Great Moments in Cycling: The Roller Derby

11.22.2005 | 5:44 pm

I’m just going to come out and say it: the cycling trainer is an abomination. Trainers take two of the best things about cycling — freedom of movement and the ability to go somewhere while you exercise — and strip those things away.



Trainers are very simple. They grip your rear wheel’s axle, lifting your bike into the air, and apply resistance to your rear wheel. Thus, in a matter of moments, a trainer converts your bike from your favorite thing in the world into a loathsome piece of stationary exercise equipment.

But you know, I kind of like rollers.



With rollers, you just put your bike on top of the free-spinning drums and ride. Sure, you’re still not going anywhere, but at least it takes some skill — rollers require that you use a very light touch on your steering, balance evenly, and ride a nice, straight line.

This is not to say that I would ever pick riding rollers over going outdoors to ride, if it’s an option at all. All I’m saying is that while rollers are a poor substitute for riding, they’re not as poor as trainers.


How to Tolerate Riding Indoors

I don’t think there’s any force in the world that could make me ride the rollers for more than one hour. Which is odd, considering one hour on the bike outside doesn’t seem like much of a ride. It just goes to show, I suppose, how critical the "going somewhere" component of riding is to the whole experience.

I do, however, have a secret that makes it possible for me to ride for a full hour on the rollers (just ask any avid cyclist: an hour on the rollers is actually more than most people can tolerate): Martial arts movies.

Yes, that’s right. Martial arts movies. Bruce Lee. Jean Claude van Dam. Jackie Chan. Especially Jackie Chan. These movies are perfect for exercising to, for the following reasons:

  • The constant action helps you keep your cadence and energy level up.
  • You can look away from the screen for a few moments without fear of missing something crucial.
  • If you zone out for a little while, you can come back without having missed much.
  • When you get to the point where you’ve just got to get off that bike, you can turn off the movie and pick it up the next day without having it occupy your mind the whole rest of the day.

Back in Utah, I had a perfect setup for riding on the rollers in the winter set up in my unfinished basement:

  • A TV and DVD player
  • Wireless headphones, so I could hear the movie over the drone (quite loud) of the rollers without fear of tangling a cord in my front wheel
  • A Netflix subscription, giving me all-I-could-stand access to martial arts films.


Loudest, Most Embarassing Crash Ever

You know, I don’t know if I even need to recount this anecdote. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Of course you do. Oh well, I may as well soldier on.

About four years ago, while riding on the rollers, I got deeply involved with a movie. I’m pretty sure it was the one where Jackie Chan plays a loveable misfit with — for some reason — extraordinary improvisational martial arts skills. During one of the action scenes, Jackie is using a ladder, a shopping cart, and a mannequin’s arm to defend himself against the entire Mafia.

Before I continue, I would like to say that anyone who is not amazed and entertained whenever Jackie does one of these scenes is a stuffy old fart.

Now, one thing you must do when riding rollers is check from time to time — every thirty seconds or so — to make sure you’re not drifting off one side.

I drifted off. All the way off. While pedaling at about 24mph.

Must I really describe what happened next? I must? OK.

I shot forward, my wheels making nice skid marks as they made contact with the concrete floor, straight into the table I had the TV and DVD player on.

The TV, DVD player and wireless headset base station fell over with a mighty crash, the bike and me on top of it.

"Is everything OK down there?" I hear my wife yell from upstairs. I look at the damage. I’m scraped up, and the TV has a nice divot in the tube.

A pause while I stifle the screams, then: "Everything’s fine, dear!"

Actually, the TV was toast, the wireless headset would never work right again, and I hurt like crazy in about seven different places.

But I wasn’t quite prepared to admit that I had just accidentally sprinted my bike into an entertainment center.


  1. Comment by Tom Stormcrowe | 11.22.2005 | 6:10 pm

    DAmn, Fatty, sounds like that hurt! Worst indoor riding experience I ever had was on a powered spinner, blasted thing had a malf and went runaway on me. I was padeling too fast to even think about trying to find the emergency kill switch!

  2. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 6:14 pm

    Fatty,The scene with Jackie Chan using the ladder and shopping carts is one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed. He is one incredible acrobat. Bruce Lee was the undisputed martial arts Master and his films are incredible in their own right. Chan is a better cinema guy though. I always rode my rollers with them set up next to my bed so I could bail sideways and land softly. I hit the cement floor in the basement a couple of times and that was enough of that. There is a scene in the Eddy Merckx movie "La Course en Tete" where he does rollers. He has them spinning and thumping around in his garage while he maintains a 180 cadence for a couple of hours, leaving an impressive pool of sweat beneath the rollers when he is done. Its the realization that he is bouncing the whole works around that is sobering though. He doesn’t seem the least bit concerned that he might fall off, and he probably never did. Certainly not while the guy with the camera was there.

  3. Comment by Donald | 11.22.2005 | 6:21 pm

    The nice thing about the stationary is if you managed to fall asleep riding, ya dont get hurt. Back in my navy days i bought a new bike late one night and was riding it the 6 miles back to base. Halfway back on a deserted side street i feel asleep while i had my arms crossed on the bars resting my head on em. My wakeup call was the back bumper of some 1970’s car with rusty chrome, the nice and solid kind. After spitting out a few teeth i got back to the ship but had a date with the dentist the next morning.

  4. Comment by STACEY | 11.22.2005 | 6:27 pm

    hehehe…a few (12? geez…I’m fat AND old) years back, a friend of mine did the same thing in his dorm room (which was directly above mine). I was studiously studying genetics, listening to the drone of his wheels on the rollers. Suddeny, there was a bump, a chirp, a crash, a bigger bump, and then……silenceI ran up to his room, only to find him crumpled against the wall (under the window, through which he was intently looking, watching the snow fall), firmly attached to his trusty Eddy Merckx, somewhere between laughing and crying.SYJ

  5. Comment by STACEY | 11.22.2005 | 6:27 pm

    hehehe…a few (12? geez…I’m fat AND old) years back, a friend of mine did the same thing in his dorm room (which was directly above mine). I was studiously studying genetics, listening to the drone of his wheels on the rollers. Suddeny, there was a bump, a chirp, a crash, a bigger bump, and then……silenceI ran up to his room, only to find him crumpled against the wall (under the window, through which he was intently looking, watching the snow fall), firmly attached to his trusty Eddy Merckx, somewhere between laughing and crying.SYJ

  6. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 6:37 pm

    Ohhhh too funny! Crashing on the trainer inside the house is always something I think about, but didn’t really think could happen. You proved me wrong. :P You are so right on about the torture, I mean exercise, device that is the indoor trainer. I got one of those Maguras with mag-resistance that pinch the rim & have a big flywheel inside the unit to keep the wheel rolling a bit more realistically when you slow down. It’s nice and quiet, seriously. I used to have one of those old "wind-trainers" that sounded like a turbo-prop plane landing in your living room when you got up to do a short sprint interval. Also, watching mountain biking freeride videos is the best. Usually 30-45 mins in length, you’re totally distracted by the cliffs, etc. that they are hucking off, and it keeps you enthused about doing your next mtn bike ride…..

  7. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 6:44 pm

    that jackie chan is wacky.i bought a treadmill for my wife a few years ago, never intending to use it myself. but in the middle of winter, i got desperate, and decided to give it a try (i’d never stepped on a treadmill previously, ever).it’s really not that hard. except, after about 30 minutes, i realized i hadn’t set up a fan, or opened the window. i didn’t want to stop my workout, so i tried to take off my shirt while running 7 min miles.i got the shirt up over my head, and stepped on the side of the treadmill (you know, the part not moving). i spun around backwards, fell on the the treadmill, and flew off the back, into a wall corner. not a concave wall corner, which would have just been cozy, but a convex wall corner, which was almost lethal.i still have a divot in my shin, and that wall, when we moved from the house years later, still had a large greasy mark and hole from my head.jackie chan is rolling over in his grave. er. bed. whatever.

  8. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 6:51 pm

    One set of Kreiter Dyno-Lite rollers; $499 at The Jacki Chan collection DVD on; $47.99. JVC 32" Flat-Tube Stereo TV with Component Video Input on; 449.99. Sennheiser Wireless RF Dynamic Headphones with SRS Simulated Surround Sound Processor on; 189.99.Driving your bike into an entertainment center at 24mph and living to tell the world about it; priceless.

  9. Comment by Robert | 11.22.2005 | 6:55 pm

    Several audibles. This more than makes up for yesterday’s detailed gel descriptions.

  10. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 7:19 pm

    I had heard stories about rollers. I thought the narrow laundry room would be the solution, since upon being launched out the doorway thereof, I would have something to grab onto. I just didn’t realize that I would be grabbing it with my face. It’s quite a rush going from 0 to 20 faster than you can think it. That was the first and the last episode on the rollers. I used the trainer for one season. It more-than sucked. Not even Freeride or Jackie Chan DVDs could make me do it again. Maybe Jackie Chan IN a freeride DVD? Naw… I simply think that I would rather take my chances with snow and ice (I have fallen due to snow/ice fewer times than I have on rollers). Actually, I would rather just be fat. It’s safer.

  11. Comment by a | 11.22.2005 | 8:52 pm

    reading dug’s comment reminded me of the time i was home alone with my then 4 yr-old son. our treadmill faced away from a corner (if you were on it, your back would be to the corner), and he had managed to get on it and then turned it on. i was in another room and yelled for him to shut it off (bad idea). he slid the speed control to high, and it shot him into the corner. one arm was sucked under the treadmill which led to his face making direct contact with the treadmill belt. i should have taken a picture b/c he did look pretty funny, but the rapidly developing road rash on his face and his incessant screaming led me to shut the machine off instead.on the plus side, my wife didn’t leave me alone with him for the next year.

  12. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 11.22.2005 | 9:42 pm

    Rollers – I’m a trackie, I love ‘em. I’ll get into the meat of this story in a blog entry of my own soon (remember I’m from Queensland, and so is Robbie McEwen – yes that Robbie McEwen).For the purposes of this story it is needless to say that over-confidence, a set of rollers, a shopping centre stage and a crowd of several hundred shoppers is a bad combination. It wasn’t actually any of those that threw me though. It was the front tyre on my track bike that burst while my over-confidence had me warming up no-handed with my arms smuggly crossed against my chest.

  13. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 10:01 pm

    A friend of mine at Uni had a set of these. I loved them and would be round his room training alll the time. Until one day, he didn’t turn up for class. His neighbour found him the previous evening crumpled in a corner, unconscious and with what turned out to be a broken collar bone. I’ve not been on the rollers since.

  14. Comment by TIMOTHY | 11.22.2005 | 10:44 pm

    I have a Cateye Cyclosimulator with a TV (Digital Cable) and a fan setup in front of it. I watch with the Closed Captioning turned on so I can catch what I can’t hear. I agree though 1. 60-90 minutes is about all I can stand no mattter what’s on TV. I try to do intervals or something like that on the trainer to keep me from getting too bored. 2. Ride outside if at all possilble. I live in Montana though, so there are times when it’s just too @#$%ing cold and the trainer is a necessary evil! (my lower limit is around 15 degrees, when it’s -30 or so, it’s just too cold!).Here’s a question for you: I’m a guy with long hair that I wear in a ponytail most of the time. Yesterday morning I was riding, it was chilly so I wore tights. A truck came up from behind me and I heard a male voice say "what’s up?" I turned to look, and apparently at the sight of my goatee, the passenger windows rolled up and the truck drove off. This is not the first time this has happened to me – do I take this as a compliment, or an insult? Apparently I look fine from the back….

  15. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 11:06 pm

    Many is the time I’ve ridden rollers and been tempted to veer left or right off of them to see what would happen. I, however, lacked the "guts" to try it. Thanks Fatty, for describing to my satisfaction, what would happen if I had sufficient guts (or insufficient intelligence) to find out. Skid marks. Now I know. I’d already figured out the crashing part.

  16. Comment by Unknown | 11.23.2005 | 12:03 am

    I’m sure it hurt and was also expensive but at least you used it to make us laugh out loud! I like that in a person.dug, ditto. And then Nik… and Mike…Rocky, too (it must be communicable!)Ah, yes… everyone else too! Fun day at the Fatty Farm!And then I thought Taocat said "Cateye Cyclostimulator with a TV (Digital Cable) and a fan setup in front of it" and I was thinking that the world has really passed me by and… well… nemmind what else I was thinking.Hugs,MuMo

  17. Comment by Christina | 11.23.2005 | 1:07 am

    So funny! I can picture the whole scene.We have a trainer and I’ve ridden on it about 10 times. It’s too boring. I last 4 minutes before I’m hoping the 45 minute workout ends really, really soon. I tried watching action movies too, for all the same reasons, but it’s just not enough. Have a good thanksgiving, Fatty.-Beast Mom

  18. Comment by Sue | 11.23.2005 | 3:11 am

    Wow. Have you guys tried not pedalling after you’ve fallen off the rollers?Botched

  19. Comment by Unknown | 11.23.2005 | 3:55 am

    One very early morning a few seasons ago I was on rollers watching Charlie’s Angels. They were driving down the street and suddenly pulled a u-turn. I pulled right with them. I didn’t fall off, but I sure woke up!

  20. Comment by Chris | 11.23.2005 | 4:09 am

    I rode indoors on a CycleOps Fluid2 for TWO YEARS! I lived in Russia on a 5-acre compound on the middle of nowhere, doing US government contracting work. Not only were we more or less forbidden from going over the fence, but in no way was it any treat to do so.So I hooked up my bike, some coaching manuals, eventually a coach via email, and my downloadable heart rate monitor, and rode every day for two years.I got six-week vacations every four and a half months and rode myself sick on the roads out there, but in truth the best training I ever got was from the disciplined, direct, and deliberate hours I spent on a turbo trainer.Now I have rollers, and I live in New York. It’s kind of the same thing.

  21. Comment by Kelly | 11.23.2005 | 1:02 pm

    Of the multiple things I do and am ashamed of, the worst is this: laughing at other people’s pain. Out loud. And long. Had that coffee cup been near my lips when you wrote that you were going 24mph after sliding off, the computer screen would be covered right now.On the plus side, my husband is attracted to that part of me that laughs at the misfortune of others. We are well-matched.As usual, wonderful wonderful wonderful writing.Kelly

  22. Comment by Andrew | 11.23.2005 | 2:03 pm

    Dear Fatty, I think you need to have your own line of bike clothing. I’d buy a "Fatty Rulz" jersey in a heartbeat.I ponder the sight of an overweight (it’s a darn shame you’re not bald) middle aged guy, his body crumpled into an entertainment center while Jackie Chan is kicking someone’s butt, all while covered in an unspeakable combination of Gu, Hammergel, and honey sticks. It would be an honor to wear one of your shirts, dude.

  23. Comment by Unknown | 11.23.2005 | 3:04 pm

    I have to agree with Botched. The mass of the spinning wheels would not be enough to propel the mass of the rider forward at an appreciable velocity, if you stop pedaling when falling off. Then again, I have no direct experience with rollers, using a trainer instead.

  24. Comment by Unknown | 11.23.2005 | 7:50 pm

    I’d have to agree that I find this a bit hard to believe. I used to ride rollers in the winter when I was in high school. I fell off the side a couple of times and nothing horrible happened.On the other hand, one of my friends decided he wanted to try the rollers one day. He got going pretty fast and then decided he wanted to stop. So he put on the brakes. The spinning wheels of the bike don’t have a lot of kinetic energy, but the rollers themselves are pretty heavy. So he put on the brakes and the spinning rollers shot him off backwards across my bedroom. It was pretty funny.As for the choice of entertainment while riding, mine was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s "Brain Salad Surgery" album. I rode for 25 minutes, which was one side of the record. (It was 1977. CDs hadn’t been invented yet) That was enough to work up a good sweat.

  25. Comment by Stephen | 11.26.2005 | 10:45 pm

    I actually got a visual on this one – still laughing out loud. For real, Out loud.NO one is going to be able to top this one. Ever.s.

  26. Comment by Unknown | 11.27.2005 | 10:13 pm

    I’m with Botched – just stop pedaling already Fatty! But the skid/accelerate/rapid deceleration/ dismount cycle explains why I feel at home here in this comments section. Clearly, I’m in the presence of fellow dinosaurs, whose sensory receptors communicate only erratically, and slowly at that, with their brains. I find that instead of shooting off the rollers, I merelytip over, and the square frame on the rollers, coupled with the protruding square pegs (Kreitler – the Pain Inducer of Champions) will take one (or two if you are lucky) 90 degree chunks out of the shin nearest the torture device. A clean wound, if ever I’ve seen one. Best of all, since the rollers creep out your wife, who views their unnatural operation with the same disapproval that she’d view a hot, 22 year old, live-in, Brazilian au pair, you will experience the pain without crying out, without hollering, and with the appropriate British Public School stiff upper lip, lie back and think of England and all. "That noise was nothing, honey. Just dropped my water bottle, that’s all." You’ll probably even clean up the spatters of blood that drip on the floor as you hop into the laundry room, to wash your leg off in the laundry tub. The LBS is starting up thrice weekly roller derbies in a couple weeks and I’m still not sure about whether to take the rollers, or to pony up for a mag trainer. On the one hand, if I can pull off the "Have Mercy" Spinerval without crashing and wiping out the glass display case containing the high end gruppos, I’ll be considered a hero. On the other hand, the more likely option is I’ll have a huge and embarassing wipeout, which will also become legendary just not in the same way. Thoughts, anybody?


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