Virtual biking: High-tech stationary bikes travel computerized road courses

The sweat beads gathered on David Dumitru's brow Wednesday as he pedaled up the grade, steering left and right to whisk past other cyclists.

"You can really work hard on this thing," he puffed as the hill steepened.

Dumitru, co-owner of a Gold's Gym in Citrus Heights, wasn't hammering along a local road, but rather, sitting in the back of an air-conditioned motor home, trying out a new type of stationary bike that its maker hopes will become a fixture in health clubs throughout the country.

A virtual ride

Developed by Expresso Fitness of Sunnyvale, California, the $4,800-bike features a 17-inch LCD flat-panel monitor that displays one of 22 "virtual" road courses, some patterned after bike routes in the Bay Area.

Most commercial-quality exercise bikes range from about $2,000 to $4,500, Dumitru said.

The view over the handle bars is a sophisticated video-game version of other cyclists and the scenery that a rider might encounter along a typical rural route. The exerciser can steer from one side of the "road" to the other and can shift gears while climbing virtual grades where the pedaling gets tougher.

Mated with a PC equipped with a Pentium 4 processor and high-end graphics card, the bike provides a surprisingly realistic and engaging facsimile of riding a real bike on routes ranging from two to 15 miles long.

Dubbed the "Spark," the bike is the latest in a line of more sophisticated exercise gear, including treadmills and rowing machines, that is making its way into health clubs every year.

More personalized workouts

Industry experts say gym customers are beginning to demand interactive gear that gives them more personalized workouts. At the same time, such equipment can give gym owners a tool to attract and keep clients in a competitive market.

Dumitru, for instance, estimates there are 13 fitness clubs within a five-mile radius of his facility at Greenback Lane and Auburn Boulevard.

"Newer equipment is definitely a competitive advantage," said Brooke Correia, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), which represents about 4,000 fitness clubs in the United States.

"Manufacturers are constantly coming out with new equipment and when you are in a supply and demand business (like health clubs), that's something you keep your eye on."

According to IHRSA estimates, clubs typically replace all their equipment every three to five years, at an average cost of $30,000 a year. In addition, she said, club owners are increasingly installing high-tech gear that can be tailored to members' individual workouts.

The video game generation

"This is the video game generation, and they are expecting the technology to be in the gym," Correia said.

"Spark" isn't the first workout machine to use a video display, but it appears to be one of the most sophisticated. Many treadmills and exercise bikes incorporate video screens, allowing users to watch cable TV or even surf the Internet while working up a sweat.

For years, rowing machines have featured built-in displays showing a crude representation of the rower's shell competing against another boat alongside.

More recently, some exercise bikes have included video games that serve as a distraction from the drudgery of a workout. Those machines can result in a inferior workout because the users are more focused on the game than on keeping up their heart rates, said Rick Leonard, general manager of the Capital Athletic Club in Sacramento.

Leonard also cautioned that some of the more sophisticated workout machines can't take the pounding that exuberant users might dish out.

"Typically the more bells and whistles you have, the more breakdowns you have," he said.

Indeed, some Spark prototypes had durability problems, said Sandra Ballinghoff, Expresso's vice president of business development, who's touring the region showing the Spark to fitness club owners.

The steering columns of some early models purchased by Club Sport in Pleasanton snapped off when some Lance Armstrong-wannabes stood up on their pedals, leaned on the handle bars and started pounding up the virtual hills.

But Expresso quickly strengthened the columns, and the two Spark bikes have proven tremendously popular at the 14,000-member club, said Jeramy Conner, wellness director.

"Our members are loving them. People are riding these bikes who have never ridden exercise bikes before," Conner said. "It really sets our club apart. When our sales reps take (potential members) on a tour, they always start with the Spark bikes."

The Spark is born

The bike is the creation of Brian Button and John Fisher, two veterans of the telecommunications equipment business in Silicon Valley.

When that industry began to struggle early this decade, Button said he began looking for other opportunities.

In late 2003, Fisher, a former colleague of Button's and an ardent cyclist, proposed a high-tech bike to use in health clubs. In less than two years, they developed a bike and a 27-employee company.

"The challenge is to do all the different things well," said Button, Expresso's chief executive officer. "Many companies can do interactive software. Many can do the bike. But not many can take the mechanical parts and the game software technology and make it work all together."

To make the Spark, Expresso uses a Lifecycle 9500 HR, a workhorse of the fitness industry, and grafts on its own steerable handle bars, control panel, LCD screen and the PC, which is housed in a box at the foot of the bike.

As well as showing the virtual roadway, the screen displays such things as pedaling cadence, riding speed, heart rate, calories burned, distance covered and steepness of the virtual grade the rider is climbing.

Two machines can be networked to allow riders to compete against each other or just ride together.

Future enhancements include a memory allowing riders to see previous rides and compare their current performance to past triumphs or struggles.

After pedaling about 10 minutes in the back of the Expresso motor home, Dumitru said he was impressed. Preparing to open a Gold's Gym in Lincoln next week, Dumitru said he's already equipped the new facility with about $500,000 worth of workout equipment, so he's not in the market for a lot of new hardware.

"If you had caught me four or five months ago," he told Ballinghoff, "I might have bought some of these."

The Bee's Clint Swett can be reached at 916-321-1976 or

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