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Playthings : Bytecycling

March 19, 1995|Christopher A. Joseph

You're in the seat, ready for the race to begin. You're a little nervous, but a glance at your fellow cyclists reveals that they, too, are anxiously awaiting the start of the race. The gun sounds, and with sweaty palms and dry mouth, you begin to pedal furiously as you fly down a country lane.

Unlike a real bicycle race, however, the road, trees and farmhouses whizzing by you are computer-generated, and your bike doesn' t budge.

Welcome to the world of cybercising, where virtual reality merges with stationary fitness equipment. Health-club cyclists can now go for a spin through a computer-simulated environment containing roads, lakes, forests and a small town. The VR Bike, manufactured by Tectrix Fitness Equipment in Irvine, is the world's first virtual-reality aerobic-fitness machine.

Although designed primarily for health clubs, the bike is also available at retail outlets, such as the Walking Center in Beverly Hills, for $8,000, or about five times as much as a not-so-high-tech Lifecycle. It's a marvel of technology, but fitness-seeking Luddites needn't worry: "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to operate the bike," says Mike Nestor of the Walking Center. "And it keeps people entertained."

As you pedal, the program takes you through video landscapes on the VR Bike's monitor. You turn by tilting the seat and the handlebars. At the same time, a fan blows a gentle "headwind" into your face. Pedal resistance changes with the ups and downs of the on-screen topography, while shifting gears and braking is accomplished by thumb-operated controls. "You forget you're exercising," says fitness director Celeste Budd of the Sporting Club in Irvine, "and it's almost as fun as pedaling outdoors."

Riders can take four road-bike routes or venture off-road, bouncing along across hills and valleys, passing a lake and a graveyard. Competition-minded riders can race against the clock, computer-generated competitors or other VR Bikers in the gym.

The program also allows users to cycle "through" buildings such as churches, while bells ring in the background via stereo speakers. For many fitness fanatics, says Budd, "that might be the only time that someone has the opportunity to go to church."

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