Insider has a short article about them. The article is specifically about using them for Zwift, but they will work just as well for any computer software that wants to connect to sensors via ANT+.


Classic versus Smart trainers

A classic turbo trainer is simple and cheap. Typically it has a roller that your bike’s back wheel sits against, and you manually adjust the trainer resistance with a lever or knob attached to the trainer. There is no electronic measurement or control on the trainer so you must fit a speed sensor to the back wheel of your bike to allow the computer software to detect your bike ‘speed’. When participating in online cycling you can manually change the trainer resistance as you want and the computer has no way to detect that. That means you can ‘cheat’ if you wish, but it also detracts from the realism of your experience.


A classic turbo trainer.

A smart trainer is typically ‘direct drive’ instead of a roller. It has a rear cassette, so you remove your bike’s rear wheel and fit the bike directly onto the trainer’s cassette instead. This means that there is no roller adjustment, no tyre slippage and no tyre wear. The smart trainer does two things that make it ‘smart’. First, it measures power and transmits it wirelessly just like a normal power meter on a bike and, second, it allows remote wireless control of the trainer’s resistance. So a computer can pick up the power measurement from your trainer and can control the trainer’s resistance. That means that computer software can increase or decrease the resistance in response to changes in road conditions, which in turn gives you a much simpler and more realistic experience.


A smart trainer.


Online Cycling Services

There are many online services with different advantages and limitations. Almost all of them require a monthly subscription payment. They all have free initial trial periods, so you can try them out before you make any payment. You can always cancel your monthly subscription at any time if you find you are not using it or not getting value from it. We’re looking at online services with video here, so we are ignoring ones with a training-only focus and no video (such as the very excellent TrainerRoad). The 4 listed here are probably the best known. There are others available, such as Fulgaz, BKool, and Kinomap.


Zwift: The most popular for social-focused cycling, but at the expensive end of the range. Try this if you’re happy riding in a virtual world with lots of other riders around you.

  • Free trial for 7 days, then €14.99/month.
  • The best known, with 1000s of riders online at any time.
  • Used by pro riders, and includes organised events and races.
  • Roads are in a virtual world called “Watopia”, with lots of flat and hilly looping routes.
  • Quite game-like as your pedalling moves you around the virtual world.
  • Includes ‘keep together’ mode for groups, to automatically keep everyone with the leader.
  • Supports classic trainers, with a speed sensor on the bike.
  • Link: https://zwift.com/eu


Rouvy: At the lower end of the price range. Try this if you like tackling iconic real roads and climbs.

  • Free for 14 days, then €8/month.
  • Real video of real roads.
  • Large set of point-point routes (including iconic Alpine climbs and past TdF stages).
  • Not all routes display other riders (makes group rides a bit meaningless).
  • Supports classic trainers, with a speed sensor on the bike.
  • Link: https://rouvy.com/en/


RoadGrandTours (RGT): Free at the moment, so what’s to lose? Only smart trainers with this, though.

  • Completely free during the pandemic. Normally 14 day free trial, then
  • Requires a smartphone as well as a computer.
  • Computer-generated roads depicting real locations.
  • Limited set of routes.
  • Does not support classic trainers (smart trainers only).
  • Link: https://www.rgtcycling.com/


Sufferfest: Focused on solo training. Try this if you want to train hard on your own, but you like cycling videos of real pro races to distract you from the suffering…

  • Free for 14 day trial, then $14.99/month.
  • Based on selecting training plans.
  • Videos of real pro races.
  • Doesn’t support groups.
  • Supports classic trainers, with a speed sensor on the bike.
  • Link: https://thesufferfest.com/

A more detailed review and comparison of these and other systems is at www.bikerumor.com



I’d really encourage you to try this if you can at all. It won’t take much effort or expense to give it a go. A new or used classic trainer, if you haven’t already got one, can be got cheaply. You probably already have a suitable computer. You can get a 7-day free trial of Zwift, and if you take out a subscription and then decide to cancel after a month it will only cost you €15.

If you like it you can move your equipment up a notch. Just sell your classic trainer and buy a smart trainer. So go on, what have you got to lose? The alternative could be going slowly mad over the next couple of months as you have to do without the fitness and social benefits of club rides.

If you have any questions ask in the forum. I and others will be only too pleased to help.