Jeff Woodworth doesn’t know it but he’s my nemesis.
I’d never met him and didn’t know anything about him before I hopped on an exercise bike at a local gym to race him earlier this month.
In my mind the Fox Island resident is a chiseled physical specimen who looks something like Lance Armstrong. But on the monitor in front of me he appeared simply as a ghost charging through a one-mile course in 2 minutes, 20 seconds. One second faster than my personal best.
Unbeknownst to him, this virtual race unfolded on one of the new Expresso bikes at Puyallup’s Mel Korum YMCA. He uses the bikes at the Tacoma Center YMCA.
Expresso bikes deliver high-tech workouts loaded with features designed to inspire you to ride faster and more often.
“A lot of exercise equipment offers music or TVs to distract people,” said Ross Stensrud, marketing director for Interactive Fitness Holdings, manufacturers of the bikes. “We are trying to engage the rider so they enjoy their workout instead of dreading it.”
Expresso bikes look similar to standard exercise bikes, except the monitors are high-resolution computer screens that serve as a portal to a virtual cycling world. Pedal through foreign countries, forests and even space. The courses range from flat one-mile loops to 20-mile hilly challenges.
Stensrud says the bikes are popular wherever they are installed. The Tacoma Center YMCA has six bikes that logged a combined 6,367 miles in March. Riders at the Mel Korum YMCA put 6,754 miles on two bikes. And the Morgan Family YMCA put 2,866 miles on four bikes.
“It is very seldom that all six bikes aren’t in use,” said Chris Smith, Tacoma Center’s facilities manager. “You need to come in early to get a bike during lunch.”
Among the features is resistance that automatically changes to match the terrain. You also must steer the bike to stay on course and can choose from 30 different gears.
“We really are trying to make it feel like we brought the outdoor riding experience indoors,” Stensrud said.
The bikes offer an earphone jack to listen to music and a video game feature where you can chase dragons for five to 30 minutes. Riders receive a score during the game ride based on how many dragons they slay and how many calories they burn.
While these features alone make the bike considerably more entertaining than standard fitness equipment, even more features are available for riders who create a free account at Expresso.net.
For starters, cyclists get the option of posting their times to Facebook or Twitter, they earn virtual awards and the account also charts all your rides and times.
Riders with online accounts also earn world rankings and rankings at their fitness facility.
But the real motivation comes from the ghosts. After you ride one of the 43 courses once, a ghost rider appears to race you. The ghost symbolizes your personal best time, but you can adjust it to push you even harder.
The ghost can be set to represent a friend’s fast time, the best time of the season, whoever is ahead of you in the standings or you can simply select any other Expresso rider.
This is the option I used when I logged on and noticed Woodworth was ranked 48th (out of 1,722 riders) in the world and finished the one-mile Speedway course a second faster than me. Racing his ghost pushed me to set a new personal best, 2:19.
My nemesis had no idea this was going on so I decided to track him down. Turns out he’s a super fit owner of Woodworth Property Management and works out five days per week.
In other words, by the time you read this he’s probably already beat my time.
Woodworth has a diverse workout routine and enjoys using the Expresso bikes even though he’s not a cyclist.
“It pushes you to do better every time,” Woodworth said. “... I just sweat and sweat. When I’m done that bike should be a hazardous waste site.”
Curt Marzano distributes Expresso bikes and other fitness equipment in Western Washington for Precor Commercial Fitness.
He says there are about 50 bikes used at Western Washington gyms south of Renton.
Marzano says it can be tough to convince some gyms to invest in the bikes because they cost about $6,000, twice as much as a standard gym-caliber stationary bike.
Tani Loomis, Tacoma Center’s executive director, said they were sold on the bikes when they noticed their popularity. Her facility has a special router that allows cyclists to race head-to-head at the same time and the gym uses this technology to hold a race called the Tour de TC. During the most recent race, people gathered around to cheer and watch the action.
“That’s one of things I really like,” Loomis said. “They bring people together”.
Another benefit Expresso is promoting is the potential for positive impact on seniors. In the February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers studied senior cyclists on Expresso and standard bikes for three months and learned that riders on the interactive bikes showed significant cognitive improvement versus other riders.
“We always had an inkling there would be other benefits to these bikes,” Stensrud said. “We were thrilled when we heard about this study.”
But for most people there is one benefit to these exer-gaming bikes that’s even better than meeting new people, improving cognition or evening racing their nemesis. They’re just plain fun.
Craig Hill’s fitness column runs each Sunday. Please submit questions and comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/adventureguys or twitter.com/adventureguys. Also get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure and thenewstribune.com/fitness.
The day before filing this column I posted a 2:18 mile on the Expresso Speedway course and now I want to race you.
If your gym has an Expresso bike and you sign up for a free account at Expresso.net you can race my ghost at bit.ly/chillghost.
To make things a little more interesting we’ll enter anybody who tries to top my time by May 1 in a drawing for a prize We’ll enter you automatic-ally if you beat my time and are logged on to your Expresso account. All others can email me a link to your time or
email me a picture of your time displayed on the bike monitor if you don’t have an account or use a different type of bike.
Can’t beat my ghost? Send me an email anyway. We’ll enter you once for trying. Twice if you beat me. And we’ll throw in a bonus entry if your time is faster than anything my nemesis posts by the end of the month.