I feel reckless writing about indoor cycling; like it’s embarrassing – both to admit doing it, and to imagine it could be worth thinking about. But I’ve been doing it a lot this week. Spring felt almost here but suddenly slipped away; strong and icy winds from the east have blown away my interest in riding outside. Yet the racing season’s arrived and I’ve some (modest, personal) goals I’m keen to achieve. Turbo training’s the answer.
Actually it’s clear that many people prefer indoor to outdoor cycling; if you see cycling less as a way of moving around than as a route to improved fitness, indoor cycling’s perhaps best. Anyway indoor cycling is still cycling, isn’t it? So thinking about it might be illuminating.
Although in my own mind indoor cycling isn’t ‘the real thing’, furiously pedalling nowhere does have advantages:
- it minimises washing – just a pair of socks, shorts and towel. In contrast, outdoor riding at this time of year generates endless laundry;
- my bike stays clean;
- it’s quick – in ninety minutes I can set myself up, do an hour’s quality training, clear away, and shower;
- I can ride to music – something I never do on the road. This is a treat; each of the last four days I’ve used Last FM to select tunes centred around, respectively, Julian Cope, The Four Brothers, Dinosaur Jr, and Fela Kuti, which has been ace!
Indoor cycling builds fitness; given urban cycling in Britain undoubtedly gets easier the fitter you are, I’m surprised there aren’t cycling promotion projects encouraging indoor cycling as a way of equipping people for outdoor cycling. (I’m not seriously suggesting this – it’d be much better to make conditions conducive to slower cycling.)
So why does indoor cycling make me uneasy? To ride indoors is to cycle in order to improve health and build fitness. Indoor cycling is attractive because it brings the fitness benefits of cycling without incurring what are widely perceived to be cycling’s costs – principally the need to ride in a motorised environment. Participating in an indoor cycling class probably brings additional social benefits; even if the pain is personally felt, the group can bond in shared suffering. I don’t know participation figures (there’s need for research), but indoor cycling is clearly an important industry; classes are popular and reach many people (especially perhaps women?) who might be reluctant to ride on the road. But whether done individually or socially, indoor cycling is a reduction of cycling as we’ve come to know it.
Obviously, for those who prefer indoor cycling this reduction is good – why suffer the difficulties and indignities of ‘real cycling’, when you can stay at home or drive to the gym and pedal ‘comfortably’ (if also painfully and sweatily) in an ‘acceptable’ way? From this perspective it’s outdoor, not indoor, cycling that’s strange.
I think my worry is based on fear that the idea of cycling as a health & fitness practice might gain too much ground.
Cycling practitioners are understandably excited about the UK Government Department of Health’s current enthusiasm for cycling; this represents a new (or revived) discursive push (‘cycling to health’), with new money for cycling. This is well and good, so long as cycling simultaneously becomes more central to – rather than deflected away from – transport discourse. We know cycling can satisfy multiple public policy goals so that cycling for transport ticks many health boxes too, but give cycling for health too much emphasis and we could end up with more enthusiasm for riding inside than out.
Most people who love cycling probably have their own sectional interest/s – for transport cycling, cycle sport, recreational cycling, cycle tourism, cycling for health, cycling as a form of social inclusion, and so on. On the one hand this is great; cycling contributes to many things and it’s good it has champions in different spheres. But on the other hand I think it’s clearly transport cycling about which people most need persuading and which most needs championing; so we need to remain alert to the possibility that by becoming more about health and fitness (or sport, or anything else) some of the current impetus towards transport cycling might dissipate. And I think that’s the concern at the root of my unease about indoor cycling. As part of a wider cycling lifestyle, it’s fine. But too great an emphasis on health and fitness and too much riding indoors risks the imprisonment and impoverishment of a practice capable of changing the world.
All cyclings are good, and in building a cycling system it’s important that at central government level cycling is pushed not only within and by the Department for Transport but also within and by the Departments for Culture, Media & Sport; Health; Energy & Climate Change; and all the others too. But some cyclings are better than others; and it’s pushing cycling as transport (at the car’s expense) which is key to building a better, fairer society.
So tomorrow, whatever the weather, I’m going to break out of the house and go somewhere, anywhere, by bike!