the exercist

How I Found Love in a Sweaty Hole-in-the-Wall

Souling and cycling.
Souling and cycling. Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images

You’ve probably read more about stationary bicycling than you ever thought possible, or desirable. Go right ahead and roll your eyes because here are a few more words.

I walked into the original SoulCycle studio nine years and 51 weeks ago, on day eight of its operation. My friend Jane Rosenthal asked me to meet her there on a Sunday morning. There was no sign outside, and I ended up at Fred Astaire’s Dance Studio, also on West 72nd Street but otherwise miles apart. Like every first-timer, I nearly passed out and/or threw up and/or quit midway through the 45-minute ride. It didn’t matter; I was hooked.

No other exercise class has held my interest as thoroughly and consistently as SoulCycle. Its particular combination of infectious music, coordination-free exertion, and gallons of sweat — all in a candlelit room — are as appealing to me as cake, or almost. Alone, each component is nothing special — flour, butter, sugar, eggs — but together, they’re a party. When friends say they’re too intimidated and/or out of shape to try SoulCycle, I tell them, “It’s dark. Cheat until you figure it out.”

Ten years ago, when that smelly hole-in-the-wall studio opened, no one had any idea it would become a phenomenon. There were times when I was the only student in class, surrounded by 32 empty bikes, and led by one slightly demoralized teacher. Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, two of the founders who walked away last week with a rumored $90 million apiece, were working the front desk, spraying shoes, taking reservations, and fielding noise complaints from the neighbors. The complaints were so furious and constant that the instructors often had to reduce the music to a faint hum. Sometimes, we rode in silence.

Did I mention the smell? It was the foulest, dankest, rankest room imaginable; the floor was spongy, there was no shower, and at the end of class you had to shuffle sideways and hold your breath to avoid rubbing against someone else’s clammy flesh. The air conditioner broke often, and usually on days when the outdoor temperature topped 90 degrees. I’m surprised the studio wasn’t condemned and that we all weren’t hauled out on stretchers.

I was in a class when a man actually was hauled out on a stretcher. He collapsed midway through a 90-minute charity ride with his feet still clipped in the pedals. We were terrified. While the man lay motionless on the ground, his wife wailed, “Do you see what I have to put up with?” I’m not kidding. It was like a telenovela written by Stephen King. He lived, but never showed his face there again.

Despite the hazards, the heat, and the inelegant conditions, that first SoulCycle studio became one of the most thrilling places to be on a Saturday morning or a Tuesday night. The daughters of three different U.S. presidents rode in that room. Chelsea Clinton was a regular, and when she broke her foot a few months before her wedding, she just un-Velcro-d the boot cast and replaced it with a bike shoe without missing a beat. There were professional athletes, movie stars, supermodels, the famous and infamous, and they all started in the same clumsy, huffing way.

In the early years, when SoulCyclists ran into each other at parties, we’d talk excitedly about the teachers, the music, the impossible sign-up ordeal — as if this were the most urgent, fascinating topic. It reminded me of being a new mother and discussing infant sleep habits and diaper-rash ointments. What a way to clear a room!

The relationship we had with each other formed an intimacy that I think of as particular to New York. We may have seen each other almost every day, and in Lycra-spandex no less, but we were clueless about each other’s lives, histories, or even last names. Occasionally those intimacies would cross into capital-I intimate, and previously solo riders would arrive together, climb on side-by-side bikes, and exchange meaningful looks over Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love.” I heard from more than one teacher that when some of these couples broke up, they had to have a serious talk about who, in the aftermath, would get Laurie’s 6:30 p.m. class or Stacey on the weekend. There were happy endings, too. I witnessed a marriage proposal during the cool-down at one class, and everyone cried. A woman I barely knew set me up on a date in the hasty five minutes before class one morning, with the pitch, “He’s fit and has a good head of hair.” And there I was, a week later, having dinner at Milos with a total stranger. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work out, but the branzino was delicious.

As SoulCycle spread to different neighborhoods and cities, the number of superfans­ — I prefer not to call them cult members — has reached the ridiculous. I think the ultimate draw is the fusion of “soul” with “cycle.” There’s a moment in each class when you forget that your legs are pumping and your heart is jack-rabbiting. You also forget the email you ignored, the deadline that’s looming, and the fact that your to-do list is two pages, single-spaced. You feel zoned-out and absolutely free; it’s a fragment of incomparable, unimaginable bliss, and it happens so regularly you can almost set your clock to it.

When the original 72nd Street studio closed, the owners threw a wrecking party and handed out T-shirts that said “Old School” on the front and “I Started a Revolution” on the back. I am stupidly proud of being one of the first to join what became an unlikely movement, a refuge, and a kind of family. Believe me, this never happened with step aerobics. My adventure with SoulCycle was never really about fitness; it became a story about love.

How I Found Love in a Sweaty Hole-in-the-Wall