If you’re familiar with online virtual cycling sites, you know that they skew heavily towards training and racing. You can race against yourself or others, or you can do some kind of structured training such as intervals, threshold training, and the like. The best known of these is Zwift but there are many others such as Sufferfest, Rouvy, TrainerRoad, and Xert. They all pretty much hew to the same idea of simulated racing. Racing online isn’t such a new idea; it actually goes back to the Computrainer in the 1986. But nowadays the level of graphics and online participation is much higher making for a more entertaining experience.
What is mostly lost in all this is a focus on the joy of cycling outdoors. If you’re not into racing or competition, then Zwift and its ilk are less persuasive of cycling indoors. There is likely a historical reason for why these sites dwell so narrowly on competition. Indoor cycling—originally on rollers, then later on trainers, then smart trainers—was a way to get through the winter in parts of the world (ie. not California) that had real winters with snow. The most entertainment you got while spinning away on the rollers was perhaps watching a videotape of a cycling race and imagining yourself riding with the pros. Of course that was after VCRs had been invented. Before and even after the invention of the VCR, a typical “ride” on rollers was a short—maybe an hour—structured workout. There were actually books that provided sample workouts. You also have to think about who would be desperate enough to want to ride indoors. It was the most fanatical cyclists many of whom were amateur racers. (The pros would just go outdoors and cycle or they’d crosstrain.) In any case riding on a stationary bike is boring and that was all the more reason to make it brief and therefore intense to get the most out of your short workout.
But what if you ride because you like being outdoors or enjoy cycletouring? If you like to cycle in beautiful places, then Watopia is a letdown. There are a couple of sites that try to provide a more realistic and immersive experience focusing on the joy of riding: Fulgaz and OpenRoad. Both provide video footage of rides from a cyclist’s perspective trying to replicate the actual experience of riding rather than entertaining you with a game-like ride in a completely computer generated fake world. I don’t have much to say about OpenRoad because it is PC only. It’s not even available on Android whereas Fulgaz is available for Mac, PC, Android, AppleTV, and iOS.
Our setup is an AppleTV box hooked up to a large screen TV. You could use an iPad or laptop screen but I wanted to see how immersive the experience would be looking at a large screen. You can try out Fulgaz for two weeks for free, which is what we did since we didn’t know what we were getting into. It costs $12 per month or $100 annually. We didn’t even use a smart trainer, just a bike on a fluid trainer. With a smart trainer you can have your speed/cadence/power data sent to Fulgaz where it appears on the screen. Conversely inclination data is sent to your smart trainer to increase the resistance to replicate the harder effort of going uphill. You can find the details of how Fulgaz works at its website. You can compare it to OpenRoad if you’re a PC person.
You can download a ride and then view it or just stream it; we did the latter out of convenience. Fulgaz has about 1,200 videos of rides from around the world including a lot of the classic climbs of the Alps and Dolomites. But it also has a lot of other unexpected but interesting rides, for example a ride around Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory of Australia. Videos are shot by Fulgaz staff but users can also submit videos for curation. This leads to some slight variability in quality but for the most part the video quality is decent to good since Fulgaz provides guidelines on shooting video and also edits and curates everything submitted. Since we were streaming the rides, there was some pixellation but it wasn’t disturbing enough to jar you out of the faux experience of riding outdoor. If we had downloaded the rides instead of streaming them we suspect the pixellation would disappear. Most of the videos if not all seem to be shot using GoPro cameras that are mounted at handlebar level. This makes for a slightly strange perspective but that oddity soon goes away. This doesn’t seem to be the case with OpenRoad videos, at least the ones I can see on its YouTube site. The perspective seems to be almost normal eye level. But that could just be due to mounting the camera above the handlebars rather than below. In any case you don’t see the handlebars or shifters, which is nice. It would be too much to ask those who submit videos to Fulgaz to use a special setup for their submissions. But for Fulgaz’s inhouse videos it wouldn’t.
GoPro camera lenses have a very wide field of view of 170 degrees. This causes a distinct ‘warping’ of your view that leads to a prominent—at least to me—artifact in Fulgaz videos: the camera is mounted to the handlebars so every panning motion is visually exacerbated. I found it at times unnatural but usually got used to it and didn’t notice it except when the bike in the video was turning sharply. This doesn’t seem to be the case with OpenRoad—perhaps they’re using a different camera than GoPro or they set their cameras to a medium field of view. Going into a turn the visual field tilts but you don’t since you’re on a trainer, and since I happen to be prone to motion sickness, the disconnect between what my eyes see and what my inner ear is sensing for balance is occasionally disorienting to the point of me feeling nauseous. This was most noticeable on a couple of videos with a lot of quick, sharp turns—both happen to be on multi-use paths. On roads in the videos this doesn’t happen because the turns just aren’t that sharp.
Another artifact you’ll notice is how smooth a cyclist the camera person is. When going slowly uphill we all move the bars side to side but some of us are smoother than others. This all becomes apparent when climbing up a steep hill. When we do it in real life, we don’t notice it. But on camera it becomes very evident as the camera perspective hunts back and forth with each tug on the bars. In one Provence ride the cyclist was a total animal and seemed to be going 20+ mph all the time. When he went uphill there wasn’t any back-and-forth motion since he was going so strongly in the saddle. On the contrary in a ride shot in coast of Japan up a steep hill, the cyclist veered sharply left and right accompanied by some very noticeable yet appropriate huffing and puffing.
You don’t often think about how your brain processes all the motion your eyes are actually exposed to—the bumps in the road, eye scanning back and forth, head turning, etc. But it all is spun into a seamless, smooth experience and you end up not being cognizant of all these actions. On the contrary, the camera movement on the bike is very noticeable. If you’ve ever watched a GoPro video on YouTube of a mountain bike going downhill, you realize just how jarring the experience actually is, yet when you ride downhill in real life your brain factors almost all of that out in creating a smoother experience.
There is also audio so you get to hear the sounds on the ride such as the gear shifts, heavy breathing, cars passing, etc. I found it to be more sensorily immersive to listen to the soundtrack but you can always mute it and/or listen to music instead.
All this nitpicking is not intended as a putdown of Fulgaz. I’ve enjoyed the experience of virtual riding and one gigantic plus is that every day you ride on Fulgaz is a good day—no heat wave, no wildfire smoke, no freezing temp, no rain, no sunburn! Not every video is shot on a grand summer day but you’ll always be cozy in your boy/girlcave. When it’s dreary and pouring down hard outside you can go ride Old La Honda on a pleasant spring day. Speaking of Old La Honda, Fulgaz has quite a geographically diverse set of rides including a lot of the ‘famous’ ascents in Europe and elsewhere. (The Alto de Letras in Colombia is noticeably absent.) There are plenty of rides in Italy, France, Switzerland, and other European countries. Unfortunately there are only about a dozen rides in Japan, a place I love to cycle. But it was fun to revisit the country and ride albeit by video. The Bay Area is represented as well with rides up Diablo, Mt. Tam, Old La Honda, and several others.
So how immersive is Fulgaz? Overall I would say that Fulgaz is a more convincing argument against riding outdoors when conditions are unpleasant—very cold, wet, windy, dark, or smoggy/smokey. If you want to race or ride with others, you can also do that on Fulgaz. It’s just that it’s not the focus of the application. Instead it provides a chance to tour the world by bike without leaving your home or just do local rides when the weather is terrible. With the large screen HD television the experience was generally quite good, probably as immersive as it can be given you’re inside your home. With a laptop or small screen I’m not so sure I’d be as interested in using Fulgaz. If you’re like me and find riding a stationary bike somewhat mentally agonizing, then you’ll appreciate the extra distraction of a large screen. Given that we haven’t been able to travel—we’ve had to cancel three overseas cycling trips and probably will end up cancelling a fourth due to Covid—being able to get a taste of riding elsewhere, especially revisiting actual locations we’ve ridden before, is a very welcome addition. And on days when I just have to get outside I can don the raingear and do an actual ride. I don’t think Fulgaz is going to pull me indoors completely. But it’s nice to have the option on days when I’m wavering on whether to head out into the storm or when the day is full of to-do’s and I can’t find the time to ride before it’s dark.