[Clarification appended 6/19/12]
It’s another sunny day in West Hollywood. Yet, a few dozen of us have packed into SoulCycle’s dimly-lit studio to “dance on the pedals” to the rhythm of the music and sweat. A lot.
Our sinewy leader, MB, occasionally jumps off her own bike to bust a hip-hop move and distract us from our burning legs and pounding chests. The former dancer and Shakespearean actor is part entertainer and, judging by the speed of her legs, part wind-up doll. The room has a party atmosphere – impressive considering it’s a Tuesday and not even 9 a.m. – and after 45 minutes we walk out having burned hundreds of calories and gotten a venti-sized endorphin fix.
That’s exactly the effect new moms Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice were going for when they founded SoulCycle in 2006 (along with a third founder, Ruth Zukerman, who has since left the company and launched a competitor called Flywheel). Today, the New York-based company has 200 employees, eight locations and plans to double its size over the coming year and operate 60 locations by 2015.
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Though neither Cutler nor Rice came from a fitness background – Cutler had worked in luxury real estate and Rice was a former Hollywood talent manager – they met at an exercise class in New York and got talking about their common quest for a better cardio workout.
Indoor cycling, or spinning, was already popular at gyms, but the classes were hit and miss, and typically focused exclusively on the lower body. “It seemed like stationary cycling was ready for a makeover,” says Rice. “We thought it could be a more boutique experience, more spiritual and more of a full-body workout.”
While today’s SoulCycle is very much the boutique experience, complete with white lobbies and luxury toiletries, the first location was a makeshift studio tucked in the back of a building on New York’s Upper West Side with no showers or signage. To get people into their classes Rice and Cutler begged their friends to come to classes, flooded the neighborhood with flyers. Their biggest marketing expense was a rickshaw they bought on eBay, painted silver and yellow, and parked out front to the chagrin of the building’s co-op board.
Where they didn’t scrimp was the experience. They hired enthusiastic instructors, dimmed the lights, pumped up the music, added arm weights and core exercise, and made sure clientele left every session looking forward to the next one. Word got out, classes filled, and in 2007 they opened a second location in the Hamptons.
Just as the business was hitting triple-digit growth, however, SoulCycle ran into a headwind stirred up by the financial crisis. “We couldn’t get loans to expand the business,” says Cutler. Not to be deterred, they put their heads down and financed their third, fourth and fifth locations out of their own pockets, with the help of a credit line from American Express.
The perseverance paid off with an introduction to the CEO of Equinox Fitness. Last June the luxury fitness company, which is owned by private real estate developer The Related Companies, bought a majority stake in SoulCycle. The strategic partnership offers the financial backing, real estate expertise and human resources support SoulCycle needs to bring its cardio craze national. Rice and Cutler still manage the day-to-day operations of the company, however, and SoulCycle studios will continue to be freestanding locations. “We’re fanatical about our brand,” says Rice, whose company has its own clothing line, designer scented candles and custom $2,200 stationary bikes.
Key to the brand is SoulCycle’s instructors, who number about 60 and growing. The company holds monthly auditions for would-be instructors, who come from all backgrounds, ranging from elite athletes and professional dancers to long-time clients of SoulCycle. Once chosen they go through 12 weeks of training to learn the SoulCycle “method.” To keep turnover to a minimum, the company puts its instructors on staff and offers paid vacations and full benefits. “Early on we recognized [that the] fitness industry [is] so transient,” says Rice. “We thought if we find great talent and invest the time and money to train them, we need to make the job attractive enough so they’ll stay.”
SoulCycle has more than its share of celebrity fans, including Kelly Ripa, Katie Holmes, Lady Gaga and Anderson Cooper. Yet, the clientele are just as likely to be time-crunched moms or road warriors looking for a quick and consistent workout. “Many of the company’s clients are bicoastal,” says Cutler. “They’re spinning in Los Angeles one day and in New York another.”
There are no monthly or annual memberships. Anyone is welcome to book a bike at any studio, where classes range from $25 to $32 a pop. For SoulCycle fans it’s a small price to escape the monotony of the elliptical trainer.
Clarification: The original version of this article failed to mention that, in addition to Cutler and Rice, SoulCycle had a third founding partner, Ruth Zukerman.