8 September 2017

How the Spinners Conquered the World

Looked at one way, the rise of the stationary exercise bike to the prominence it enjoys today has been a slow process. There were various early machines in use as far back as the 19th century, often involving normal bikes ridden indoors on stationary rollers. The first purpose-built home cycling machine, the Schwinn Exerciser, came out in 1968. These things have been around for a long time.

Even riding exercise bikes in organised classes with music is rather old news. The original, trademarked Spinning system was devised by a South African cyclist called Johnny G as far back as 1987, initially as a way for cyclists to train for races without braving the dangers of traffic. As originally conceived, Spinning classes were simulated cycle races complete with hills and sprints: during the 1990s they changed into musical cardio sessions, and then became rather passe.

But then in the noughties, spin classes had a renaissance. Fuelled by louder, more aggressive music and sexy instructors armed with motivational catchphrases and slogans, cycle classes became very big business. As GQ magazine puts it, describing the meteoric rise of New York based SoulCycle – perhaps the first of the new super-spinning ventures:

No employees are more important than the instructors, the faces of the brand – 277 chiseled men and women with the uncanny ability to simultaneously ride and dance on a bike.

Half motivational speaker and half sex object, the typical SoulCycle instructor looks like a soap opera star and talks like a coxswain. Instructors conduct class while literally up on a pedestal, and have such godlike followings that they’re now starring in strangely accurate music videos for mediocre electro-pop acts. We are desperate for their approval …

Apart from music and sex appeal, the spinning classes sometimes have aspects bordering on the metaphysical. Various spinning regimes have been described as “cult-like” or even “spiritual” in nature. Going to SoulCycle is, perhaps, a bit like going to a rather noisy, musical, sweaty church: among the rules on the wall of every SoulCycle gym is this one.

Talking during class is a major distraction for the spiritual folks around you.

As with more conventional religion there can be schisms within the ranks of the faithful. The rivalry between SoulCycle and its great rival Flywheel, founded by an ex-SoulCycler, is known to be intense.

“It would be wrong to go to both of them,” one enthusiast told the New York Times.

“Team SoulCycle and Team Flywheel, it’s like Team Angelina and Team Jennifer,” commented another. The celebrity reference is appropriate, as many famous figures are known to patronise the new super-spin classes.

SoulCycle, having made its two remaining founders $90m fortunes, has now expanded across the Atlantic to London: but there were plenty of home-grown competitors already here. Some of the best known include Psycle (party atmosphere), 1Rebel (luxury changing rooms) and Pure Ride (input from Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy).

The first super-spin workout in London, however, was Boom Cycle. Started in 2011 by American indoor-cycle enthusiast Hilary Rowland and her husband Rob, Boom now has four locations including its new flagship centre at Battersea Power Station. Boom Cycle focuses especially hard on its atmosphere and music: the company has a dedicated Director of Music, former DJ Marcus James.

All the cycle workouts generally seek to fit into the category of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The idea with HIIT is that people do short periods of all-out work followed by brief spells of active rest to make the body work harder than it does during ordinary cardio training conducted at a steady rate. A given amount of time doing HIIT, goes the theory, will do you more good than the same time spent steadily running, cycling, swimming or what have you. Another advantage for cycling as opposed to running is that it’s low-impact: you don’t subject your joints to sudden and potentially damaging shocks. The tendency of cycling to leave the core and upper body untouched is dealt with by various different methods in the various super-spin classes, but most of them use hand weights and a lot of upper-body moves as part of the workout. Boom Cycle, for example, offers a choice of different hand weights stored under each saddle for use during the class.

Critics suggest that the spin classes are expensive, and indeed most of them do cost £20 or more for a session on a pay-as-you-go basis. However for serious enthusiasts who want to spin several times a week there are monthly payment options, not usually much more expensive than higher-end gym memberships, which can bring the cost per session down.

For a lot of people, the music- and endorphin-powered HIIT hit of a spin class will be more fun, do more good and cost no more than similar amounts of time spent comparatively boringly on the treadmill in a normal gym.