When you think of an exercise bike, you probably think of a tired white thing stuck in the corner of your garage. The Trixter X-dream is entirely different. It pairs an advanced interactive exercise bike with a computer system to give you what is more like a mountain biking simulator than an exercise bike.
Coming in two components, the bike and the computer rig, the bike isn’t just your average static bike. Based on the Trixter X-1000, manufactured by Giant Bikes, the X-dream bike features a 14kg flywheel at the front with varying resistance as you’d expect. The bike bristles with sensors so the computer knows what you are doing, allowing the inclusion of all the normal features you’d get on a real bike.
That means you get gears, brakes and steering, all of which have an impact on what happens on the screen as you ride. The X-dream also uses some regular bike parts, so you can swap the pedals for your own or change the saddle. The pedals we tested were double-sided, with toe clips on one side and Shimano SPD clips on the other, so if you have bike shoes, you can use them on the X-dream.
The saddle too is pretty good, just like a regular MTB saddle, including a groove to relieve pressure on your essentials – a world away from the huge triangular saddles of some exercise bikes. You can raise and lower the saddle, as well as slide it forward and back and change the height of the handlebars, so you can set-up a proper riding position and ensure that you ride comfortably and most efficiently. More importantly, if you are using this to train in the off season, it should be able to closely resemble your MTB set-up.
Attached to the front of the bike is the brains of the unit. It actually houses a Dell PC running Windows XP, which runs all the software to provide the immersive environment – the cycling “game” if you like. This is topped by a 17-inch (15-inch visible) monitor with an under-slung speaker unit, which falls naturally into the eyeline of the rider. If there was one criticism at this stage, it would be that the 4:3 unit might be better served by a widescreen aspect, giving the rider a great feeling for the terrain.
In the saddle it feels just like a real mountain bike. The system can be set-up for a number of users, so your stats will be tracked, therefore when in a gym environment you can just get on and ride the route set up for you, with all your settings for height and weight and so on. There is no dedicated warm-up session however, which is a surprise, but the Quick Start provides an easy option for getting up to speed.
Quick Start essentially lets you get straight into riding but has no bearing on the rest of the system. The second option is the Fitness mode, which is the mainstay of the system and where you’ll likely spend most of your time. The third option is Training, unlocked after completing the Professional level.
There are five grades of difficultly in each mode, ranging from green to white, and four types of terrain (parkland, semi-arid, desert, highland), giving you 20 different tracks. The routes are pretty much on rails, i.e., you have to stay on the track and if you veer off, a countdown starts to put you back on track.
You need to put your cycling skills on the line here, with steering, braking and gearing all important. As a beginner there are various assists that you can use, so the computer will brake for you, steer for you and change gears for you, but you still have to pedal. This makes it a case of simply pushing pedal until the end and takes a lot of the realism out of the operation. The assistance might work for cycling novices, but if you are an experienced rider, you’ll find things don’t work as you might want them to.
The steering assist is fine and works pretty well, although we found that steering was generally fairly easy. The gear assist, however, does sometimes leave you in the lurch, making it difficult to maintain a regular cadence. The resistance changes as terrain changes and sometimes you feel that natural momentum should help you up some of the smaller inclines, but this isn’t always the case. The gearing assist isn’t quite predictive enough to let you change down to spin up a slope either, and if you are racing in a long race, you’ll want to do this rather than diving into the hurtbox on every hill.
Braking too is a little overzealous and just as you get the feeling you are really shifting, the thing slows you back down again, so you don’t really get the most out of it.
Switch all the assists off and things are much better. Steering is not too hard, but you will have to control your speed in corners. As mentioned, occasionally you can’t quite see things in cornering, so you might catch the handlebars on a wayward post and fall off until you know the routes. For much of the time you won’t need to do too much braking, but they are sensitive brakes, so you only need to finger them lightly to drop speed. Gearing also works much better with no help, because you can change gears as you would on a regular bike.
Things aren’t perfect, however. You have three virtual gears on the chainring (front) and nine on the block at the back. If you change down it doesn’t stop at the lowest gear in a chainring, it drops down to the next equivalent gear down, which a real bike doesn’t do. Cycling enthusiasts (like myself) spend perhaps too much time calculating equivalent gears across chainrings and here you can hop around them with no problems – bliss!
But this isn’t just a mountain biking simulator, it’s a fitness training tool. The undulating routes are designed to be realistic and give you interval style training and you do need to work quite hard to keep ahead of your competitors: their fitness and skill increases as you step up the levels. For any fit person it is not too tricky to win each race in the beginner level, but you’ll find that the second rider is never far behind. The AI riders do seem to be pretty speedy on descents, but are rubbish at climbing, so it is easy to take the lead on hills. (Perhaps this has more to do with my riding characteristics than the computer.)
If you want a full cardiovascular session - which should be at least 30 minutes in your training heart rate zone remember - then you either have to increase the duration of the race (up to 2 hours), or just ride a number of consecutive races. Intermediate races are a minimum of 10 minutes, advanced at 20 minutes and at professional level are 30 minutes, so this becomes less of an issue as you progress.
There is a soundtrack from that speaker at the front, although a headphone socket on the handlebars will keep things private in a gym environment, although you might want to just wear your iPod and listen to your own music. A water bottle cage is present for that essential hydration. The X-dream is also compatible with Polar heart rate monitors.
A lot comes together in the X-dream. The exercise principles that lie at the core of the system are right. You get a good exercise programme, there is plenty of variety to keep you interested and your AI competitors motivate you to keep up the pressure and continue to improve your performance. Plus, it’s really good fun, leagues ahead of riding a static trainer, so you are more likely to keep coming back for more.
The mountain biking aspect adds in plenty of technical elements too, so this isn’t just about balls-out pedalling. Being able to manage your own gearing means you can make it what you want. Plus, because of the way the bike is designed, it gives you a full body experience, engaging your core for stability.
We’d like to have seen someway to extract the data, for a training diary, as this might not be your sole source of exercise.
Then there is the price. At £5995, this isn’t really something you’ll find in every house on the street, unless you also have the rest of the home gym and a pool too. But in a gym environment, this follows the trend of giving exercisers a choice over a static bike and linking together for competitions opens up further opportunities.
This is one toy we are sorry to see leaving Pocket-lint towers. Sigh, off to the gym then...