“There’s a reason you didn’t go to Runyon Canyon this morning. There’s a reason you chose to be in a dark room.”
Roarke Walker, one of SoulCycle’s most popular instructors, is speaking to his packed Saturday morning class, people who have waited six long days for this 8:30 session in West Hollywood, people whose mouse fingers (or, more aptly, assistants’ mouse fingers) hovered just above this slot and the bike they prefer as it turned noon on Monday and the schedule opened up. People who will probably, hopefully, smell better later in the day.
Roarke, who is actor-handsome, tan and calm and hard to see in this dark room, is part of the new breed of cycling instructor who is fitness guru, DJ and lighting designer all in one. They are here for him.
It’s dark, and the music — hip-hop mashups with Lorde and Bush and even Snow Patrol thrown in — is so, so loud. Roarke stands and tells his disciples to start tapping back, which means he wants their rears to touch the seat for a second, then move forward, all to the beat.
“Go,” says Roarke. “Find out what you don’t know.” He points toward the back of the room, so that they all tap back again. He points to himself, they lean forward. And back. And forth. It is tempting to think of him as Moses, but was the Red Sea as eager as these riders? As obedient?
Roarke mounts his bike again, which is surrounded by candles, and there is a surge in the music timed with a sudden spotlight on him and him alone. No, he is not Moses. Moses had a lisp and a lot of hesitations. Rather, he is Jesus, bathed in light, a strong arm and definitive message.
After 45 minutes, this dark room whose thermostat is set to 74 degrees will be darker and so humid that one rider won’t be able to discern where her sweat ends and her neighbor’s sweat begins. A woman will leave in tears, telling her friend: “That felt good. I needed that.” There’s a puddle on the floor of the bike next to mine, which is either spilled water or way more sweat than a human should be able to contain.
In SoulCycle’s locker area and small bathrooms, you might enter unable to comprehend why such a wealthy population as Hollywood execs would subject themselves to such close quarters. But you’d leave understanding it.
Indoor cycling isn’t new. Anyone who has been around L.A. long enough remembers Todd Tramp and Body & Soul; and certainly YAS Fitness Centers and the Equinox gyms still do their share of business in the cycling department (Equinox bought SoulCycle in 2011 but hasn’t incorporated it into its gyms).
But a new wave of cycling spots has invaded L.A. sparked by the arrival of SoulCycle — whose fans include Lady Gaga, Jessica Alba and Brooke Shields — with its 2012 launch in West Hollywood. This year, its New York archrival, Flywheel, began a West Coast incursion with the debut of two SoCal outposts in the past few months. Another, Aura Cycle, bowed in April in West Hollywood. And SoulCycle now has three locations, including Santa Monica and Brentwood (where Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow are regulars), with a Beverly Hills studio scheduled to open in mid-September and a location in Malibu at the end of 2014. Thanks to the well-nurtured (and pretty ingenious) cult of celebrity that surrounds these instructors, even the most jaded, trend-averse exercisers admit that stationary cycling is staying put.
At another West Hollywood spin shop, 2-year-old Cycle House, Nichelle Hines has a packed 5:15 p.m. Monday class. The soundtrack is Kanye-heavy, and she doesn’t stop shouting inspiration: She calls the riders “babies,” but affectionately — “Leave your ego out of this, my babies, you can do it!” — and talks about her former weight problems. She cycles while she talks but is never out of breath. She dismounts intermittently and crouches in front of certain bikes, whispering: “What are you going to show me today? Better yet, what are you going to show you?”
“She’s a badass,” says Slate PR partner Simon Halls. “I don’t necessarily go because it’s spiritually motivational. I go because she never lets up and never lets you off the hook.”
And yet, there is a spiritual component. The new cycling classes are not so much a reaction to the old cycling classes but a reaction to yoga. For how many years did we sit in yoga class, hating ourselves as our minds wandered and we thought about that deal or that client? The new breed of cycling is so intense that one can’t possibly think of anything else. They are meditative in a competitive, efficient manner. There is no more one can reasonably expect from a 45-minute period.
One of cycling’s attractions is that it’s a high-intensity workout — so much so that 45 minutes is enough to get the job done for the day — and it’s low-impact, so injury is minimal. Add to that the weights session each class incorporates on the bike, and you’ve pulled off a full workout fast.
They also appeal to Hollywood’s aesthetic by putting on a good show. Each instructor is a performer, each class is like a story. There’s an introduction, slow music that builds, a script and such dramatic questions as: “Who are you?” “What did you come here for?” And the production value of the classes is something special, from stadium seating at Flywheel to SoulCycle’s candlelit, dark caves.
“I’m not a touchy-feely person at all,” says Wendy Engelberg, a writer and producer of Drop Dead Diva who attends classes at Flywheel by instructor Tevia Celli-Recht. “But Tevia’s class is so inspirational. She gets you to places where you don’t let your shit get in your way. I find myself falling for it, and it’s something I normally resist.”
Tevia is one of L.A.’s original celebrity instructors; she started Body & Soul in 1998. Her class is more laid-back — the music a little softer with an unwavering light on her. Recently, Engelberg brought her staff for a bonding experience. She recommends every showrunner do it: “People loved it.”
SoulCycle by far was the most crowded spot I visited. Each instructor has a special charisma: MB growls and vogues on her bike; Angela screams motivation over heavy techno; Pixie, a tattooed Tawny Kitaen ringer, warns that you and only you are responsible for your health.
“I love Pixie,” says director Eli Roth, still breathless from a late-morning class. “Some instructors get Rihanna-happy, but she’ll put on AC/DC and Florence + the Machine.” Roth has been cycling since May. He has seen fads come and go: He remembers Billy Blanks and Tae Bo and cycling’s first incarnation and always prided himself on resisting trends, preferring lifting and plain cardio. But he recently had seen a paparazzi picture of himself at Coachella and had noticed some extra weight.
“Directors get baby fat the way new mothers get baby fat. If you’re 20 pounds overweight, we get it; you just did a movie. So I started this.” He found it fun and an easy way to disconnect. But more than that, it worked. He lost 10 pounds right away.
And for Roth, there’s nothing more seductive than receiving out-loud validation from cult instructors. “Roarke acknowledged me in a class,” he says. “I got so excited, it was ridiculous. I got a shout-out from Pixie. People all day were telling me, ‘I heard you got a shout-out.’ You may have noticed that we’re in an industry where people other than your friends are rooting for your failure. In SoulCycle, you don’t feel that.” Roth claims that there’s an unspoken understanding among industry folks that if you see someone past 9 a.m. in a class, you don’t mention it. “Nobody needs to know you left work because you needed a Pixie class.”
The newest entrant, AuraCycle, on Third Street, has been marketing aggressively to the industry, holding classes for PMK, IDPR and Spotify, which have yielded some regular clients. At AuraCycle, the mirror the bike faces is set up almost like a Lite-Brite, with multicolored lightbulbs that go off. AuraCycle’s ball of energy Heather Adair laughs and bike-dances her way through her masterful playlist — Lorde, Rihanna, even Carly Rae Jepsen. Says producer Lawrence Longo: “I love that it isn’t a scene. I feel like I discovered this great place right ahead of the curve.”
The real magic of these classes, though, happens toward the end. Once you are broken down — and both Tevia and Roarke did use the phrase “broken down” — you’ll hear the smallest whisper of encouragement, the tiniest reminder of what you’re here for. Roarke will pull out Coldplay. Angela has the temerity to play Whitney Houston‘s “I Will Always Love You.” They are all shameless in their third-act songs.
But none more than Tevia. In Tevia’s class, which I took the day after DOMA was crushed, she plays U2‘s “One,” the version that Mary J. Blige sings on. As the instrumental builds, Tevia describes her own children, how they have parents who love them, how she and her partner are now going to marry. She tells her class that every child deserves to know that they are loved, that they were brought here intentionally and legitimately and that their parents’ love is sanctioned and good. Suddenly, you’re no longer cycling for your heart or your body or your brain; you’re cycling for a cause no less than equality itself. You are cycling to save the world.
And a little bit, like during that climactic scene in an episode of The Newsroom or Grey’s Anatomy, you hate yourself for crying, but eventually, you lean into it. Because it’s dark and who will know and nothing feels better than a good story, does it? After all, isn’t a good story why we came here in the first place?
This article originally appeared on THR.com on September 12, 2013.