Friday, April 28, 2006

Product Review: Expresso Fitness Spark

My health club just got a group of these new exersize bikes and usually they’re in use but I had a chance to ride one tonight. They have some very good features and some really bad flaws.

These machines have some really great video game type graphics that allow you to ride different courses while you exersize. The handlebars steer to keep you on the road, the hills make it more difficult to pedal, there are riding companions (or not) and a pacer with a constant power output, and displays for wattage, hill grade, elapsed time, heart rate, etc. Here’s a screen shot:

I can’t stress enough how cool the graphics are – several times during my workout I felt like I needed to shift my weight back so I wouldn’t go over the bars on a steep descent! There are 20 different course to ride with varying scenery and levels of intensity. They also have television if you’d rather watch that, and pre-programmed music channels so you can plug in your headphones and race your pacer at the same time. Really outstanding work on the audio visual side of things. Also, you can race against people on the machines next to you if you do the same course.

Other nice features are the two sided pedals so you can use your SPD shoes. and there is a shift lever that allows you to change through 30 sequential gears for more speed or torque.

The mechanical interface is not nearly so well designed though. The saddle adjusts up and down and front and rear but no tilt. The handlebars don’t adjust at all and they are a funky shape like you’d see on a garage sale exercycle from the 80’s. The saddle itself seemed OK but I couldn’t get it into a position that kept my butt from falling asleep. The result was a very upright riding position which puts too much weight on your ass, limits your pedaling speed, and keeps your arms tucked in too close to your body; really really awkward… almost like a dog paddle position... you can see in that top photo how high the bars are.

And one ridiculous error - the gradients on the hills are ... well, ridiculous; I rode up one that was listed as 41% !!! That probably means nothing to most people but I've never seen anything that's steeper than 32% and I'd have to walk up anything over about 20% so that just bugs me. A grade of 15% is really really steep, there's no need to exaggerate.

So the Spark gets a 7 on the Diablo Scott rating from 0 to 10. The audio video is just so cool that the time goes by a lot faster than on a spin bike, but the machinery portion needs a major redesign.

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