Ride your way to health

If you’re still hitting the gym and proud of your bench or squat, it’s time to break out of that box and feel like a different kind of protein shake. We’ve come a long way, so far that even running as a fitness activity isn’t hipster enough. Today, the world belongs to those who talk FTP and cadence, who discuss aerodynamics as often as NASA does, and who aren’t ashamed to be labeled MAMILs.

It’s ‘Middle Aged Men in Lycra’, in case you didn’t know. It’s quite unsightly. I know this because I have to look at such a specimen every other morning, when I stand in front of a mirror before mounting my carbon horse and pedaling away, all the while staying in one place. Welcome to Cycling 2.0 – the way the pros have been training for a while, but now, since the pandemic and subsequent (and back-to-back) lockdowns, the way everyone has been training.

But let’s not rush into the deep end; there’s still a market for people who want to do it the old-fashioned way, which is to get on a bike, wear a helmet for protection, and just take it easy on the pedal, admiring the view while working on fitness . A clear majority of these people happen to be reformed runners or former gym leaders; basically people who may have been advised to relieve pressure on their knees.

Cycling is a good intermediate approach, apt cardio without the physical strain on the joints. But the pandemic has made us go out less and less. And just like that, static bikes are back. But this is not the bike of yesteryear. Even at its most basic level, spin cycle type setups will present you with a bike with plenty of customization (adjustable pedal height and handlebar distance, riding position tilt, etc.). Another big difference is that you can’t “sink” – a term for when you stop pedaling a bike and catch your breath, while the wheel gently decelerates underneath (most commonly when descending on a normal cycle outdoors). In these new static bikes, however, the pedals don’t stop moving just because you’ve stopped pedaling. So even when they slow down due to inertia, they keep spinning all the time, and so do your legs. (It’s like one of those hipster fixies, bikes that often don’t have caliper/disc brakes but can be stopped by back-rotating the pedals.) These new bikes can also connect to apps where you can simulate cycling through a city or even compete live against someone online in a race around town. All you’ll need is a bike, a stable internet connection, and a device to run the app, and you’re good to go. Brands like Flexnest, OneFitPlus, and Cultbike are some of the brands that offer it, and the Flexnest is a great experience, overall.

A higher level from there is when things get more technical because with the cycles above you manually decide how much resistance you want from the flywheel. The next set of machines are called trainers. The simplest type are the rollers where the idea is to balance yourself and keep the wheels moving – the cheapest of the lot and ideal for improving balance and core strength without even needing a grip electric. But if you’re not a dedicated trail runner, it can be boring, not to mention that going up and down is quite tricky (read: dangerous).

The next type of trainer is called a friction type, where your rear wheel is in contact with a resistance wheel that adjusts the amount of pressure you need to apply to keep the pedals turning. A good one is from Wahoo but even Decathlon makes decent budget ones. These can connect to various apps and the new ones are also “smart”, meaning the amount of resistance they provide can be changed via an app. But they’re pretty noisy, not as accurate with measurements, and also tend to run hot due to all the tire rubbing (so yeah, tire wear is another issue to address here.) But the good thing about them subject is that almost any regular cycle can be locked onto them, which makes them very versatile. All in all, they’re good for a basic workout, but since most cyclists eventually become stat-junkies, the love for these trainers quickly fades.

Which then should logically lead us to conclude that everyone should just get a bike trainer from this next category of trainers i.e. direct drive (smart) trainers. Wahoo, Tacx, Elite, Saris and Magene are brands that make these babies that eliminate the need for a rear wheel as your chain attaches directly to the gears on the trainer’s body which provides resistance with the help of electromagnets. Then they go a step further and connect to fancy apps (which cost over Rs 1,200/month for a subscription) where you can not only roam scenic countryside and towns (all recreated eerily true to life), but also get a real sense of the surroundings, mimicking inclines and declines as closely as possible. So you, the rider, have to produce more power going uphill than going downhill. Lights to suggest the level of effort, fancy mats to place the whole setup, sweat guards and special tables to place your tablet or phone, the bells and whistles of these devices do not stop. One can spend almost as much as a cycle to prepare this kit at home. No wonder many men proudly call it their “Cave of Pain”.

Well, in my earnings cave I have a similar setup – there’s my cycle (a road bike, a Specialized Roubaix) with the rear wheel removed, strapped to a Wahoo Kickr Core direct-drive trainer. There is no mat underneath but there is a stand for my front wheel to level the front of the bike. I have a basic floor fan, and it usually spins at full speed when I ride just a few feet from my face. I use a stand to put my Samsung A7 lite tablet (it has Bluetooth but also ANT+, which is a technology specific to fitness equipment, very useful to have and I was surprised to find it on this device ). The stand also has space for my phone, the Realme HD Stick TV remote and my headphones. My towel rests on my handlebars to catch the sweat (and believe me, there’s a lot of it, starting ten minutes).

I dress in semi-kit; i.e. I use my cycling specific shorts (De Marchi, Assos, Castelli) as they have special built-in padding to cushion my rear and prevent chafing. I also have gloves (Giro, Castelli), but I miss the helmet and jersey. I have a HR strap (Garmin) to transmit my heart rate to the device.

With all of this, I log into either Zwift or Rouvy, two apps I subscribe to. There are many others (Fulgaz, Sufferfest, TrainerRoad) and each cyclist will have their preference. I choose a route or training plan and for the next hour (or two, or more) I am unavailable to the world around me.

I train using what is called ERG mode, which lays out training plans for me based on my Functional Threshold Power or FTP. FTP is determined by a test I do from time to time on my bike and trainer setup while using one of these apps. Think of it as a numerical measure of my fitness level at any given time. This number (expressed in watts) helps the app decide how hard or easy my workouts are.

The other option is to buy one of these new smart bikes equipped to work with these apps. Peloton is one with many online programs, and the new Wahoo Kickr bike is really cool. Others like the Wattbike and Tax Neo bikes are also in a similar league. But it all costs a bomb (and that’s without even considering the app subscription) and you can never take them on the road, so frankly most of us still prefer to have a setup smart bike and trainer that costs about the same but much more versatile.

Right now, whether you’re shopping for a basic spin cycle or splurging on a fancy direct-drive setup, cycling is the new fitness mantra. You can lose weight, have a stronger core, and even a sense of touring and socializing, all while staying at home.

HOW TO START CYCLING:

  1. Buy cautiously. You don’t need pro-level shorts and shoes to get started
  2. Getting a used bike for the trainer can be a great idea. There are great deals on bikes that you can find at your local bike shop or online marketplaces like BOTS and Cyclop.
  3. Getting a used trainer is also fine. Ask the local bike shop to inspect and service it; these things are good for thousands of miles
  4. Another option is to rent it. Sites like buttersport.com make this easy
  5. Try the free trial on training apps to see which one clicks before you subscribe. Ask your friends what they use to virtually ride together

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