December 09, 2008

Cycling in winter: the high rollers' lifestyle

By The Merry

Life is more challenging for bicyclists in the winter.

Obligatory warning: This post is rife with video clips. (Okay, three clips, but that's rife in my book.) With each clip, a text explanation has been provided for those who might be bandwidth-impaired or attention-challenged, or who simply don't like watching videos on a blog.

It is possible to bicycle in the snow. But if you really want to try it, we recommend a trip to Alaska. Bicycling in snow, or over ice, is not really recommended when you're in traffic. (Ever try to put chains on a bike?)

The trouble is, riding a stationary bike is the second most boring exercise ever invented. To keep riding while waiting for the weather to improve, a lot of cyclists spend the winter riding on rollers.

What are rollers?

Rollers are simply a metal frame that sits on the floor, with cylinders across the frame. When you put your bicycle onto this frame, the cylinders align with the wheels on the bike. You get on the bicycle and start pedaling, and the cylinders spin with the wheels. Basically, you're pedaling while staying still. Like a stationary bike, except really, really different.

Rollers are not the same as stationary bicycle riding. You have to concentrate on what you're doing. If you've ever watched someone try this for this first time, they're all over the place. Not only is this a lot more challenging than a stationary cycle, rollers make you a better cyclist. Assuming you can stay on them.

Riding on rollers -- how to do it

This rider shows how it's supposed to be done. Looks easy when he does it, right?

[TEXT: Man making riding rollers look very easy. So easy, in fact, that after a minute or so I zoned out. Recommended viewing time: 1 minute, unless you're really, really, really into the technical aspects of cycling.]

(I have to confess, even though I think this guy is really good at showing how you should ride rollers, I still couldn't watch this for the whole 10 minutes. Unless you're really into the minutiae of cycling, you might want to skip the last 9 minutes and 30 seconds of this video clip. Trust me, he doesn't fall off or doing anything silly, even if this is a YouTube video.)

Now look at this video of a newbie trying to ride rollers:
[TEXT: Man who clearly has not done this before. Spends most of the video riding with one hand clinging to the door post or falling to one side or the other. However, his girlfriend/spouse thinks he's doing a great job. (Call me cynical, but I suspect if the woman were a sister she would have gotten bored and stopped filming him after his first few attempts.) He does get the hang of it, for the most part. I found that encouraging.]

Rollers can be the same sort of daredevil escapade -- don't do it like this cyclist:
[TEXT: Man acting silly while riding on rollers ("Dad, you are such a dork," a young voice says off-camera) with music in the background.]

(It took almost the full five minutes, but I finally did laugh at one of his attempted stunts. Don't try this stuff with your eyes closed.)

So what's the point of riding with rollers? Just to entertain your friends & family?

Riding on rollers instead of on a stationary bicycle can make you a much better cyclist:

Rollers help you develop a smooth cadence. A smooth cadence means your legs are working more effectively; you're not wasting energy pushing to the side, or making jerky start-and-stop/push-and-coast movements. Because the least jerkiness results in noticeable wavering, you get instant feedback to improve your movements.

Rollers really help you improve your balance. Like riding a bicycle on the road, you're using your muscles to keep upright. You end up making little correcting motions throughout the ride. (Or really large, wild correcting motions, depending on your skills.)
Doing this clipped in, i.e. with your feet clamped to the pedals, is, in my opinion, insane. At least until you get the hang of it.

One of the more depressing aspects of winter is the thought that you're losing your edge, your fitness and ability while you're cooped up indoors. Rollers would be a great way to get ready for spring.

On the other hand, you might want to consider wearing a helmet when you're trying this, unless you're really confident about your balancing ability and superior reaction times. And don't let people follow you around with a video camera unless you want to end up on YouTube!

If it doesn't kill you, riding with rollers does improve your cycling skills. And it's not boring. You're too busy trying not to fall over to be bored.

This might seem a bit extreme, but it's one way to keep the winter blahs at bay. A helluva lot more exciting than a stationary bike.

Well -- how you do you plan to keep exercise interesting over the winter? Ski jumping?
Oh crap... where's the snow?

Snowbike courtesy of vomsorb.


  1. Oh, man.

    I know for a fact I wouldn't be able to handle the rollers. I'm always wavering all over the place when I'm cycling - and that's just on the road!!

    Ok, not really. But I try to avoid looking behind me while moving because I have a tendency of swerving into the lane of traffic.

    It's not like it snows here, anyway. In fact, the weather is the same year round (frigid, dreary, depressing) - it's just a little less cold in the summer.

  2. Wow. The balance that dude #3 had was amazing!

    You're right - about 5 minutes in (before that, I was with his daughter). Although, I was picturing what would happen to me! His was a little less dramatic after that:)

  3. Merry,
    I think the core strength to hold you up and in balance becomes greatly improved with roller bike riding.

    Now, although I do not wish harm on anyone, a video of someone falling off these rollers would be much more entertaining to me and close to my heart. That is because I know that I couldn't do it and that person would take the fall and hurt for me. :)

  4. I definitely think that once I move out of this apartment (we're on the 3rd floor of a walk-up and there's no where to put a bike), I'll be getting both a bike and rollers.

  5. When I was in med. school in the icy and snowy north country, I used a training device for my bike in the winter. Still have it somewhere :-)

  6. Wow. Seeing as I have trouble walking and talking at the same time, this is definitely not fo rme! Though it would make for an amusing video!

  7. I live in California where it's a balmy 50-70 during the winter except when it snows at my house which it does occasionally and then I don't ride my bike in the snow.

    What is the first most boring exercise?

  8. I don't think having rollers would be safe for me either...I'll stick to the elliptical I think.
    I like the idea of it all, I really do. I just don't think it's wise for me to be able to injure myself in such a new and interesting way...

  9. This sounds interesting, but (other than a completely new body) I would need some kind of rolling scenic video in front of me to keep from going insane.

  10. We've just moved to an area where it snows (bonus the ski slopes are only 40 mins away) and I've been looking at my trusty bicycle thinking: gees, I don't think you're going to like the snow.... so this is a great option to look into and it looks like it's flat enough to slide under a bed where it can be unobtrusive. Now um.... all I've got to do is to find that elusive thing called 'my balance'!

  11. I'm so glad you posted this Merry, because in the back of my mind I was thinking a roller might be a cheaper home exercise option than an expensive cardio machine, since I already have a bike.

    But I'd just assumed it would feel the same as riding on a road! Didn't realize it was much more challenging to stay balanced.

    And then I also remembered I really don't like stationary bikes of any variety!

    So it's off to the dang gym for me when the weather sucks.

  12. That looks so fun, and just daredevil enough for me to con my brother into trying, since he has a frequent flier card to the ER, maybe he will get the 20th visit free :0

  13. That looks super tough...and because I've started working out in the morning, I doubt I'd have the coordination to pull it off.

    Fun to watch others try though!

  14. What? Thats insane! Id kill myself though- i can already see myself getting stuck in it somehow.

    Kelly Turner

  15. Cross country skiing and skating! Love them both.

    Winter cyclists are insane and impressive all at once.

    Rollers look like fun. But I think I'd get annoyed really fast and just walk away from it.

    (The first video? 10 seconds before I turned it off. Guess I'm not a huge cycling person).

  16. POD, I figured if I wrote that stationary bicycles were THE most boring exercise equipment in the world, someone would disagree with me, so I left that spot open.

    In my opinion, stationary bikes are extremely boring and the seats are uncomfortable. I still use them, but it is soooo much more interesting to ride a real bike. Preferably outdoors.

  17. Yup, I definitly invision my ass connecting with the ground but not before my face and knees hit first. I think I'll stick to running, it requires way less coordination!

  18. LOL... coulda been taken outside our inn.. here in montana :) THankfully we can git 'r done on horses. Methinks i have slightly more balance on these creatures than i did on rollers :)

    happy trails

  19. Wow. I don't have a bike or a need for rollers, but I'm always looking for new and interesting ways to hurt and/or entertain myself while I exercise! (Though I guess I wouldn't really get much cardio, since I'd be spending most of my time picking myself up off the floor. Then again: hey, squats!! LOL)

    Wow. That almost makes me want to go buy a bike and rollers so I can ride with no hands and amaze my friends! (Yeah. I'm a nerd.)

  20. Its dangerous enough for me to try to run up and down the bleachers and around the gym....I cant even begin to see myself on that evil looking contraption!

    The only rollers that should be allowed indoors are the kind that go with a box of mallomars, green face paint, and a tear jerker girly movie.

  21. I have never heard of this before! Darn you - now I have a new fitness craving! I'm sure I would be the guy (in funny white suspenders!) clutching the door frame but I bet it would be a riot:)

  22. Dang! That looks like FUN. Now I'm questioning my last week's purchase of a magnetic resistance bike trainer. I wonder if I can get Santa to deliver one for Christmas??

  23. My fear is too great to attempt rollers at this point in my cycling newbiness. For this winter (at least) I'll settle for an indoor trainer. I'm less likely to die that way. Hopefully Hubby Clause will come through for me!

  24. I used to have a bike trainer and i would set it up in front of the TV for hours of riding/movie watching.
    It was great!

    Now, I have two small kids who will have none of that nonsense, so I plan to get myself a gym membership for christmas so mommy can exercise in peace! :)

  25. I heard about some guy who was on rollers and didn't set himself up in a good spot. What he did was fall off the rollers, lose his balance on the bike, fall off and hit his head on the coffee table. He died. But given you find a spot where you're not going to bash in, it looks mighty fun!

    I had initially thought that if the bike went off the side or front, you'd keep going and bounce off the wall, I didn't realize until later that you would just stop all motion (though it makes total sense)

  26. Yeah, I wasn't kidding about wearing a helmet if you're new to this. Mind you, the same thing could happen if you were riding a bicycle on the street -- maybe more likely given the traffic.
    Most people practice rollers in a doorway or a narrow hallway or somewhere like that.

  27. oh my! It is SO cold here today, the thought of getting out for more than a second...........brr!

  28. I use a trainer with my bike, but I don't know if I would ever buy rollers. I'd have to be a lot more serious about my cycling than I am now.

    No matter what one is using for indoor cycling--stationary bike, trainer or rollers, I highly recommend the Spinervals training videos. It's like having a spin class in your very own home. It's much less boring than staring at the wall, and you get a fantastic workout!

    As for winter workouts, I do pretty much what I do the rest of the year, except I bitch about it more.

  29. Bunnygirl says:
    I do pretty much what I do the rest of the year, except I bitch about it more.

    Ah, the Cranky Fitness philosophy in a nutshell :)

  30. No no, I'm not Crabby, I'm Merry!
    Damn, even Blogger is conspiring against me here!
    Really, I'm not Crabby! I would've noticed if I suddenly became thin and nice!!

  31. Hmph. Blogger has not heard the last of this...

  32. Merry, if you became thin and nice, you wouldn't be Crabby McSlacker!

    (Plus you couldn't get any nicer!)

    --the Real Crabby

  33. I forgot how much I miss my rollers! I had the really good fat aluminum ones, can't remember the name now. I had to sell them when I moved to a place with no room.

    They do give you a work out, you just shift gears to make it harder, and the balance factor keeps one's attention engaged. If you don't look up and pay attention, you'll drift from center, and drifting too far leads to falling off. Since you're putting a foot down on or in a frame, it can lead to a full fall as mentioned.

    It sure improves biking performance, it makes one ride very straight and smooth when back on the street, and I'd guess improves overall balance as well, on or off a bike. I got to where I could come to a stop, pause and start up again without falling off. 3 1/2 years later, I trip over my own feet now. They also help one's ability to focus and can be very meditative.

    Oh well, I'm inspired to hit the exercycle now, thanks~ ;)

  34. OK, so now I've watched all the videos, the guy learning was going way too slow, you have to get a lot of spin up really quickly to stay steady, gyroscopic effect or some such, otherwise you'll get a huge wobble starting out. Only the people who are really good can go slow. The guy doing the tricks is really good! He had a good set up too, usually if you can have a wall that you can touch like he did, it helps with confidence, after you graduate from a doorway, which better than a hallway. I noticed I tended to come off more on one side, I'm sure it has to do with "sidedness", having one side stronger, which is basically all of us, animals too. He had that wall on his right, I came over more on the right as well, being right handed. Another cool thing I forgot is that roller whine as you spin up, it's hypnotic! I had his brand of rollers.

    I read about one guy who could button up a dress shirt while riding rollers, Lance could do that I'm sure. OK, NOW off to the exercycle, with a book. What's cool is to read Stephen King's "Stationary Bike" (in his new book of short stories) while actually riding one's stationary bike!

  35. Thankyouthankyouthankyou for the text explanations--here at the new house my dial up is even slower than before.

    Stationary bike=boring! But I think I prefer boring to terror.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  36. i hate the stationary bike. if i had money and space, i'd so try out the rollers.

    and fall, given that my bike only has clip pedals.

  37. This is a great article on rollers. I've been a fan of them for about 20 years, and used to race on them. I even put on a sanctioned USCF roller race once.

    Seriously, this article deserves more attention. I've linked to it on my blog. It should replace the wikipedia article on rollers, which is a complete piece of shit.


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