I dislike elliptical trainers with such passion that I've been tempted to join Facebook just so I can start an I Hate Ellipticals fan page. There's just something so unnatural and particularly monotonous about the machine's movement that I'd gladly do 10 burpees for every minute on the machine (and regular readers know I loathe burpees most of all).
So imagine my skepticism upon first glimpsing the Streetstrider, which basically looks like the lovechild of an elliptical and a bicycle. Seriously, I wondered, is this thing for real?
As its name suggests, the machine was expressly designed to take the elliptical experience outdoors. Invented by Dave Krauss, a former professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it is weight-bearing but low impact and, unlike a bike, offers an upper body workout without the hunched back and groin pressure.
Graham and Carol MacDonald are a Midland, Ont.-based couple who recently started selling Streetstriders after reading about the California-based company in Oxygen magazine (the machines also had a cameo on TV's The Biggest Loser).
The pair of sixty-somethings, the epitome of Moses Znaimer's "zoomer" generation, count running and cycling among their daily activities. "For runners who no longer feel like they can run, this is a great tool, and a cross-trainer for runners on days when they don't do runs," Mrs. MacDonald explained, adding that it also burns calories.
For our first meeting, Mrs. Macdonald advised somewhere quiet and away from traffic. I live downtown so I suggested the leafy residential streets of Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. We clearly have very different definitions of quiet. As soon as I came face-to-handlebar with the machine, I realized that even these relatively quiet avenues were too busy for my maiden Streetstrider cruise. So we settled on a nearby parking lot.
Before stepping on, I feared I would topple over. Mr. MacDonald reassured me that he's never witnessed this happening and he's taken the machine on trails, up and down hills and over stone paths. (That said, wear a helmet.)
But this doesn't mean you can just zone out – and who hasn't on an elliptical? I found I had to constantly be aware of centring my body and engaging my core to stay balanced and to eliminate wobbling.
More than anything else, the Streetstrider requires real effort. It's like a bike: If you want to go somewhere, you are the only one who can propel it forward and maintain the momentum. Turning can be tough; it took time before I understood how leaning my body would move the front wheels left or right. Once I got the swing of it, I actually started having fun. Not the most fun of my life, but a vast improvement on my elliptical experience.
On the MacDonalds' recommendation, our second session took place on the Leslie Street Spit, where we could stride uninterrupted for miles. It was hot and sunny and there was a headwind, adding another degree of difficulty.
"How does this compare to running," Mrs. MacDonald asked at one point.
"It's … not … easy," I managed to reply, too winded to offer much more.
She suggested that I increase my gear, which seems counterintuitive. But it allowed me to stride less and coast more.
It's possible to reach some impressive speeds with the Streetstrider. In the parking lot, I got up to 19 km/h, and on the spit, Mr. MacDonald estimates we were cruising at a breezy 25 km/h (he has reached 58 km/h going downhill). This probably explains why I was drenched at the end of our 40-minute ride.
For each of their visits, the MacDonalds transported the machines in their minivan; apparently, three bolts come out and, presto, everything folds up quite nicely.
For many people, the price – $1,599 for the three-speed, $1,999 for the eight-speed – might seem steeper than the hills a StreetStrider is capable of climbing. Some strider models come with indoor stands so they can be used in the winter. By comparison, ellipticals average around $900, although a quick browse on the Fitness Depot site revealed a price-range from $398 to $4,388. But the biggest downside, as I see it, is space-related. You can plop an elliptical into the corner of a basement but, outdoors, this machine demands wide-open roads, boardwalks or nature paths. You think Rob Ford is anti-bike? Imagine how he'd feel about designating lanes big enough for StreetStriders.
There's that truism that we never forget how to ride a bike. I think this also applies to the Streetstrider, and I look forward to my next adventure, whenever that may be. Still, I can stride with my own two feet – on any street I want.