The Carefully Cultivated Soul of SoulCycle

Photo: Pari Dukovic/New York Magazine

Recently, in a candlelit room in Tribeca, a 24-year-old named Zack made a confession. “I’m very open about this, but I’ve been in recovery for the past two years,” he said from a podium, facing a room of two dozen people who looked up at him with approval, acceptance, and even a generosity of spirit. He wore a trucker’s hat over curly blond hair and explained that he was from Florida, an actor and hip-hop dancer (“Woo hoo!” “All right!”). Then he kicked on the music and began pedaling his bike.

Zack was participating in an afternoon of auditions to become an instructor for SoulCycle, the indoor-cycling company-cum-fitness-phenomenon that’s been called an “obsession,” a “cult,” and—by those who clamor to pay $32 (plus extra for shoe rental and water) for classes that sell out within seconds—an “addiction.” Strong words to describe a 45-minute group exercise class, but the SoulCycle experience is meant to truly be an “experience”: part dance party, part therapy, part communal high. The studios are dark and steamy, the music is blaring and highly curated, and riders are encouraged to pedal on the beat and follow along to choreography while instructors offer yogic inspiration (“I want the next breath to be an exorcism”; “Namaste, little badasses”) and self-help maxims (“Be honest about who you are trying to be”).

 “I found SoulCycle, and I have to say it’s like a meeting for me. I’m getting high on endorphins, not anything else,” Zack said in a display of honesty that made him a crowd favorite in Studio B, where twenty other hopefuls, the company’s two founders, and a handful of trainers pedaled along or watched from the walls as candidates got roughly three minutes apiece to introduce themselves and do sample rides to excerpts from songs of their choosing. Most applicants were young, fit, and more than commonly attractive; one woman announced that she was the reigning Miss Black USA. But more than form or even prior experience, emotional vulnerability was at a premium in the room, along with long-standing commitment to the brand: There were breaking voices, the wiping away of tears, and several drawers’ worth of SoulCycle apparel on display.

“I have a great husband, a good life, but this is my happy place,” said a woman with rippling abs. “I told my real-estate agent I had to be near a SoulCycle,” said another with pigtails. “I’m not gonna lie, I used to think it was for girls, cycling,” said an East Hampton bodybuilder as he adjusted the podium seat to fit his oversize proportions. “But then I took a class, and I’ve never been so high. This isn’t spinning, it’s a way of life.” “I’d just gotten out of cancer remission, I went to a SoulCycle class, and I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” said a cheerful guy who admitted that this was his third audition.

By the time the last candidate took the podium, they had been cycling for over two hours, but Janet, who shared that even her 11-year-old son loved SoulCycle, was still able to rev up the energy. “SoulCycle has changed my life,” she said as she pedaled in perfect time to Florence and the Machine. “I hope that I have the opportunity to give that feeling back.”

“I hope you have a good middle name, Janet,” said master trainer Janet Fitzgerald. “There’s only one Janet.”

“I do. It’s Suzanne.”

“Good job, Suzanne!”

In early 2006, soon-to-be co-founders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice met over lunch at Soho House after having been introduced by their spin instructor, Ruth Zukerman (also a co-founder, she left the company in 2009 to start rival Flywheel Sports). “It was the best blind date we’d ever been on,” says Rice, who had found herself seeking out indoor cycling after moving to New York to open a branch of the company where she worked as a talent manager. “For me, it was an emotional outlet—not just a physical one.” Cutler, who went to her first spin class to lose baby weight and was so relieved to find a fitness class she actually liked that she “literally almost started crying on the bike,” had worked in high-end real estate and saw the economic potential in bringing to cardio the pay-per-class model that yoga had popularized, especially if it could offer the same mind-body fusion.

Four months after that lunch, they opened for business in a former funeral home on West 72nd Street, a sublet they found on Craigs­list. They put up a glass wall to separate the entrance from the studio, went to Ikea, built a front desk “in the back of Elizabeth’s station wagon, no kidding.” When the historic building wouldn’t let them hang a sign outside, they painted a rickshaw with their logo and parked it out front.

The studio started with 33 bikes, one bathroom, and zero showers. Cutler and Rice—who funded the company themselves, without outside investors—figured that it would take 100 customers a day to keep the lights on. At first, some classes yielded only one or two riders. But over time, the “hidden” location began to seem intended. “I remember the day that we were on the phone with a vendor, and she said, ‘Are you that secret place on 72nd Street that nobody can get into?’ I thought, We’ve arrived,” Rice says.

The very first class was candlelit, giving the studio a spalike feel and granting riders a sense of anonymity (“I want you to go into a trance now. I want you to disappear”). Bikes that required a rider to clip both shoes in—think of putting on skis—were selected because they offer enough stability to close one’s eyes. Instructors were hired because of their ability to inspire, a method that’s now been codified into the training program. Emphasis is put on making riders feel special. Every corporate employee works the front desk for a week, so that each gets a sense of who is coming and going. Instructors are encouraged to know riders’ names, to learn about their lives, and to interact with them accordingly. Favored riders may be pulled to the coveted front row or even asked to ride the instructor bike, which was “the scariest, most thrilling experience of my life,” according to one SoulCycler. Validation is meant to be not only given but tailor-made. “You look so beautiful spinning for two,” one pregnant woman was told. “After you get married and get that big rock on your finger, I’m not gonna do this with you anymore,” said an instructor as she punched fists with a woman in her late twenties during a class to celebrate another rider’s birthday, complete with balloons, confetti guns, and red-velvet cake in the lobby.

SoulCycle now has fourteen locations in Los Angeles and the New York area (where prices will soon go up to $34 per class), and, after partnering with Equinox this past May, has plans to roll out at least seventeen more in the coming year. If you are not hovering over the keys of your computer precisely at noon on Monday, when the next week’s classes are ­released—or do not want to pay $3,500 for a “SuperSoul” series of 50 classes (at $70 a pop) that gives early access to reservations—then you’re often resigned to waiting-list purgatory, forced to pray to the SoulFairy, to whom desperate, tearful Twitter pleas are constantly made (“Crying over the outcome of @soulcycle sign ups today”; “Don’t despair! Stay on the waitlist! #Soulfairy is on this!”).

“I would do anything that I could to afford these rides,” says 27-year-old Jaime, who often takes thirteen classes a week (estimated cost: $21,632 per year). She’s arranged her schedule to have Mondays off work so that she can always be at her computer the moment classes are released. She counts her instructors among her closest friends. Her social life revolves around people she’s met at SoulCycle. On the anniversary of her father’s death, her instructor had the class ride to “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, one of Jaime’s father’s favorite operas. “I’m seven years sober. You don’t really get love and acceptance and encouragement and self-gratification from a cocktail,” Jaime says. “I mean, I … this is what I need in my life, and it just so happened it’s an exercise class.”

As a brand that’s meant to be immersive, SoulCycle requires all of its staff to take SoulCycle classes, from the IT guy to the towel boy. But the strength of the brand lies in the personality and charisma of the person on the podium, and on carefully pairing that person with his or her audience. “What an Upper East Side mom might want at 9:30 a.m. can be completely different than what an NYU student wants in the 9:30 p.m. class at Union Square,” says Rice. “So casting of where people will go is a really, really big part.”

Apparently, what a UES mom wants at 9:30 a.m. is Stacey Griffith, whose recent Friday-morning class at East 83rd Street was populated by one man and 71 women, largely of the milf variety and including Real Housewife Aviva. It was “jog week,” a form of “reset,” Griffith said, in which every class she taught for seven days would be entirely “out of the saddle.” Wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with the hood up, Griffith walked the aisle between the bikes with a sort of karmic-boot-camp affect, alternately shadowboxing, headbanging, and encouraging riders to stay on the beat of the song. “Add a turn of resistance for someone you love,” she yelled huskily. “Add another turn of resistance for someone who needs you. Add one last turn for yourself!”

In the 7:30 p.m. class in Union Square the night before, waifish Tisch types sweated out their angst to the antics of Danny Kopel, who lit a spotlight over his bike, the better to dramatize his vogueing, before jumping down off the podium for a series of high kicks with free weights (“How’s that? A little juicier?”). At the 77th Street location on Saturday morning, Lori Abels, cute and peppy, reminded a mixed-bag crowd that “so many things in life are about rhythm when you break it down. Comedy. Loooooove.” And Tuesday at 6 a.m. in Tribeca, clean-cut riders obeyed the quick commands of Rique Uresti, gray-haired and handsome like the dad in a J.Crew ad, as he stood in a wide-footed stance with his hands raised in a victory V (“Get rid of that anxiety about how you’re going to perform today. There’s a whole lot of testing, but no failures at all”).

All of which—the casting of instructors, the soul-filled antics—doesn’t make SoulCycle terribly popular in the larger fitness world, where the safety of lifting weights and performing dance moves on a bike has sometimes been called into question. “It’s become about re-creating archetypes. It’s very calculated,” says one spin instructor. “You need to treat a bike like a bike. It’s not pole dancing,” says another, who refers to the dance-party vibe as “entertrainment” (last summer a Bridgehampton location staged a performance of Moulin Rouge). But as much as the performative aspects keep riders coming back, they have also driven more serious athletes away, often into the open arms of Flywheel, where a metrics-based workout is coupled with more self-restraint. Though Ruth Zukerman declines to discuss her exit from SoulCycle, some chalk it up to a difference in instructor style. “It’s a slippery slope, because sometimes when you build these superstars, it kind of goes to their head and they become divas,” she says. “Yes, be entertaining, be inspiring, but at the end of the day, it’s about the rider. It’s not about you.”

SoulCycle is open about the fact that the company recruits performers as much as, if not more than, people with a fitness background. “I would rather not take an outdoor triathlete,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s actually far more beneficial to take someone who’s been a dancer or just loves SoulCycle, who has worked at the front desk and now wants to be an instructor. It comes from an organic place that way. ”

Of the 80 or so people who audition to become instructors each training period, SoulCycle accepts eight to twelve, approximately seven of whom will go on to pass the eight-week training program. Trainees are taught how to build a playlist, how to work the equipment, and how to structure a class so that it has a certain arc: an opening jog to let the riders know that they’re going to have a “soulful” experience; a “party hill” that adds resistance to help warm up; a peppy jog with “tapbacks,” in which the rider moves her butt aggressively back and forth over the seat; a series of jumps and sprints in the “saddle”; a “thick hill” with lots of resistance; a jog with more choreography; an arms sequence with light weights; another “soulful” jog; more sprints as the “finish line” approaches; and finally a stretch.

Trainees are also advised not to talk much at the beginning of class, to wait for the moments when their students are so physically spent that they’ll be mentally open to seeds of enlightenment, and to place emphasis on those moments. “It was encouraged not to say something that was rehearsed,” one instructor who went through training shared. “If you don’t have anything awesomely soulful to say, silence is golden.”

According to Fitzgerald, when it comes to the business of inspiration, one of the most common habits that must be broken is using language that’s unintentional. “They’ll go, ‘We’re almost there.’ What does that mean? We’re almost where? I’m on a bike going nowhere, first of all. And they’ll go, ‘What I mean is I want them to hang in there.’ And I’m like, ‘And now what do you mean?’ ‘I want them to be strong.’ So we teach them how to take their meaning and express it in a way that’s actually interesting.”

Trainees are not paid during training, but they also don’t have to pay, as they would under the yoga model. Whether they pass depends as much on the “It” factor as it does on skill. “I can teach someone how to ride a bike,” says Fitzgerald. “We’re looking for something that’s a little sexy, a little edgy. We kind of don’t want Suzy Fitness. And if we do, we need to rough her up a little bit.” This may mean telling an instructor to cut up her T-shirt or dye her hair or always teach wearing bright-red lipstick.

Once training is complete, instructors are usually assigned a load of eight classes a week and receive health insurance. They also agree not to teach indoor cycling anywhere else, a model that is rare in the fitness world, where livelihoods are often cobbled together between gyms. This ensures brand loyalty but also requires new instructors to compete against established ones. Compensation, however, is generous. With a sold-out class, a novice instructor might make up to $125 or $150 in 45 minutes. Veterans can make significantly more. It’s all about filling the room by delivering a product that gets people hooked. “You cannot show up and be worth $32,” Fitzgerald says. “You’re not going to make it. You’ve got to pimp yourself. Pimp yourself day and night.”

Once you do, though—through social media, hobnobbing, and sometimes an endorsement by a veteran instructor—you have the potential to become a Griffith, a Kopel, or even a Laurie Cole. “Do you think I’m crazy? I am crazy. But I’m damn good at what I do!” Cole yelled out to a round of cheers at an evening class in Tribeca where the mirror had fogged within minutes and the energy in the room was as palpable as the thumping bass.

Seventy-two people rode in sync, their forms surging like a wave in thrall to Cole’s commands. “Are you gonna let the pregnant lady show you up?” Cole asked, a nod to the woman to her left with a pert little baby bump. The woman smiled; the energy swelled. Cole, who resembles Courteney Cox, swung her ponytail around in time with the music, then jumped down off the podium and strutted to the front row, where she grabbed the handlebar of a bike and thrust her body backward in a quiver of pleasure. “Come on, you sexy spin ­bitches! What do you have to offer?” Just above her on a front-row bike, one man pedaled furiously, body trembling, sweat dripping, his face frozen in a look of utter, ecstatic glee.

*This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

The Carefully Cultivated Soul of SoulCycle