Bikemakers Aim to Give an Outdoor Flavor to an Indoor Workout

By Vicky Hallett
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Under most circumstances, I could never even attempt to go on a bike ride with Chantal Buchser. She's the event manager for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and tools around just about everywhere on two wheels, whereas I strap on my helmet to brave the flattest of trails maybe three times a year.

But a couple of weeks ago, we hopped on side-by-side bikes to tackle a grueling course of sharp turns and epic hills, and we ended up at the finish line together. Really. Or at least, RealRyder. That's the name of a new brand of stationary cycle that isn't quite as stationary as its predecessors. Instead, the whole thing rocks and twists and tilts, putting a different, shall we say, spin on the workout.

As one woman in our "Intro to RealRyder" class at the Vida Metropole in Logan Circle shrieked -- as she tried to mount and it swerved away from her -- "It moves!"

Instructor Adriane Morgan calmed her down: "It's supposed to."

And that's the appeal to Morgan, Vida's group fitness director, who also happens to be RealRyder's sole master trainer, promoting the product to gyms across the country. The bike's instability forces users to recruit more muscles as they lean into imaginary curves or stand on the pedals -- and maintain those positions -- according to the instructor's commands. It also reinforces proper cycling technique: keeping your legs close to the bike instead of letting them fly out to the side, pulling up as well as pushing down with the hamstrings. "If you don't have a clean pedal stroke, your bike will wobble more," she says.

I can attest to that. While Morgan's handlebars swayed only on her command, I teetered every which way, at one point knocking into my neighbor. Morgan saved me from major ego bruising, though, by reassuring me that it usually takes non-cyclists three to five classes to get a feel for where their limbs should be and how much core strength to engage.

So let's focus on Buchser, 25, an outdoor pro who'd never been to a gym cycling class before I dragged her along for this assignment. And who, after 45 minutes on a RealRyder, was hooked. "Anything you did, the bike reacted and moved," she marveled. "This teaches you to keep in mind your body position." It wasn't too shabby as a workout, either: "You feel those quads activate, screaming at you."

That's why Vida has decided to stock its studios exclusively with RealRyders, becoming the first gym chain in the country to do so. It makes you wonder: How real can an indoor ride feel?

Plenty of manufacturers are attempting to answer that question. RealRyder's main rival seems to be the Trixter X-Bike (the ride of choice at the Energy Club in Shirlington since it opened three years ago), which has moving handlebars on a steady bike frame so you can simulate turns and incorporate the upper body without fear of flopping over. The resistance knob is also on those handlebars, so you can feel more like you're shifting gears on a road bike.

Meanwhile, CycleLife USA, Georgetown's high-end bike mecca and training facility, prides itself on its studio of CycleOps Pro 300PTs. They don't wobble, but they adjust to any rider's exact specifications -- unlike some clunky gym models that force people into positions that can cause pain or even injury -- and collect insane amounts of data (cadence, mph, wattage, heart rate and more).

When D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty rides there, he sticks his regular road bike into one of the gym's CompuTrainers. That turns a bike into a stationary machine that adjusts the resistance according to real-life outdoor courses while the user watches coordinated video footage recorded on helmet-mounted cameras. That way you have the feel of the road with the look of the road.

"It's a great way to prepare for outside, but it's not outside," says CycleLife coach/personal trainer Toussaint McCrae. "There are things you just can't have inside, like wind resistance in your face." As stand-ins, though, these new machines are much more sophisticated than earlier generations of stationary cycles. And for serious riders, the chance to hone technique and build power without worrying about the weather or sharing a lane with cars can make their indoor training just as critical as what they do on the road.

Despite Buchser's excitement over her RealRyder experience, McCrae doesn't see those bikes cutting it at CycleLife, no matter how rocking they are. Though their name implies an attempt at authenticity, they actually represent more of a fantasy.

During the Vida class, Morgan warned, "This is going to be a little like an outdoor cycling experience and a little bit like something you've never experienced." That was true even for Buchser. After all, no one rides 220-pound bikes that require awesome strength to maintain a leaning position while standing on the pedals, one of the hardest tricks you can do on a RealRyder. In the real world, all that teetering just can't happen because, well, you'd fall over.

It may reinforce technique, but the main gain at the end of class is an increased calorie burn. Morgan estimates that 30 minutes on a RealRyder is as challenging as 45 minutes in any other spinning class. Buchser's first words when she hopped off? "I've never sweated that much on a bike."

All that muscle fatiguing makes perfect sense in a gym setting, though. "You do things to extremes here so that in everyday life, these things are easy," Morgan says.

If only I'd known that before! Hey, Buchser, any interest in an outdoor bike ride?

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