Indoor Cycling

I feel reckless writing about indoor cycling; like it’s embarrassing – both to admit doing it, and to imagine it could be worth thinking about. But I’ve been doing it a lot this week. Spring felt almost here but suddenly slipped away; strong and icy winds from the east have blown away my interest in riding outside. Yet the racing season’s arrived and I’ve some (modest, personal) goals I’m keen to achieve. Turbo training’s the answer.

Actually it’s clear that many people prefer indoor to outdoor cycling; if you see cycling less as a way of moving around than as a route to improved fitness, indoor cycling’s perhaps best. Anyway indoor cycling is still cycling, isn’t it? So thinking about it might be illuminating.

Going nowhere?

Although in my own mind indoor cycling isn’t ‘the real thing’, furiously pedalling nowhere does have advantages:

  • it minimises washing – just a pair of socks, shorts and towel. In contrast, outdoor riding at this time of year generates endless laundry;
  • my bike stays clean;
  • it’s quick – in ninety minutes I can set myself up, do an hour’s quality training, clear away, and shower;
  • I can ride to music – something I never do on the road. This is a treat; each of the last four days I’ve used Last FM to select tunes centred around, respectively, Julian Cope, The Four Brothers, Dinosaur Jr, and Fela Kuti, which has been ace!

Indoor cycling builds fitness; given urban cycling in Britain undoubtedly gets easier the fitter you are, I’m surprised there aren’t cycling promotion projects encouraging indoor cycling as a way of equipping people for outdoor cycling. (I’m not seriously suggesting this – it’d be much better to make conditions conducive to slower cycling.)

Tuning out?

So why does indoor cycling make me uneasy? To ride indoors is to cycle in order to improve health and build fitness. Indoor cycling is attractive because it brings the fitness benefits of cycling without incurring what are widely perceived to be cycling’s costs – principally the need to ride in a motorised environment. Participating in an indoor cycling class probably brings additional social benefits; even if the pain is personally felt, the group can bond in shared suffering. I don’t know participation figures (there’s need for research), but indoor cycling is clearly an important industry; classes are popular and reach many people (especially perhaps women?) who might be reluctant to ride on the road. But whether done individually or socially, indoor cycling is a reduction of cycling as we’ve come to know it.

Obviously, for those who prefer indoor cycling this reduction is good  – why suffer the difficulties and indignities of ‘real cycling’, when you can stay at home or drive to the gym and pedal ‘comfortably’ (if also painfully and sweatily) in an ‘acceptable’ way? From this perspective it’s outdoor, not indoor, cycling that’s strange.

I think my worry is based on fear that the idea of cycling as a health & fitness practice might gain too much ground.

Cycling practitioners are understandably excited about the UK Government Department of Health’s current enthusiasm for cycling; this represents a new (or revived) discursive push (‘cycling to health’), with new money for cycling. This is well and good, so long as cycling simultaneously becomes more central to – rather than deflected away from – transport discourse. We know cycling can satisfy multiple public policy goals so that cycling for transport ticks many health boxes too, but give cycling for health too much emphasis and we could end up with more enthusiasm for riding inside than out.

Most people who love cycling probably have their own sectional interest/s – for transport cycling, cycle sport, recreational cycling, cycle tourism, cycling for health, cycling as a form of social inclusion, and so on. On the one hand this is great; cycling contributes to many things and it’s good it has champions in different spheres. But on the other hand I think it’s clearly transport cycling about which people most need persuading and which most needs championing; so we need to remain alert to the possibility that by becoming more about health and fitness (or sport, or anything else) some of the current impetus towards transport cycling might dissipate. And I think that’s the concern at the root of my unease about indoor cycling. As part of a wider cycling lifestyle, it’s fine. But too great an emphasis on health and fitness and too much riding indoors risks the imprisonment and impoverishment of a practice capable of changing the world.

All cyclings are good, and in building a cycling system it’s important that at central government level cycling is pushed not only within and by the Department for Transport but also within and by the Departments for Culture, Media & Sport; Health; Energy & Climate Change; and all the others too. But some cyclings are better than others; and it’s pushing cycling as transport (at the car’s expense) which is key to building a better, fairer society.

So tomorrow, whatever the weather, I’m going to break out of the house and go somewhere, anywhere, by bike!

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14 Responses to “Indoor Cycling”

  1. Dave Stevens Says:

    Indoor cycling is a way of taking exercise. That’s fine, but there’s a wealth of research that shows that promoting exercise classes / gyms does not work in tackling our obesity levels.

    Sport has the same problem – promoting the olympics / tour de france style cycling doesn’t reduce our waistbands.

    When cycling for everyday local journeys – the exercise is a bonus.

    Which is why health professionals are starting to get interested in promoting Active travel.

  2. psychobikeology Says:

    Yes – what Dave Stevens said.

    Funnily enough I’ve just done a short post about physical activity – in which I notice that the high cultural visibility of what one might call ostentatious exercise is not reflected at all in societal levels of real physical activity.

    • psychobikeology Says:

      Darn. Dave H, can I have another go? My previous comment didn’t really address what you posted – I succumbed to one of the many temptations of internet commentary: “here’s what *I* want to talk about, so I’ll just use your writing as an excuse to link to *my* writing”. Sorry. I’ll try again because what you say is interesting (as ever).

      I really don’t think that there’s much danger of indoor cycling supplanting the outdoor sort – though, as you imply, “subsidised gym membership” would be an easier policy sell to politicians than “overhaul transport infrastructure and assumptions and upset the motor-shouties”. Contrary to your doubts I think that stressing the health benefits of cycling is a good strategic move for all sorts of reasons (however, I’d need to think about this to present a proper worked through argument – but one point is that an important part of that benefit is the *mental health* benefit of getting *outdoors*).

      I am quite interested that you say you enjoy your turbo trainer. I haven’t used one myself – but would I be right in thinking that it feels similar to the stationary bikes you get in gyms? I have used those and find them an unattractive form of exercise. Not just that they lack the wind-in-your-hair factor, but I miss the sensations of *balancing* that come with a real bike ride. A stationary bike just feels like a rather grim leg-exercise. (I’m just itching to use the word “phenomenology” here!)

      • Ian Says:

        I also think it’s likely that transportation cycling us better for health purposes than indoor cycling. It fits better into people’s lives.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Of course you can have as many goes as you like! And I personally don’t mind at all if you digress. I like your own blog-post contrasting the visibility of exercise on TV and in the media (and so the popular consciousness, I suppose) with the absence of it within the vast majority of people’s everyday lives. Is it perhaps true to say that as a society we tend to experience sport, adventure, exercise and activity in a peculiarly disembodied way? We love to watch it, but not so much to do it; we’re spectators rather than participants. It’s a largely vicarious experience.

        City cycling, then, is a visible disturbance to a sedentary lifestyle in which sport is enjoyed predominantly vicariously. (Surely scope for creative and subversive arts projects here?)

        Absolutely on the mental health benefits of outdoor cycling; also the social health benefits; not only does cycling improve one’s own body and mind, but also community health (there’s not very much research on this, probably because it’s so difficult to frame the questions and hypotheses in easily/convincingly researchable ways).

        I enjoy turbo-training in quite specific (and limited) ways. It’s awful if what I really want to do is ‘go for a ride’; it cannot replicate that experience at all. But it’s very good for building particular kinds of strength/fitness in a planned and controllable way; so, for example, I’m currently trying to increase my capacity to ride at 25 mph for extended periods; well, on the turbo-trainer I can warm up, then do 5 x 3 minute intervals at a level of power which equates to 25 mph on the open road, with short recoveries in between. Then I warm down. This is not really ‘cycling’; but it’s teaching my body to cycle in particular ways, for a particular reason. (Whilst also making me fitter and stronger in general, so long as I don’t overdo it.)

        But ‘yes’, the turbo-trainer is similar to stationary bikes you find in gyms (although I much prefer to be riding my own bike, set up as I’d ordinarily ride it); it doesn’t require balancing (although you can ride indoors on rollers, which do require you to keep balance) – though I quite like not having to balance as it means I can close my eyes (good when doing really hard efforts or getting really lost in music!), and also occasionally ride one-legged (which is good for evening-out your riding style). It does put you into an alternative cycling world, phenomenologically-speaking (!), and it’s one which I’d recommend experiencing, at least once.

        Cheers for now

  3. khal spencer Says:

    What Dave and psycho said.

    Indoor cycling is a last resort when its just too awful to go outside and cross country ski or run. When I lived in the Northeast, we set up a set of rollers in the basement of the geology building and rode in the winter. Plus, I put a small motorcycle headlight and battery on my commuter bicycle (this was long before the days of 250 gram, 750 lumen bike lights) and rode all winter back and forth between home and the University.

    The Tour de Nowhere, aka Tour de Garage, aka Tour de Back Room, is intensely boring. Even when done in front of a good stereo system. I don’t know how they can get twenty sweaty people in a gym riding for an hour and going nowhere, but I think that’s all about looking buff in front of others rather than any sense of real dedication to cycling.

  4. Kaighin, Chris JF (NE) Says:

    Hi Dave

    First I should state that I have very little experience of cycling indoors – the very occasional 5 minutes on a gym exercise bike because the rowing machines are all being used. It doesn’t seem like real cycling to me because I’m primarily a transport & recreational cyclist, not a competitor.

    I agree with your thoughts that what is important about cycling socially at the moment is the extent to which cycling is everyday and integrated into daily life, as commute, leisure activity & transport. There is no constraint on indoor cycling, other than cost and space, whereas there are constraints on everyday outdoor cycling, so we needn’t expend thought and campaign time on indoor cycling.

    I doubt whether policy makers concerned with motor vehicle use are thinking much about arcade and PS3 driving games!


  5. Mike Clarke Says:

    Hi Dave,
    I have been meaning to post for some time to thank you for your superb articles.
    I have an exercise bike as I need to do a little bit every day so that I can keep cycling.When ice and snow are on the ground I simply can not get out. Although I do not have to completely rely on my bike any more there was a time for about three years when I had no access to a car and the only means I had of shopping was by bike. Three miles to the nearest shop. I had to plan in advance so that I always had provisions in case of snow. I am in an odd situation as although I can cycle I am unable to walk very far without severe pain. So the walk to the bus stop and from the bus stop at destination was just too far. I had two bikes one of which was an electric assist. Without those bikes I would have been in deep trouble. I was able to avoid most of the main road and the high speed HGV traffic by making use of a quiet lane part of the NCN. The lane had its own problems mud, cow muck, thorns, dogs and the occasional high speed car. I still shop by bike unless the weather prevents me. A few weeks ago a gang of “tour de france look a likes” streamed past and were making detrimental comments about my panniers little did they know that my weekly shop was in them. These folks will do 80-100 miles on super lightweight sporting cycles and then get in the car to go to the supermarket.
    My main love is cycle touring and over the past 40 years have been lucky to complete many long distance journeys with just me and my bike. My last tour in 2010 was the Rhein Rad Weg from the Boden See to Hoek van Holland. It took me 6 weeks and the highest mileage day was 56 miles the shortest 10 miles.

  6. ddansky Says:

    Nice piece Dave.
    Yes a joined up governent multi departmental vision and actions to create cycling system needs to happen as was repeatedly stated at the get Britain cycling inquiry we both participated in.

    You didn’t mention the department for education. They are currently reviewing the school curriculum and asking for input from stakeholders. In our Bikeability cycle training sector we have been wrangling with ourselves as to where cycling fits in the school curriculum. While there are multi disciplinary links and clear links to PSHE and Citizenship, the easiest way to get Bikeability on the curriculum is through PE. Y’know like swimming. Sad isn’t it. I’ll add a link to what we plan to submit when I’m near a real computer.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks David, and apologies for not specifically mentioning the Department for Education, which as you say is also tremendously important.

      I’m battling with the child-care demands of Easter school holidays, but am hopefully just about to get down to a blog-post based on your submission to the current consultation on the school curriculum, arguing for Bikeability’s insertion. (And I’ll put in the link you mention.)

      Keep up the great work

  7. Rosalind Says:

    Hi Dave and everyone

    I have only ever cycled indoors on an exercise bike, like a couple of other posters, and it’s tedious in the extreme. I think I gain more health benefits from cycling outside for several reasons:

    1. Breathing in fresh air (ok, I cycle in the country);
    2. Being out in many weather conditions which I am sure has toughened me up but also gives great sensual pleasure;
    3. Increasing my awareness of the outdoors (as well as the traffic!), so my brain is working on all sorts of levels;
    4. Feeling 12 years old again;
    5. Stopping to pick wild garlic on the way home – great vitamins!

    I admit I’m someone that prefers exercise to have another outcome, eg pile of split logs, dug-over veg patch, getting from a to b, so maybe the sense of purpose is also conducive to my mental health.

    I would add these to all the cycling reasons given above.



    Just thought of another one: not having to listen to horrible gym music… shudder…

    • Dave Horton Says:

      That’s a great list Rosalind, thanks! (It’s a gorgeous day here, and I’ve been rushing through my work, because I promised myself I could head out for a ride if I got my list of jobs done by lunch-time; so I’m outta here!)
      Thanks very much for your contributions

  8. Rosalind Says:

    Obviously I understand the training side of indoor riding – that’s something I don’t do and of course it’s not the same as being stuck in the gym. I expect it has its own exhilarations!

    I have been boasting about not having a cold all winter (really unheard of for me) which I’m sure has been essentially down to getting a lot more *outdoor* exercise than usual, including cycling. I haven’t ever cycled in the winter before and it can be really great battling the elements. Alas, this state of bliss has come crashing down as I am typing this from my tissue-strewn bed, but then I’ve hardly managed to cycle at all this month, so the germs have obviously leapt at the chance!

    Have a lovely ride!


  9. HB Says:

    Fela and dinosaur Jr,
    I like your style.
    Great blog.

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