The Freecross is the brainchild of Wolfgang Eisenberg. After an injury, Eisenberg found that cycling put too much strain on his lower back and running was too high-impact. He enjoyed using the cross-trainer, but found being stuck in the gym boring. In a eureka moment, he decided to adapt the cross-trainer for outdoor use. His baby, the Freecross, was launched in Germany last year, and made it over to the UK this summer.
The short promotional film (embedded below) shows healthy, happy people whizzing around wide, clean – and, crucially, empty – streets on a cross-trainer on wheels. But how would it work in the real world of lorries, red lights and crowded city streets? I decided to find out.
The makers of the Freecross promote it as a great cardiovascular workout and an effective way to build strength in the arms, shoulders, chest, abdominals, back and legs. It is also said to improve balance and coordination. A study by the German Sport University in Cologne found that the Freecross burned around 25% more calories than cycling. It sounded promising; I couldn't wait to get started.
The trial run
I headed to the Covent Garden branch of Soho Gyms, a fitness chain that hires out the Freecross by the hour, for a trial run. My first attempt to ride it lasted precisely three seconds: I jumped on, veered wildly across the road, and threw myself off again. But after that first abortive attempt, I got the hang of it surprisingly quickly. The steering is quite intuitive; you simply lean in the direction you wish to go, as if you are skiing.
My instructor and I cruised around the quieter backstreets of Covent Garden while I gained confidence. Alarmingly soon it was time to hit the main tourist trail. The Freecross is licensed for road use, so we were sharing space with the cars and taxis of central London. The main impediment to speed, though, was the people. Covent Garden is thronged with tourists at the best of times, and on a sunny lunchtime it is heaving. Cross-training my way down Long Acre, a particularly busy shopping street, was a little surreal.
As a cyclist, I'm used to being a universal figure of hate, but this machine seemed to bring out the best in people. Everyone - tourists, builders, office workers – seemed to delight in seeing us ride past on our funny-looking 'bikes'. They all wanted to talk to us, bombarding us with questions: "What is it?" "Is it a cross-trainer?" "I want one of those!"
Back at the gym, my instructor warned: "You'll feel it in your arms and thighs tomorrow." So what? I was hooked.
Monday: The pick-up
What a rude awakening. I picked up my allotted Freecross from Camden, north London. It was grey, cold, and pouring with rain - not ideal conditions for my mudguard-less machine. I pushed it through the centre of Camden towards the canal, beginning to realise just how big the thing is compared to a bike, and how unwieldy.
Camden is similar to Covent Garden in that it is full of tourists, but they are a very different breed. They are young. They are cool. And they are not fascinated or delighted by a weird bike. On the contrary, a weird bike seems to make them quite cross. I got as much attention as I had before, but this time it wasn't welcome. The cool kids stared at me with utter, utter contempt. How could anyone be so criminally lame, they thought. What a loser.
I was burning with embarrassment by the time I reached the lock. The glares, the whispers, the total refusal to move out of the way … By contrast, no one batted an eyelid when a 6ft 2in septuagenarian man walked past in a dress and a large floppy hat. That's good, of course – it's great to see diversity in action. But where is the acceptance for the freaky bike riders of the world?
Once on the canal, I was mostly shielded from public view. But there was a new problem: riding a three-wheeled cross-trainer along a narrow, winding path. In the pouring rain. Next to a bloody great canal. Why had this seemed like a good idea? In actual fact, it wasn't too bad once I got going and stopped imagining my bloated body being pulled out of the canal alongside a rusted Freecross. The scariest part was going through dark tunnels and around blind bends. Other than that, it was quite exhilarating.
Tuesday: The park
The main challenge of owning a Freecross is the incredible difficulty of getting the damn thing in and out of the house. In theory it folds up to a slightly more manageable size, but as the guys at the gym had spent 10 minutes trying – and failing – to demonstrate this function, I didn't even attempt it. And anyway it's not just the size, it's the weight: it weighs a tonne. I live on the fifth floor of a block of flats, which luckily has a lift. I had to reverse the Freecross in to the lift, flip it upside down, and then lift it off the floor for the duration of the journey. That was the only way the doors would close and, believe me, it got tiresome before the week was out.
My front door and hall were too narrow to simply wheel the Freecross in and out. I had to inch it this way and that, scratching paintwork and stubbing fingers, before finally getting it through the door. When it was inside, it sat in the hallway like a malevolent Cerberus, filling the space. Visitors had to squeeze past it. The cats eyed it suspiciously. I began to refer to it bitterly as "that contraption".
However, once I got it out and into the park, it came into its own. A well-maintained park is the natural habitat of the Freecross (unless you're lucky enough to live in a seaside town with a sweeping seafront, aka my fantasy Freecross terrain). I zoomed around the wide paths, surrounded by after-work joggers and cyclists and dog walkers. An exercise bike didn't seem at all out of place here, and most people didn't look twice.
I took it 'off-road' to meet my friends, who were sitting on the grass. After the laughter had died down everyone was desperate to have a go, and took turns riding it around the park. They all agreed that it was fun, but had serious reservations. "Are you really going to ride it to work? On the road? With cars?" Um, yes.
Wednesday: The commute
There are good things about going to work on a Freecross. For one, you get some fresh air and serious exercise while most people are stuck inside cars, buses and trains. The same can be said of cycling, but you work up more of a sweat on a Freecross. The movement of an elliptical trainer is much less efficient than that of a bike, which is great for fitness because you have to work harder to get anywhere. (On that note, you'll find that you use all eight gears of the Freecross, even on relatively small hills). Of course, that inefficiency has a downside: if speed is of the essence, the Freecross is not your friend. My commute time doubled.
Drivers tended to give me a wide berth, which was a welcome change – bus and lorry drivers can often seem on a mission to kill pedal-powered travellers. But if being more visible has its upsides, it certainly has it downsides too. I couldn't believe the attention I got. Pedestrians stopped in the middle of the road, open-mouthed. Children literally chased me down the street. Smokers outside pubs shouted for their friends to come and look. One driver nearly crashed after craning his head out of the window to get a better view. Two men even stopped their van and got out to take a picture. Truly, British manners are not what they were.
At work, the Freecross was certainly a talking point. The usual awkward silence in the bike lift was filled with questions. It even led to an invitation to appear on the Guardian's bike podcast. Close colleagues rushed to have a look - and have a go. Some took to it like they'd be born to Freecross; others had to be stopped for their own safety.
Thursday: The reprieve
I planned to ride the Freecross to my korfball training session, but the rain was so torrential it was called off. After the ordeal of commuting, I have to admit I was relieved.
Friday: The photoshoot
I risked life and limb trying to get the perfect shot of the Freecross on the busy road outside the office (see top picture, above). There was more embarrassment to endure as various amused colleagues barracked me while I simultaneously posed and dodged buses, not to mention the passers-by who now had a weird bike AND a big camera to gawp at. This week couldn't be over quick enough …
Weekend: The injury
Be careful what you wish for. At the weekend I dislocated my shoulder in a kayaking accident, and that was the end of my Freecross experience. My boyfriend returned the machine a day early, preferring to push it all the way – a journey of an hour and a half! – rather than risk riding it (he is somewhat challenged in the balance department). It just goes to show that the Freecross is not for everyone.
Unless you live in a mansion in the leafy countryside, it's probably not worth splashing out two grand on your very own Freecross. It's extremely cumbersome and not exactly practical for the daily commute – indicating and hill starts are particularly difficult. If, on the other hand, you're passing a gym that stocks the Freecross and you fancy some exercise, it's a great way to spend an hour. Grab a friend and head to the park.
If you're riding around on a Freecross, especially on your own, expect a LOT of attention. You may need to be pretty embarrassment-proof, but hold your head up high and pump those arms and legs. Riders of the dandy horse, the boneshaker and the penny-farthing probably felt like this once, and look how far the bicycle has come …
• Soho Gyms rents out the Freecross for £10 an hour. For more information on hiring or buying, visit sohogyms.com