The Exercise Bike’s Long Journey

A pair of exercise bicycles are resting 12,500 feet beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, about 370 miles south-southeast of Newfoundland. In 1912, these same bikes sat alongside rowing machines, an “electric camel,” and other pieces of state-of-the-art equipment in the gymnasium of the RMS Titanic. The bicycles had a single flywheel and were mounted in front of a large dial whose red and blue arrows marked the rider’s progress toward the distance of 440 yards, a quarter mile.

A famous photograph of a man and a woman using these machines was taken by a photographer for a London newspaper in the hours prior to the ship’s departure from Southampton, England. Their clothing is prim—proper attire for Edwardian travelers on a luxury ocean liner. The woman wears a black woolen overcoat and a veiled hat topped with flowers; the man has on a tweed suit and a shirt with a white, presumably starched, collar. It is eerie to imagine these cyclists, or others like them, pedaling in place while the big boat speeds toward the crash that will send it to the bottom of the ocean.

The last passengers to ride the bikes were Charles Duane Williams, 51, an American lawyer based in Geneva, and his 21-year-old son, R. Norris Williams, a Harvard student and champion tennis player. The Williamses repaired to the gymnasium to pedal as the ship foundered, sportsmen to the end. When it was clear that the Titanic was going down, they made their way onto the deck, where the elder Williams was struck by the ship’s collapsed funnel and swept overboard to his death. R. Norris Williams was also washed into the sea, but he swam to an inflatable lifeboat. He suffered severe frostbite, overruled doctors who announced their intention to amputate his legs, and went on to win men’s-singles titles at the U.S. National Tennis Championships in 1914 and 1916.

Where in the Titanic’s two-square-mile debris field the stationary bicycles ended up is unclear. Underwater photographs reveal that the walls of the gymnasium were crushed inward—the result, experts hypothesize, of a massive column of water that blasted the Titanic when her bow hit the seabed. The bikes, or the remnants thereof, are probably still in the gym—eaten by rust, encrusted with anemones, circled by fish.

Historians Have suggested that the stationary bicycle predated the locomotive kind. Proponents of this theory point to the Gymnasticon, a machine patented in 1796, which had a pair of flywheels powered by wooden treadles and bore some resemblance to today’s recumbent exercise bikes. As with most questions of bicycle genealogy, your opinion will depend on how elastic your definition of a bike is, and how long and hard you squint. In any case, by the late 1870s, various devices were in use that allowed cyclists to pedal a bike indoors, without moving forward an inch.

The arrival of the stationary bike marked an evolution in the way people conceived of bicycles and bicycling. In the classic 19th-century formulation, the bicycle was an annihilator of space: an invention that shrank the world, collapsed distances, carried riders over the hills and far away. The stationary bike, by contrast, was a devourer of time. To ride a stationary was to champion exercise—the pure physical act of pushing pedals for as long as you could manage—as an end in itself, distinct from the utility of bicycle travel. Stationary bikes construed the bicycle first and foremost as a fitness machine, a device for building stamina and growing muscles and shedding pounds. When you pedaled a stationary, you were literally going nowhere. The point was how long you pedaled for, and at what pace.

But those unbudging bicycles made other things move. A stationary bike turned human exertion into energy; that energy, it turned out, could be used to power a variety of machines and tools. In 1897, a whimsical inventor in St. Louis began marketing a “shower-bath bicycle,” whose arrangement of pumps and pipes and a watering-can-like nozzle, arcing up and over the rider from the bike’s rear sprocket, permitted a cyclist to exercise and bathe simultaneously, while regulating the water pressure with the vigor of his pedaling. Over the decades, the pedal power of stationary bicycles has been harnessed to run dentists’ drills in New Deal Civilian Conservation camps, to activate the air-conditioning in a bunker built for Benito Mussolini, and to light a giant Christmas tree in Copenhagen’s City Hall Square.

The promise of exercise bicycles as alternative energy sources has excited the imaginations of environmentalists. Stationary bikes have been utilized on small farms and communes to grind flour and thresh wheat, and some visionaries have grander dreams of pedal-driven agriculture and industry, of putting bikes to work in fields and factories and homes. These ideas were elaborated in one of the more fascinating artifacts of ’70s bicycle utopianism, Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation, a manifesto, history, and how-to co-written by a group of cycling activists and published in 1977 by Rodale Press, which specialized in books about sustainability. The book assailed “this age of lasers and deep space probes,” in which “much of the muscle in the industrialized world hangs like a rag doll.” The solution, the authors wrote, was to foster a “climate of bikology,” exploiting the “full human potential inherent in the use of bicycles for work.”

The book made the case for the “Energy Cycle,” developed by the engineer Dick Ott and the “Research and Development Department of Rodale Press.” The Energy Cycle consisted of a stripped-down bike frame, the seat of a typing chair, a work bench, and a variety of cranks, sprockets, and pulleys. It could be combined with any number of tools to perform a range of jobs, including farm work, light manufacturing, and basic household tasks. It could power lathes and drills and stone polishers and potter’s wheels; it could pull weeds and winch a plow and irrigate a field. It was a kind of jumbo Cuisinart, an infinitely adaptable kitchen appliance, capable of kneading dough, beating batter, churning butter, skinning fish, and slicing meat and cheese. By delegating the heavy-duty labor to the legs and feet, the Energy Cycle freed a user’s hands to do other things: “Researchers report that when working with cherries, a person can sort, pluck, and feed with the hands while the feet do the pitting.” But the authors of Pedal Power imagined a headier future for pedal-driven machines:

As the bicycle in a sense “liberated” people at the turn of the century, pedal power can liberate millions again. Women, who throughout the world must daily perform difficult tasks by hand, can benefit … If pedal power extends beyond class and economic lines, we have put geography to rest.

Today, these words sound both naive and prescient. “Bikology” has not emancipated millions or rendered geography obsolete. But the use of pedal-driven tools is on the rise, particularly in rural communities of the developing world. Aid workers employ devices such as pedal-powered water purifiers to bring potable water to impoverished regions and disaster zones. In Latin America, a new word has entered the vernacular: bicimáquinas, “bicycle machines.” The bicimáquina that operates in Nashira Eco-Village, a planned community of single women and children in southwestern Colombia, is a latter-day shower-bath bicycle: a lone stationary bike whose pumping power runs communal showers that serve a population of 400.

In the U.S., the bicycle machine has been embraced by the activist left. During the two-month-long Occupy Wall Street standoff in the autumn of 2011, demonstrators at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park charged batteries and powered laptops by pedaling stationary bikes rigged with generators. It was a cheap, practical way to supply energy to the park’s tent city. But for protesters decrying, among other things, an unholy alliance of politicians, Wall Street, and the fossil-fuel industry, the power of those whirring wheels was above all symbolic: a low-tech rebuke to Big Oil capitalism.

Wall Street, for its part, does not view stationary bicycles as engines of the revolution. They are commodities whose value has been trending upward for two decades. Today, the global stationary-cycle market is valued at nearly $600 million, and it is expected to grow to almost $800 million by 2026.

The origins of the current boom date back to 1987, when Jonathan Goldberg, a California-based former professional bicycle racer who goes by the name Johnny G, conceived of spinning, a new form of “studio cycling” modeled on aerobics: high-energy classes, held in gyms and fitness centers, with thumping music and instructors exhorting cyclists to pedal harder and longer. Goldberg’s innovation was to give the enterprise an overlay of spirituality and self-help. “The Spinning program is … about surrendering to the Universe, freeing the mind, opening the heart and creating personal parameters,” Goldberg wrote in 2000’s Romancing the Bicycle: The Five Spokes of Balance, a memoir and mission statement. Publicity portraits showed Goldberg practicing martial arts on a windswept beach and seated in the lotus position in a garden beside a Buddha statuette. If the imagery was “Eastern,” Goldberg’s self-actualization credo was, unmistakably, American. “The gift of the Spinning program,” he wrote, “can be synthesized into one vital message: You are the most important person in the world. Never stop believing in yourself.”

In recent years, a new generation of entrepreneurs has transfigured studio cycling, pumping it up with new technology and higher-decibel music. The shift was led by SoulCycle, which grew from a single location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to a juggernaut with studios in more than a dozen American states and Canada, and a valuation of hundreds of millions of dollars. Founded in 2006, SoulCycle pitched its classes as a “cardio party” with “rockstar instructors” leading riders who “move in unison as a pack to the beat.” SoulCycle combines elements of the nightclub and the wellness spa. The music is up-tempo, rhythmic, loud. The studios are lit by candles and have walls emblazoned with slogans and beatitudes: WE ASPIRE TO INSPIRE. WE INHALE INTENTION AND EXHALE EXPECTATION. WE COMMIT TO OUR CLIMBS AND FIND FREEDOM IN OUR SPRINTS.

The language is drivel—even rock-star instructors must find it difficult to inhale intention—but it is undoubtedly drivel by design. There is no denying SoulCycle’s marketing savvy, which begins with its clever brand name. Like Johnny G, SoulCycle sells stationary biking as a spiritual practice and means of personal enlightenment. A tenet of the spirituality marketed by SoulCycle is that inner peace brings outer beauty: The enlightened cyclist, it is intimated, will also be a hot cyclist with a rockin’ bod, like SoulCycle’s toned and tatted instructors.

SoulCycle has endured financial setbacks, and weathered the COVID-19 shutdown of its studios, in part by holding “indoor cycling” classes outdoors. But it was the ambiance of SoulCycle’s studios that earned the company its cult, and that can’t be replicated in broad daylight. The lights are dim. The music thuds and booms. Candles flicker like constellations. The words on the wall read TAKE A JOURNEY, FIND YOUR SOUL. Seventy cyclists are pedaling their unmoving bikes to a distant place, an illimitable territory not found on any map. They travel the boundless roadways of the self.

The stationary bicycle has reached other frontiers. When the COVID pandemic drove fitness buffs into quarantine, Peloton boomed, attracting tens of thousands of riders to livestreamed classes that combine bicycling with that quintessential 21st-century experience: staring at a screen, alone and yet not alone, in the spectral company of countless others. In recent months, Peloton’s stock price has cratered, and the company has laid off thousands of workers. I wonder how many of Peloton’s sleek, high-design bikes will meet the fate of the stationary I remember from childhood visits to my grandparents’ house: a lime-green Schwinn “Exerciser” that migrated over the years from living room to guest bedroom to mildewing basement corner, where it languished next to an unloved Ping-Pong table, as lost to the world as the bikes that went down with the Titanic. Surely legions of stationary bicycles are sunken in cellars, relics of forsaken New Year’s resolutions, of fitness regimens that hit the shoals.

At least one exercise bicycle has departed this earthly plane altogether. Some 220 miles above the Earth’s surface, in the International Space Station, there is a machine called a Cycle Ergometer With Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System, or CEVIS. Missions on the space station usually last six months. While in orbit, astronauts experience microgravity, floating and drifting in the air, never using their legs to support their own weight. These conditions take a toll on the human body. Astronauts lose bone density and muscle mass, and must maintain intensive exercise regimens to ensure that they will be able to stand upright and walk when their feet again touch terra firma.

The CEVIS has been called “NASA’s stationary bicycle,” but it is not exactly stationary, and it doesn’t look much like a bike. It has neither handlebars nor a seat. It consists of a set of pedals that drive a small flywheel through a planetary gear set. The flywheel is contained inside a small rectangular box, from which the pedals protrude; this apparatus is attached to a larger metal frame, which, in turn, is bolted to a wall by isolation mounts. To operate the CEVIS, astronauts clip their shoes into toe clips and pedal. A back pad supports the upper body, and riders can further secure themselves with a belt and shoulder straps. But the toe clips are sufficient to keep a cyclist moored to the bike, and many astronauts choose to simply balance their bodies atop those pedals, which gives a ride on the CEVIS the appearance of a magic trick. The pedals turn; the bike and the cyclist hover in dreamy microgravity. The thing looks like a levitating unicycle. “Cycle Ergometer With Vibration Isolation and Stabilization System” doesn’t capture the effect.

Astronauts can adjust the resistance level of the CEVIS. A computer monitor mounted at eye level, like a screen on a Peloton bike, allows cyclists to listen to music or watch a movie as they pedal. The CEVIS is also a data device. Its computer collects information on riders and transmits the numbers back to Earth, so NASA doctors can create cycling protocols tailored to the fitness needs of individual astronauts.

The CEVIS does not quite fulfill the age-old fantasy of bicycles in outer space. No one will mistake the pedaling astronaut for the nymphs in 19th-century advertising posters, zigzagging their bikes through an obstacle course of planets and stars, or for Elliot and E.T., silhouetted against Steven Spielberg’s preposterously big and bright full moon. But a spin on NASA’s bicycle holds other wonders. Astronauts are often required to ride for 90 minutes at a stretch, during which time the space station passes over two sunrises, completing an orbit of Earth. At NASA, they like to joke that the riders of its exercise bike are the fastest cyclists in history, capable of circling the globe in a single workout. A cyclist clicks his shoes into the CEVIS and goes wheeling above clouds, deserts, jungles, oceans full of islands and icebergs, the Himalayas, the Amazon—crossing the heavens at 17,150 miles an hour, and going nowhere at all.

This article has been adapted from Jody Rosen’s forthcoming book, Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle.