Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Test-Riding a $5,000 Indoor Bike

Cardiovascular exercise saves lives. But, for millions of people who need it the most — those who aren’t naturally drawn to physical activity — using a treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical machine has one huge drawback: it’s boring. The timers on those machines seem to move excruciatingly slowly while you grind out your daily fitness regimen.

To combat this boredom, the fitness industry has mainly relied on television in gyms, or encouraged people to use their iPods or other portable music players while on the machines. But, despite these distractions, basic exercise can still be mind-numbingly boring.

The $4,995 Spark by Expresso Fitness Corp. attempts to make exercise more exciting with videogame-like simulation, bike handlebars that move and gear shifting.
The $4,995 Spark by Expresso Fitness Corp. attempts to make exercise more exciting with videogame-like simulation, bike handlebars that move and gear shifting.

Now, a Silicon Valley company has come up with a new idea to enliven cardiovascular workouts. It is turning exercise into a videogame, complete with opponents and scenery. Expresso Fitness Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif., (www.expressofitness.com) has introduced the Spark — a stationary bike with a built-in computer and flat-panel monitor that allows you to race against virtual riders through a variety of simulated outdoor courses.

Unlike the typical exercise bike, the Spark has movable handlebars to steer you through the three-dimensional virtual trails on its screen, and a gearshift for tackling the many hills you encounter. When you climb a hill on the screen, the pedaling really feels like you’re climbing a hill.

The bike has a built-in TV and built-in music channels, but its key feature is its competitive virtual riding courses, which can be updated by the company over the bike’s built-in Internet connection.

The Spark’s $5,000 price tag plus $225 installation fee and shipping seems like a high price to fend off boredom. But even though the bike was originally designed for use in gyms, the company claims it has been attracting individual buyers as well.

We’ve been testing the Spark for about a week in a spare office near ours that we turned into a temporary gym. Our verdict: the Spark makes stationary bicycling more interesting and challenging, even for average users. But there’s a downside: Most of its courses would be far too difficult and strenuous, and highly discouraging, for the average, out-of-shape users who need it the most. The Spark seems to have been designed by and for athletic bicycling enthusiasts who we assume would rather be outside on real bikes most of the year.

At times we were plain exhausted by the Spark. We represent two age groups — one of us is in his 50s and the other in her 20s — and we both exercise regularly. Even so, most of the Spark’s 26 routes were daunting, leaving us comfortable only on a few of the easiest routes with sparse, low hills. It seemed to be geared toward hardened riders who wouldn’t be concerned that a 31%-grade hill is labeled as a “Basic” trail.

Physically, most parts of the Spark resemble a regular stationary bike, but a few features make it unique. A box housing an 80-gigabyte computer is positioned on the floor near the Spark’s front end, and a handsome 17-inch color LCD screen replaces what would normally be a bare-bones display on a regular exercise bike. A shifting lever on the Spark’s center column adjusts the bike’s resistance, making your workout more or less taxing in accordance with each trail’s terrain.

This bike connects to the Internet using an included wireless router, and Expresso Fitness uses the connection to help you troubleshoot directly with the company in case of problems, which is useful. It also allows the bike to automatically receive and start using new versions of Spark software. A few days into our testing, for example, Expresso introduced a new version of its software, and our bike was automatically updated with an improved interface.

Spark by Expresso Fitness

Six channels of music, each with two or three hours of songs, are stored on your computer, including classic rock, oldies and Latin. The bike’s Internet connection comes in handy here, as well, allowing Expresso to change the collection of songs about every two months.

But the Spark’s always-online connection also sends logs of data from your bike back to Expresso Fitness, including the routes that you ride, your cadence numbers during workouts and other data. This left us feeling like our trainer was checking up on us, which might be motivation for some users. We just found it creepy.

We started out on a seemingly simple route named “Evening Bliss.” We admired the lovely scenery as we started pedaling — leafy trees hung down around the bike path, lush green grass spread out in all directions and a purplish-pink sunset stained the sky. But halfway through the route, we’d forgotten about our 3-D surroundings, concentrating more heavily on our cold bottle of water.

A pace rider in a yellow jersey set a difficult pace for us to match, and multiple bicyclists rode along the trail with us. You can get rid of the other riders by pressing a few buttons, but we found that they motivated us to go faster. Likewise, the pacer’s power can be adjusted so that he rides slower or faster; we slowed him down, as keeping up with his moderate pace was near impossible for us.

On another ride called Coastal Run, sheep and coastline make up most of the scenery. As the road wound around bends and turns, we moved our bike handles in the right direction to stay in the middle of the trail. Unlike videogames where your bike or car can veer off the road or take out other people, the Spark’s simulated routes will only slow you down if you near the roadside and other riders just disappear when you ride over them.

The display screen on the Spark was helpful, showing a horizontal scale of our power, heart rate (determined by hand sensors) and elevation throughout each route. Wireless Polar heart-rate monitors that strap around your chest are also compatible with the Spark, and their data show on-screen. Speed, calories and the pacer’s time in relation to yours are displayed as well.

But we were never asked to enter our weight or age, information required by many average fitness machines before you begin so as to more specifically determine your results.

Expresso says that your skill level will improve as you use the bike more, which we admit might have happened if we had more dutifully stuck to our biking regimen during the week. But we couldn’t help but think that the average person — not to mention a severely overweight person — would be intimidated by the Spark’s rather difficult “Basic” routes. Eighteen other trails make up the Moderate, Challenging and Extreme routes, with names like “Oh Mama” and “Gut Buster.” We couldn’t imagine anyone with a gut in need of busting trying the latter route.

Because the Spark is online, it can always be changed and improved, and Expresso Fitness says it listens carefully to user feedback. We hope it will listen to users who aren’t bicycling enthusiasts, as well, in order to make this technology-enhanced workout more approachable for all types of people.


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