Peloton Bike review: The best way to work out at home and perhaps the future of fitness

It is not just like bringing gym classes into your front room, but something else and better entirely

Andrew Griffin@_andrew_griffin
Monday 08 April 2019 23:21
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In my house, people are yelling at me; more accurately, maybe, they're yelling with me. I have invited them here. I don't know if it's because I'm so tired and sweaty – lord, am I tired and sweaty – but the things they're yelling seem as inspirational and profound as scripture. "You are genuine, you are real," one says, before posing a challenge that I'm bound to commit to: "Yes or yes?"

These people are here, in a tablet attached to a stationary bike in my living room, because they are Peloton instructors. And I am a Peloton convert. So, it's said, are some of the most forward-thinking people in Silicon Valley. And so soon might be the rest of the world.

Peloton is a bike with a tablet that lets you join fitness classes from wherever you are. It's also the company that makes it, which has ridden the success of this bike to be worth $4 billion and be hailed as the future not just of fitness but of media and tech too.

As well as being an impressive and inspirational piece of kit, the Peloton bike and everything that comes with it represent a new way of working out. It is not exercising at home, with all of the lack of inspiration or peer-pressure that entails; nor is it trudging to the gym to take part in a class. It's somewhere between the two, with all the convenience of working out at home and on your time but the same social spirit of going to the gym.

The name "Peloton" at first appears as something of a trick. A peloton usually refers to a group of people cycling outdoors; the Peloton is both indoors and solitary. But it's the first of many pleasurable tricks the bike is going to play on you, and one that hints at the cleverness that makes it more than just a stationary bike, much more than someone shouting at you from inside a tablet. As you get to use it, you realise that the bike is perfectly named. It's stationary and individual, yes, but you're going places and you're doing with other people.

The Peloton bike is a little complicated to explain, though perfectly simple to use. As you hop on, you choose a class from thousands of possible options, picking whatever length, musical genre, class type and instructor you want. Then you'll tap to begin, and a video screen will pop up, showing the instructor in perfect quality and filmed as if in a TV studio, taking you through the class. Your bike will tell you what resistance you're on and how fast you're pedalling – the instructor reads out the targets for these numbers throughout, and you try and follow along – and at the end of the class that is all summarised in a variety of data that will tell you how well you've done and whether you're improving.

It's not really those mechanics that make the bike such a roaring success or worthwhile buy, however. It's the engaging nature of the instructors, the precisely calibrated classes, the quality of the bike, the rewards of the statistics and the thrill of it all being in your house.

The fun and effectiveness of the bike is the result of a whole series of connected moments of genius. First are the classes, which are like having a whole gym's worth of the world's best personal trainers at your service. Second is the bike, which makes those classes work so effectively: its big screen and pristinely engineered design means you are inspired and precise in your workout. Third is the whole service that lives on top of that, a vast health and fitness solution that gives you statistics, social features and workouts wherever you want them.

Taken together, it is a service that will remove every excuse you have for not going to the gym, and replace it with pure enthusiasm. There are no boring classes, because every single one of them is carefully produced to be as engaging and interesting as possible; no embarrassment about your performance because you can be as anonymous and solitary as you'd like; no stress about whether you're really getting fitter, because the bike is constantly telling you precisely how you are doing; most obviously, there's no sad trudge to the gym, because the gym is now in your house.

Comparisons between home workout equipment and the gym often suggest that both are a form of compromise: do you want the social nature of the group classes, or would you rather not leave the house? Is it worth making a long trip to the gym on a day you're not going to do all that much? But what Peloton makes clear is that there is no trade-off to be made: it isn't just infinitely more convenient than heading to the gym – no travelling, no getting changed – it's also much better. The bike isn't a way of getting gym classes at your home; it's much more than that.

More than that partly because it is so social and connected. During every class – live or pre-recorded – the bike's screen shows a leaderboard, precisely showing your output and how that compares with the usually thousands of other people who have taken the same class. The data can be minutely tweaked, letting you see only people who belong to your demographic, for instance. All of those people in the leaderboard serve as just enough competition to keep you going, and if you need an extra little bit of motivation there is even the ability to virtually high-five other people who are riding at the same time.

There's a danger that all of this becomes yet another way of turning real connections into internet connections; that, like social networks before it, it stops people hanging out in real life and tempts them online instead, with all the lack of real socialising that implies. But have you ever really felt that kind of deep connection at the gym, stuck in a small room sweating with a group of strangers? What's more, for freelancers or stay-at-home parents who would otherwise spend much of their day alone, the bike can represent a real and meaningful kind of social engagement that they would be unlikely to find otherwise, even at the other end of a chat.

But the social features aren't everything anyway. Maybe the bike's strongest feature is that its fiercest competition is against yourself. In every class, you race against your personal record for that time, which is shown on the leaderboard alongside the performance of everyone else who has taken the ride. It means that you are in effect racing the past version of you.

The difference it makes it staggering. The work you do shoots up as soon as that goal is revealed, in large part because the fact you're racing yourself makes it entirely attainable. But it also serves as a real and required reminder that this bike really does make you better, and fast. In recent use I've found myself beating my personal best in every ride, the vast array of statistics and graphs that the bike gives you about every ride gradually improving in a way that is thoroughly rewarding.

It all comes with a similarly stark improvement in the real world. The health benefits of indoor cycling are well documented, and fairly obvious: you burn plenty of calories with little impact. The health benefits of spinning regularly in your own house might not be quite so obvious, but are just as profound: once you can push yourself this hard every day, without even the excuse or dullness of commute to the gym, you get a lot better a lot more quickly.

There is the chance for this to become yet another metric you are forced to track in your life; yet another way to measure your own performance and if you are working hard enough, as if you don't have enough of those in your life. The first response is that, well, yes – it's rewarding in a way that counting your steps or calories isn't. But the second and most important response is that it is just such an incredible amount of fun.

If it does all get too much, the bike allows for a whole host of less competitive, more relaxed exercises. Chief among them is what Peloton calls scenic routes – unlike the classes, they simply let you ride as you wish, as you glide through an array of beautiful scenes from around the world. The only downside is that the journeys are pre-programmed and don't change speed even if you cycle faster, but the vistas as viewed on that vast tablet are more than engaging enough to make up for it.

Much is made of the fact that the bike hosts live rides, during which you can tune in and compete against other people in real time. There are 14 live shows per day, though the timings are not as convenient for people in the UK: many of them happen when people are waking up in the US, and so while you're at work, or they take place when everyone in America is getting home and you're probably tucked up in bed.

None of that really matters, though, because there are thousands of those classes recorded and ready to be taken on-demand. Yes, you won't get the shoutouts that instructors give to members who are celebrating milestones like their birthday or their 100th ride. But you get just about everything else, since those classes were once live. And you avoid having to find rides and make sure you get on the bike in time to take part.

When it does come time to choose your class, the vast number of them means that there will be something for you, no matter how choosy you're feeling. Want to take a 90-minute climb that will feel like cycling up an imposing mountain and give you a calorie burn that will set your fitness tracker alight? It's there. Or how about just a quick, low-impact jog to some 00s metal bangers? That's there too.

Nearly every possible musical genre is catered for, and every possible genre of spinning, too. And with an army of instructors – all chosen for being inspiring speakers and all-round great people, as well as impressive trainers – there'll be someone ready to lead a class for whatever mood you're in, too.

As you get ready to use the bike, it's the big screen that catches your eye, and it looks a little unnecessary. When you do use it, though, the reasoning immediately becomes clear: the display is so big that you disappear into it, and combined with some decent speakers or headphones it truly does feel like you're in the front row of a spinning class. The view is actually bigger and brighter than it would be inside of a real gym, and the classes and their instructors are more engaging.

The third strangest thing about the tablet is that the sound isn't great: the speakers fire out of the back, meaning that the people on the screen sound as if they are strangely far away, and the exquisitely chosen playlists can lack the punch needed to get you through a tough ride. Thankfully, that's easily fixed, either by plugging in some speakers to the port in the side of the screen or – more obviously – pairing any Bluetooth headphones with the tablet.

The second most strange thing about the tablet, though probably the unavoidable one, is that its display is more than a little reflective, and if it's light then you'll be able to see yourself glaring back in the screen. It can interrupt the otherwise very engaging classes sometimes when you catch sight of yourself sweating. But it is ignorable, of course, or you can take your classes in the dark to ensure it doesn't happen.

The strangest thing is that the tablet has a camera and microphone in the top that is looking at you all through your ride. Peloton says this is intended to allow riders to video chat with each other as they go, though this seems to be taking the social aspect a little too far.

It raises the concern of what exactly Peloton is doing with the vast trove of data it must be generating as it logs the stats of how you cycle. But the bike is actually very limited in what it collects, at least relative to other technology companies, allowing you to set a pseudonym and give the bike only slim amounts of information about yourself. Your information is public in one sense – anyone following your profile can see what you've been up to – but since you can make yourself nearly impossible to find, and the information is relatively limited in scope, there are ways of getting around most of the more obvious privacy concerns.

In the US at least, Peloton has picked up something of a reputation as being a very tech-y obsession, and it does of course rely on plenty of technology to do its thing. A tweet I read about a Silicon Valley executive having a van setup to allow him to ride his bike while travelling around the Bay Area seemed more than possible, and a recent thread showing the sorts of beautiful, empty houses that are home to the bike in its marketing. It's tempting to think that it might be the latest trend to hit the millionaires of Silicon Valley, somewhere between injecting yourself with children's blood to stay young and disappearing on a silent retreat while running your scandal-hit company.

But in actual fact the bike is nothing if not down to Earth, even if it's prices might not be. The bike shows the location of the people you're riding with, and it's just as likely to be a midwestern town as it is San Francisco. While the competitive aspects of the bike are a central part, it will not make you feel bad for dropping down the leaderboard, so long as you are trying your best. It has sessions from professional cyclists in case you are training for something ridiculously impressive like an Ironman Triathlon, but there are also plenty of beginner sessions that request only that you clip in and don't sell yourself short. (Someone currently training for an Ironman Triathlon did try out our bike and loved it; between her and me, our Peloton has seen the highest and lowest of human athletic achievement, and we both love it dearly.)

The bikes have gained their reputation in part because of their celebrity cachet: professional athletes are said to compete under pseudonyms on their leaderboards, and Leonardo DiCaprio, David Beckham and the Obamas are all known to own them. But the same anonymity that presumably makes the bike so appealing to people who could hardly pop down to the gym for a spin class is what can make this so useful to nobodies like me, too.

The bike is as private as it is social, giving you the energy and peer-pressure of a class, but with none of the embarrassment, interruptions or hurdles.

As you might expect from that roll call of celebrities, none of this comes cheap: in the UK, the bike costs £1,990, and you'll need to buy some cycling shoes on top of that. (In 2015, it was reported that the bike is sold at a cost, and while it's certainly expensive it's also an incredibly premium piece of kit: it feels exactly as robust and precisely made as you'd expect for that price tag.) What's more, to actually get any value out of the bike you need to buy a membership, with adds up to £39 per month.

That price gets slightly less eye-watering if you take advantage of Peloton's financing options (or just budget it that way in your head). You can get the bike for £56 per month over 36 months, meaning that all-in the setup will cost you £100 per month, roughly in line with a premium gym membership. The advantage is that at the end of that financing period you'll of course have the bike outright, and that you can split that cost with anyone else in your house.

It is still expensive, of course. Truthfully, the only real drawback of Peloton is the price: you're only about halfway into this long article, and you are not going to find another truly negative thing in here. It costs a lot, and there is little point in pretending otherwise.

But here's another unequivocal statement: if you can afford it, it is undeniably worth it. The cost is a lot. But this bike is a lot, too. It's this expensive because it's this good.

If you wish, you don't have to pay the subscription; the bike will still be there, and will still work as normal. But you'll lose access to nearly everything the bike can actually do

That's not just a financial concern. There are a whole host of tech products that seemed thrilling at their launch but as interest died so did the products themselves; if something went wrong in the future and there were no classes, the bike too would all but grind to a halt.

There's no suggestion this will happen anytime soon – Peloton keeps growing, both in terms of people using it and the cash that investors are lining up to give it. But it is worth thinking about in exactly the same way as you might any other internet-enabled, services-dependent piece of kit: it is only as good and dependable as the company making it.

Thankfully, so far, Peloton has proven itself both very good and very dependable. And, given the fact the company appears to make most of its money from the video service, it's very much in Peloton's interests to keep that online and engaging.

A far bigger danger is the obvious fear that you won't ride it. There is almost certainly much more home workout gear that is acting as clothes hangers than there is kit with people actually working out on it. It's not only wasteful to spend this much money on something you never use, but you're left with a constant reminder of all that waste: a monument in your house to your own failures.

Thankfully, this isn't going to happen with the Peloton bike. Somewhere between the energy of the instructors and the obsessiveness of the statistics that it churns out, you are nearly guaranteed to find the commitment you need. More than anything else, riding the Peloton is just plain, productive fun; you're as likely to find yourself needing to limit the time you spend on it as you are forcing yourself to get on.

As well as the cost, you are also going to need space. The bike isn't vast, and given the fact that it is a TV as well as a cycling machine, it manages to keep everything relatively trim. But this is not something you can put away: it is very heavy indeed, and can't fold up much smaller than it is when you're actually using it, which is probably for the best given that putting it together requires specialist deliverers. The size is such that you're probably going to find space for it, but you're probably going to need to make space for it too.

But Peloton isn't only the bike. The company also offers an iOS app that comes free with the subscription. (You only need to pay one subscription per bike, so everyone in your household can access this app and even use it simultaneously, which does help to mitigate the price somewhat.)

This app offers a whole variety of different activities, and taken together with the bike could easily offer a comprehensive workout plan to replace the gym entirely. You have access to the cycling classes, of course – though if you do them on another bike your metrics won't be registered – but you've also got stretches for before and after cycling, yoga classes, bootcamps and meditation, all of which can be done using the bike's screen or your tablet. There are even running workouts, which can be listened to through headphones as you run. (In the US, Peloton also offers the Tread, a treadmill that works in much the same way as the bike.)

The Peloton Tread – which is not yet available in the UK – on display at the CES gadget show

Peloton steers clear of the kind of religiosity that marks out some spinning classes such as Soulcycle, but it certainly offers a sort of psychic nourishment that borders on spirituality. Some reviewers have complained that the instructors vary a little out of fitness and into therapy, but I consider myself fairly cynical, and the profound pep-talks that the instructors give work.

For the most part, it keeps to a particular kind of NYC hustle: energetic and life-affirming, sure, but certainly not woo-woo or afraid to speak their mind. It seems perfect for appealing to both spiritual Californians and sceptical Brits. The word "cult" is often attached to Peloton, but I don't think that's right – and, anyway, if it is, then it's a perfectly pleasant cult.

At one point, for instance, instructor Ally Love says to me: "You are genuine, you are real." Written down, it seems a little New Age, bordering on meaningless self-help. But you will just have to take my word for it that in the thrill and sweat of the class, as part of class in which Love inhabits the role of preacher as well as trainer, it is exactly what I need to hear.

If it is something like a religion, then its prophet is Robin Arzon. She is the company's vice president of fitness and programming and – just as importantly – my favourite instructor. (Everyone who's used the bike has one.)

(Peloton

Like her colleagues, Arzon has the ability to be a live TV host and DJ at the same time as leading a workout, and is at the top of her game at all of them. Despite this apparently superhuman ability, she does all of it with absolutely no arrogance or aggression, and it is pure support and swagger. You leave the class and go back into the rest of your house feeling truly good about yourself: a mixture of endorphin high and post-therapy euphoria that means the workouts are at least as good for your mind as they are your body.

Each of the Peloton instructors have this kind of story. Reviewers note how beautiful they all are, how energetic, how apparently perfect each of them is. But that's the same for any spinning class. What is actually notable about them is how real they all are: you can follow each of them on whatever social network you like, and get small slices of their life through the things they shout during classes. If you wish, you can even meet them – the instructors are said to hang out after the classes in the New York studio, available to chat and pose for photos with fans who often travel hundreds of miles to see them in the sweaty flesh.

Those real classes appear to be as exciting as the bike itself for those that are able to go to them. Pictures of the room show a sprawling, shiny space with a horde of bikes, an impressive hybrid of spinning studio and television studio.

Over the last few weeks, that space 3,500 miles away has become one of my favourite places in the world, despite the fact I've never been. Somewhere between there and here, I found what might just be the future of fitness. Little did I know it would be waiting in my living room.

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