Indoor cycle… outdoor cyclists?

It can be easy to forget that indoor cycle was a spin-off (excuse the pun) of outdoor cycling. The two disciplines needn’t be exclusive of each other, however, says Joel Elbag.

Back in the late 1980s a South African endurance cyclist by the name of Johnny Goldberg was looking for an alternative training option for cyclists in the off-season. He needed a way to train closer to home while his wife was pregnant, but to still train hard as he prepared for an endurance ride from Los Angeles to New York. Of key importance was finding a method that would give the feel of a real racing bicycle. The stationary bikes in health clubs at the time did not feel like real road bikes; it was very difficult to stand and pedal on them, and they all featured large screens showing time, calories burned, profile and resistance. Clearly, if what he was looking for didn’t exist, Goldberg was going to have to create it.

The first thing he did was change to a different seat post – one that was adjustable to slide forwards or backwards. Then he took the screen off the bike and made a frame that looked and felt more like a real racing bicycle. The next amendment turned out to be the most important one: creating a solid cast flywheel with a fixed gear, so it would be connected to the pedal or drive train. This would eliminate freewheeling, getting every rider’s legs moving, and giving them a chain-drive feel that could previously only be achieved from road riding. Goldberg also changed the handlebar to more of a bullhorn shape, which meant you could now stand up on it, like on a real racing bicycle. With the addition of manual resistance you could close your eyes, drop your head and move side to side like you were out on the road or going up a big hill.

Initially this new bike was used by cycling coaches to enable them to get real time monitoring from heart rate to respiratory readings in their athletes, and to be able to have all their athletes in one place at one time. Back in those days the technical aspect was very primitive – nothing like what we have today. Seeing its potential to benefit the general population as well as elite athletes, however, Goldberg created an entire program for his new ‘spinning’ machine, and trialled it in some health clubs in Los Angeles. The fitness industry took to it from the start and thus Johnny G’s ‘Spin’ was born.

As it was considered a class, Spin was taught by instructors who taught aerobic classes (as they were then known). This gave Johnny G the opportunity to teach others his philosophy and teach instructors how to use the bike in a class setting. Back in the early days there was no such thing as a dedicated indoor cycle room for these classes, so gyms kept the bikes in the back of the group exercise room; the instructor or gym staff had the arduous task of rolling the bikes into place before each class and returning them to the back of the room afterwards.

That was then, this is now

This effort paid off though, with the classes becoming very popular very quickly, and changing the face of group exercise. As the popularity of indoor cycling classes grew, so did the demand for instructors – and as the market grew, other indoor cycle programs were born. Today there are many different programs for instructors to choose from, with the more popular ones using techniques and rhythm that are used on the road.

You can’t do this outdoors…

Indoor cycling classes have a number of advantages over road cycling, particularly when it comes to motivation. In addition to increasing fitness levels, good instruction can take participants on an emotional journey that can be euphoric in nature and facilitate real self-discovery.

Music is fundamental to a successful class, as it must lay down the rhythm, tempo and timing. Cyclists can go from 50 to 110 rpms pretty quickly, so you have the ability to run in different patterns. People react to sounds or music very differently, and during the course of a class you can ramp things up or down a gear by going from blues to reggae to jazz to rock.

Another method is for the instructor to use their voice as the motivator, while the music plays in the background; this gives members the option of either training in time with the music, or simply using it as inspiration. The instructor can also use the power of language to tap into different emotions and thoughts to really engage with the class. This combination of music and language enables the instructor to deliver an experience that would be impossible to simulate or achieve outdoors.

The benefits of indoor cycling to the outdoor cyclist

After being dismissed for many years as a poor alternative to ‘the real thing’ by certain factions, the benefits of a well-planned and taught indoor cycle class are being embraced by increasing numbers of road cyclists. More and more cyclists are coming indoors for classes that allow them to train with more intensity, as they do not have to deal with other elements such as weather, traffic lights, having to slow for corners, or going downhill – all scenarios where the heart rate can begin to drop and training get altered. A 45-minute class is almost akin to being out on a ride for 90 minutes, because one can train at a higher intensity in a safe environment.

Making classes work for cyclists and regular fitness participants

During the course of an indoor cycle class breathing is greatly affected, and if out of breath for extended periods of time the lungs will adapt to the extra workload placed on the body, increasing in both strength and in capacity for oxygen consumption. This is beneficial both for cyclists and regular fitness participants. An indoor cycle class gets the legs pumping with lactic acid, and participants can work on pushing through that lactic acid build-up in a safe and effective environment. Core work becomes very important in an indoor cycle class, as without using the core, members will find it difficult to maintain good sprinting technique and will have difficulties coming up and staying out of the saddle on climbs. Instruct the members to lightly squeeze the abdominal muscles, but not to brace or harden them. For a cyclist out on the road it would be next to impossible (and far from desirable) to keep their abdominals braced for a four to six-hour long ride. But, if members focus on keeping integrity through their abdominal area throughout a class, this can translate to them having more core awareness during long rides out on the road.

Technique tips with the road cyclist in mind

  • During sprints, sitting in the middle of the saddle or somewhat forward on the nose of the saddle allows the legs to exert more force on the pedals, which helps increase speed. The rider can maintain a better speed and is able to hold for longer periods of time than if they were cycling on the road, thus increasing oxygen levels.
  • Studies have shown that sprints at approximately 85 to 95 per cent effort for between two and four minutes work well both for cyclists and regular participants, who can break through plateaus as they work longer and harder. The instructor can play with rest periods to give less experienced participants more rest and the more seasoned participants less, in order to increase opportunities to adapt to the lactic acid levels in the legs.
  • A good instructor can assist participants in achieving better and more efficient techniques or form, which may not always be so easily observed when riders are outside on the road. A well-trained instructor can mentally simulate a rough and rocky terrain for riders, in which they spend a large amount of time out of the saddle and use both the front and the back of the saddle for leverage. This technique can make the legs stronger, and the cyclist more efficient and able to ride for longer at a higher intensity.
  • Indoor cycle classes also provide a good environment in which to instruct efficient use of bodyweight for the climbing phases of a ride in order to get up a hill faster and with more power. There are many techniques and there is no right or wrong way to climb a hill, but there are more efficient ways of climbing.

Most indoor cycle participants attend classes as part of their overall fitness routines, with the aim of burning fat, increasing cardiovascular fitness, gaining strength, or rehabilitating from an injury. Increasing numbers, however, are attending because they want to achieve a better time in an upcoming road event, or because they want to improve technique or increase their strength and endurance. And, perhaps, some of them just don’t want another long ride outside on a time-poor rainy weeknight. Ask members at the beginning of class whether they also participate in road cycling. If hands are raised, then bear this in mind during the class, and make occasional references to how the techniques you are instructing can translate to improved performance on the road. By so doing, you can deliver a class which delivers maximum benefit to both regular fitness participants and road cyclists.


Joel Elbag
In his 25 years in the fitness and health industries, Joel has been a medical nurse, personal trainer and an indoor cycling instructor. He has trained and instructed many professional athletes and celebrities in the US, and has also taught fellow trainers and instructors how to incorporate indoor cycling into their training skill set. Joel can be found in the saddle teaching at Platinum Extreme Gym in North Sydney. For more information, email