Indoor cycling platforms are like buses. Not in their design, you understand. On that front they’re more DB5 than double-decker. From Zwift’s virtual worlds and TrainerRoad’s structured workouts to Peloton’s emphasis on live classes and community, the supremely elegant melding of the physical and digital worlds is de rigueur now in the fiercely contested, multi-billion dollar world of indoor cycling.
They’re like buses in that you wait for (or in my case avoid) one for ages and then two ride into view at once. After years of peer pressure and procrastination, in March I finally took to the saddle on Zwift (just as the winter season was drawing to a close, as one wag on Strava pointed out). For the uninitiated, Zwift is a training programme for cyclists (and runners) wrapped up in a massive multiplayer online video game. As a keen gamer, if any of these platforms were going to snag me, Zwift seemed the most likely candidate.
And then, within days of my maiden ride, I was asked to review Peloton.
Zwift’s loss was very much Peloton’s gain. With the former I had to bring my slightly-cleaner-than-my-commuter-bike-but-still-pretty-grubby weekend ride into the house every time I wanted to go for a (virtual) spin. And before I could do that I had to rig its back wheel to a ‘turbo’ machine in order to simulate the resistance upon which all of these indoor training platforms are based. Once up and riding, I needed to disabuse my wife of the notion that I was using a pneumatic drill to exercise.
With Peloton, getting to the starting line has proven a considerably more sedate affair. A thoroughly helpful gentleman turned up at the house on delivery day to build the bike, set it up according to my height and reach, and school me in the ways of the Peloton platform, which is accessed through the 22 inch screen affixed to the handle bars (more on that shortly).
The bike looks resplendent in our dining room – at once muscular and understated, all burnished blacks, sporting reds and opaque curves, inviting you to gawp and enticing you to sweat in equal measure. Even unboxing the accompanying shoes, bag and water bottle evokes that feeling you get when removing a new piece of consumer tech from its packaging for the first time. Which is appropriate given the New York based company is now a darling of the Silicon Valley investor set thanks to a valuation of $4 billion and a much touted IPO later this year.
Fortunately, alongside all that style comes a whole lot of substance. Thousands of hours of it in fact. Through the aforementioned screen and a decent wifi connection Peloton brings you access to up to 22 live exercise classes a day, an on demand library boasting more than 10,000 additional classes, and north of one million fellow Pelotonians to virtually high five or virtually leave in your wake, depending on your competitive mindset. And it doesn’t stop with cycling – using the Peloton app, you can access classes to supplement your work on the bike, covering everything from running and general cardio to strength conditioning, meditation and yoga.
As a fairly committed road cyclist with a number of torturous long rides in the diary this summer, a quick search on Reddit for recommendations on where roadies should start led me to Matt Wilpers and his excellent Power Zone training programme. While I’ve dabbled with a number of other live and on demand classes and instructors for the purpose of a rounded review (shout outs to the awesome Christine D’Ercole and the fierce and foulmouthed Robin Arzon), it is to Matt that I’ve remained faithful and where I’ve seen the most significant gains in terms of on-the-road fitness. Whether live or on demand, there’s an infectious sincerity and just enough of a sense of competition to the classes I’ve tried that keeps me motivated to push harder and longer to get those results.
And the results have been both measurable and tangible. The cornerstone of the Power Zone training programme is the Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test. FTP is the average power, measured in watts, that a rider can produce in one hour. To establish your FTP on Peloton, you take a gruelling 20 minute test, broken into four back-to-back five minute intervals which increase in intensity, with the aim being to push as hard as possible throughout until the final five minute interval at which point you go flat out, ending up as a sweaty, gibbering wreck on the floor. Your FTP is then calculated using 95pc of your average power across those 20 minutes to get a fix on what it would be over a full hour.
In the space of six short weeks on Peloton, I saw an 18pc increase in my FTP between my first and second test. Admittedly, the second time around I'd worked out how to test more effectively (don't go too hard too soon) but regardless, that is a significant measurable fitness gain by any standard.
But it’s on the road where the hard yards on Peleton have really paid off. In mid-May I rode the infamous Fred Whitton Challenge, a one day sportive in the Lake District that is widely regarded as the hardest in the UK and comparable with the big European amateur cycling events like Marmotte and the Etape du Tour (which I’ll be riding later this month). Across 114 miles and with 3,900 metres of climbing, ‘Fred’ takes in all the Lake’s major passes, including the beast that is Hardknott Pass.
Described by Simon Warren, author of The 100 Greatest Cycle Climbs, as “the king of climbs and arguably the hardest road in the land... if you can ride this, you can ride anything”, Hardknott arrives deep into the day (around 93 miles deep to be precise), long after your legs have started suggesting to your brain that it might be time for an ice bath and eight hours sleep.
While Hardknott was unequivocally brutal – the hardest climb outright that I have ever done, made even more difficult by all the climbing that had come before and was to come thereafter – I was able to drag myself up the 25pc gradient entrée, the average 12pc middle and the pièce de résistance 30pc switchbacks even while the majority of riders around me were getting off and walking their bikes up the two and a bit kilometre climb (a challenge in and of itself, particularly in cycling cleats).
Don’t get me wrong: I won’t be threatening any King of the Mountain segments on Strava any time soon. But the couple of months spent with Matt Wilpers, taking a far more regimented and scientific approach to my training than I’d ever done before, undoubtedly gave me a physical edge on that climb that wasn’t there last season.
As a family man too, Peloton has been a roaring success. Perhaps roaring is the wrong word. In contrast to my weekend turbo set up for Zwift, the Peloton bike looks unintimidating to the uninitiated and sounds like… well, not industrial machinery being operated. What sound it does emit is of the white noise variety which seems to soothe our youngest one into a womb-like state of comatosis so my wife, currently on maternity leave, can get on with her exercise uninterrupted. And get on she has: the immediacy of the bike, the variety of classes and the diversity of instructors on offer have turned something that had, with Zwift, been very much a 'me only' pass time into something we can both enjoy and share in.
It helps that a Peloton subscription allows you to create unlimited profiles for family and friends. One argument in favour of the not insubstantial £39 monthly fee.
Which brings me to the inevitable ‘but’. Peloton is neither cheap, nor without its limitations. For the bike on its own, you’re looking at just shy of £2k. Throw in bike shoes, weights, water bottles and a mat that stops your floor getting scuffed and drenched in sweat (so much sweat) and you’re looking at closer to £2,500. Then you’ve got that monthly subscription, which sits somewhere around the average monthly cost of a gym membership. To put that all into context, you could buy a decent second hand carbon road bike, a ‘smart’ turbo trainer which uses bluetooth tech to set resistance automatically to simulate hills and accurately measure power output, take out an £8 monthly subscription to Zwift and still have change left over to enter yourself into a weekend sportive to test what impact all this training is having in the real world.
And unlike a smart turbo, the Peloton bike does not set resistance automatically, relying on the rider to do it manually in order for it to calculate input based on a combination of said resistance and the rider’s cadence. Consequently it all ends up looking a bit… dumb. It was an honest shock when I came to use the Peloton for the first time and discovered you set your own resistance – almost unforgivable when you consider the initial and ongoing outlay involved.
So, is Peloton superior to my noisy, grubby, not-very-smart first pass at Zwift? Emphatically so. But is it a better option than Zwift with a nice, quiet smart turbo and a chunk of change left in my pocket? Honestly, I think I’d still go for Peloton. You’re paying a premium for immediacy, accessibility, broadness of appeal and something your cohabiters (and neighbours) are more likely to embrace for all the opportunities it brings, rather than reject for being a noisy eyesore.
As the venerable Mahatma Gandhi pointed out, it is health, and not pieces of gold and silver, that is the real wealth. Sagacious words indeed and ones you’ll need to have front of mind when considering a Peloton purchase.
Do you have a Peloton bike? Would you consider investing in one? How do you give yourself the edge in your day to day fitness? Let us know in the comments section below.