I have an odd relationship with cycling technology. In the middle ’90s I worked with a small software group in the shadow of MIT focused on developing virtual reality exercise bikes. Everything was VR then, and we pushed as many pixels through a 486 processor as we could manage, while trying to convince gym owners that immersive, networked fitness was on the cusp of revolutionizing the way people pedaled.
As it turns out, we were early. And selling to the wrong market. But you learn things when you’re young, and I learned most of what I know (not all that much, honestly) about starting a company, establishing it, and keeping it together long enough to succeed (or not), while riding my bike into the heart of Cambridge those few years.
The core of our ideas was the power of the group to motivate exercise, the collection of data to reinforce the work done, and the immersiveness of the experience to push the exerciser to do more than they otherwise might have done.
Our products didn’t succeed because the groups we connected weren’t large enough. The machines operated on local area networks (LAN), rather than the Internet, which was not yet capable of streaming enough data to support the software. And while we collected user data during the ride, we didn’t have a good way to store it and report on it later. Finally, we struggled to craft a truly immersive experience with the common processing power of the time.
It has taken another couple of decades for some of our ideas to take hold in the market. The latest incarnations of virtual cycling are represented by products like Zwift and Peloton. I can tell you hand-on-heart that we wrote treatments for applications just like these 20 years ago. I would bet that a lot of developers did. What these two companies, and some others, have done is improve on the interactivity, data usage, and immersiveness, timing their offerings better and packaging them better than anyone else has managed to up to this point.
The VR group I worked with was purchased by a larger company who made an effort to succeed with our products, but then that company was purchased by an even larger one, and the wise heads there saw that our technology was too expensive and too complex for the fitness equipment market of the day. That was that.
I threw myself head first into cycling, and left technology behind. In fact, it was shortly after the demise of the VR project that I took the very rudimentary cycling computer I had been using off my bike, and rode au naturale for the better part of two decades, only recently dabbling with apps like Strava and Ride with GPS. My personal feeling is that the riding experience is hard to improve upon with technology. Mostly, for me, it just gets in the way.
This week’s Group Ride suspects you’re different, though. How much technology do you bring to your cycling game? Do you use any of the indoor apps or equipment? Or are you what I’ll call a “purist?” No Garmin/No Rules? “Give me a cue sheet and handlebar bag, and I will ride the Earth!”