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by Peter Flax
May 3, 2018
Photography by courtesy SoulCycle
The ride began in the dark. I was out of the saddle — and out of my element — from the start.
I heard a voice echoing inside my head that was loudly imploring me to pedal like I love myself and then I remembered that the ride leader, a woman surrounded by gothic candles and noodling on a laptop, was wearing a headset with a microphone and loudly imploring me to pedal like I loved myself. I was not feeling a lot of self-directed love in that moment. I was being asked to quickly turn over an easy gear as I was out of the saddle and I was mostly in love with the thought of sitting down so I could spin that gear more comfortably.
Over a thumping club beat, Justin Timberlake was crooning that it was amazing to be in a maze with me and I was feeling the wry truths of his poetry way more viscerally than usual. I also was feeling something else— let’s call it regret — because I hadn’t bought a $3 bottle of water before this class had begun. Now, as the room started broiling, I seemed to be the only rider in attendance who wasn’t wearing a sports bra. My Cinelli T-shirt was already heavy with sweat.
To be fair, the whole exercise was my own idea: For a lifelong roadie to take a SoulCycle class and write a piece of fish-out-of-water comedy. It had seemed like a good idea when I pitched the idea while sipping coffee one morning, but now that I was in the thick of it — pedaling through my own thumping, literally-out-of-water tragicomedy — I felt a pang of regret.
Of course that might just have been the pang I felt shooting through my lower back.
About a half an hour earlier, I had arrived at the SoulCycle location in my Southern California hometown of Manhattan Beach. This is a community with a median home value of $2.5 million and I walked into the front door with expectations that my riding companions — who can buy a 10-pack of classes for $280 — would represent a certain demographic.
Not surprisingly, the next hour would offer subtle reminders that I don’t know shit about a bunch of things.
The small but gleaming lobby was full of carefully branded gear. I flipped through artfully merchandised racks with $185 leggings and a $58 twist-back tank top. It was basically just like all the local bike shops, but with thankfully less high viz.
I was the first one in the room, a small square studio space with 54 spin bikes arrayed around the instructor’s podium. Cool tunes were playing at a volume you might hear at Whole Foods or J.Crew.
I purposefully had reserved a bike in the back corner of the room, where I hoped I’d be able to survey the entire scene and be far enough away from the instructor to avoid scrutiny or embarrassment. Notified that a first-time visitor was in her midst, a super-friendly SoulCycle docent walked me to my bike and asked me to put my hands on my hips and then extend my forearm from the tip of the saddle so she could position my saddle properly. After she left to help someone else, I raised my seat 5cm or so.
Participants filtered into the room in twos and threes. A total of four guys would take the sold-out class; the remainder were women in their twenties, thirties, and forties.
I had called beforehand to ask what guys wear to SoulCycle but the rep on the phone didn’t give me the clarity I sought. “Guys just wear regular gym clothes,” he said, as if cyclists know what people wear to the gym.
In the end, I decided to kit up with a cotton T-shirt and ultrapremium CyclingTips bibs under Giro New Road shorts. I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the room with a chamois pad. Nearly everyone else wore tights and a tank top that they cleverly could pull off when the room got infernal.
The pedals were set up with SPD on one side and Look on the other. A good chunk of the participants rented decent looking shoes from SoulCycle, but the majority brought their own high-end road shoes to the class. I saw one woman with S-Works shoes with double Boas, and another with those pink Raphas. I was wishing I had a pair of pink Raphas to wear in the dark.
At 7:30 a.m. sharp the class began and I was quickly reminded that being in passable road-riding shape does not mean you are fit to do related forms of exercise. The instructor beseeched us to do crunches as we pedaled and then we spent one song using small dumbbells to flood our triceps and delts with lactic acid. And then the whole class started doing this move where they’d stay out of the saddle and repeatedly lower their butts to the nose of the saddle without touching it. I had thought that in the past 40 years of riding I’d experienced every manner of on-bike suffering, but I was wrong. My quads got pretty upset.
Much like you might observe if you went to see a gig at a local club, the room appeared to be stratified into subcultures. The front row was mostly lithe, fit young women who obviously had reserved those spots online and were brimming with extra enthusiasm — they looked to be the super-users. And the outer edges of the room were the domain of folks who I’d imagine at a no-drop C ride — the newbies, the modestly dressed, the folks who pedaled seated when they were asked to be standing. For an hour, these were my people.
Did I mention the tunes were thumping? I’ve reached a station in life that no longer involves late nights at the clubs. So I found it strange and moving to be in a crowded dark space full of sweaty bodies moving in synchrony as Jay Z shook the room asking for an amen. The instructor was asking us to shift our shoulders to the left and to the right with the beat, and she was toying with the lights in way that cast the room in black and white — and even though my quads were not on the same page with my mind, the fact that all this was happening as we were pedaling on bikes had an emotional component for me. Amen, Jay Z, Amen.
I was not surprised at how the instructor challenged us to pedal harder and squeeze out perfect abdominal crunches on both sides, but I was surprised about how often she bellowed positive affirmations over the club mix. If you’re deep into cycling culture you can fool yourself into thinking that the sport is welcoming and encouraging to newcomers and the meek, but the reality is that the pack demands a kind of surrender that puts up a barrier for many people.
I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m appreciative of how the pack has taught me to be resourceful and humble and socially mindful, how it actually has helped shape my character. But there in that candlelit chamber of constructive declaration, hearing someone celebrating each little effort and forgiving my meaningless weakness, someone attaching a sort of spiritual meaning to my effort, someone explicitly asking me to go a little bit deeper — all without seeming like some kind of patriarchal coach-clown — had a tangible impact on me. And I could see that it had an impact on the women in that room, feeling fully included and respected as they shredded themselves on the bike.
I have for perhaps 15 years watched the bike industry wring it hands in an attempt to reach the exact demographic that was pedaling its heart out in this room: affluent, fit, style-conscious women who seemed to having a wonderful time pedaling their asses off. There was a lot of verbalized positive spirit in the air, but the energy level felt way closer to a bike race than a leisurely spin. The aspiration was clearly to leave it all on the floor.
As I looked around the room, as my pack-mates joyfully charged deeper into zone 4, I could imagine why these classes have carved out such popularity. It’s actually pretty difficult for casual cyclists to work themselves over this good in 50 minutes, especially if they live in a city like Los Angeles and want to ride out their front door. Plus, you can’t get dropped or mansplained or pushed into the gutter by a distracted driver, you don’t have to learn how to fix a flat tire, or the nuances of a double paceline.
I found that the environment — with a toned instructor shouting kindly demands over dramatic music and lighting — eventually transported me to a place where I had no stray thoughts beyond hanging on the ride. People who have raced bikes know that feeling.
But I also wondered how many of the people in this room had been on a semi-hard bike ride outside, whether they had experienced the peculiar joys of daydreaming on a solo spin, or coasting down a curvy descent after a tough climb, or managing the tolerable discomfort of changing weather, or of talking through life’s challenges with a riding buddy. I could be wrong, of course, but my gut told me that many of the people crushing it on these stationary bikes would love those things. And that many would never try.
I had come to this class expecting to feel like an outsider. And I did. I also had come expecting to mine the humor of the idiosyncratic difference between roadie culture and SoulCycle culture. And despite my plush chamois pad, I felt that, too. But as my hourlong, water-free torture test neared its conclusion, I started to feel more in common with my spinning companions than I had foreseen.
The crux of the class came on the penultimate song, as we ripped through a hyped-up version of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” The pace of the riding shifted as the music rolled through its own tempo changes, and the opening lyrics of the song, blasting out as we rode, struck me in a different way than ever before: “Feeling my way through the darkness/Guided by a beating heart/I can’t tell where the journey will end/But I know where to start.”
During the frenetic chorus, all I could see was 54 bodies out of the saddle rising and falling with the beat as hazy light filled the room. I was surrounded by women with smiles on their faces and carbon-soled shoes on the feet, pumping out a tempo in a pack as real as any I’ve ridden before. We were dancing on bikes and it was a beautiful thing.
Peter Flax, former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine and features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, currently works as editor in chief at The Red Bulletin. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore, and he only wears leg warmers when he feels like it.