The rock band Queen put it aptly, “I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I ride.” And sometimes that means indoors. Since I was in need of some additional training because I am not a gym rat, nor a runner, I thought perhaps some indoor bike training would be in order. Now there are two ways to go when considering indoor bike exercise. First, there is a bike trainer, where you have an actual bike connected to a device, either using the rear wheel or removing the wheel and connecting the drive train to a device. I considered long and hard and came up with these factors:
- I did not want to dedicate a bike to this
- I don’t really have an appropriate bike for this
- I didn’t want to pay for additional items (replacement tire and/or wheel)
- Trainer and bike take up a lot of space
So I decided to go for a stationary bike. Not to say that this option is perfect, either. The cons are:
- Less “bike-like” than a trainer, the feel may not be the same
- While smaller overall, it’s bigger than a trainer without the bike attached
On the cost front, I could end up spending a lot of money regardless, so it wasn’t a point that would sway me either way.
Better stationary bikes use weighted flywheels rather than the traditional bicycle wheel in the front to provide a feeling of momentum and authenticity while riding. The heavier the flywheel, the better the feel (and the more expensive the bike). To provide resistance, there are three common methods. Felt pads, which are very similar to traditional rim brakes, apply pressure to the sides of the wheel via a center knob or lever. Then there is a leather pad found usually on the top of the wheel. Lastly there is magnetic resistance, which uses strong magnets suspended over the top of the wheel, their proximity to the wheel determines the amount of resistance. Felt pads will need to be replaced at some point since the simple act of friction will wear them down. I have read the leather pad sometimes smells and needs to be periodically cleaned and lubricated (and occasionally replaced). I have also read some people feel the magnets don’t provide enough resistance even when very close to the wheel. But on the other hand, no maintenance or replacing like the other two options.
What powers the bike other than your legs? The drivetrain. And that is generally propelled by either the traditional chain like you would find on a real bike, or a belt. The chain, especially on trainers, is pretty much a given since you are using an actual bicycle. However, you have a choice on a stationary bike. And for quietness and maintenance, it seems like the belt is the way to go. Less noise (and if you’re watching TV, lower volume), no lubrication or cleaning, you hop on the bike and pedal away.
Many people use music or apps to help inspire and motivate them while riding. I grew up in an age before the big adoption of personal music. Don’t get me wrong, I like music and I listen to it. But I’m not one of those people who can listen to music and do other things that require focus. So I tested several apps instead. I sort of ignored the big names like Zwift, Rouvy and SufferFest because I’m not training for the Tour de France, I wasn’t planning on buying an expensive smart trainer, and I didn’t want to pay the high subscription fees. Here are the four I tested. Two traditional apps and two VR apps.
At $2.99/mo. this is the least expensive option I tried and it’s not all bad. All the rides are coached and you are given specific animated courses. No cadence sensor is required, you’re supposed to match pace with the virtual rider you see on the screen. And that part is pretty cool, the rider and bike are fairly realistic. It also includes motivational music and periodic encouragements from the trainer. So if your goal is training and you’re just in it for the calorie burn, this might not be a bad option. But the animation is not very detailed and it’s repetitive like an old Scooby Doo cartoon, the coaching and music is canned, you can’t ride at your own pace, and there is no co-op training.
OS: Oculus Go/Quest
I received a free package as a result of a contest offered by one of the VR channels I subscribe to on YouTube (imagine that). A cadence sensor and USB controller comes with the $99 package, but now you can also use your own sensor and controller, if you already own one. I bought one for another purpose and tested it with this and it worked fine. This company has two apps, one called VZ Explore and the other called VZ Play.
The first app Explore uses an ingenious method of combining Google Street View maps and a virtual bike overlay. Controlled by a single USB button that clips onto the bars and syncs with the headset, you can select pre-made routes by contributors or even use Google map tools to create your own route and upload it to the app. Sadly, the experience was marred by the stitching process and the fact the images were just stills and not video. And no environmental sound. Also there is some distortion of the images at times. Still, you can go virtually anywhere Google has mapped in the world. There is also a coach mode where a virtual coach rides with you. There’s even a bell you can ring! You can adjust the difficulty by controlling the ratio of pedal strokes vs. movement. Make a 10 mile route virtually 20 miles by increasing the amount of strokes you need to move forward.
The other app, Play, takes a different approach. It uses interactive games that requires you to pedal to propel you forward and the button acts as a controller. Drive a tank, ride a horse, fly a pegasus, race a car, row a boat and there’s even a tour mode where you can ride with others (I think all the games have multiplayer). For me, since I am not a big competitor when it comes to working out, the games are not my thing. These are all animated and are more or less arcade games, which again might be more attractive to some users.
They have made many software improvement since it was initially released and continue to improve upon and add new features. And since they are out of Boston, I am rooting for their continued growth and success. The downside, which applies to all VR apps, of course, is the headset. Yes, it is wireless, but it becomes heavy and sweaty after a time. I wouldn’t say uncomfortable per se, but I probably would opt for a non VR equivalent if given a choice. The paid subscription gives you access to all the games and routes, but there is also a free version that gives you access to one game and one route each month, a good decision on their part, I think. The developer himself seems to respond promptly to queries.
BitGym is a curious creature. It uses a camera-based algorithm to monitor your revolutions-per-minute (RPM) and has support for heart rate monitors. It offers actual video from hiking/biking destinations from around the world that syncs to your training device – stationary bike, treadmill, rower, elliptical. When you move, the video progresses with actual sound from the places you visit. Birds, water, people, etc. Also offers little factoids and 5 minute interval scenic views/steps. Can be streamed or downloaded to your device. Can progress at your own pace with Tours or can use the Coaching option which pairs a trail with a live (recorded) coach that will work you. I have been using this for months and haven’t done the same trail twice. The only downsides are you need to make sure the camera can see you at all times in order for it to track your movement (careful about stretching), sometimes it can drop your speed if it loses track of you and if you’re streaming sometimes the video is a little fuzzy (although I noted video is of much better quality on my iPad than it is on my Motorola G5+.), and there’s no co-op. I stream the video to my Samsung TV and see the trails like I’m almost there. They also have an active Facebook community and responsive technical support.
OS: Oculus Quest
If you’re a SciFi geek, you might like this product. HoloFit gives you a virtual holodeck where you can choose between eight environments and use your exercise equipment of choice (rower, bike, elliptical) to move your character forward. You catch trophies by finding them in the environment and holding focus on them to acquire. The area music is quite good and appropriate to the setting and the animation is much better than CycleGo’s. Still though I found the environments on the small side, and the lack of environments compared to BitGym is telling (but I can understand why). There is also a training mode where you have to progress from arch to arch in the specified time. A cadence sensor is required and I believe there is no co-op at this time (only in the commercial version). Highest price of the four I reviewed.
As for the bike, well, my mother-in-law graciously gave me her 40+-year-old Columbia Gold Crest that actually works pretty well. And as I was over-researching my options, the Corona virus hit and everyone wanted a stationary bike. So I’m holding off for now, while I have this one on hand. Only VZFit is directly compatible the fitness tracker Strava, though you can post your workouts in graphic form with BitGym. Too much effort for me, though. I just post the results to Facebook which you can do from within the app. My favorite and the one I currently use, is BitGym. Best features of the ones I am looking for with a good price point (I got in before the price hike and only pay $7.99/mo.). It’s not perfect either and may be lacking in some features, but it motivates me to ride the stationary bike, and I guess that’s good enough for me.