JRA with the Angry Asian: Riding outside is dead. Long live riding outside.
I’ve attended all but one Eurobike trade show since 2005, and have continually marveled at the grand expanse of new cycling gear that’s perennially on display there. I have peered intently through the looking glass at the hot trends to come. Never have I walked away even slightly disappointed.
Until this year, where two themes were clearly dominant.
One was e-bikes, which didn’t surprise me in the least, but the other was indoor cycling and this very much caught me off-guard. Granted, none of the bigger bike brands that would likely have offset that focus on riding inside were in attendance at this year’s show, but the attention paid by so many of the companies that did show up was a little unsettling to me nonetheless.
It wasn’t long ago that riding your bike inside was something you did only out of necessity, when riding outdoors just wasn’t a viable option. By most accounts, it’s what you did when it was too cold and/or too dark to ride outside, but you still wanted to maintain some semblance of fitness for when Mother Nature finally grew a little friendlier.
Smart indoor trainers have changed that landscape dramatically, with companies like Zwift, TrainerRoad, FulGaz, The Sufferfest, and other software companies now providing much less torturous environments to sweat away the minutes inside. Once upon a time, even half an hour of sitting on your bike going nowhere seemed mentally impossible, but nowadays it’s pretty easy for even a couple of hours to go by without wanting to pluck your eyeballs out with a spoon.
Dare I say it, riding inside these days is almost fun.
“We’ve seen consistent growth year over year, but also two distinct categories of customer: one that embraces riding indoors and almost enjoys it, with the other truly despising it,” said Jesse Bartholomew, director of consumer products for Saris. “The combination of a smart trainer and apps like Zwift and Rouvy are changing the mindset of those that previously despised it, accounting for much of the growth we’re seeing. But it’s still just getting people who are already cyclists riding indoors more vs. getting a non-cyclist to choose indoor cycling as their preferred mode of exercise (vs. running, weights or group exercise).”
This year, it’s obvious that the hardware has very much started to catch up with the potential of the software.
Wahoo Fitness, Stages, Elite, Tacx, and SRM all had high-end standalone indoor bikes that were packed with features and designed to provide a close approximation of your outdoor bike in terms of fit and comfort. There were also several treadmill-style setups, which basically allow you to ride your existing bike on a rolling belt, together with your own big-screen TV running the software of your choice.
Alternatively, companies like Saris and Kurt Kinetic offered products that are somewhat more traditional in the sense that they pair your regular bike with an add-on stationary trainer. Both offer varying degrees of movement to help make the experience seem a bit more life-like. Saris’s new MP1 Nfinity platform rocks to side and also glides back and forth, and — truth be told — feels shockingly similar to riding on the road. Kurt Kinetic’s latest R1 Direct Drive only offers side-to-side rocking, but still lends a degree of realism that’s sorely lacking in setups that firmly lock your bike in place.
As you’d expect, none of the above options are remotely cheap, and several are horrifically expensive. Wahoo’s new KICKR Bike is US$3,500, the new Tacx Neo Bike is US$3,200, the Stages bike is US$2,800, and the new SRM setup is the priciest of the bunch at €5,000. Saris has plans to launch an indoor bike as well, and it’ll likely be similarly priced.
Oreka’s treadmill-style trainer is €3,500. Tacx’s Magnum treadmill — which, in fairness, is only really intended to be used in professional gyms and studios — is a jaw-dropping €8,000.
At the lower end of the pricing spectrum, power meter company 4iiii Innovations purchased upstart trainer company STAC last year and debuted that technology on a new smart trainer called the Fliiiight, which promises to bring the “joys” of indoor riding to more attainable levels, all while delivering whisper-quiet operation that utilizes your existing aluminum rear wheel. In this market, though, “attainable” still means dropping US$599.
When I asked companies at Eurobike about the motivation behind all of this ultra-premium indoor cycling gear, the answer was perhaps as obvious as I should have expected: Money. Duh. And what opened many of these companies’ eyes to the untapped potential was fitness phenomenon Peloton.
The phenomenal growth of Peloton has clearly demonstrated that people are willing to pay a lot of money to go nowhere fast. Peloton’s bikes are significantly less expensive initially than many of these cycling-centric newcomers at US$2,245, but there’s a requisite US$39 monthly subscription that adds up quickly. It doesn’t take that long for things to even out, but all of the options in this field are exceptionally pricey no matter which way you slice it.
Peloton and Zwift both hit the market in 2014, and both have enjoyed rapid growth since then. But it’s only the former that has captured truly significant mainstream attention. That’s no accident, since Peloton specifically went after the general fitness market, not a comparatively tiny niche sport like cycling. As a result, its potential customer base is far larger than whatever crumbs the enthusiast cyclist market can offer, and even if Peloton is taking a small portion of “our” people away, it stings.
Zwift boasts nearly the same number of total users, with 1.5m accounts registered relative to Peloton’s 1.4m. But while Zwift just recently raised US$120m in capital, Peloton just filed paperwork to go public, and is expected to raise about US$500m in its initial stock sale, in addition to its nearly-US$1b in reported annual revenue. And that Zwift investment is mostly aimed at the company’s recent push into e-sports, not indoor cycling in general.
Wahoo, Stages, and everyone else involved now fully realize the potential of a standalone premium indoor bike, but I wonder if it’s a matter of too-little-too-late. All of these new indoor bikes seem to offer better technology and more features that should appeal more favorably to cycling enthusiasts (OMG, shifting! Steering! Brakes! The ability to run your favorite $300 saddle!), but Peloton arguably offers a better all-in-one solution with the bike, display, and software all combined into one neat and convenient ecosystem.
The experience of getting set up with Peloton is easy. And these days, easy sells, damn the cost.
“It’s exciting to consider what the Peloton experience lacks and where that customer will go after they’ve come to that realization,” Bartholomew said. “There’s little doubt that represents a significant opportunity for the industry, not just those in the indoor cycling market currently. We’re aiming our efforts at the post-Peloton experience, but still firmly aimed at cyclists.”
Whether cycling companies will actually be able to keep cyclists within the high-end indoor cycling fray, and away from Peloton, is a question I’m not prepared to answer — and conversely, it’ll be interesting to see how many Peloton users might convert to outdoor cyclists. But I find the fact that the indoor cycling battle is being fought at all to be a little troubling on its own.
Yes, riding indoors does a good job of providing the exercise component of cycling, and it’s easy to see what it’s become increasingly popular. It helps keep you fit when the weather is crappy or your schedule is too busy to allow for a “real” ride, and by working on your physical conditioning inside, you’re better prepared for when you get to go outside. If all you want is a workout, riding inside is unquestionably the more efficient option. It’s not just about weather; it’s also about time and convenience. Zwift, in particular, has also done an admirably good job of promoting the social aspects of its platform, and dare I say it, safety is probably a component to the rising appeal of indoor cycling as well.
But even the absolute best indoor cycling setup is still only a vague approximation of the real thing. Granted, one might argue that many of these are focused more on the exercise component of cycling, and that may be true. But I’d counter that argument to say that many cyclists ride bikes more for the actual act of riding itself; the workout is more of an ancillary benefit.
When I first started riding more than thirty years ago, I reveled in the idea that I could use my bike to take me where I wanted to go, or to places I didn’t even know I wanted to go. I marveled in the feeling of the wind in my face, in the visual richness of the world streaming by, in the visceral joy that came from magically rolling across the ground below me. I’ve described cycling on several occasions as earthbound flying, and even to this day, that sensation is alive and well, even if I’m just on my townie on my way to the grocery store.
I get it. Riding inside — especially this modern interpretation of it — is efficient, convenient, effective, and safe. And there are now more options than ever for making the experience reasonably engaging so that people will continue doing it, and I count myself among its participants. When winter does finally arrive here in Colorado, I’ll no doubt be spending some quality time in my basement, reveling in the technological advancements that all of these new options will provide. But it also won’t at all be lost on me how much it’ll cost to get to that point.
Riding outside is still ultimately the goal, or at least it should be. And now that I’ve had a few days to ruminate on my time wandering the halls of Eurobike, I can’t help but feel like some portion of the bike industry has given up a little bit on trying to push that message. What everyone in the bike industry should be selling is joy in two-wheeled form, full stop.
Ironically, Peloton — a company wholly built around exercising indoors — seems to understand this better than the cycling companies that are trying to claw back some market share. Peloton isn’t selling indoor cycling; it’s selling the image of what exercising in general will do to you, your body, and your self-image. Its instructors are hip and fun, everyone is happy (even when they’re suffering), and even the bike itself looks cool. But it’s not about the bike itself; it’s about the how the whole Peloton ecosystem will supposedly transform your life.
Compare that with the messaging surrounding all of these new indoor bikes from the endemic brands, where it’s all about watts and millimeters and simulated grades and power meter accuracy. Where’s the fun? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: suffering doesn’t appeal to the masses.
No question, US$3,500 is a lot of money. But you know what else that will also buy? A closet full of incredible foul-weather cycling clothing. And a decent winter beater. And a vacation where you can ride your good bike on fantastic roads or trails in gorgeous weather. The memories are included at no extra charge.
The last time I checked, outside is still (sort of) free. Remember that old saying about the best things in life? That seems more fitting than ever.