As I entered the spinning studio and found my stationary bike at Philadelphia’s FlyWheel Sports, I flashed back to the laser tag and paintball birthday parties of my youth. Then, like now, the arena was dark and chilly, and the air of impending competition was thick.
If you haven’t experienced the night club-meets-gym atmosphere of one of these modish spinning studios—of which FlyWheel and SoulCycle are the most popular—you probably don’t follow me.
The workout space is a theater composed of dozens of stationary bikes arranged in crescent rows that face two monitors, mounted above the class instructor’s bike. These monitors show how you’re doing compared to the other spinners in your class. You can opt out of this public display of your cycling prowess, but part of the appeal of FlyWheel is that competitive types can square off pedal to pedal.
I’m a regular cyclist, but I haven’t spent much time on two wheels since my second kid was born back in January. Also, to my continuing shame, I’ve only ever biked in sneakers, which made me wary of the clip shoes my classmates and I had been issued out in the locker room. (Turns out, I was right to be concerned. But more on that later.)
Our class’s instructor Kat suggested we consider wearing the earplugs on offer because she “likes to play the music LOUD.” This wasn’t a joke. Throughout the 45-minute class, we’d cycle through current and former Top-40 tracks—all of them blaring. The song’s beat usually matched the rhythm we were intended to pedal—slower songs for “hills,” faster jams for “sprints.”
Finding my machine, I saw it featured a knob to adjust my bike’s “torq,” or pedaling resistance. There was also a small meter that displayed my level of resistance, as well as my revolutions per minute (RPMs) and some other metrics.
After a brief warm-up session, we were off. As the music blasted, Kat directed us through a series of spinning workouts, all based around various levels of “torq” and RPM goals. The combination of these two metrics yielded an individual’s “power” score, which was how we were ranked on the bright monitors above Kat’s head.
The longer the class went on—though hills and sprints, Biggie Smalls and Kings of Lyon beats—the more each of our power scores ticked upward. We shifted from seated to standing positions, per Kat’s instructions, and at one point grabbed weighted bars for some light bicep, tricep, and shoulder resistance exercises—all while pedaling.
And back to those clip bike shoes. Unlike the road bike I’m accustomed to riding, a spinning bike’s pedals don’t stop unless the wheels stop. I learned this the hard way during one hill when I tried to take a breather and was literally bucked out of my pedals. Getting back into them took me another 30 seconds, during which time I thanked god I was in the back row.
The episode was probably a blessing, because I was too embarrassed to pay attention to how hard I was working. Ten minutes after class began, my shirt was soaked with sweat. By the end of the 45-minute class, my hair looked like I’d just emerged from a swimming pool.
I felt like I kept up all right for a newb. The “power” scores were split among men and women, and of the 30 or so people in my class, there were only three other dudes—two of whom I bested, though not by much. The third guy—we’ll call him “Lance”—obliterated all of us. Kat checked the rankings toward the end of class and gave Lance’s power score a personal shout-out, which made me feel a little better about getting my ass kicked.
I walked out feeling like I’d lost half my body weight. For a guy who’s completed a triathlon, I’d still say it was the most-intense 45 minutes of cardio training I’d endured since my days playing high school lacrosse.
And it was fun. I’m going back—at least on days when the weather outside sucks. It’s a blast, and worth your time.