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How triathletes can learn to ride rollers … and why they should

Rollers can add some much-needed diversity during your winter training and help with bike handling skills

This winter is likely to be long and lonely as we continue to battle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us find our ability to use gyms, pools and fitness facilities extremely limited. All things home fitness seem to be backordered into oblivion, so if you see something that might make the winter feel a bit shorter, I suggest you jump on it as soon as possible. One piece of indoor cycling equipment that might not be flying out the door as much as other training equipment are rollers.

For those not familiar them, cycling rollers are essentially the simplest form of an indoor trainer. Still very popular with track cyclists as they warm up at the velodrome, you can ride any bike on a set of rollers without needing to remove or attach wheels to a stationary trainer. Rollers use three cylindrical rollers, with two supporting the rear wheel of the bike, while the third roller at the front of the unit supports the front wheel of the bike. All rollers use a resistance band (or collection of them) to connect the rollers and provide resistance to the bike.

I think what most people fear about this activity is that, unlike a trainer or spin bike, you are responsible for not only keeping the bike upright, but also balancing yourself in place while you get on and off. Last winter I brought my rollers to a few of the sessions I coached on the bike. It was very entertaining to see the athletes at the workout look in awe as I got onto the rollers, clipped one foot in and proceeded turn the pedals with one foot before jumping onto the saddle and getting my foot clipped in. One or two of the athletes familiar with riding the rollers told me they had never seen someone get into the rollers without leaning on a chair or wall. I laughed, telling them that my years of early morning pre-starts (30-minute, low intensity, pre-breakfast spins) would get boring, so my teammates and I would find ourselves pushing the limits of the equipment so we could get to our first meal of the day that much sooner.

Related: Everything I learned using the Elite Nero Smart rollers

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If there is one thing I will attribute my time spent on the rollers, it would be just how much it improved my bike handling skills. I have been around rollers my whole life, as a kid I remember accidentally letting our family dog into the basement while my parents and their training friends were crammed in the basement for a workout. The dog barreling down the stairs would put everyone’s workout on hold and I always remember my dad screeching to an abrupt halt on his rollers in fear of Ruby losing her tail. The first day I ever tried the rollers was when I was about 12 – I was determined to do my cycling workout on them and take my bike off the Computrainer for good. I kitted up and headed to the basement, put the rollers in between the bathroom door, and spent the next hour trying to keep myself from falling or leaning on the door jam.

Fast forward a number of years and I was getting phone calls from my coach from the national team asking me to please stop using the rollers for my team pursuit specific intervals. It was a funny conversation as I was still hitting the power numbers for the intervals, but my cadence was not consistent enough with the wind ups required to get to 600+ watts.

Suffice it to say, learning to ride rollers is not difficult, and I truly believe if you can ride a bike outside, you can ride them. While it is daunting to begin your roller journey in doorframe, then moving to a wall, then using a chair, etc., doing so will help you improve your bike handling skills for the upcoming season.

Rollers can help you ride in a straighter line in the aero position – as Sean Mackinnon demonstrated on his way to a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games.

Another aspect of triathlon training that riding rollers can help with is getting you comfortable in the aero position. If you’re one of those people who tend to zig-zag down the road while on your areo bars, rollers can help you learn to ride in a straighter line. One of the easiest ways to improve your bike split is to take the straightest, smoothest line on the road, and mastering the balance required to ride on rollers is a great way to work on that.

Related: 7 Indoor training hacks for the winter

Like all things in our sport, prices vary dramatically for rollers. While many people may already have a fantastic smart- or turbo-trainer, it doesn’t hurt to invest in some rollers to mix up your indoor training. When I used to prepare for the upcoming cycling season, I would often switch between my smart trainer and rollers as a way to mix up my long, six-hour indoor rides.

As we all know, stationary riding can get boring and turn us into zombies who sometimes forget that when we do get outside, we will in fact need to use more than just our leg muscles to perform on the bike. Riding rollers will help make the transition to riding outside even easier.

Sean Mackinnon is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada. He’s a former member of Canada’s national cycling team and won two bronze medals at the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Some roller options

Tacx Galaxia

$399

Using a patented swing system, these rollers absorb forward and backward movement. Coupled with the conical rollers which help keep your bike centred, the Galaxia is a basic set of rollers that are easy to learn on. For those looking for an even more basic option, the Tacx Antares features the same conical rollers, but forgoes the swing system.

Elite Arion

$349

With a power output of up to 280 watts, the Arion is light, simple and sturdy, making it a great option to enhance your indoor training for those days you don’t want to be stuck to a smart trainer. You can also connect Elite’s Misoro B+ sensor so you can use the rollers on training platforms like Zwift and TrainerRoad.

Elite Nero

$1,149

For those looking for an interactive “smart” roller, the Nero is the answer. With slope simulation of up to seven degrees and power output of 830 watts, these rollers will get you through any Zwift race in style. They’re surprisingly easy to learn on, too, thanks to the smooth ride and the integrated step.