As well as there being several types of exercise bike, upright, recumbent and studio, there are also several types of resistance mechanism. Understanding the types of exercise bike resistance is an important factor when you are thinking of purchasing an exercise bike. There are three main categories. The first two, direct contact braking and magnetic braking, rely on a flywheel turning as you pedal. The third type, air resistance, forces a fan through the air to provide the force against which you pedal.
Below we will go into more detail on each type, discussing their pros and cons.
Before getting into the detail of direct contact and magnetic braking systems we first need to talk about the flywheel. This is because it is the flywheel that they both create resistance against as you cycle.
The flywheel is a weighted metal disk located at the front of the exercise bike, where the front wheel would be on a road bike. It is connected to the pedals via a chain or belt, much like a road bike. By pedalling you are transferring energy in order to make this disk rotate. Momentum and energy is stored in the flywheel, it continues to spin after you stop pedalling until all of the energy is used up.
So that significant resistance is applied, a typical flywheel is usually pretty heavy, in the region of 20 kg. This makes the first few rotations tough, but once speed is built up momentum means the wheel spins more easily. However this approach has it’s limitations…
The weight of the wheel becomes a limiting factor. Theoretically the wheel would need to become heavier to provide greater resistance. However this would mean it would have to become larger as well. So there would potentially be a case where the front wheel becomes so large the exercise bike would look like a penny farthing! Clearly not practical. To overcome this problem further resistance is applied by applying a braking system. Either in the form of a direct contact brake or a magnetic brake. These create further resistance in just the same way as braking on a road bike makes it harder for the wheel to turn.
Direct contact braking system
Direct contact braking systems use friction to provide resistance. It is the same principle that road bikes use as brakes to stop the bikes forward momentum. Only in the case of exercise bikes they make the wheel harder to turn without stopping it completely. A brake pad is applied directly to the flywheel, reducing the rotational speed and momentum that you produce by pedalling. This type of resistance can be applied at various levels, much like gears on a road bike, and at an accurate and consistent tension. Therefore you can customise a workout to your objectives and level of fitness.
The brake pads are usually made from either felt or rubber, providing the direct fiction. This direct contact friction can lead to mechanical deterioration over time. The brake pads will wear with use from regular friction and heat. This means that they need to be replaced after time. As the braking is mechanical, with two surfaces rubbing against each other, it also produces noise as a side effect. Different qualities of exercise bike and the brake pad materials used can govern the level of noise. When compared to the other types of exercise bike resistance types, a direct contact braking system is generally quieter than air resistance but noisier than magnetic braking.
Magnetic breaking system
Magnetic braking bikes have overtaken direct contact resistance as the most popular type of exercise bike on the market today. Whereas they used to be more expense, advances in technology have reduced the price discrepancy between magnetic and direct resistance exercise bikes.
In the case of magnetic exercise bikes the resistance is created by magnetic force applied to the flywheel. This force slows the flywheel reducing the momentum, meaning you have to pedal harder to keep it spinning. Magnetic resistance is very accurate and consistent, and can be altered easily with the touch of a button or turn of a dial.
As there is no direct contact to the flywheel, magnetic bikes are very quiet. This lack of contact and friction also means that the parts do not wear in the way that they do on a direct contact braking resistance system. These are the quietest, smoothest exercise bikes with the least wear and tear. It is these properties that have made magnetic resistance exercise bikes the most popular.
Air resistance system
Air resistance exercise bikes are less frequently seen than the other two types of bike. Instead of using a flywheel, they instead use a large fan to provide resistance against the air.
The fan is connected to the pedals by a belt and pulleys, in a similar fashion to some flywheels. When you pedal the fan is forced through the air. This provides greater resistance the faster you pedal. Therefore to increase the difficulty of a workout you need to pedal faster rather than apply more force against a flywheel.
These are the noisiest of the three resistance systems, but the mechanism is extremely simple and therefore requires little upkeep. The fact that resistance is only applied by speed makes it he least flexible in terms of variety of workout. Another factor in these being seen less often. However a bonus is that the fan creates a cool breeze that can keep you cooler throughout your workout!
So is there a best type of resistance? Each have their selling points. Direct contact and magnetic braking systems are very similar while air resistance has its own unique way of operating. Magnetic are the quietest and smoothest. While it used to be the case that direct braking exercise bikes were less expensive, this is no longer the case. Plus they need parts replacing more often than the others. If I had a gun to my head and had to pick I would choose a magnetic resistance exercise bike. But that is not to say you wont get a great workout and years of use out of one of the other types of exercise bike resistance.
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