I’m huffing and puffing up one of the most iconic climbs in cycling folklore: the Alpe D’Huez in the French Alps. The mountain is a mainstay of the Tour de France and it’s definitely one that separates the sprinters from the climbers. Who can ever forget Marco Pantani’s battle with Jan Ullrich in 1997? This is a mountain climb on which legends are made.
I won’t be joining them at the rate I’m going. My jersey is drenched with sweat as I make my way around another of the 21 hairpin bends that comprise the 13.8-kilometre ascent to the summit, 1860 metres above sea level.
This is the closest I’ve ever come to achieving Zen on a bicycle.
“Come on Steve, push, work through the pain!” Tom Sproats yells at me. “You can do it!”
Sproats is sitting on a brand new Lamond exercise bike, exactly the same as mine. At which point I should add that I’m about 16,000km from France, sitting in a room at Scenic Cycle, which opened last month in Sydney’s financial district.
Alongside me are 35 others in the room – some wannabe Tour riders, others fitness junkies looking for a new buzz – plus my editor, who roped me into this yet looks as if he’s the one about to lose his lunch.
Virtually we roll along
Think of it as a spin class with the added advantage of rolling scenery projected onto two 12-metre square screens to make it feel as if you are actually rolling through the scenery. Except there’s precious little rolling; this is one of the world’s most hardcore climbs, after all. Wind on some more resistance to simulate an increase in gradient, Tom exhorts, and PUSH!
The brainchild of Sproats, an entrepreneur and fitness instructor, Scenic Cycle began life in the family garage with the help of his two brothers. Although conceding he is far from a hard-core cyclist, Sproats nonetheless travelled the world over four years, using his own filming gear to capture footage of picturesque rides throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as Australia, New Zealand and Samoa.
To get the raw footage, he attached his camera to everything from a bicycle to a motor scooter and a quad bike. One ride he offers that he point-blank refused to shoot himself takes you down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, through Times Square, Central Park, and across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“I enlisted a bicycle courier to shoot that one,” he says. “There was no way I was riding through New York City.”
Sproats says at its core, the workout has three elements: The music, the session leader and the vision.
“The beautiful scenery takes your mind off the pain,” he says. “It’s an escape. This gives our riders 45 minutes where they can go into a room and enjoy a mental holiday that also happens to burn up to 800 calories in a session.”
And while the exercise bikes are state-of-the-art, Sproats concedes it is closer to a spin class, than a place where serious road cyclists would come to improve technique, although everyone can build fitness by setting their own resistance and cadence. “I’ve built a product that caters to every level,” he says. “You control the resistance so you can get the best possible workout depending on what level you are at.”
Right now I’m pushing hard through the little alpine village of La Garde, not even halfway up the alpine ascent. Wooden chalets and ski hire shops line the road, and I’m sorely tempted to step off the bike and into the tiny Bar L’Indiana that’s coming up on my left for a Pastis. But Sproats urges me on. “We’re going into the red zone,” he calls. “This is your time; it’s not about work, kids, partners, anything.”
He implores us to crank our resistance up to a nine out of 10, close our eyes and just lose ourselves in the thumping beat for five or so minutes, revelling in the glorious pain.
Zen on a bicycle
I’m a keen roadie and definitely not a spin king (this is actually my first time pedalling indoors) but I’ve got to say, this is the closest I’ve ever come to achieving Zen on a bicycle. Try closing your eyes on the streets of Sydney or Melbourne and you’re liable to end up road pizza. But here in ‘The Coliseum’, we’re safe from everything, even the Peugeots and Renault vans that whiz past on the screen.
So far Sproats has edited more than 100 rides. Some of the most popular include a jaunt around Lake Como in Italy, a pedal through the snow-capped beauty of San Moritiz, and a ride through Samoa past swaying palm trees and barefoot villagers. Australian rides include Byron Bay, Nimbin, Noosa and Port Douglas.
To make the experience feel more real, when Sproats calls for a sprint, the vision speeds up. Conversely a hill climb will see the vision slow down and the resistance amped up, so it feels that like you’re really pushing hard against gravity. Riders can wear standard trainers, or clip into SPD pedals.
Alpe D'Huez: done
Pleasantly exhausted, I finally reach the car park at the top of Alpe D’Huez and begin the cool-down element of the ride. My riding buddy has also made it, although he looks as pale as the snow on the peaks around us. We high-five each other for a job well done.
“Maybe we’ll do Sedona, Arizona next … it’s nice and flat,” I suggest.
The Scenic Cycle premises is clean and modern with hot showers, complimentary hand towels and free deodorant. Sproats seems to have struck a winning formula; despite being open for just a little over a month when we visited, more than 550 punters have come through the doors. He is already planning on rolling out the idea nationally.
“We’re not a chain, we don’t offer memberships and we don’t offer contracts. We charge a premium rate, but we offer a premium workout and a premium experience,” Sproats says. “A 20-pack of coupons works out at $15 a class.”
Or you can try ...
For another dose of virtual cycling reality try an Expresso bike, which are found in many modern gyms and leisure centres around Australia. Where Scenic Cycle goes large and communal, Expresso offers a solo experience, the bike fitted with a personal computer screen displaying your ride. Think of it as the intersection of bike riding and computer gaming.
Dozens of rides of varying length and gradient can be dialled up, and riders steer with real handlebars and change gears with rapid-fire shifters to respond as resistance is automatically adjusted to simulate hills.
Expresso bikes are universally connected, meaning you can compete against the person on the bike next to you, or benchmark your time against thousands of riders all over the world. It also has built-in music playlists and more statistical feedback than you can poke a stick at.
Prices vary according to gyms’ own schedules of entry fees.
OK, let's get serious
If all this sounds like too much fun and not enough sweat, there is another option favoured by keen road riders, and proudly proclaiming “not a spin bike in sight” on its website.
Athlete Lab in Sydney's CBD provides high quality, fully adjustable road bikes set up for stationary riding sessions – or participants can bring their own.
Using data derived directly from the rear wheel, the rider is able to monitor their output as they complete a guide class. Individual testing is also offered, as is one-on-one coaching, and a free introductory lesson is offered which includes bike set-up.
Prices start from $40 per ride, and multi-ride packs or membership is also offered.