Assault bikes are, for want of a better phrase, awful. Just awful. I remember how excited I was when my gym first got an old air bike. I hopped on, busted a gut for 2 minutes and then jumped off, vowing never again to use such a horrid machine. Funnily most people I chat to have a similar story to tell.
Now there are a few people I train with who claim to love the assault bike. Such an admission proves that there are indeed sociopaths present in all walks of life …
More seriously, the assault bike is now one of the more popular cardio machines. Used by Crossfitters, professional athletes and the average gym goer, the assault bike has grown in popularity over the past decade and a half.
Today’s post looks at the history of the air bike which, I was surprised to learn, is far longer than I gave it credit for. We’ll examine its origins, original markets and, of course, its rapid rise in usage.
History of the Exercise Bike
The first exercise bicycle could arguably be traced to the late eighteenth century when Francis Lowndes introduced British society to his multi-purpose health machine, the “Gymnasticon.” This machine was, if you use your imagination, a nice precursor to the assault bike itself as it combined arm pulleys with pedals for the feet. Now admittedly it was unlikely to be used with the same intensity as the modern day Assault bike but it is fun to play with such ideas.
Lowndes’ innovation aside, indoor stationery bikes did not truly grow in popularity until the mid to late nineteenth century. A key reason for this was the popularisation of the bicycle itself. We previously discussed the emergence of bicycles in Western Europe during the opening decades of the nineteenth century.
The desire to cycle eventually joined with the physical culture movement of the nineteenth century to produce a series of machines and workout devices that could be used in private gymnasiums or in the privacy of one’s own home. From the late 1870s to the early 1900s, a time when bicycles themselves had grown in popularity, the exercise bike came into existence.
One nice example of the kinds of machines used during this time were the ‘racing bike’ machines found in the Titanic’s gymnasium.
Such bikes people to exercise virtuously on these indoor machines. Other iterations had two bikes side by side so that you could race against friends.
My very talented colleague at the Stark Center, Ryan Blake, has previously written on the Narragansett Machine, which resembled that shown above. Blake described it thusly
Manufactured by Narragansett Machine Company of Providence, R.I. around the turn of the twentieth century, this pair of stationary exercise bikes are relics of the “bike boom” that swept the country in the 1890s. Each bike connects to a color-coordinated hand on the nearly 4-foot diameter dial measuring distance; the first rider to cover the four laps equaling one mile was the winner of bragging rights and, it is easy to imagine, a friendly wager or two.
Retailing for $200 at a time when the average wage in the United States was 22 cents per hour, these trainers were most likely to be found in private or institutional gyms, such as YMCA or university facilities.
Other versions were decidedly less competitive and far less vigorous as evidenced by the below exercise bike from the early 1900s.
Among the numerous companies selling exercise bikes during this time was the Schwinn Bicycle Company. Founded in the late nineteenth century, the company grew in time to become one of America’s most popular companies. The need to innovate and maintain its superior position led, inadvertently, to the birth of the Assault Bike.
A Bike is Born – The AirDyne
One of the many innovations introduced by Schwinn over the next several decades was the Airdyne bike. Created during the height of the keep fit and jogging craze in America, the Airdyne bike was of the few fitness products of the 1970s that has continued into this very day. Introduced in 1978 the bike seemed to promise a whole body workout at a time when the American concern with cardiovascular health was at a fever pitch. Johnathon Black’s work on the American health industry at this time stressed the fact that heart health was at an all time premium in the US – the Airdyne bike promised a hard cardiovascular workout which, importantly, would only take a few minutes. Unsurprisingly, the bike proved to be one of Schwinn’s best-ever selling products.
The Airdyne bike proved to be a godsend for the company. The 70s interest in keep fit culture had created something of a bubble in the health industry. Said bubble continued for several years before bursting in the late 1980s. Such was the financial strain based on the producers of health equipment that many went out of business. Schwinn didn’t, largely due to the popularity of the Airdyne! In 1988, at a time when others were struggling, Schwinn boasted profits of $212 million. The Gulf War of the early 1990s put a dent in Schwinn’s profits but the company managed to hang on during the 1990s for both itself, and, its products, to survive.
A Pretender to the Throne? The Air Assault Bike
The Air Assault Bike, as we know and … ahem … love, was the result of Crossfit fanatics gone wrong. In the mid to late 2000s, Crossfitters across the United States began looking for new ways to make their workouts even harder. The quest for harder training led them to look towards the tried and tested Schwinn Airdyne bikes for support. There was just one problem.
While the earlier 1980s bikes were sturdy machines capable of accommodating people of all shapes and sizes, more recent versions were relatively lighter in comparison. This was problematic because Crossfitters, unlike the general training populace, were likely to use intense intervals on the Airdynes composing of one minute intense work followed by a short rest before getting back to work.
As the Airdynes precariously shook in Crossfit boxes, a company, named Air Fitness, entered the market. Working closely with Crossfit, Assault began refining and promoting a series of Airdyne bikes designed specifically for the Crossfitter in mind. By 2015, Crossfit’s association with the Assault bikes was causing excitement across the fitness industry. That the Bike began appearing in the annual Crossfit Games re-iterated its importance.
The Crossfit games gave a renewed interest to the Airdyne concept. As is so rarely admitted Crossfit came to influence the general American and European gym culture. By the late 2010s the Assault bike, and its imitators, began popping up in regular gyms, especially those chasing the new interval training friend.
Am I happy about this development? Not exactly. I, like many others, now use the Assault Bike as a clear sign that I must hate myself. I suspect others using the bike feel the same. At least we can take consolation in the fact that we are not simply caught up in a training fad, but are paying homage to the cardio chasers of the 1970s.
As always … Happy Lifting – Or in this case Sweating!