Friday, October 21, 2011

I'm ElliptiGOin' places

For the last couple of years, I've been commuting to work by bike come hell or high water, and we've had a little of both.  It's about 7 miles each way, mostly downhill in the mornings on the way to work, and mostly uphill on the way back.  It's gotten to the point where I just don't even think about traffic anymore, because it doesn't affect me; in fact, I can tune into my favorite podcasts and enjoy the outdoors, and it's one of my favorite parts of the day.

The only issue I've found is that it can be a bit tricky to integrate the commute with the rest of my training schedule, which often has me cranking out high-intensity intervals after I get home.  Rolling downhill to work in the mornings is fast, but it doesn't do much for my fitness.  The uphill slog home does more for me fitness-wise, but almost too much so, as it's tough to hike up steep hills for miles on the bike, wearing a loaded backpack, only to hop on the trainer right afterward and hit my target wattages.

I've also found myself wishing that I could integrate more of a running workout into my commutes, because that's been my limiter, historically speaking.  The challenge is that running 7 miles each way turns into a pretty bloody hard day, especially when you mix it in with swimming, yoga, lifting, normal running workouts, and my cycling routine.  Do it every day, and you're suddenly at 70 miles a week of running before you've even done a real workout, which is patently untenable.  All things considered, I've wanted to get a moderate running-type workout without actually running quite so far, and without the impact stress.

Enter the Elliptigo, which I bought last Saturday at Revolution Cycles, and which I've been using to commute every day this week.  It's probably not quite like anything you've seen before -- think of it as a running bike, or an elliptical on wheels. It's a pretty ingenious design: a fully-adjustable elliptical bike that was designed by two Ironman triathletes specifically to mimic a proper running motion.  It's nothing like the looping effect you get on some commercial ellipticals; rather, you really pull almost directly back with your glutes and hamstrings, much the same way efficient runners do when they "claw" the ground for horizontal propulsion.  Here's a video of what it looks like in practice, except I look far more suave and certainly don't grin like a dope:

It's gotten some endorsements from pretty well-regarded athletes who are serious about what they do, including the Ultramarathon Man himself, Dean Karnazes:

My interest having been piqued by reading countless glowing reviews, I decided to give it a try on a Saturday afternoon when I was recovering from illness and didn't want to risk an actual long run.  I checked one out of a local bike shop and rode it around the neighborhood for 10 minutes, and instantly knew I'd found what I was looking for.  I bought it, rode it 20 miles that day (from Clarendon to Bethesda and then home), and I've commuted on it every day this week.

Here's what I think.  First, it is absolutely, positively, ridiculous looking.  But I think it's ridiculous in an endearingly nerdy, environmentalist sort of way -- it's the perfect thing to ride to a Star Trek convention in Berkeley.  (Fittingly, it's the ride of choice for Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google.)  And man does it get looks.  I've had my picture taken by at least one person every day this week, and when I'm stopped at lights, people can't stop asking about it.  I'm sure that the some of the preening roadies who see me on the trails are quietly disdainful, but heck if I care; I'm not insecure about my ability to ride with those guys when the time comes.  The thing is, I don't actually do my cycling workout until after my commute.  During my commute, I'm training to run.

The Elliptigo itself is a joy to ride, plain and simple.  It can go faster than you'd think, up to 20-25 mph on flat ground, although comfortable cruising speed is probably 15-17 mph.  Its small wheels allow it to accelerate quickly, and it's much more nimble than I expected.  Riding around cars is also quite different from riding on a bike, because you're up much higher.  In fact, I can see straight over the top of even the biggest SUV's, and the upright posture makes it much simpler to swivel around to check for cars doing stupid things.  The shifting on the model I got is 8-speed internally geared, so it withstands the elements well and has the ability to climb any hill that Arlington can throw at it.  The disc brakes are clearly preferable to my road bike's Dura Ace calipers.

One thing I didn't quite count on is how much work this thing is.  It's a 45-pound mantis of hurt.  The leg motion is almost entirely forward and back, and with the toe cages I have on it, it's hip flexors and glutes.  My commutes, which used to be just moseying along on my road bike, are now very serious cross-training.  Even in the relatively cool 60s and 70s, I get home dripping with sweat.  But, because it targets the running muscles, I'm able to get in a quality bike workout afterward without much interference at all, as that's quad-intensive.  The weight-bearing nature of the activity also makes it a much more efficient calorie burn than a normal bike.

Aside from the price -- $2400 or so, although there's a 3-speed model in the $1800 range -- the other potential downside I'd mention is that, due to its 45-pound weight and somewhat awkward shape, it's not much fun to carry.  If someone lives at the top of several flights of stairs and has to carry his bike up or down each day, the Elliptigo may be frustrating.  

In all, in case it's not clear, I'm pretty darn impressed.  Every now and then someone comes up with a product that just works, and this is such a product.  People have ridden these things in RAGBRAI, as well as in very difficult century rides, including the nortorious Death Ride:

It has also been used as a cross-training and physical therapy tool with some startling success, including in this story, where a top U.S. mountain runner came back from almost losing his leg even stronger than before after training on one of these.

Elliptigos are, in short, the real deal.  I've only been on mine for about a week, but I've retired my road bike from commuting, and I'm very optimistic about what this will do for my running and general fitness.

Updated: 12/7/11Washingtonian Magazine did a review of the Elliptigo, and quoted me a few times.

1 comment:

  1. HI! I just saw your writeup on the Going By Bike blog. I’ve been curious about the Elliptigo, and I did not realize they had disc brakes. From what you say, they make for a great workout! How do you lock it up, though, or is that just not an option given its construction?