The Road Cyclist's Guide to the Peloton
As the most avid cyclist among my cohort of 50 year old charity century riders, I get asked a lot about my Peloton. As you know, the weather in New England is pretty inhospitable for 5-6 months out of the year. My friends ask me how I pop up the hills so easily after the winter wash of mire, salt and sand gives way in April? The answer generally is a stationary exercise bike and for me specifically it was a Peloton, a $2,000 bike that weighs a ton and goes nowhere. Despite the passive-aggressive advertising, a significant part of Peloton’s success has been welcoming and motivating daily fitness fanatics and people who are afraid to go to a gym.
There’s certainly some stigma in the cycling community around spin classes. It’s amazing that people who are unafraid of lounging around the Concord muffin shop red faced and sweaty in 1mm of lycra are afraid of what people will think about them because they own an exercycle. Or, maybe it’s just the idea of spending so much money on a cast iron bike instead of new carbon rims. Or Peloton’s new Internet Yuppie image.
Mind you, I’m not a Peloton fanatic. Judging by the live-ride shout outs and jamborees, I’m in the bottom 20% of riders with only 250 rides under my belt. I’m strictly a foul weather rider and wouldn’t be caught dead on the thing in July unless there’s a powerful nor’easter blowing. But I do think it’s a fantastic tool in your cycling arsenal... with some caveats.
Here’s my calculus to help you think about whether an indoor spin bike is right for you:
It’s Always There
Rain or shine. Sleet or snow. In winter months when the sun doesn’t rise 'til what feels like 8:00, you can get in some miles. There are pre-recorded classes of every duration, effort and genre. You can join a live class at 7:00, but if you’re up at 6:45, you can start a recorded class at 6:50. Snow day? What snow day? If you exercise less than three times a week in January, you should think about Peloton.
Zero to Sweat in No Time
Sometimes, even in the heart of summer, maintaining my bike feels like it takes up nearly as much of my time as riding it. If I’m going to ride early in the morning before work, I get my bottles and bars lined up, make sure my tires are up to pressure, chain is lubed, Wahoo charged, Di2 charged… and still I can’t find my sunglasses and it takes me a half hour to get out the door. Where I live in Cambridge, I’m warming up and cruising from red light to red light for thirty minutes until I get to Belmont and some open road. The bike that goes nowhere needs zero maintenance. The class starts and the hammer drops... no dawdling. Fill up your bottles, put on your skins and go. Depending on where your bike is in your house, you can ride in your underwear if you want.
I don’t ride with music and when I do, it’s usually the same mix. There are classes to fit all different styles on Peloton – hip hop, classic rock, 70s, 80s, 90s, country – and a range of instructors. Yes, you’ll find some of them annoying, but you’ll also find some that seem like the ride buddy you’d like… and they’re always waiting there in your basement, ready to ride. My highlights are the weekly live DJ rides with DJ John Michael. I’ve had brief moments of parenting triumph when I’ve heard songs by Childish Gambino or Billie Ellish before my kids did.
Peer Pressure Works
Unless you’re a triathlete, you know that you ride harder when you’re in a pack of cyclists, rotating on the front and egging each other on. The same applies on Peloton. It’s hard not to get caught up in the leaderboard. The cliché of exercise bikes is that they’re mostly used as expensive clothes racks. Peloton is addictive and fun. You’ll ride it. If you think about a 0:45 Peloton class as the equivalent of a spin class… even at a discounted $15 a class, the bike pays for itself in 100 rides and you’ll hit that goal in 1-2 years, even if you’re a fair weather cyclist like me. More to the point, you’ll ride on the Peloton 2-3 times more often than you’d ever go to a spin class.
This is the real reason for road cyclists to join Peloton. This is how the pros train, using a power meter to measure their interval efforts to increase their endurance and power. One hour of power-zone training will improve your cycling performance better than three hours on the road. Period. You can do measured intervals targeting specific goals – increasing VO2 Max, increasing time at VO2 Max, increasing ability to recover from max efforts. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and really feel like you understand what your body can do. My legs are sore after riding the Peloton in ways that I’m rarely sore after riding on the road.
Since moving from spin classes to power-zone classes on Peloton, I’ve gone out and bought a power meter for my road bike and now I know exactly how many “matches” I can burn on the hills and still have gas in the tank for the end of a ride. The only downside is that there are only a few power-zone instructors on Peloton, so the music and encouragement options are a little limited.
What are the Cons?
It’s a Spin Bike, not a Cycling Trainer
The flywheel and resistance are top-notch and better at simulating the resistance of the road than with most spin bikes. However, it’s still not a bike. Even if you put your own pedals and saddle on, the limited adjustments put you in a more upright position than you’re likely to have on your road bike, even if you don’t ride in the drops with your stem slammed. When you get on the road in April/May you’ll still need some time to build your endurance, particularly the endurance of being in a cycling position for hours. But your base fitness will be way ahead of the alternative.
Spin Class Isn’t Always Great for You
Your average 25-year-old spin instructor hasn’t had much experience with back pain or tendinitis and is often asking the class to do things that any physiologist would know are just a bad idea… up, down, up, down, push-up left, push up right. Peloton seems to have a much more disciplined approach to instruction, but the cross-fit, be-all-you-can-be attitude can provide you with opportunities to hurt yourself. Specifically, there are a lot of classes with intervals of high effort at low cadence in the saddle which is good for your butt muscles (which I think is half the point of spin class in our booty-focused beauty era)… but can be very hard on your knees, especially if you’re a fit cyclist and put out a lot of power. I’ve never gotten tendinitis from cycling before Peloton… now I know to modify my pace when the instructor pushes the torque.
It’s hard to do endurance training on a Peloton
There are some crazy people out there who have done centuries on the Peloton by stringing classes together back to back. I love that the all-out effort and giving myself over to an instructor to put my brain on pause, but I can’t do more than two classes mentally… and I can’t do more than two hours physically. I haven’t replaced the saddle, but it’s just really hard without the variety and camaraderie of being on the road to do for more than two hours. Even on a rainy Saturday.
Accessories you’ll need:
A second set of pedals
Peloton comes with pedals for the old Look Arc cleats. If you want to use one pair of shoes for your Peloton and your road bike, you’ll likely need to get a set of (cheap, heavy) pedals for your Peloton.
Before I got a fan, I did a double (1:30) and so much sweat ran down my legs, I rusted out the bolts that hold my cleats onto my shoes. I now have an 18” fan aiming up from in front of the bike.
A set of Hand Towels
If you haven’t “accidentally” brought home a few from your local gym, you can always hit up Bed, Bath and Beyond.
If you’re sharing the bike, or even if not, it’s a good idea to keep the salt and crust from accumulating on the bike.
Good Bluetooth Headphones
Losing yourself in the music is part of the experience, which is hard when the default speakers are small, tinny and face away from the rider. I use bone-conduction headphones from Aftershox which I love because they don’t fall out no matter how much I sweat. I also hear great things about the Beats in-ear Bluetooth headphones. There is a headphone jack also, so you could get an external wired or Bluetooth speaker.
A Few Last Words
I got my Peloton before the latest generation of bicycle trainers and applications came out. There are many other connected spin bikes from NordicTrack and Echelon. If I were doing it again, I’d look hard at a Zwift/Wahoo combo. The top-of-the-line trainers overcome many of the drawbacks of the old fluid trainers with a direct drive that’s nice and secure.
Still, my instinct is that I’d still be happier with the Peloton. I don’t want anything to get between me and a ride and there’s too much to go wrong with an app and a subscription service and a trainer and an iPad. Not to mention bike maintenance. Frankly, part of the point of the off season is to have an off season. I’m looking for a break from my road bike for a few months so that when spring rolls around I’m able to enjoy the pleasant sound of new rubber and a clean chain as I zip up and down hills.
Oh… and as I said, the Peloton isn’t like riding a road bike. When you see somebody on the road in a Peloton jersey or with a Peloton water bottle, say hi to them at the rest stop, and be courteous, but stay far away from them on the road. They’re relatively fit, but have no experience on the road and they’re going to half-wheel you like nobody’s business. John
John Buten is a CRW member who is sharing his cycling experience. He is happy to answer any questions about indoor training and can be reached at john [at] buten.net.