Over two dozen cyclists arrived at the Warren Street club in TriBeCa the moment their Friday lunch hour began. Filing past the two petite blonde women in sunshine yellow t-shirts at the front desk, the herd of thin women in spandex shorts and pastel Lululemon bra tops strapped spinning shoes to their feet with black Velcro and clicked down the bright hallway. They slid past the white wall covered with motivational mantras—“CHANGE YOUR BODY. TAKE YOUR JOURNEY. FIND YOUR SOUL.”—and through the doorway of Studio B to join several fit men in muscle tees, ready to ride.
A symphony of clicking filled the room as 31 cyclists latched onto their bikes and began to ride. Soft track lighting created a glow over the pedaling bodies as fresh, scented candles highlighted a stage where the lead bike posed. The speakers mounted along the ceiling’s perimeter thumped with an upbeat remix as the instructor, lean and toned with styled surfer hair, took his position center stage. Every spinner in the room screamed with excitement.
Indoor cycling extended from its West Coast roots to New York City more than two decades ago, but only in the last six years has the city’s addiction to the sport taken hold and revealed no signs of rehabilitation. As the popularity of classes like Zumba and kickboxing wanes from previous years, the number of spin class styles rivals the variety of yoga practiced throughout Manhattan as business-minded fitness buffs create niche markets for the sport. Ranging from pricey private clubs like SoulCycle, Flywheel Sports and Pedal NYC, to national gym chains like New York Sports Clubs, Equinox and Crunch Fitness; spin classes today provide exercisers with more than just an effective cardiovascular workout.
SoulCycle co-founder Julie Rice worked as a talent manager in Los Angeles, Calif., prior to moving to New York, opening her boutique club, and inviting celebrity friends to come check it out. The club hand-selects its instructors to complete an extensive certification training, aiming to provide riders with an emotional connection to their high-priced, total-body spin workout. SoulCycle currently inhabits five Manhattan and four Long Island locations, with clubs in California as well as Florida.
Other spin studios are located in larger gym chains like New York Sports Clubs and maintain a more traditional approach. Their indoor cycling classes provide a high-intensity, low-impact workout that can be modified by riders depending on their abilities and expectations. Instructors are certified through Mad Dogg Athletics, Inc., the company started by Jonathan Goldberg and John Baudhuin in 1994 that maintains the licensing rights to the term, “spinning.” NYSC and many other chains offer spin classes as a complimentary component of their gym memberships.
During the Friday lunchtime class, SoulCycle instructor Ryan Steinman controlled his class like a nightclub deejay. The spotlights behind the stage flickered when he shifted from a seated to a standing position. The pedals spun faster as he shouted words of motivation: “Fight for someone or something! We are digging deep here!” The 45-minute class left every spinner drenched in sweat and happy about it. Debra Beauford, a newcomer to SoulCycle, said, “I really felt I was not spinning by myself, but that I was a part of a team, and it made me stronger to not want to give up when the ride got challenging.”
Steinman, 30, took a roundabout route to becoming a SoulCycle instructor. A successful attorney at a top-20 New York law firm, he began attending weekly SoulCycle classes—no Blackberries allowed— to relieve the stress of his 18-hour workday. He quickly became hooked on the classes as well as the atmosphere. “There were a number of classes that I took where the lyrics of the songs or something the instructor said made me reflect on my own life, whether or not I was happy in what I was doing, and made me question how I define success,” Steinman said. He left Wall Street behind in July 2012, and one competitive audition and nine weeks of intense training later, he became one of the leaders of the SoulCycle pack.
SoulCycle participants range in age from mid-teens to mid-seventies, and each club location attracts a distinct group of men or women. “It is expensive, so you do have to have some type of discretionary income to enjoy it,” said Steinman. Single class prices start at $32 for adults and $40 for teens, not including the $3 shoe rental fee. Instructors earn $85-180 per class.
Uptown, at another lunchtime session, young mothers, middle-aged women and one elderly man adjusted their bikes for spin class at the New York Sports Clubs at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue. The smiling instructor sauntered up to her platform and connected her iPhone to the sound system, greeting her loyal spinners by name.
Instructor Tamara Jackson, 38, said she wanted to share the experience of spinning with others from her first ride in 2001. After losing her fitness edge in her 20s, suffering from untreated rheumatoid arthritis and gaining weight, she found that indoor cycling solved her fitness problems. “There was no pounding on my joints, I was getting my cardio in, and I just watched the pounds fall off,” said Jackson. By the spring of 2003, she weighed 30 pounds less and began working as a spin class instructor.
Jackson teaches classes at a dozen NYSC locations throughout New York City weekly. “I get paid to exercise. I can’t imagine a better gig. The only better job would be a doctor,” said Jackson. NYSC spin instructors earn $40-80 per class.
In the late 1980s, Jonathan Goldberg, a professional endurance cyclist from South Africa, developed the first indoor stationary bike while training for his 1986 Race Across America and subsequently founded the art of spinning. He designed a marketable product with bicycle manufacturer Schwinn after experiencing success with his new training regimen, and opened the first indoor cycling studio in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1989. The popularity of indoor cycling increased substantially throughout the past 23 years, along with the variety of styles and adaptations available across the country.
Spin class designs today include upbeat music selections, light effects and the occasional video simulation of the outdoors. A California State University, Northridge research study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise suggests that indoor cycling participants can burn 7.5-19 calories per minute, or 338-855 calories per 45-minute class. “I love how my cardio has approved since I incorporated spin into my workouts,” said Beauford.
Instructor Jackson attributed the rejuvenation of the city’s interest in indoor cycling, especially in private club venues, to the marketing efforts of fitness enthusiasts. “Indoor cycling didn’t have a brand. It was begging for someone to make it elite and bring the appeal of, ‘This is what the celebrities do,’” said Jackson. Kelly Ripa, Lady Gaga and Jake Gyllenhaal are frequent celebrity riders in the Manhattan SoulCycle studios.
Sebastian Morel-Ferreira, a New York City personal trainer with local and celebrity clientele, said, “New York is very trendy, and when people see celebrities taking the classes, they want to become part of a trendy thing,” regarding the popularity of clubs like SoulCycle.
The celebrity angle extends to the SoulCycle instructors, many of who are local singers, actors and dancers rather than industry professionals with fitness backgrounds. Their performance training helps create memorable class experiences but possibly overlooks important health concerns. After taking several SoulCycle classes, Jackson from NYSC expressed concern. “I saw very few people who had their bikes set up properly,” said Jackson. “It’s fine for one class, but over time if you ride like that you are going to hurt yourself.” Common problems linked poor bike setup include tight hip flexors and pain in the knees.
Two one-pound dumbbells cling to the back of each SoulCycle bike seat until the weight training component of the spin class begins. Unimpressed by SoulCycle’s attempt to create a total-body spin class, Jackson said, “If you are going to lift weights, lift weights. Take 20 minutes and go lift some weights. Don’t try to jam it all in.”
Regardless of spinning style—and club— preferences, the dedicated indoor cyclists of New York City search for a sense of routine in their workouts by sticking with their favorite instructors. “The people who spin usually just spin and follow their instructors all over town,” said Jackson.
Some spin enthusiasts enjoy the classes so much that they visit various clubs to get their weekly fix. After her first ride with the SoulCycle team, Beauford said, “In the 45-minute class, I burned 611 calories, the same that I do when I take spin class at NYSC.” She enjoys attending classes at both clubs because the different styles offer her a variety of moves to integrate in her cardiovascular workouts. “I am the type of person that needs to be constantly challenged or do different things when I work out; otherwise, I will get bored easily,” said Beauford.
Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop