Thursday, December 29, 2016

Product Review - Inside Ride E-motion Rollers


This isn’t one of those consumer-oriented blogs dedicated to reviewing products—which is a shame in some ways, because if it were I’d probably reach a lot more people.  (A post last year in which I bagged on a teakettle) was very popular.)  That said, if you’re in the market for a set of rollers and would consider the Inside Ride E-motion setup, you’ve totally come to the right place (and may want to focus on the second half of this post—search on the text “What makes these rollers different” and start from there).  On the other hand, if you don’t even know or care what rollers are, but enjoy a good laugh at somebody else’s expense, you’ve also come to the right place (and will want to focus on the first half of this post).

Rough start

I got these E-motion rollers via a friend who has no use for them anymore, and I was looking forward to trying them out.  I already own regular rollers and you can read here about some of the difficulties I had jerry-rigging resistance on them, because in this one small area of my life I actually need more resistance.  What’s worse, with the old rollers I kept getting flat tires, which makes zero sense, being the bike equivalent of shoes whose soles spontaneously fail due to contact with carpet.  My solution to this flat tire problem was to ride outdoors, which has become less attractive as winter (albeit the mild California version) has set in.

My first ride on the E-motion rollers started off very badly.  First of all, I didn’t have the owner’s manual and was too lazy to look online for it—so when adjusting the wheelbase setting I just winged it.  The process is actually completely intuitive for anybody with a cool head, but I hadn’t ridden in like a week, was totally stressed out for various reasons, and was impatient.  So I fiddled with the knobs quickly and recklessly and cut my finger.  (Due to age, I guess, my skin has become very flimsy, somehow combining the soft delicateness of moss with the dry, brittle, diaphanous fragility of baked phyllo.)

I got the bike and the fan set up and then, because I cannot ride indoors without music, I spent 20 minutes in vain looking for my MP3 player.  I never did find it and had to use my smartphone, which I hung from the ceiling (to protect it from sweat).  Then I started riding but my heart rate monitor wouldn’t work.  I cannot ride indoors without knowing my heart rate.  I had to troubleshoot.  I am not the kind of person, particularly when I’m stressed out, who can just move on.  It isn’t in me.

I went looking for my daughter’s heart rate monitor.  I gave up after 10 minutes.  I did find her HR monitor chest strap.  I didn’t want to adjust the strap to fit me because it’s really hard to dial those in just right.  So I had to hold the strap against my chest with one hand, which is awkward because I had to stretch out my hand so both electrodes would contact my skin.  The HR monitor still wouldn’t pick up my heart rate, but when I walked across the room it started working.  WTF?!

The troubleshooting was exacerbated because the HR monitor is also a bike computer, and won’t always show the heart rate if the wheel isn’t spinning.  It will show it for a little while after the wheel stops spinning, but I don’t know what this interval is.  I really needed to actually ride the new rollers while holding the strap across my chest.  Super-awkward.  Impossible, in fact.  I felt like a doomed, hapless idiot.

I decided to try a new battery in my heart rate monitor strap.  There’s a special tool needed to remove the battery cap, and I spent 5 minutes finding it.  Then I dropped it.  I spent another 5 minutes looking for it, in vain.  (It’s small and black, kind of a “household camo” form factor.)  Between my failing eyesight, which is infuriating, and the fact that I was already furious, I gave up looking for the little tool.  I did grasp the absurdity of this, which increased my fury.  (The tool did turn up a week later, in a box of Clif bars on a high shelf in the kitchen.  A mystery, as I hadn’t gone near the Clif bar box that morning.)

I spent another 10 minutes looking for my backup battery cap tool, which I did, amazingly, find.  I removed the battery and tested it:  it had a full charge.  I spent another 3 minutes looking for a new battery anyway.  Amazingly, the individualized packaging on my backup batteries had failed en masse so the new batteries and their defective packaging were all mixed up with merely new-ish batteries.  I tested all the batteries and installed the best one.  No change:  the heart rate monitor still wouldn’t pick up within 6 feet of the new rollers.

I needed to determine if the magnetic field generated by the resistance device on the new rollers was interfering with the heart rate monitor’s signals.  This would presumably only happen when the bike is in motion.  So I decided I had to use the HR monitor in hiking mode, so that I could compare its performance when merely seated on the bike vs. while pedaling on it, without needing to worry about the HR monitor’s pointless idiosyncrasy of ignoring HR signals when the bike is stopped.  But hiking mode only works when the monitor is mounted to the wrist strap.  There are two wrist straps in this household:  mine and my daughter’s.  I looked for 15 minutes for either one of these.  My rage was so extreme by this point that I was almost literally blind.  Finally I managed to stop racing around peeking under things and just thought for a moment, and realized that my strap would be wrapped around the handlebars of my backup bike from the last time, many months ago, that I rode rollers.  There it was!  My satisfaction at finding it was considerably reduced by absurd amount of time I’d spent on the search.

I tried the HR monitor in hiking mode.  Even when just sitting on the bike, on the rollers, the monitor would not pick up my heart rate.  The crux, it seemed, was that the HR monitor just didn’t like my new rollers.  Which is a problem.  It seemed that no matter how much these rollers might outperform my old ones, it wouldn’t matter because I need that heart rate feedback or I’ll just loaf.  It’s human nature (mine, at least).

At this point I arrived at a crossroads.  If I didn’t succeed in solving the HR monitor issue, I’d have to eat the sunk cost of my hunt:  that is, I’d have to concede that I’d spent like an hour futzing with all this (in addition to the 20 minutes looking for my MP3 player and another 10 or so suiting up, digging the fan out of the garage, finding the extension cord, etc.) and would have nothing to show for my efforts.  On the other hand, if I spent one more minute of my precious weekend dinking with the HR monitor, I was probably going to blow.  I had to get on that bike, period.

But first I decided I needed to do one more thing:  look for help on the Internet.  How long could that take, right?  Alas, no Google search produced any results whatsoever.  I am evidently the only person who had ever had problems using his HR monitor with these rollers.  I did learn from the manufacturer’s FAQ that, due to the little wheels positioned at either side of each roller drum, “It’s not possible to ride off the drums.  You can try as hard as you want and it won’t happen.”  In my enraged state, I took this as some kind of dare.  A double-dog dare, in fact.

I climbed on, started riding, noted again the infuriating absence of heart rate data, started riding harder, and then steered my front wheel into the little guide wheel at the edge of the drum.  The tire touched it, started it spinning, and the bike just stayed in position.  So yeah, the guide wheel works.  But “it’s not possible” to ride off the drums?  And “you can try as hard as you want”?  I hadn’t yet tried as hard as I wanted.  So I started slamming the front wheel violently into the guide wheel.  I increased my speed and tried again.  On the 4th or 5th try I had so much sideways momentum I kind of high-sided.  What is high-siding?  Imagine riding on a rain-slippery road or trail and turning so hard that the tire starts to slide out—but then it suddenly catches, and flips you like a pancake.  That’s high-siding.  I basically flipped my bike right off the rollers.  I managed to stick the landing, but in the process of this crazily abrupt dismount I clotheslined myself on my headphone cord (because my smartphone was hanging from the ceiling, remember?).

This was the proprietary cord of my $300 Bose noise-canceling headphones, and it was now ruined.  This angered me.  And if memory serves, I had been kind of angry already.  (Is my comic understatement working here?)  I had to find some other headphones.  After 5 minutes I found some, remounted the bike, and then discovered that the headphones’ cord was too short.  So I hunted around for my headphone extension cord (yes, I actually have one) and tried that, but it was too long, and no scheme I could contrive to take up the slack would work (since my brain was melting down due to anger).  So I decided to put the smartphone in my jersey pocket, which meant finding a plastic bag to put it in.

Finally I got back going.  As you can see, I began my first E-motion roller ride with a level of fury surely unrivaled in history.  It would take a pretty special product to earn a glowing review under these circumstances.  Not since Richard III set about wooing the widow of the man he’d just murdered had a deck been stacked so unfavorably.

What makes these rollers different?

Regular rollers consist of a rigid frame that holds the three drums.  Riding these rollers requires a fair amount of balance (significantly more than riding a bike on the road).  The bike doesn’t automatically stay straight so you have to kind of steer to keep it more or less in the middle of the roller.  If you drift too far to either side you’ll go off the drum, which causes a very abrupt dismount that, while not terribly dangerous, is unpleasant and breaks your stride.

This difficulty increases if you contrive some kind of resistance and really start hammering.  If your body rocks or bounces at all, the bike wants to creep forward on the rollers and is destabilized.  Riding out of the saddle is possible on traditional rollers, but it’s really tricky going from sitting to standing without pitching forward.  Rocking the bike back and forth, meanwhile, is basically impossible. 

Anybody who tells you that riding rollers is a cinch is probably accustomed to riding them without resistance.  Riding rollers this way is pretty easy—but also pointless.  I have found, over the last year or two of riding rollers with resistance, that my back gets sore, probably because I am a bit tense and having to keep my upper body too still.  Moreover, I have really missed being able to ride out of the saddle in a natural way.

The E-motion rollers are different.  The drums still mount to a rigid frame, but this frame doesn’t sit right on the floor.  Instead, it rides a second frame (that does sit on the floor).  There is “float” between these two frames, so the rigid, spring-loaded top frame can move forward and backward.  So even if you are hammering so hard your form is crap, and your upper body is rocking up and down, the bike is stable, and the ride smooth and natural, with the rollers’ floating mechanism taking up all the slop.  Moreover, there are these smaller-diameter guide rollers positioned fore and aft of the rear wheel, which come into play when you stand up on the pedals.  The bike moves quite a bit when you stand up, but then the rear wheel hits the little guide roller, which shifts the floating frame forward, again taking up the slack so your bike doesn’t leave the rollers behind and crash into your fan (which has in fact happened to me with my old setup).

The floating frame also makes it possible to really shove on the pedals when out of the saddle, and to rock the bike from side to side like you would on the road.  In short, riding these rollers is just like real riding, except the air around you is warm and dry instead of cold and wet, and you don’t have to restrict your training to daylight hours.  (The other difference is that it’s still not as interesting as real riding, but music can help with that.)

These rollers are so easy to ride, I haven’t suffered my usual back pain when riding them.  With the old rollers I could ride no-handed, even with some resistance, but doing so made me a bit nervous; with these new ones, I not only can ride no-handed with ease, but when the zipper of my jersey got jammed, I was able to sit up and un-jam it while riding.

Here’s a video showing how well the E-motion rollers work.  This isn’t footage of some specially trained stunt double with impeccable form, either … it’s your randomly selected blogger, who likes to mosh big gears, doesn’t do yoga on the side, and isn’t overly concerned with being super-smooth.  Go ahead and view this video in full-screen mode and look at how much the top frame floats on the bottom one.

So … these rollers really work?

Yes, they really work.  They’re amazing, in fact.  The innovative design absolutely does achieve everything I’ve described above.  Also, the drums are really quiet, much more so than my old aluminum rollers which tended to “sing” at high speeds.  (Apparently these E-motion drums are aluminum as well, which is better than plastic because it’s more durable and has a more perfectly round cross-section.  But these are coated somehow which I think is why they’re so quiet.)  The magnetic resistance also works really well and is silent.

It is very rare, I’ve found, for one manufacturer’s product to be so obviously superior to every competing product on the market.  These rollers are such a huge step forward, I was almost laughing with delight.  This reaction is particularly noteworthy considering how enraged I was prior to riding these for the first time.  (If you didn’t read the first half of this review, maybe it’s time to go do that.)  Because by this point I hated everyone and everything in the universe, including myself, I perversely wanted to find fault with the E-motions but the fact is, I could not.  These rollers are a total game-changer.  At the end of my workout, I was in a really, really good mood because I was (and am) so stoked to own such a sweet set of rollers.

I don’t think I’ve been so completely satisfied with a product in 30 years (since I bought my first English-made Simplex teakettle, whose perfection is matched only by the utter uselessness and almost criminal crappiness of its modern Chinese successor … but that’s another story).

Is there any downside to the E-motion rollers?

The main problem with this product is that it has, for most people, no practical use.  The vast majority of people lack the desire and/or skill to ride rollers, and/or don’t have the psychological stamina (or is it mere tolerance of tedium?) to train indoors regularly.  Rollers in general are a total niche product.  There’s something almost Quixotic about setting out to produce the best rollers on the planet … kind of like if somebody decided the state of the art in steel-toed, waterproof, chainmail-reinforced, Internet-connected, antibacterial golf shoes was in need of an overhaul.  Of course this isn’t really a criticism of the Inside Ride E-motion rollers; it’s more of a critique of rollers in general, and of my fellow man.

There’s also the matter of price.  These rollers are about 50% more expensive than the second-most-expensive brand on the market, Al Kreitler.  The E-motions would be a pretty decadent purchase in most cases, given that they probably wouldn’t get much use.  On the other hand, for a serious cyclist with the tenacity to actually do a lot of training indoors, who spends all kinds of money on lighter wheels, fancy clothing, and other state-of-the-art gear, the price of the E-motions is reasonable.  (Good luck making this case with your significant other, though.)

These rollers do not fold up, so it would be hard to take them in your car to warm up before a race or before riding the track.  But who among us doesn’t have an old stationary trainer for that purpose?

If you think I’m going to complain about the tendency of these rollers to jam heart rate monitor signals, I have good news there as well.  Oddly, though I didn’t get consistent heart rate data during my first workout, I discovered I could spot-check my heart rate by standing up on the pedals.  (My theory is that riding out of the saddle moved the HR transmitter far enough away from the rollers’ magnetic resistance unit to work properly.)  I made peace with the idea that I wouldn’t have average HR, max HR, time-above-HR-target-zone, and other data to sift through after my roller rides, because everything else about these rollers is so kickass.  And then, upon riding them a second time a few days later, I was surprised to see that the HR monitor worked perfectly.  Two more flawless rides confirmed that the HR monitor problem was just a fluke thing, like the missing battery-cap tool.  Sometimes life is like that.

There is only one other possible downside to these rollers.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we occasionally have earthquakes.  If an earthquake were to happen during a workout, when I’m rocking out to my workout megamix via noise-canceling headphones, the E-motions’ floating frame might be so effective that I fail to notice the earthquake, which could put me in some kind of danger. (As you can see, you have to work pretty hard to find fault with this product.)

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  1. What heart rate monitor brand do you use, Dana? My old Polar HR monitor used to blank out when I would ride with headlights (NiteRider) on. My Garmin 500 doesn't. I think it likely has to do with the different frequencies and/or lack of shielding used by the manufacturers to have the HR band communicate with the head unit and electromagnetic interference from the headlight that is generated when it is on. Perhaps a similar thing is happening with the rollers?

    1. Phil,

      I use the Sigma ROX 6.0. It seems to do fine with a headlight (the Light & Motion Urban 550, which is really bright but perhaps not as high-wattage as the NiteRider. Oddly, the Sigma ROX 6 is a pretty sophisticated device and yet isn't digitally encoded (I get crosstalk with Alexa's identical computer). Anyway, it continues to work fine on the rollers now ... I have no idea why it gave me trouble initially.

  2. I cannot get my front wheel moving as the front drum is not turning. The rubber band is rolling and if I move turn the attached rubber band I can get the front drum to turn. Do you have any suggestions? My cyclocross bike front wheel would spin. The cyclocross bike was too loud for my apartment so I am TRYING to use my regular road bike. Help when you see this please? Thank you, dlw

  3. DISREGARD my message. I gave it another go and with no understanding of how, the front wheel and drum are spinning. I still cannot master the ride but at least it is rolling and I have not crashed too hard.