Note: cross-posted to Vermont Indoor Cycling and my Muscles Not Motors page, if they'll let me- Matt
Over at Vermont Indoor Cycling, most of our riders show up with a trainer. The advantages of trainers are numerous: they are compact, many have adjustable resistance, and they don't require much of a learning curve- you just jump on and ride. And therein lies the biggest difference between a bicycle trainer and a set of rollers. The first time you get on rollers, you most certainly don't just "jump on and ride."
You probably set your bike on them. Then you gingerly swing your leg over the bike. Oops. the top tube is higher now because the bike is up on rollers. You need to be standing on a platform of some kind, or if you don't have one, you need to stand (in your bike shoes) on the narrow rails that connect the three rollers. Got it? Good. Now clip in one foot. Got something to hang on to? You'd better have. Now clip in the other foot, start pedaling, and let go of whatever you are hanging on to. Keep pedaling, and keep that front wheel nice and straight! Once you let go, those first few awkward pedal strokes you made while you were still hanging on (to a door frame, adjacent chair, overhead rafter or floor joist, patient partner, etc..) will fade away and be replaced by smooth, confident pedaling. Or not. Maybe the whole thing will freak you out, maybe you aren't as used to riding in a straight line as you thought you were. What's the worst that can happen? Will you go shooting off the front of the rollers and into the nearest wall?
Remember, you have no forward momentum. If you come off the rollers (probably to the side), you are just going to stop pedaling. If you're lucky, you'll unclip in time to put a foot down. If not, you'll just reenact the clipped-in fall to the side you probably did at least once when you first graduated to clipless pedals. No biggie, especially if you are practicing in a doorframe or at least over a carpeted surface.
If that sounds like a lot to contend with, it is. At first. Like for the first two weeks you have rollers. Then, everything in that whole big paragraph up there starts to take less time, until it's all muscle memory. And everything about falling just doesn't really happen anymore. You get smooth. So smooth you start to be able to handle the TV remote or computer mouse while you are riding. You can even stand up and coast for a few seconds. You might even ride a little bit no-handed! You may even find that rollers are fun by comparison. Imagine that. There you are, a cyclist, outdoorsperson extraordinaire, but some combination of weather, limited daylight, and family/work obligations have consigned you a night in the basement- and you're looking forward to it. What could be better than that?
I owned a stationary bike trainer for years and dutifully set it up every winter, after which I would ride it about once during each of the winter months. Not so with the rollers. For some reason, they just "work" for me in a way that a trainer doesn't. They're more fun, and in my mind if you can take winter indoor riding from "not fun" to "fun, even just a little bit fun" it's worth the effort. Plus, rollers can be relatively inexpensive, hovering right around a hundred bucks on the used market, and findable for under 150 dollars new. Considering what you might spend on wheels, clothing, or components, adding a set of rollers to your bicycling arsenal is a bargain.
There are some limitations. Cheap rollers do not have any resistance beyond the effort necessary to spin the drums. You can air your tires up or down to change resistance a bit, and you can certainly use your gears to change things.
If you ride with a computer, especially one that shows cadence as well as speed, you'll quickly get a feel for the range of effort levels you can employ. I know, for example, that I can comfortably ride rollers anywhere between 70 and 100 RPM, and 12-30mph, with sprints to 40. I know that a hard hour on the rollers for me is anything over 27 "miles" and an easy one is anything under 24. Your mileage and effort level will vary. I run into some limitations in some of my workouts where a low cadence (say, 75 RPM) and a high level of effort (9/10) is required. Even in my highest gear (53X11 on 700X23c wheels at 110 psi), 75 RPM only feels like a 5/10 effort. Some more expensive models of rollers do allow you to add a wind resistance unit or a flywheel to compensate. Rollers also come in different diameters, with the smaller rollers generally providing more resistance and less of a flywheel effect, while larger rollers are easier to spin and, due to their weight, tend to spin longer and allow you to coast a little longer if you stop pedaling.
If you are interested in learning to ride rollers, I recommend committing to no more than 15 minutes a day, five days a week for the first two weeks. By setting a reasonable goal, you won't burn out and you'll give your body time to learn what it feels like to be successful on them. When I started out, I added five minutes to each session each week after the first two weeks until I could ride a full hour. After that, the sky was the limit. I started riding in February and by June I had ridden an entire century on the rollers in a night.
If you are feeling burned out, if you feel sad every time you walk by your bike in the garage all winter long, if you can't bear the thought of another grind on your trainer- do yourself a favor and pick up a set of rollers. Just like cycling outdoors, it's more fun with friends- start an indoor group ride, or join an existing one (hint, hint) You won't regret it.