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Turbo trainer maintenance: the do's and don'ts

Elite Direto X smart trainer
(Image credit: Aaron Borrill)

Over the past year, our turbo trainers have been working overtime what with the COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown protocols. Just recently, my personal turbo trainer started making a weird noise, which evolved into it sounding like a jet engine as I spun it up. This led me down the rabbit hole of forums and Facebook groups seeking to diagnose the problem; I also contacted Tacx customer support, who identified the problem from a video, and replaced the trainer under warranty.

All trainers, like bikes, have moving parts. And even the best turbo trainers, like your drivetrain, will wear out eventually and need to be replaced. So with my shiny new warranty replacement trainer now set up in my office, I wanted to find out what, if anything, could be done to keep it running smoothly for as long as possible, so I asked Wahoo and Elite what they recommend. 

Keep that drivetrain clean

The first thing both Elite and Wahoo stressed was looking after your drivetrain components. 

Just because you're riding inside does not mean you can neglect your drivetrain. A clean chain will save you a not-insignificant-number of watts, and it will prevent you from grinding your chainrings and cassette (especially if you’re using a wheel-on trainer) down to a poorly-shifting mess.

That doesn’t mean just simply dripping lube on your chain before each session — we're all guilty of it. Even without the constant flow of grit and grime flicked up off your tyres, you’re not riding in a vacuum either. There is plenty of dust and other particles floating in the air — turn off the lights and shine a flashlight into the air if you don’t believe me — which will contaminate your drivetrain, not as fast as riding outside, but it still happens. 

When you do give everything a clean, don’t forget to pop the cassette off your trainer and give it a scrub. I usually chuck it into my ultrasonic cleaner, but if you don’t have one, pop it into a container filled with diluted degreaser (I use Simple Green) and let it marinate while you clean your chain, and come back a few minutes later scrub off all the grit, give a rinse with fresh water and a thorough dry. 

If you don't have a cassette tool or are uncomfortable removing the cassette, be extra careful with whatever you're using as a degreaser, freehub body bearings are particularly susceptible to damage from cleaning fluids gone awry. 

Trainer maintenance

A clean drivetrain is a fast drivetrain that will save you watts (Image credit: Courtesy)

When you’re putting everything back together, don’t forget to put a thin layer of grease on the lockring threads.  

Wahoo even went as far as recommending service intervals, suggesting lubricating your chain every 100 trainer miles, fitting at least a new chain every 1,500-2,000 miles but measuring with a chain checker, and replacing the cassette every 3,000 trainer miles or when a new chain starts to skip — whichever comes first. Don't take these as gospel, but they are a good starting point. 

Elite also reminded us that you’ll want to check the freehub body periodically, and clean and regrease the pawls and teeth — I do this when I replace the chain on the bike that lives attached to my trainer.

Trainer maintenance

Don't forget to give your freehub body some love (Image credit: Courtesy)

But what about the trainer 

On my journey to diagnose my jet engine sounding trainer, I found a whole world of people machining custom tension arms for specific trainers, and 3D printing additional fan units to keep the internals cooler and folks attempting to re-engineer their smart trainers. 

Unsurprisingly, neither Wahoo nor Elite recommends taking this type of drastic action. If you’re having issues, both say to get in touch before you tinker; in many cases the moment you remove the outer housing, the warranty goes away with it. 

Both Wahoo and Elite recommend you give the outside a wipe down ever so often, and if your trainer has a tire roller to scrub it with a mild cleaner to remove any burned-on dust or rubber. Wahoo notes any exterior cleaning should be done before, not after a workout, as the flywheel will be warm — this is more to do with preventing burns than hurting the trainer. 

Trainer maintenance

A drop of chain lube on threads of tension knobs will keep it running smoothly (Image credit: Courtesy)

If your trainer has any clamps or tension knobs, like on a wheel on trainer, a dab of dry chain lube every few months will do wonders for keeping it turning smoothly and preventing surface rust.  

Remember that dust floating in the air we mentioned earlier? Well, that can build up in your fan intake vents, and in the case of every extreme case, your trainer to overheat. I take a shop vac and try to suck the build-up out every few months, especially if you have not touched your trainer for an extended period of time.

Type a trainer problem into Google. You will find no shortage of people referring to the belts used inside, using automotive belt conditioners and all manner of things to extend the life or make them run smoother etc.

Both Wahoo and Elite recommend against this because of special tools and calibration requirements. Elite says the bearings and belts they use are sized to last the life of the trainer and points out that poking around inside your puts you at the risk of touching internal sensors that can brick your trainer — an expensive mistake. 

Elite Direto X smart trainer belt

On the rare occasion you may need to replace belts or pulley wheels, only do this after you've spoken with customer support (Image credit: Aaron Borrill)

As with any other product, people do run into problems, and if you do, both brands recommend getting in touch with their service department. For my own trainer, I contacted Tacx/Garmin customer service department without pulling industry-insider strings. They were accommodating, responsive, and generally pleasant — all the more interesting that Garmin/Tacx did not respond to my inquires for this story. 

Cyclingnews' Tech Editor, Aaron Borrill, adds that he had a similar experience with Elite when he replaced the belt in his Direto XR. 

Same as everything else on your bike, with a little bit of tender love and care, you can keep your trainer spinning for many digital miles. With that said, while it can be tempting to tinker, to ensure you don't cause more damage, it's probably best not to peek under the hood unless prompted by someone who knows what they are doing.