After months of promising and distraction by other events it is finally time to talk about Sufferfest!
I will start off today with a bit of a Meet Cute, as I first came across Sufferfest a few years ago in a magazine (Men’s Fitness I think), where one of the reviewers was talking about an insane new program, where people rode stationary bikes whilst watching a torturous video of cyclists riding Le Tour or something similar, and trying to keep up like some sort of computer game. At the time I was doing Olympic Triathlons and whilst I had a turbo trainer, I had never even done a spin class, but was looking to try to find ways to motivate myself to go longer, so looked into buying one of the DVDs. Sadly they were a bit out of my price range, so I thought better not to not take the risk and forgot all about it, and kept trundling along on my bike in the lounge, watching endless repeats of the training montage from Rocky IV to spur me on.
Fast forward a couple of years, and thanks to Les Mills RPM and some great instructors I have turned into a spin class addict, ensuring I do at least one session per week (preferably more), even down to the part where I have special clipless cycling shoes especially for indoor spinning (in addition to my regular tri bike shoes) and do most of my solo bike training whilst listening to bike specific RPM tracks.
So I was pretty excited when I got back from an Easter holiday to discover my gym’s spin studio was being refurbed, and a new AV system being put in place which would allow ‘virtual’ spin classes, and specifically they had purchased a licence to run Sufferfest sessions, so obviously I had to give it a go so booked myself onto one of the launch classes. But what it is all about?
It turns out that there is more to it than just watching Bradley Wiggins on a big screen and pedalling as furiously as possible to keep up (although there are plenty of famous riders in the films); there is a whole back story / history within Sufferfest. Originating in the fantastically named fictional Kingdom of Sufferlandria, where riding is religion, suffering is a must if you want to achieve mastery. Only those who work the hardest, ride the fastest and climb the steepest hills are considered worthy. This is all made clear to you during the introductory video, which explains how the on screen instructions work, and gives you a scale of how hard you need to work. Having done a few different classes now, these are always different, and usually raise a few laughs, involving phrases such as’Ride like you are being chased by angry Sufferlandrian wilderbeasts’.
Those involved in the videos who support you in becoming a hero cyclist are classed as Minions, whilst non riders are given the ultimate insult of eating donuts in the rival region of Couchlandria, where hard work is shirked. There are a lot of nice little touches to add some humour to what could otherwise be a pretty painful and serious experience, such as at one point during one of the films where people might otherwise be slacking off, a door appears onscreen, and a large gentleman enters the room like a door to door salesman asking if you are from Couchlandria as you are not working hard enough!
The classes being with a fantastically overblown, James Bond style title / credits sequence, where details of what you are going to be down are interspaced with animated shapes morphing across the screen, accompanied by classical music to build up some atmosphere. Whilst this is totally irrelevant to the remainder of the class, as a massive Bond fan myself, I personally enjoy this bit, plus there is the bonus that it is the few minutes of the class where you are not in pain.
The format it actually very straightforward, with one countdown bar to show you how long you have left until the next section, one to give your cadence (pedalling speed), and one to say how hard your gear should be. This also tends to be well mapped to what you see on-screen, so when the riders start going uphill you gear up and slow down, and when they come down you can open the gas and start pushing faster. And really that is the main thing you need to go. There are other elements, such as notices to get out of the saddle for hills, and warnings that an increase is coming up (by way of an engine revving sound) but otherwise they stick to the Keep it Simple Stupid formula.
The videos / classes range from shorter 20 minute blasts, to full hour and a half marathons, and have at least a dozen different varieties, each with its own theme depending on the workout target. Examples of ones I have tried include ‘Do As You’re Told’ which involves a race where you are followed by a support vehicle who tells you to speed up or slow down during certain parts of the event depending on team tactics to practice your endurance and sprint skills, ‘Climbing Angels’, where you complete sections of the Giro d’Italia, which unsurprisingly involves a lot of hill climbs, and others with names like ‘The Wretched’, ‘Long Scream’ and ‘A Very Dark Place’ which I will leave to your imagination.
One moment I particularly enjoyed during Do As You’re Told was when the guys in the car following received a text (from Dr von Agony) saying it did not look like you were working hard enough (with a cat meme and everything !). It was also quite a nice moment when at one point you got a virtual puncture and a few minutes rest!
As you would expect, there is music throughout the films, which all seems to be either custom-made for the videos, or at least non-mainstream, as I have not recognised any of the bands or tracks so far. This is actually good, as it means the music does not distract you too much as the tracks change every couple of minutes, so you don’t find yourself singing along. The tunes tend to be on the heavy side, either hard rock or hip hop, and whilst they do not match the pace perfectly as they do in say an RPM class where you could track your speed even with your eyes closed, they do at least fit the mood of whatever you are following on-screen, such as sprinting or powerclimbing.
There are also some interesting and even unexpected extras in the classes. Th first one I did for example had a whole separate five minute docu-film at the end, as a warmdown of sorts, about a young lad in the Lake District who was trying to ride fast enough to set off a speed camera on a quiet country road. It showed various clips of him riding and making improvements to his bike, clothing, helmet and so on, each time getting slightly faster and more aerodynamic to try to beat the camera. Totally irrelevant to the 45 minutes that preceded it, but actually fascinating as a study of speed, which most cyclists find themselves interested in at some point.
So is it any good? Well as with everything there are positives and negatives. Because it is automated it makes great use of the cycle studio at my gym, taking the number of classes from around 20 per week, to nearly 100, meaning you can get in and do some extra training almost whenever you want. Because it is all pre-programmed in and automated, the classes will also always start and finish bang on time, which is even better if you are in a rush, although it has meant that on occasions the projection screen suddenly drops down during the cooldown in my regular spin class, much to our instructor’s annoyance.
The videos on screen are really high quality, and make the most of he fantastic locations they feature, most notably the Tour, Giro and Vuelta (in France, Italy & Spain respectively), with stunning views of mountain tops, alpine forests and seaside cliffs to motivate you. This is countered by the fact that you lose the element of imagination you can get in a spin class when imagining climbing a volcano or riding through a desert landscape (or is that just me?!) Obviously there are those who are against all indoor cycling and say ‘why not just go ride outside’ but this really does make it feel like you are taking part in these glamorous and famous races, that in reality would never actually happen to most people. On that note, when you do it in a fairly full studio it feels even more like you are in a peloton as you hear others whirring around you, although it does still work well when you are on your own and want a bit of (virtual) company for your ride.
Although it is available to riders of all abilities, the fact it is not directly ‘coached’ does mean it is more suitable for experienced riders, who know what they are doing with gears and bike set ups, particularly as there is no stretching at the end. Also whilst the jokes and other motivation (or beating with a stick!) does encourage you along, it can’t compete with having an experienced instructor in the room who can offer advice, tailor the class to your targets, or even slow down if you are struggling (and of course speed up if you are slacking). For those who have not done any indoor riding before, I would recommend going to some normal spin classes before, to learn how to properly set up your bike to avoid injuries and ensure maximum effort, before going into something like this, but of course it is open to anyone.
Having done most of these now, I would say if the opening few paragraphs of this piece sound like your idea of fun, you would love this kind of thing, but if Couchlandria sounds more your thing then that is understandable!
Next time, Sufferfest goes big, with the ‘National Day of Suffering’…