Indoor Cycling Grows Up

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In the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of one of the most obsessed fitness cults ever. No, not CrossFit. Group cycling. The SoulCycles and Flywheels, boutique studios that attract legions of devotees to push through demanding aerobic workouts lead by pounding electronic dance music and get-happy, get-sweaty instructors. These classes are not exactly overflowing with dudes. However, there is a cycling revolution that’s poised to attract men and real outdoor cyclists. The bait: Visuals that elevate the humble act of indoor pedal pushing into the next dimension.

This April, in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood, IMAX launched a pilot cycling studio called IMAXShift. Competing for your attention in this 45-minute class is bass-heavy pop music, a full-throated instructor, and the real star of the show — the 40-foot wide, 24-foot tall IMAX screen. Each workout is synched up to a parade of video images mixed and matched from IMAX’s deep video library. As you warm up, you may bliss out to gorgeous nature imagery, upshift to more abstract visuals for heavy pedaling, then chill out to rock concert footage in recovery mode.

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The visuals are fun, and ammunition against the ultimate sin of indoor cycling classes — boredom. (A word of warning to outdoor cyclists: IMAXShift does give you a toned-down version of on-the-bike “choreography,” that includes those “tap-backs” and handlebar push-ups that are gospel to the SoulCycle crowd. On the plus side, you’ll also get a nifty email report of your workout metrics, such as average watts, speed, and RPMs.) As a practical matter, IMAXShift CEO Bryan Marcovici says the big-screen visuals will help the company resist the “arms race” for hot instructor talent once it begins to open up boutiques nationwide.

Beating IMAXShift to the starting line of this brave new indoor cycling world is the New Zealand–based global fitness company Les Mills. In the past year, Les Mills has installed eight video-driven immersive cycling programs around the world, the first two of which are in the U.S. (A 24-Hour Fitness gym in Santa Monica this past November, and David Barton’s new TMPL gym in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, this past March.) Rather than bring the great outdoors into the studio a la IMAX, Les Mills has created an inner head space, a computer-generated alternate reality it calls “The Trip.” Your feet pedal, and your eyes follow a road projected on a 30-foot-wide, 11-foot-tall curved screen. It takes you through a futuristic landscape, which feels real enough to your senses to induce vertigo if you don’t turn your head in the direction of the twists and turns of the road. The intent is to transport, according to TMPL founder and Manhattan fitness impresario David Barton, but more “like a psychedelic experience, like the first time I saw Disney’s Fantasia.”

Marrying visuals with indoor cycling isn’t itself new. For at least a decade companies such as San Francisco-based Virtual Action have been producing forward-motion videos — scenery whizzing by on a stretch of open road — to play on small screens attached to stationary bikes in the gym. (Even hot indoor-cycling company Peloton, which live-streams classes from its Manhattan studio to the folks pedaling at home, offers scenic forward-motion rides on its video menu.) But this formerly obscure business is also heating up, and with companies that target the serious outdoor cyclist.

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Take The Sufferfest, an Australian-based company founded by American ex-banker and all-round cycling nut David McQuillen. Its stock and trade is masochistic whimsy.

McQuillen, the Chief Suffering Officer, delivers what he calls “enterpainment” in the form of, to date, 23 workout videos designed by leading cycling coaches (usually $13 a pop, or $10 a month gets you an all-access pass to the app). The footage is lifted (legally) from pro races like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, and narration and graphics helps insert you into the race as a character. You’ll follow second-by-second workout targets that match the plot of the video, becoming, say, a rookie trying to make it in the peloton. While your target cadence/RPM is an absolute number, resistance is relative, measured by “perceived exertion” on a 1 to 10 scale. So, while you and Chris Froome may both be pushing 100 RPM at level 8 on a given section of the race, he’s likely generating at least twice as many watts as you. 

Lance Armstrong once told us that “it’s not about the bike.” In the case of the TDF (as in Tour de France) ProForm line of exercise bikes, put out by Utah-based fitness giant Icon, it really is. Unlike almost every other indoor cycling/video combo on the market, the ProForm 5.0 bikes, which retail for about $2,000, tell you how hard to pedal. That is, after you’ve programmed into its iFit computer your weight and the exact route you’re riding, either from the ProForm menu or one you’ve locked in using the built-in Google Maps app. Not only does the pedal resistance change according to the real-world road grade, so does your saddle position as the bike tips up and down to mimic cycling up or down a hill. “You’re responding to the environment,” says Icon’s head of R&D Greg Law, “not trying to pretend an environment.”

Icon, too, is set to enter the group-cycling space. Right now the company has a bike or two in about 250 gyms across the country. But within the next six months to a year, it wants to have fleets of bikes for indoor-class rides. It's mostly a technical challenge, syncing thirty or so bikes so that everybody in the class is riding the same course (although the exact resistance they're pedaling against will depend on the body weight they input).

Immersive cycling seems an engaging enough fitness trend to stick around for a while. And as a rule of thumb, hardcore cyclists are metrics-obsessed lovers of tech-enhanced training, as are many of the rest of us. But how much is too much? Considering the built-in advantages of these indoor workouts — the newfound flash, the guaranteed gut-busting intervals, the immunity from the weather — are we approaching the day when real-world cyclists are more excited about their next spin through self-programmed virtual reality than hitting the old open road? Hard to say. But for now, we’re along for the ride.

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