SoulCycle is 10 years old.
What started as a germ of an idea and an empty old dance studio on Manhattan's Upper West Side has grown bigger than anyone, including its co-founders, ever imagined. It's more than just exercise. In just a decade, SoulCycle has become a fixture in popular culture and is extending its reach all over the country.
The company is filing an IPO, just as it's in the middle of a national expansion. And while many fitness studios and boutique gyms are forging deals with services like ClassPass (a sort of fitness class broker) to fill their empty slots, SoulCycle's classes are thriving without any extra boost.
The company is also earning shoutouts and spoofs on TV shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Broad City, and Quantico. It's become pop culture shorthand, often used to describe a certain type of person. And thousands of people — 50,000 riders per week — are addicted to it.
But what exactly is SoulCycle? It's got to be more than an exercise class on a bike, right?
1) What is SoulCycle?
SoulCycle is a branded indoor cycling class that implements choreography on a stationary bike. Classes are held in a candlelit room (that smells like grapefruit) where words like "Renegade" and "Warrior" and "Obsessed" are written in gigantic letters on the wall.
The moves vary from crunches (while riding, you drop your elbows and support yourself through your abs) to tap-backs (the act of thrusting your hips backward while riding out of the seat), and are designed to work all the muscles in your body so that you're exercising more than just your legs. Your instructor will tell you to position yourself in a certain way (hips back, arms tucked close to your body, shoulders down, etc.) that ensures you're getting a good workout. Each session also incorporates a brief weight series of bicep, tricep, and shoulder exercises.
Here is a brief, basic look at a SoulCycle class:
Beginners often describe the class as a nightmare combination of sweat and inadequacy. Justin Kirkland, a freelance writer, blogged about his first SoulCycle experience, recalling a moment where he felt like stared at his inevitable mortality. He writes:
You have to be careful what you ask for, because as I was silently crying out for release, that’s when the nauseous moment happened. With no where to throw up, and too much pity to throw up on the guy in front of me, I kept pushing through. But when I pushed harder, all the body heat and candle heat and soul heat had caught up to me. I felt myself begin to get lightheaded, and I thought, This is it. I’m going to die right here, locked into a stationary bicycle, drowning in the aesthetic of a trendy fitness class.
The point of the class is to never stop pedaling against the resistance of the bike. If you stop pedaling you lose — and then a cannon sounds, an airship swoops down, and you're ushered out of the arena. Or so I've heard.
2) What is a soul, and do you need to possess one to go to SoulCycle?
The concept of the soul is something that's been reflected on and mulled over by history's major religions, thinkers, and philosophers. When it comes to the latter, Aristotle's definition of the soul is one that's cited over and over in classrooms across this great country.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aristotle's theory "comes very close to offering a comprehensive answer to a question that arises from the ordinary Greek notion of soul" because it portrays how the soul "is agreed to be in some way or other responsible for a variety of things living creatures (especially humans) do and experience, also is the distinguishing mark of the animate."
Aristotle believed there was a hierarchy of souls, and that plants were the lowest tier of living things, followed by animals in the middle with their action and appetites, and then humans at the top because of their power to reason.
According to SoulCycle, you have to be a human that is at least 4 feet 11 inches tall and at least 12 years old to partake in the company's services. So, yes, you must possess the highest level of a soul by Aristotle's definition to take a SoulCycle class, as well as pass a height and age requirement.
3) Would Aristotle approve of SoulCycle?
Aristotle didn't just have theories about the soul. He also had theories about what constitutes happiness. And according to Stanford's philosophy encyclopedia, he believed that happiness is rooted in virtuous activity:
Aristotle's conclusion about the nature of happiness is in a sense uniquely his own. No other writer or thinker had said precisely what he says about what it is to live well. But at the same time his view is not too distant from a common idea. … He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.
In other words, if SoulCycle helps spur people to action and allows them to display virtues like courage or friendliness or honesty, Aristotle would be a fan of it. And SoulCycle's biggest fans would definitely say there are moments in class where you feel brave, compassionate, and honest.
4) Why do people like SoulCycle?
There are myriad reasons, but results are the most important. People like products that work, and if SoulCycle didn't help people who want to lose weight lose weight, if it didn't help people who want to feel healthier feel healthier, it wouldn't be as popular as it is.
Speaking from personal experience, I've lost over 25 pounds since attending my first SoulCycle class a little over a year ago and have seen huge improvements in my endurance when it comes to playing tennis, running, and other activities. I sleep better. I've lost four inches off my waist. And I'm stronger and as fit as I've ever been.
But the draw isn't purely physical.
People also find a community at SoulCycle (yes, I'm fully aware of how corny this sounds). There are very real stories about people who are battling cancer or depression and finding real meaning in that candlelit room. For some people, SoulCycle is a place to forge friendships. There are also people who find inspiration from instructors.
Ultimately, the people who enjoy SoulCycle enjoy it because they have fun doing it. The reason why they find it fun differs from person to person. And to be perfectly clear, there are plenty of people out there who don't enjoy SoulCycle, and that's fine too.
5) What happens if I like SoulCycle?
But if you tell people you like SoulCycle, prepare to be made fun of, at least by those who are aware of its reputation. A huge component of SoulCycle's rise in popularity has to do with the jokes and spoofs about its community that have made their way into pop culture:
The walls of SoulCycle studios and its promotional materials are covered in mantras like, "high on sweat and the hum of the wheel" or "the rhythm pushes us harder than we ever thought possible," — which are, no doubt, strange and unnatural combinations of words. Instructors often have similar go-to sayings, and frequently recite them during class. I'm not sure I've ever heard actual humans say things like that outside a SoulCycle class.
But for most part, SoulCyclers and the company itself take the jokes in stride.
"Parodies help to elevate brand awareness and simply make us laugh," Gabby Etrog Cohen, vice president of public relations at SoulCycle told Adweek about the parodies and the jokes. "We are huge fans of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Broad City."
6) How successful is SoulCycle?
According to the company, its classes welcome 50,000 riders each week. Multiply that by $30 (SoulCycle classes start at $30 each) and you're looking at a company that brings in around $1,500,000 weekly. And that's not even counting retail sales — SoulCycle sells branded clothing and other items — or money made from shoe rentals and bottles of water.
In 2015, SoulCycle filed a registration statement and intention to go public. It was the first time the general public got to peek at the company's finances. And, well, SoulCycle is swimming in money. Bloomberg's Joe Weisenthal broke down its revenue and net income:
Soulcycle had revenue of $112 million in 2014 and net income of $26.5 million. pic.twitter.com/zfjP44qCyG— Joe Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) July 30, 2015
Perhaps the most telling sign of the company's worth (or, what its investors believe it's worth), is when SoulCycle co-founders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice resigned from their roles as co-chief creative officers earlier this month. The two had received a payout of $90 million last spring when Equinox increased its stake in the company, the New York Times reported.
7) What makes SoulCycle more successful than other indoor cycling classes?
Here's the thing, there's no logical reason for SoulCycle to be as successful as it is. Indoor cycling classes have been around for a very long time. Gyms have them. SoulCycle also has cycling-focused competitors like Flywheel and Peloton. Yet it's somehow become the definitive cycling class.
Further, SoulCycle doesn't offer the best deal, financially speaking, relative to its competitors. In New York City, a $375 Flywheel monthly membership gets you unlimited rides at a studio of your choice. SoulCycle offers no such membership, and charges $34 (in New York City) for every class. When you do the math, 30 indoor cycling classes in New York City — one every day for a month — will cost you $375 at Flywheel and $1020 at Soul.
Is Soul $645 better than Flywheel? To dedicated riders, that's not even a valid question. And it's the reason the company is making money hand over fist. That's also why you occasionally hear stories about people going into debt over fitness classes.
If I were to narrow down the differences between SoulCycle and other indoor cycling classes, the two things that stand out are the equipment — specifically the bikes themselves — and the instructors. When it comes to the former, INC has a good article outlining what makes SoulCycle's bike different (it weighs more and is more stable, and there are also designs implemented to maximize your workout and keep the bike's chain intact). You can feel the difference between SoulCycle's bike and others.
When it comes to instructors, SoulCycle maintains a vaunted 10-week training program and "audition" process. The New Yorker recently reported on the company's initial screening process — its first-round auditions, basically — and it's as silly, terrifying, and rigorous as you'd imagine. But co-founder Rice explained the instructor selection process in a way that makes a lot of sense: She picks teachers to suit the different types of riders that SoulCycle attracts.
"We are casting specific traits in different people," Rice told the magazine. "So, for example, we call 5 A.M. riders our Roosters. They are super Type A and want a straightforward, intense workout and a teacher who will push them but isn’t too chatty."
That SoulCycle is able to be more discerning with its instructors ensures that they pick people who want to be there. Sure, there may be instructors that people prefer over others. But by having such an invested and competitive training process, it helps ensure quality in its instructors.
8) What does "Noon on Monday" mean?
"Noon on Monday" has become a SoulCycle catchphrase, and it's a direct reference to the class sign-up process. In each SoulCycle studio, all the bikes are numbered, and you pick one each time you book a class. In order to get the bike you want, you have to log in at noon on Monday — when sign-ups open up for the week — and be ready to nab your desired bike before someone else does. This leads to a competitive rush for the front row.
The front row of bikes — which was even the subject of a New York Times trend story in 2015 — is allegedly where the best riders sit; other riders follow their lead to stay on the beat. And when their less-experienced cohorts start wheezing or looking bent and broken (some people even barf), the front-row riders are usually still at ease.
To secure a spot in the front row in SoulCycle classes taught by the most popular instructors, you have to be one of the first people logged in, which is why you might notice your SoulCycling colleagues blocking out their calendars every Monday from 11:55 am to 12:05 pm.
9) I want to try SoulCycle. Where do I start?
It's as simple as going to the company's homepage and signing up. You can rent special cycling shoes (which you'll need to clip into your bike) and buy water at the studio.
When it comes to teachers, every rider has their favorites. In New York City, Charlee and Karyn are my favorites, and in Washington, DC, I like Garrett, but you'll develop your own preferences as you go. Some people gravitate toward instructors who make every move look smooth while others want to get murdered every class.
No matter what, the company's system guarantees you'll ride with a teacher who's going to give you a workout. And if you do try SoulCycle and love (or hate) it, it's okay. I promise not to tell anyone.