Now I know how the ’70s running purists felt. Imagine the Steve Prefontaine-era marathoners, clad only in their flimsy canvas tennies, short shorts and a cotton tee, transported to the present, in the middle of a modern day race, with the Gore-Tex, the wicking fabrics, the hydration belts and energy gels, the cheering crowds and the charity walkers. “What is this brave new world,” they would wonder? Is this running, or is this…something else?
That was my initial reaction, as an admitted spinning class curmudgeon, when I was thrust into the dark, pulsating, impeccably-marketed and sloganized SoulCycle universe. Is this riding an indoor bicycle or a simulacrum thereof?
Yes, we were ostensibly pedaling bikes, the proprietary SoulCycle trainers, but beyond those basics, the hour-long “Soul Survivor” class at newly-opened Roslyn SoulCycle was a bike of a different color. And that color was decidedly neon: Louder, darker, accompanied by better music, more energetic, younger and peppier. SoulCycle is like a typical gym spin class on twenty Starbucks venti coffees.
At 5pm on a recent Saturday, class instructor Rachel led the all-female, mostly twenty-something attendees in a fast-paced series of movements that were irresistible in their synchronicity. It was like cheerleading practice on stationary bikes. And it was indeed fun to be part of a peppy cycling cheerleading squad. This is probably not the class to take for those worried about keeping up with the pace or the moves. This is all about matching the instructor and the fellow cyclers move for move. Up and down, in a kind of push-up against the handlebars, while pivoting side to side, everyone in unison.
According to Ayana Wiles-Bey, a Manhattan-based instructor who spoke on behalf of the company, the soul in SoulCycle refers to “finding your soul on the bike during your ride. We encourage riders to create an intention before they take their journey during class. It gives them purpose and focus. Many riders succeed in their missions whether it be to change their bodies or their lives in some positive, life-altering way. Some feel that riding at Soul is like a moving meditation, but you also get that ‘party on a bike’ feeling. It’s very liberating.”
Founded in 2006 in Manhattan, the popularity of the indoor cycling classes skyrocketed in NYC and LA, to the point of classes booking up within minutes of appearing on the online reservation system. Not cheap, the pay per class model is borrowed from yoga studios—SoulCycle takes more than a couple nods from yoga. Personality-driven, with the intent to inspire its attendees while working-out their bodies, SoulCycle classes have their own gurus, most of which have a background in yoga, fitness, dance or theater.
At the Roslyn location, Rachel had a style reminiscent of a very peppy yoga instructor. Whipping her hair around in rhythmic circles to the music, it was tempting to view her class as part-performance, part-exercise instruction.
According to Ayana, it’s all about the instructors, who undergo a competitive audition process at SoulCycle HQ before they can take the stage in class. “The instructors and their personalities are a huge part of the SoulCycle community. Every instructor at SoulCycle is unique.” And Long Islanders appear to be duly inspired: A third studio will open in Woodbury, along with Roslyn and Bridgehampton.
Many of the movements made little sense to me from a training perspective. As someone who rides a road bike outside, and uses objective tools to measure my riding (albeit nerdy, power meters and heart rate monitors), I wished the bikes offered some kind of feedback. Interestingly, competitor Flywheel is known for displaying riders’ power outputs to encourage some healthy competition. The wild gyrations (like the push-up move), spending most of the class standing up and dancing on the pedals instead of sitting down, and lifting weights while cycling are all technically contraindicated, by both cycling and weight training experts, but who really wants to get technical? Most people want to have a good time and sweat without having to think about it.
That’s why we let a person with a microphone tell us what to do in a dark, humid room with trance-like music driving away any thinking. And by the end of class I definitely wasn’t over-thinking it any longer. I was just riding. Or maybe I’d better call it dancing.