There's something strange happening in a corner of a west London gym. To the tune of Britney Spears's "Womanizer", two men and a woman are pedalling like crazy on exercise bikes – their legs a blur of stripes, swooshes and sweaty socks. Unlike the rowers and runners who have half an eye on flat-screen TVs showing Sky News (or stare into space looking bored), the pedalling trio are so focused that the veins throbbing on their foreheads look as if they might burst. They are also, inexplicably, throwing their upper bodies left and right at random intervals.
What possesses these stationary cyclists? Last time I used an exercise bike I was bored out of my brain, giving up after a few virtual miles to head for the steam room. But it turns out the machines whirring away today are not your average stationary cycles. From a distance they look pretty standard, but up close it's clear the X-dream, which is spinning its way into gyms and homes (well, some – it costs £6,000), is something different. It is, its makers claim, the most sophisticated exercise bike in the world. And, in a winter that's getting wetter and colder, the X-dream's British designer hopes the new machine will attract more of us to the warm embrace of the gym.
I've come to Virgin Active near Shepherd's Bush to meet the X-dream's creator, Mike Rice, and to race the champion mountain biker Scott "Boom Boom" Beaumont. Once I'm perched on the saddle for a practice run, the differences become clear – rather than show MTV or a mile counter, the X-dream sports a full-size computer screen playing what looks more like a PlayStation game than something you would expect to see in a gym.
First, using controls on the handlebars, I have to pick from a range of courses, from desert to forested highlands. I choose a winding circuit through woodland. As soon as I start pedalling, so does my computer-generated doppelgänger and we're soon rattling through the gears. The pedalling gets harder with each change until I'm up to speed. As realistically rendered trees and boulders flash by, I'm soon approaching the first bend. It's here that the X-dream comes into its own. To turn a corner, you steer – the bike's handlebars move like the real thing. Soon, the virtual riders behind me gain ground and then I take a wrong turn. I have to get out of my seat to power up the last hill and regain the lead at the finish line.
The "warm-up" race has taken me about 10 minutes, yet I'm dripping with sweat and desperate for water. This, Rice says, is what makes the X-dream not only more fun than your standard gym bike but better for you; according to his calculations a rider can burn up to 55 per cent more calories on the X-dream than on a standard gym bike. "Motivation levels are so low on normal bikes," he says. "You look at people in gyms and they're pedalling gently or walking on a treadmill. OK, it's better than nothing, but no exercise programme is going to work if you can't sustain it at a good level and boredom is why people give up."
Achieving results is what compelled Rice, 37, to take up cycling. "When I was 15, I weighed almost 17 stone," he says. "I wasn't going to get a girlfriend that way, so I went on a severe mountain-bike training regime and lost about seven stone." Later in life, when Rice had become a businessman, seven-day weeks meant he started piling on the pounds again. Then, after a company sell-off in 1999, he found himself with time on his hands. "I was living in Bath, but it was so wet the trails were too muddy to go mountain biking. I wasn't short of money so I bought every cycle trainer [exercise bike] I could and tried them all. I thought, my God, is this the best that we can do in this day and age?"
At the same time, Rice saw around him a generation growing up with computer consoles such as Sony's PlayStation. He wanted to use the potential of video games to "make people addicted to achieving something" to revolutionise the exercise bike, which hadn't evolved significantly since a French medical student called E Bouny put a mechanical brake on the back wheel of a jacked-up bicycle to create the first "bicycle ergometer" in 1896. Working in a garden shed, Rice founded his own company, Trixter, in 2000 and launched the X-bike, a variation on the spinning bikes that have become a gym staple. He then spent two years in the computer games industry to help realise his next project – the X-dream.
At Shepherd's Bush, one of the first centres to include the bikes, Corinna Javitz, a local reflexologist, has just finished her race. "It's so much more interesting than the other machines," she says between breaths. "You've got to concentrate and it works your arms as well as your legs." To prove the point, Javitz, who surprises everyone by telling us she is 51, holds up a well-toned bicep.
The six bikes here are busy but one wonders whether the X-dream will be the latest in a long line of gym fads. "As soon as something new comes in there's a queue for it and then within six months it doesn't impress them any more," says Andrée Deane, chief executive of the Fitness Industry Association. "In the early days it was steps – you couldn't get enough step classes on the timetable and now you don't see them. It's the same with gimmicks like Power Plates, which don't seem to be used as much now."
Rice is certain he has invented more than just a gimmicky fad. Unlike other exercise machines, X-dreams can be linked so that riders can race each other as well as computer-generated cyclists. At some gyms, informal race nights have been set up, complete with leagues. Last month, Rice flew to Switzerland to meet the president of Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's world governing body. "We're looking at linking up local leagues and staging national events with a governing body to make it an official indoor sport."
The X-dream already has high-profile fans, including Beaumont, a former world champion BMX rider. "I have one at home and think all the pro riders will be after one soon," he says. "We have to do a lot of indoor training and there's no other machine that comes close to getting out on a ride." So how will I, a keen road cyclist but some way short of a pro, fare against this champ?
We synchronise our bikes, choose the forest course and focus on the screens as the countdown begins. Before I've dropped through the gears on the first stretch, Beaumont has sprinted into a big lead. Soon, he appears only as a yellow dot half a mile ahead on the little map in the corner of the screen. I push harder and the gap begins to close. But I suspect Beaumont is humouring me. As the final bend comes into view I can see his back wheel and we cross the line side by side. The computer says I've won, but as I shake hands with Beaumont, it's clear what has happened. I'm a wheezing, perspiring wreck after a 10-minute race, while Beaumont's breathing has barely increased and there isn't a drop of sweat on him. "It works, doesn't it," he says. I'm too breathless to respond.
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