I’ve only ever taken one spin class. I was working downtown, and everyone at work had memberships to the über-cool gym down the street. I tried step aerobics once (hey, it was the ‘90s). I lasted about 10 minutes; stumped by the intricate choreography, I sheepishly returned my stack of steps and slunk out.
As an avid bike commuter, I figured spin class would be an easy way to redeem myself, despite my firmly-held belief that any outdoor activity’s indoor version was a terribly inferior substitute—something akin to eating a candy bar with the wrapper still on. Why do something that, at worst, scarcely resembles the sweet taste of chocolate caramel nougat, and at best, only serves to remind you of what you’re missing out on?
To save face, for one thing. So at my coworkers’ urging (or was it taunting?), I signed up to spin.
I was in decent biking shape going into this. Summiting Seattle’s hills without getting up out of the saddle was (and still is) a point of pride. But that was little help to me here. I have since come to appreciate that stationary bikes are more exercise equipment than viewed as actual bicycles, but in the moment, drowning in sweat and exhaustion after that 10-minute mark…You want me to stand up AGAIN? What the hell for? Thankfully I made it through the entire session, but my face was beet-red from the effort for hours afterward. (I know it’s a cliche, but with my fair skin, it’s true – my face actually does turn beet red.)
I haven’t been back since, preferring to sit on a real bike and ride up real hills, while looking down my nose at indoor cyclists—until recently.
My next closest experience is with Sufferfest. Again, talked into trying something new by my coworkers, I first tried it a couple of years ago. Having graduated from bike commuter to bike tour leader, I was in pretty darn good shape.
I started off at a moderate FTP (functional threshold power), and I’m pedaling, twiddling my thumbs, asking “is this thing on?” So we crank up the intensity, up, up, up until I’m tied with a couple of the guys that I work with (to one’s delight, and the other’s disgust). I have to admit—that felt good.
Over time, I came to appreciate both the camaraderie and the challenge of Sufferfest with my co-workers. I ride that trainer much harder than I do when I’m just out for a ride on my own. It’s the closest approximation of riding with cyclists who are stronger than I am—and way more comfortable than getting dropped by stronger cyclists. So I grudgingly admit it’s a good workout and a useful tool.
Fast forward to today, where thanks to a wrist injury brought on by years of poor posture while keyboarding (probably started during the step-aerobics era), I can’t ride my real bike. Oh, and having spent most of the last couple years doing way more keyboarding than bike riding, my fitness level is showing it. My once-impressive FTP has dropped about 50 points. Ouch.
Rather than sit back and be done in by a bum wrist, I’m spending a lot of time on the trainer these days (and in a wrist brace). I suit up, see if anyone else wants to spin, pick a workout and press play. Give the music a chance before deciding whether my own is better. Watch the accompanying video and take note that more and more women cyclists appear in the newer programs. Wonder aloud where the pretty places are that pop up on the screen. Realize I’ve forgotten to turn on the fan, hop off and turn the switch—a nice perk to riding indoors. (Not only can I get warm enough in February to overheat, but I can even control the ambient temperature.) Settle in to the ride, maybe chat with friends spinning alongside me. Or dig into a book, looking up to check that I’m still with the program every few clicks.
Is it as glorious as leaning into turns and feeling the wind on my face on my real bike? No, it’s not. I know I don’t stand a chance of stumbling upon the epiphanies that I might encounter on my real bike while traveling through time and space under my own power … but, I still get a good sweat going. I still get to work my legs. I get all the great benefits that exercise brings: I sleep better, slowly but surely inch that FTP back up, feel stronger as a whole person (not just my legs), and I can still fit into my skinny jeans.
If I’m lucky, if I’ve picked the right program to meet today’s threshold formula of energy, willpower and strength, I just might find the magical space that quiets my incessant inner dialogue and see where it takes my mind and spirit today.
And unlike actually eating a candy bar with the wrapper still on, there’s no upset stomach at the end. So I just sit back—that is, I sit up—and enjoy the ride.
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