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The exercise bike that races via the Web

Connect the Ergo Bike Premium 8i to the Internet and compete with cyclists around the world for head-to-head races. Photos: The Ergo Bike Premium 8i Video: Web-enabled exercise bike packed with tech

Now, U.S. cyclists can get trounced by some of the best riders in Europe without leaving home.

With the Ergo Bike Premium 8i from Germany's Daum Electronics, riders from around the world compete against each other over virtual versions of some of the sport's storied race courses. Riders gather at a particular time, pick a course and go. In a ride I witnessed, riders from Germany and a few Americans went head-to-head on a simulated version of the bike segment of Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon.

Video:
CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos gives it a test ride at City Cycle in San Francisco.

Additionally, the bike--which closely mimics the feel of a real bike through a battery of sensors and processors--monitors the pulse rate, speed, distance and watts (a measure of current power output) of the riders and broadcasts these vital stats to each participant. The riders can also watch each other over video streams and speak over VoIP-enabled headsets, all so you can see who is about to crack.

In a sense, it's full-contact social networking.

"You can see him breathing. You can see his heart rate. That gets you motivated," said Kip Potter, one of the two partners behind InBikeSF, which recently started to import the bike to the U.S. "The problem with other stationary bikes is that they are boring."

A few thousand have been sold in Europe and South Africa over the past few years, but only about 20 have come to the U.S. so far. (If you live in the Bay Area, you can check one out at City Cycle in San Francisco.)

The bike is part of a wave of high-tech products hoping to ride the fitness boom. Although the globe is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, there's also probably a larger number of middle-aged people avidly competing in endurance sports than ever before.

Some of the latest must-have gadgets for fitness buffs have been the running and cycling computers from Garmin that plot an athlete's results. Nike, meanwhile, has experimented with MP3 players and iPod add-ons. Bike manufacturers now regularly roll out road racing machines that cost several thousand dollars.

At $3,500, the Ergo Bike Premium 8i is aimed largely at people with money, but not a lot of free time. The bike can give a weekend warrior a reasonably good workout during the middle of the week when getting away from the office during daylight hours may not be possible.

A lot of riders use it mostly for solo training. The onboard computer lets you keep track of your own results--how many watts was I putting out as I approached the final climb on Alpe d'Huez?--or analyze your own performance historically. A doctor recommended one to Potter after an injury. The experience prompted him to persuade Daum to let him import the bikes.

Other functions let you see how you perform against similar riders of the same age and weight. The data can then be downloaded to a laptop. Potter showed me a chart tracking one rider's heart rate and power output over several rides over a period of weeks.

There's a built-in MP3 player as well. Again, the data onslaught and various training programs exist, ideally, to motivate and entertain.

Expresso Fitness has a similar bike and other exercise equipment. That company adds a graphic simulation of a ride (think video game), but it costs more.

Daum customers tend to be Type A characters. Several bike owners are ex-racers. The one Potter owns was originally slated to go to a member of the old Phonak professional racing team. Phonak's Floyd Landis won the Tour de France in 2006, but has been charged with using performance enhancing drugs. Phonak has since disbanded.

While InBikeSF currently imports only the Ergo Bike Premium 8i, Daum sells cheaper bike and Nordic Track-like trainers that someday could also come to the United States.

The bike itself can be thought of as a computer with a wheel. It does not have a chain that turns the wheel or pads that apply pressure to simulate a hill. Instead, strain sensors detect how much torque a rider is applying to the cranks. The data is then fed through other processors and sensors and cross-referenced with the profile of the ride selected (hill climb, time trial, etc.) and the "gear" the rider is in to provide the appropriate feedback force.

"Watts are everything," said Potter.

The road test
So how does it ride? I've ridden a lot of exercise bikes in my life and Daum's bike does come closest to simulating the feel of an actual bike when pedaling. The Expresso is close.

Programming is also fairly easy. After a few minutes I had figured out how to shift from different simulated road courses to training exercises. Potter also hooked up a laptop to the bike so that I had a two-screen view of a workout. The 5-inch diameter screen integrated into the bike displayed the course for the next 2 to 10 kilometers, along with data on watts, speed and pulse. The laptop screen, meanwhile, displayed a map of the whole course, thumbnail video streams of other riders and everyone's vital stats.

The seat, handlebars and pedals can also be adjusted to mimic the fit of your real bike.

So why not put your road bike on one of the many commercially available trainers, where the back wheel turns a fly wheel? You can't ride a simulated climb through the Dolomites or compete against others. Racing against someone does make you ride more intensely, particularly when they can observe your performance.

The fly wheel on trainers also can generate a lot of noise. Without a chain, the Daum makes little noise.

Trainers, though, only cost a few hundred dollars at most. But at $3,500, I can imagine surgeons with a competitive streak would find this attractive.