You may have heard that SoulCycle, the mecca for indoor cycling launched in New York back in 2006, opened its inaugural London studio last week. As a devoted spinner but contradictory sceptic of all things wellness, I obviously had to try it. I've heard that people cry in the classes, and the masochist in me wants to be torn apart and built back up, to be reborn like the phoenix, to sell my soul to SoulCycle.
As I walk up to the doors on Saturday afternoon, this viral sorority recruitment video sits at the front of my mind. Thanks to the spin class' cult-like Stateside reputation, I expect impossibly cheery, toothy instructors with taut muscles to welcome me in unison: "We've been waiting for you all summer and we're so glad you're finally here!" Thankfully (or am I actually disappointed?), there are just some friendly people at reception who give me my cycling shoes and direct me to the lockers.
If you're not familiar with SoulCycle, in short, it's the reason spin has gained traction in LA, London and just about every other city gripped by the late-capitalist wellness industry. From 1Rebel to Boom Cycle, ClassPass in London includes a plethora of indoor cycling studios, and something about the sweat-inducing, high-intensity ride has the nation hooked – myself included. Spin differs from class to class but there seem to be two types: the class where you're measuring metrics like heartbeat and pedals per beat, where you might have a leaderboard at the front of the class and it's all about numbers; and the class where you cycle to a beat and it's more about cardio to music than anything too serious.
I do the latter (Beat at Digme Fitness), because I'd much rather be sweating to Lizzo and Lewis Capaldi than pretending I'm Lance Armstrong (which, trust me, people really do: I've been to classes where the men are wearing cycling skinsuits and wraparound glasses... I know). But what about spin is so addictive? Normally I can't stand things like the sinister messages wellness influencers send out to women, gummy bears for your hair, expensive gym kits, and faux-body-positivity as a guise for the latest fad diet. But when I explain spin to friends, I know I sound like I've been swigging on that sweet, sweet Kool-Aid.
Similarly to CrossFit, and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) before that, spin embodies the idea of pushing your body to its limit. It's all so... extreme. The studios are blacked out, and green and red club lights flash to the beat's rhythm. It's not just leg work – bicep curls with handheld weights and push-ups are often incorporated into the movements. The music is ear-blisteringly loud, the instructors are unwaveringly positive, and you sweat like you've been in a sauna for 45 minutes. Also, spinning in unison with 25 other people, all moving from left to right to repetitive techno is just undeniably...culty. There's something masochistic about it, too, from relishing those shaky legs post-class to feeling unprecedented pride when you conquer a sprint you struggled with just two weeks earlier.
With the spin scene well and truly established in London, is SoulCycle too late to corner the very market it inspired in the first place? If the opening week is anything to go by: no. I leave the changing rooms (tiny, considering they have 63 bikes per class and around eight classes per day) and wait for my class. I'm reminded of the gift shop at Legoland. Or the M&M's store in Leicester Square. The studio is located at the back of Oxford Circus and, with studios and showers downstairs, the main area is at once reception, waiting room, smoothie bar and merch shop. It's chaotic. There are three (THREE) tiny dogs in here. People are drinking shakes post-class and chatting. It's a destination, not just a studio space.
I'm comforted by the fact that there are bodies of all shapes and sizes streaming out of the last class – the only thing apparently uniting them is a thick film of sweat – which does reflect the posts on the brand's Instagram account. I don't trust any fitness brand whose IG feed features solely beautiful, thin, toned, smiley, happy people. Of course, you get no points for guessing there'd be swathes of American expats drawn to the wellness mecca's first London outpost – SoulCycle has cult status over in the States and Canada. Every day, 20,000 people take classes in one of the 87 locations, and celebrity fans include Oprah, Lady Gaga (who each spent their birthday at the studio), Beyoncé and Victoria Beckham.
The brand's 'Who We Are' page reads like my worst nightmare: "We call it a cardio party. Our riders say it’s changing their lives. With every pedal stroke, our minds clear and we connect with our true and best selves. Through this shared SOUL experience, our riders develop an unshakeable bond with one another. Friendships are made and relationships are built. In that dark room, our riders share a Soul experience. We laugh, we cry, we grow — and we do it together, as a community." The American voices I can hear are truly living this alarmingly earnest attitude. I feel like Louis Theroux. Will Londoners really buy into something so sincere?
We gather downstairs outside the studio (again, too small given the number of people per class), I fill up my bottle at the – of course – seven times purified water station, and in we go. I'm sat right at the front facing the instructor, who has candles burning around her bike (my throat is dry throughout the class and I'm convinced it's because of this), and staff are on hand to adjust bike settings (something a lot of other studios neglect to help newcomers with). Our instructor is peppy and positive but she calls our class a 'first date' which, along with the more, ahem, enthusiastic spinners' whoops, claps and cheers, I find so overwhelming, I have to stifle my laughter.
Throughout the class her mic is drowned out by the music and her instructions are lost in the thumping beats, so we can only use her actions as a guide, which isn't a problem for experienced spinners but I can imagine would be confusing for first-timers. There are no metrics being measured on screens or the bikes themselves here, which means you're welcome to go at whatever pace you want, and the class is a combination of hill climbs (higher gears and slower pedals) and interval sprints (slower pedals to a song's verse and all-out racing during the chorus). We do weighted arm exercises and push-ups on the handlebars. The bikes are super smooth (the best I've used) and comfortable (but be warned, after any first-ever class your pelvis will be bruised and you'll feel like someone's taken a club to your crotch).
The class is hard – I don't pay mind to calories at all usually, but for comparison, my Apple Watch tells me I burned 650 to the 450 I'd usually clock up in the same length spin class elsewhere – so there's no denying its effectiveness. The music is good, a playlist of contemporary pop, rap and '00s indie favourites, and the energy in the room is positive (we'll ignore the instructor taking the four candles to four individuals in the room to blow out – to make a wish? – during the slow ride at the end). I head upstairs for a smoothie (£6), which are tasty and the same price as at similar wellness establishments, and take a second look at the changing rooms which have luxurious beauty products like Le Labo shower gel, Drunk Elephant skincare, and Dyson hairdryers.
Will I be returning? I can't say my experience differed enough from its now well-established competitors to spend £24 per class. That's an extortionate amount to pay for one workout, but SoulCycle knows its market – people milling around reception were already wearing branded sports bras and leggings (which cost an eye-watering £180, by the way). When you can spin at peak times at Crank in Peckham for 5 ClassPass points, or 8 points at Digme in Moorgate, why would you fork out so much for the same thing here? The name, of course.
I have no doubt that SoulCycle will thrive in London, because we've already eaten up the #wellness life that America has served to us. We count our 10,000 steps, we juice our greens, we shun the pub in favour of burpees at F45 on Wednesday evenings. For those wanting to try spinning, I'd head somewhere just as great but more democratically priced, without the fanfare. For those wanting the full wellness experience? There's only one place to go.
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