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Wait, Is That an Outdoor Elliptical Machine I Just Saw?

Indeed. And it’s just as impractical as it is unsightly

Elliptical trainers popped up seemingly out of nowhere in late 1996 (for the low, low price of $3,995 each) and took the fitness world by storm. By the end of 1997, it seemed like every worthwhile gym in the U.S. had been overrun by the hybrid children of a cross-country skier and an exercise bike, and elliptical users were reported to have topped one million. A decade after that, the number of regular elliptical users had swelled to nearly seven million

Those of us who had a firsthand view of the elliptical’s global takeover knew it would only be a matter of time before a mobile version emerged and began to clog up the bike lanes of busy city streets. If anything, I’m surprised it took as long as it did before a functional elliptical that was capable of traversing the roadways materialized outside of a gym environment.

Wait, there’s an outdoor elliptical?!?! Where did it come from?

The two elliptical varieties you’re likely to spot on the street are made by StreetStrider and ElliptiGO. The StreetStrider was the first to market, hitting the scene in 2008, and it replicated the movement of elliptical machines right down to the oscillating motion of the upright handlebars. It also came with the option to render the Streetstrider completely immobile for in-home use, enabling customers to find further justification to splurge on the StreetStrider’s $2,999 price tag.

The ElliptiGO followed the StreetStrider, with the developers of the ElliptiGO explaining that they created their product in order to help former runners enjoy the feeling of running again. They sold their first unit in February 2010, which was a less bulky, scaled-down elliptical option with handles that deviated from those of a standard elliptical machine by more closely resembling those of a scooter or a bicycle. The ElliptiGO markets itself as the sportier, more agile option between the two companies’ outdoor elliptical offerings, but the standard version is still priced at a whopping $2,699. Like the StreetStrider, it can also be modified for use inside of the home.

Why did it take so long for outdoor ellipticals to get mainstream attention?

Well, they did receive mainstream attention, but not necessarily the good kind. The StreetStrider made an appearance on Modern Family in 2012, but it was disparaged as a dorky fitness device, with Phil Dunphy’s family relentlessly ridiculing him for owning one. Meanwhile, the ElliptiGO company was dealing with a different sort of embarrassment. As 2014 approached, the company was forced to recall every unit it had sold between April 2011 and October 2013, which certainly didn’t ingratiate them with past customers.

Okay, but now that they’re here, are they any good?

You can reliably travel from point A to point B, so that’s a good start. The problem is that they can’t travel from as many point As to point Bs as some of the devices they’re competing against.

The difficulty stems from the features that make ellipticals such attractive cardio options within the gym environment: They’re low impact; the stride is more horizontal than vertical; and their movement is designed to be easier on a user’s knees than the pedaling motion of traditional bicycles. This latter point cuts straight to one of the core limitations of the portable ellipticals, which is their general inability to climb hills. 

When bicyclists encounter steep hills, they have two typical options outside of adjusting the bike’s gears for conquering the climb. First, they can elevate themselves out of the seat and accentuate the downward press against the bike’s pedals. Second, they can lean forward, better angling their bodies to provide more downward force that’s applied at an angle that directly opposes the increased incline of the road. Of course, many bicyclists opt to do both. Unfortunately, neither of these options is available on an outdoor elliptical because of the horizontal nature of the pedals’ movement pattern, and the upright positioning of the rider restricts a forward lean.

Moreover, one of the features of standard bikes that makes them so useful in traversing varied terrains is the ability of riders to achieve a low center of gravity when they’re riding them. Coupled with their relatively large tires and short lengths, bicycles preserve the ability of their riders to take sharp turns and maneuver deftly while remaining upright. In contrast, both of the elliptical devices in question are comparatively unwieldy, with smaller tires than those of bikes. More importantly, the rider is forced to maintain a high center of gravity at all times, elevating the likelihood that they’ll eventually take a nasty spill when attempting a turn while crossing any sort of challenging terrain.

The StreetStrider company says that it is possible to climb in their product, but further states that your ability to climb is dependent on your conditioning level. In addition, the StreetStrider isn’t presently available at any brick-and-mortar retail locations, which limits the ability of potential consumers to test that claim out. For their part, the people at ElliptiGO explain that their stand-up elliptical model is intended for use on paved roads and isn’t safe for use by people weighing more than 250 pounds. Since 42 percent of the U.S. male population weighs 200 pounds or more, this provision is likely to render the ElliptiGO off limits to a considerable number of guys. 

It doesn’t sound like they’re very practical.

That’s exactly the point.

Almost every stationary cardio device initially designed for use in a health club or a residence — like the treadmill, the original StairMaster, the rowing machine, the mountain climber or the stationary bike — was adapting a means of legitimate travel for a specific health purpose. These outdoor elliptical machines represent potentially the first attempts to take a product specifically intended for stationary use, and then to adapt it for a travel purpose. As it turns out, the same low-angle, low-impact and upright features that make ellipticals so attractive as easy-to-use fitness devices render them inefficient travel devices out on the open road. 

If you want to use an elliptical, I’d advise you to use one at the gym, or splurge on an exceptional stationary elliptical model and a great outdoor bike, which will collectively cost you half the price of a mobile elliptical, and prevent you from looking like Phil Dunphy in front of your friends and family members.