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I’d suspected something was off about the resistance on my Peloton bike for some time.

For one, even though I’d been doing 50 to 60 minutes of exercise seven days a week (combination of cycling, yoga, strength training, stretching, walking) for 18 months, my marginal gain on my average output per ride was rather slight, and my ranking against other Pelotoners was actually slipping from somewhere around the 40th percentile to more like the 25th to 30th percentile.

These results could be, to some degree, explicable. As hard as I might’ve been working, other people on the app could be working harder, so whatever gains I was making were being outstripped by the others around me. During rides, I often struggled to keep my cadence and/or resistance in the range called out by the instructor. Perhaps I just wasn’t up to (median) Peloton snuff.

I recall one ride where Emma Lovewell said I should crank my resistance to 65 or higher and I exclaimed, “Go eff yourself,” in frustration because I could barely turn the pedals on the bike at 65, even if I was standing.

While I might’ve been working hard for me, I’m not young, and only getting older. My effort might’ve been enough to mitigate some effects of the advance of time, but unlike other Pelotoners, my days of improvement were over.

However, once the audience of riders came back into the studio and I could glimpse the cadence and resistance numbers on some of their screens, I became more suspicious. There were people pushing resistances while sitting up on the bike that would’ve required me to really bear down. Either these people had superhuman leg strength, or I was much weaker than I figured.

The final straw was a visit from my older brother over the holidays. He is an avid amateur triathlete and has finished in the top five for his age group (55-60) at multiple events, including the Chicago triathlon. He is at or near the top in terms of overall fitness for people his age.

He did a 30-minute ride on my Peloton, trying his hardest to beat my highest output—which he did, jerk—but even so, was still slightly under the median for all Peloton riders.

His output was also well below what he tracked in his training and racing.

It turns out that every so often you’re supposed to calibrate your Peloton bike. To my knowledge, this is not something Peloton ever told me, but if you’re willing to wait on hold for a few minutes and jump through a couple of hoops, they’ll send you a “self-calibration” kit, which allows you to check the bike’s setup.[1]

I recalibrated the bike last night. This morning I hopped on for a 30-minute ride, and when I hopped off, my output was almost double my usual average, and relative to other Peloton riders, I’d risen from the 30th to the 90th percentile.

Apparently, for months and months I’d been the Harrison Bergeron of Peloton, weighed down by extra magnetism against my bike’s flywheel.

On the one hand, awesome, turns out I’m in the 90th percentile, and truth be told, I left something in the tank. If I really laid it all out there, I could probably push that even higher.

On the other hand, holy smokes, does this reinforce the fact that relative rankings can be more misleading than they are illuminating!

Let’s face it, I have no idea if I actually belong in the 90th percentile, given that the calibration of the bike could’ve swung too far the other direction and I’m pedaling against less resistance than others.

As I recently learned, even when they ship, Peloton accepts a 10 percent tolerance from the median on their bikes when it comes to relative resistance, meaning two riders at the opposite polls could be 20 percent apart, and Peloton would certify those bikes as working perfectly well.

In a previous entry in my Pelton Pedagogy series, I wrote about how I’d never put that much stock in the relative ranking, instead finding value in the actual benefits of increased fitness, but I will admit that slipping against myself prior to recalibration was somewhat demotivating. I mean, if I’m just on a slow but steady decline down, why bother?

Fortunately, I do feel better when I’m exercising, so those benefits were sufficient to keep me going.

But for sure, it is nice to know that in the ways we measure fitness I am more fit than the numbers were indicating.

But my actual fitness is not changed in the slightest by this recalibration. Fortunately, there was exactly zero riding on my Peloton numbers.

Me being me, I began to think about analogues to how we rank students in academic contexts and how believing in those rankings requires a lot of faith in things that appear objective and consistent but are really subjective and inconsistent.

One of the things that drove me toward alternative grading/ungrading was realizing my own inconsistencies in assessing student writing, judging one student more harshly than others when they were the 10th person to make a particular error rather than the first. My frustration would color my response.

I’d have to grade in batches, my version of recalibration, to keep the frustration from mounting.

The Peloton instructors—at least the ones I mostly ride with[2]—tend to de-emphasize the leaderboard, which I’ve always taken as principled, directing riders toward how they feel rather than where they rank, but perhaps some of this is also because the company knows that the rankings are, if not exactly arbitrary, not particularly meaningful.

Every single person is literally on a different bike. Recognizing that is an important part of persisting in exercise. If I got too invested in comparing myself to others, I’d spend much more time wondering if the work is worth it.

Since not long after starting to ride, I got in the habit of hiding the leaderboard on the screen because of its potential to distract me from the focus of trying to ride with good form and to indeed concentrate on how I’m feeling.

With students, it’s pretty much the opposite. Grades and their standing are ever-present in their lives, particularly with learning management systems that alert them to a newly posted grade with a notification.

Personally, I don’t think that’s healthy. Not good, if learning is the goal anyway, either.

[1] Newer bikes have a self-calibration setting you can walk through in less than a minute. My older bike took me less than 10 minutes using the kit.

[2] Christine, Denis, Emma, Jenn, what up!

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