Great Moments in Cycling: The Roller Derby

I’m just going to come out and say it: the cycling trainer is an abomination. Trainers take two of the best things about cycling — freedom of movement and the ability to go somewhere while you exercise — and strip those things away.



Trainers are very simple. They grip your rear wheel’s axle, lifting your bike into the air, and apply resistance to your rear wheel. Thus, in a matter of moments, a trainer converts your bike from your favorite thing in the world into a loathsome piece of stationary exercise equipment.

But you know, I kind of like rollers.



With rollers, you just put your bike on top of the free-spinning drums and ride. Sure, you’re still not going anywhere, but at least it takes some skill — rollers require that you use a very light touch on your steering, balance evenly, and ride a nice, straight line.

This is not to say that I would ever pick riding rollers over going outdoors to ride, if it’s an option at all. All I’m saying is that while rollers are a poor substitute for riding, they’re not as poor as trainers.


How to Tolerate Riding Indoors

I don’t think there’s any force in the world that could make me ride the rollers for more than one hour. Which is odd, considering one hour on the bike outside doesn’t seem like much of a ride. It just goes to show, I suppose, how critical the “going somewhere” component of riding is to the whole experience.

I do, however, have a secret that makes it possible for me to ride for a full hour on the rollers (just ask any avid cyclist: an hour on the rollers is actually more than most people can tolerate): Martial arts movies.

Yes, that’s right. Martial arts movies. Bruce Lee. Jean Claude van Dam. Jackie Chan. Especially Jackie Chan. These movies are perfect for exercising to, for the following reasons:

  • The constant action helps you keep your cadence and energy level up.
  • You can look away from the screen for a few moments without fear of missing something crucial.
  • If you zone out for a little while, you can come back without having missed much.
  • When you get to the point where you’ve just got to get off that bike, you can turn off the movie and pick it up the next day without having it occupy your mind the whole rest of the day.

Back in Utah, I had a perfect setup for riding on the rollers in the winter set up in my unfinished basement:

  • A TV and DVD player
  • Wireless headphones, so I could hear the movie over the drone (quite loud) of the rollers without fear of tangling a cord in my front wheel
  • A Netflix subscription, giving me all-I-could-stand access to martial arts films.


Loudest, Most Embarassing Crash Ever

You know, I don’t know if I even need to recount this anecdote. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Of course you do. Oh well, I may as well soldier on.

About four years ago, while riding on the rollers, I got deeply involved with a movie. I’m pretty sure it was the one where Jackie Chan plays a loveable misfit with — for some reason — extraordinary improvisational martial arts skills. During one of the action scenes, Jackie is using a ladder, a shopping cart, and a mannequin’s arm to defend himself against the entire Mafia.

Before I continue, I would like to say that anyone who is not amazed and entertained whenever Jackie does one of these scenes is a stuffy old fart.

Now, one thing you must do when riding rollers is check from time to time — every thirty seconds or so — to make sure you’re not drifting off one side.

I drifted off. All the way off. While pedaling at about 24mph.

Must I really describe what happened next? I must? OK.

I shot forward, my wheels making nice skid marks as they made contact with the concrete floor, straight into the table I had the TV and DVD player on.

The TV, DVD player and wireless headset base station fell over with a mighty crash, the bike and me on top of it.

“Is everything OK down there?” I hear my wife yell from upstairs. I look at the damage. I’m scraped up, and the TV has a nice divot in the tube.

A pause while I stifle the screams, then: “Everything’s fine, dear!”

Actually, the TV was toast, the wireless headset would never work right again, and I hurt like crazy in about seven different places.

But I wasn’t quite prepared to admit that I had just accidentally sprinted my bike into an entertainment center.

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