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Will Peloton kill outdoor biking — or save it?

Everyone thought the indoor exercise craze would pull people off the open road. The opposite might be true.

By Matt Crossman

I remember this game, I thought between gulping breaths, as my legs cranked the spin bike’s pedals and my heart pounded a too-fast staccato beat. It’s called Red Light, Green Light.

At least that’s what we called it when I was a boy. In the version of my youth, we ran when the person who was It yelled “green light” and stopped when he or she yelled “red.” In this version, the instructor at the front of my indoor cycling class was yelling “green,” and I grabbed an easy gear and pedaled like hell until he said “red.”

Tim Garnett, my instructor at Life Time Fitness in suburban St. Louis, called it a stoplight drill, and it was practice, not a game. At Garnett’s instruction, the 60 of us in the class worked on proper form for taking off at green lights, arriving at reds, and doing both safely. “Be big, be tall, be seen,” he said.

Indoors, where it was warm, dry, and free of danger, we worked on outdoor safety, but not just safety. The stoplight drill was part of an hourlong workout that Garnett created and christened The Beast. It was aptly named. At the 32-minute mark, I stopped following his instructions to let my heart rate slow down.

This class is called PWR (it’s so strenuous, the vowels gave up and went home). But it wasn’t the quality of the exercise that set the experience apart. It was the goal of the instruction. Garnett crammed the PWR hour full of outdoor riding lessons, from the stoplight drill to climbing hills to sprints. It was like a real bike ride, only safe and controlled.

I was taking Garnett’s class because I was trying to answer a question: With indoor bike exercise booming, what’s going to happen to outdoor bike riding?

The world has moved indoors. We have beautiful vistas as our screensavers, but we rarely venture out to see them. Playgrounds go unused, and Playstations never get a break. The Outdoor Industry Association tracks participation in 42 outdoor activities, from adventure racing to backyard camping — and found that fewer than half of Americans six and older took part in at least one of those activities last year.

The bike industry, too, seems to be rushing to get out of the elements. Though indoor bike riding is a niche within a niche, it spawned one of the biggest business stories of 2019: the initial public offering of Peloton, which makes pricey indoor cycles and treadmills with video screens attached. According to Marketwatch, the company sold $719 million worth of devices in 2019, up from $349 million in 2018 and $184 million in 2017. The investing guidance company Motley Fool reports that subscriptions to Peleton’s video classes grew nearly fivefold in that time. Brand awareness is so great that when the company unleashes an advertising fail, the whole nation seems to be talking about it.

And it’s not just Peloton that’s growing. Spin bike sales were up 34 percent from August 2018 through July 2019, compared to the previous 12 months. Indoor trainers were up 38 percent over the same time period, while sales of actual outdoor bikes were flat. Echelon, Nordic Track, and Mirror all offer programs for people to exercise in controlled, at-home environments.

What does that mean for outdoor bike riding? The bike industry has been asking itself that very question. And its answers are surprising.

“Anything that gets people interested or excited about the action of moving your legs in a circle while seated is a good thing.”

Store owners, advocacy groups, and even indoor instructors believe that indoor riding’s popularity could actually create new outdoor riders. They have a simple pitch for the people buying in-home bikes and blowing up spin-class signup sheets: If you think riding inside is fun, wait until you do it with the sun on your face and the wind at your back.

“Getting them from Peloton into cycling, or out of spin class into bicycling, is the best shot this industry will ever have at that person,” says Alex Strickland, editor-in-chief of Adventure Cyclist, which is published by the 52,000-member Adventure Cycling Association. “So bring it on.”

It would be a rare instance of technology enhancing the analog version of an activity, instead of the other way around. Amazon hasn’t reinvigorated local malls, and DoorDash hasn’t made anyone long to go pick up their food. Yet one indoor-bike video ad opens with gorgeous landscapes. “We’re saving ourselves from an extinction of experiences,” an unseen narrator says. “We want to be able to experience wilderness and wide-open spaces and big open roads.” Another says, “Let’s take this ride outside.” Those are interesting ways to frame products that consumers will use at home.

But Tim Blumenthal, president of the Colorado-based advocacy group People for Bikes, thinks ads like that portend the future. “My expectation is the push toward virtual experiences will flip,” he says. “People will say, ‘You know what? I spend way too much time on my phone and on my iPad and looking at screens. I need to have a natural outdoor experience. I’m missing something.’ I really think that’s going to happen. I think it’s already starting.”

It happened to Emily Booth, the national indoor cycle education manager for Life Time Fitness, who oversees Garnett’s class and the fitness company’s two other indoor cycling classes. Of the other two courses, one is essentially a dance party on a bike; the other is a metrics-based, heart-rate-focused exercise class. They feature little to no relationship to outdoor riding other than a seat, handlebars, and pedals.

Yet Booth, who started as an indoor cyclist, says in her own exercise life, she finds true delight where rubber meets the road. “No amount of indoor, virtual riding can substitute for the feel of putting distance between yourself and something else by the power of your own body,” she says.

Few would argue with that. But nobody is sharing a unifying message like that on behalf of outdoor biking. Indeed, the outdoor bike industry is jealous of Peloton’s marketing savvy.

Part of the allure of Peloton is that it positions itself not so much as an exercise company but as a lifestyle company. That recent Peloton ad — widely pilloried on Twitter — shows an impossibly rugged and handsome man giving his equally attractive wife a surprise Peloton bike for Christmas. (She discovers it when she comes downstairs wearing pajamas with her hair perfectly coiffed and her makeup done.)

Set aside the preposterous details, and the story the ad tells is deeply aspirational. The woman is already rich and beautiful and has a perfect family. Yet she yearns for more out of life and believes confidence borne of exercise will give it to her. She creates a video that chronicles her nervous first ride, her growing addiction to her time on the bike, her joy at being recognized for her efforts and her triumphant toppling of whatever demons made her nervous in the first place.

Turn the Peloton into, say, a mountain bike and have her riding on a trail instead of in her living room and you can be damn sure every outdoor bike company in the world would love to run that ad.

I had expected outdoor riders to look down their noses at indoor riders for favoring the safe environs of a gym or home. Twenty years ago, they probably would have. But not today.

“Butts on bikes is a good thing, whether it’s indoors or outdoors,” says Benjamin Sharp, who coached the U.S. Olympic cycling team to two silver medals in the London Olympics. Sharp now creates workouts for indoor studios. “Anything that gets people interested or excited about the action of moving your legs in a circle while seated is a good thing,” he says.   

“Historically, we have been a pretty judgmental, I’d call it elitist, recreational and racing bike-riding culture,” Blumenthal said. “We’re sort of like, you can sniff someone who’s a poseur.  [Now,] I think there’s a recognition that we need to be open to all avenues and paths. We understand why people want the convenience and reliability of having an indoor riding experience really close to home that they can go to on a schedule and enjoy regardless of the weather.”

The outdoor temperature was in the 40s the morning I took Garnett’s PWR class. That type of class — held indoors, but geared toward outdoor riding — is a small but growing portion of the indoor cycling world.

While mimicking an outdoor ride, Garnett, a partner in a large law firm, leaves nothing to chance. For every hour of instruction, he spends four or five hours preparing the music and designing the workout. He choreographs every second and maps out most of his comments, though his encouragement to the riders feels spontaneous. “Keep your heads up!” he said several times during my class — including twice when I dropped mine, out of exhaustion.

Most of the participants on that Sunday were regulars in Garnett’s class. Some were expert riders who use the class to prepare for outdoor rides. Some simply used it for exercise. And some fall in between —they’re beginning outdoor riders, or curious about starting.

For them, Garnett was a pied piper in tight pants, teaching with great enthusiasm and passion. “I love the bike,” Garnett says. “I want other people to love the bike.”

But riding a bike outside, and enduring whatever happens there, brings a whole new set of challenges. Before I attended Garnett’s PWR class, I worried whether I could handle the demands, or deal with the embarrassment of struggling. For an outdoor ride, that “can I do it?” barrier is just as high, if not higher. On top of the physical exertion, riders have to consider mechanical, balance, and safety issues. The unpredictability of the outdoors presents a layer of complexity that our cultural move toward the virtual has trained us to avoid.

And therein lies one of the outdoor biking industry’s most pressing challenges. What will new riders find when they leave their cocoons of control?

The Missouri River stretched wide to my left, the water drifting slowly, apparently in no rush to get to New Orleans. The sinking sun’s reflection formed a golden stripe on the river, and it followed me like a tether as my friends and I pedaled our bikes west into the heart of Missouri.

When the sun dropped below the top of the trees, the tether splintered into infinite pieces, and the sky slow-motion-exploded in pink and orange. I looked to my right, where a cliff face, carved by centuries of the river’s laconic roll, glowed yellow in the dying light. It rose up, up, up, as high as I could see without twisting my neck and driving my bike off the converted railroad trail and into the river.

My friend Brent and I were out ahead of the other four in our group. We were 70 miles into a three-day, 267-mile bike ride across Missouri, and my heart pounded a manageable staccato beat of exertion and joy. With the sunset to my left and the cliffs to my right, I wanted to stop time and marinate in the present. I wondered, why would people ride a bike inside in some antiseptic gym when they could ride here?

They wouldn’t, I thought, if they could see what I was seeing.

That thought had barely formed in my head when a skunk darted onto the trail in front of Brent, who was a few feet ahead of me. I skidded to a stop and nearly toppled over. If that moment had gone only slightly differently, I would have crashed my bike, run over Brent, and gotten sprayed by a skunk.

Oh, I thought, jolted from my reverie. THAT’s why they ride inside.

For outdoor cycling to seize momentum from indoor cycling, Blumenthal and others say, the places newcomers ride must be safe, fun, and accessible. If a newbie crashes into a friend and gets sprayed by a skunk on his first ride, he or she likely won’t take a second ride.

Is outdoor biking ready for its close-up? Blumenthal says the federal government has spent $12 billion in the last 20 years on bike infrastructure, covering 35,000 projects of all kinds. States, counties, and cities have combined to spend about the same amount. Cyclists have roughly 27,000 miles of converted railways to ride on.

“That’s going to be a big part of the equation,” Blumenthal says. “If they pick a road without a good, separated bike lane or pick the wrong spot, they’ll say, ‘Get me back inside. This is scary. Cars are going too fast. It’s too noisy. They’re texting in the middle of the steering wheel.’ We want to maximize the potential of the new outdoor riders. We want to provide really good where-to-ride information.”

That’s why People for Bikes developed an app called Ride Spot, through which bikers share the best rides. It’s updated constantly with well-traveled routes, emerging rides, and everything in between.

Yes, to lure riders from technology-based rides to real-world analog rides, there is an app.

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis.


Photo by Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun via Associated Press


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