They're in a spin over bike exercise Spin cycle: Spinning started in California. It's done with a simulated countryside, and has become the hot new way to ride an exercise bike.

November 06, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

It's an autumn weekend in the Berkshires. A group of 11 cyclists is working its way across the hilly countryside, trying to remember to take in the vivid colors even as legs burn and sweat starts to drip.

Just one more hill, urges the leader, Mark Hoffman. The cyclists crest the hill and start cycling faster and faster, collapsing happily at the finish line.

Then they open their eyes and see the pale green walls of the Meadow Mill Athletic Club and the racquetball courts on either side. And although the cyclists feel as if they have traveled miles in the past 45 minutes, the specially designed stationary bicycles beneath them haven't budged an inch. They've been spinning their wheels. On purpose.

Spinning classes are the latest trend in the always innovation-hungry world of aerobics classes. You've tried step aerobics, box aerobics and the slide. You've done high-impact, low-impact and cardio-funk. What's left?

Spinning takes something old -- the stationary bike -- and makes it new again. Participants pedal to music, piped in on head phones, that slows and quickens to match the roll of an imaginary countryside. The instructor, whose voice also comes through on the headset, calls out the cadence and provides a travelogue.

Meadow Mill began the classes a month ago, and other Baltimore area health clubs are expected to follow. Meadow Mill member Judy Rosenberg, who has tried virtually every variation in aerobic dance, already is a spinning enthusiast.

"It's different, it's strenuous," she says. "You close your eyes and you really do feel as if you're going over hills and waterfalls."

Some have described the experience as virtual reality, but the vividness of the journey ultimately depends on each individual's imagination. Can you visualize Aspen, a wind-swept beach or San Francisco? You don't necessarily have to.

"You can close your eyes and come on a trip with me," fitness instructor Mark Hoffman reminds his class, "or you can stay right here, looking at the walls, and just get a good work-out on a stationary bike."

Spinning originated in -- where else? -- California. Johnny G., a cyclist and exercise instructor then known as Johnny Goldberg, started the class as a form of cross-training.

New ideas in exercise inevitably lead to new products and gear -- benches for step aerobics, plastic mats for sliding, rubber bands for stretching. Spinning requires the "Johnny G. Spinners," manufactured by Schwinn. They are markedly different from most stationary bikes, and instructors need nine months' training before they are certified in the art of spinning.

The first time someone straps in to the toe clips, it's not unlike lacing up the "Red Shoes," the fairytale footwear that forced the wearer to dance herself to death. The bike is capable of going much faster than the cyclist. The bike is capable of going without the cyclist, and it doesn't stop just because someone stops pedaling.

For just that reason, the Johnny G. Spinner comes with an emergency brake, which instructors should demonstrate to all first-timers. Novices also need a quick orientation on using the tension knob, handlebars and seat.

Inevitably, the most competitive cyclists turn the tension higher, pedal harder and stand taller on the hills. But one of spinning's attractions is that only you know how hard you're working. No one can tell if you turn the tension nob two or three times. That's part of the appeal.

"Anybody can do it," Mr. Hoffman says. "Any age, any fitness level.

But spinning is not an every-day activity. Primarily aerobic, it doesn't provide enough strength-training or upper body work for a well-rounded exercise plan, Mr. Hoffman says. Participants said they prefer it one or two times a week, as an alternative to other work-outs.

On a recent night at Meadow Mill, Mr. Hoffman worked hard to transport his class to the Massachusetts countryside. The class of 10 -- a mix of veterans and newcomers -- followed easily, shutting out the distracting noises of a busy health club.

The imaginary landscape may have been pure Yankee, but the accompanying music had a salsa spice, from the Gipsy Kings to a revved-up version of "La Bamba." Mr. Hoffman watched closely for danger signs -- cyclists bouncing in their seats to maintain balance, too much speed on the hills, awkward upper bodies.

But the cyclists flew and the class flew by.

"I couldn't believe it when he said we had gone 41 minutes," says Jarrod Walpert of Pikesville, a first-time spinner. "On the stationary bike, 12 minutes feels like an hour. This takes the boredom out."

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