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A Peloton bike.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Peloton’s $2,000 stationary bike has totally disrupted working out at home

Unlike the NordicTracks of the past, people actually use these.

I became a fan of indoor group cycling classes the first week my tiny Chicago gym started offering Johnny G’s spinning classes in the mid-’90s. Since then, I’ve spent countless hours (and dollars) at studios riding various bikes to nowhere. Having an instructor hollering at me, loud music pumping, and others around me to compete with are crucial for my motivation. I’m not the only one. For the past decade, indoor cycling studios like SoulCycle and Flywheel have been booming.

I was skeptical when my building added two Peloton bikes to our workout room in New York City. But this is not a normal stationary bike. I’ve been riding it two to three times a week for several months. My gym has sent me several pleading emails wondering when I’m coming back.

Peloton bikes come with a large screen attached to the handlebars so that users can either take live cycling classes that are streamed in from Peloton’s New York City cycling studio or choose from thousands of others available in the archive. Once you plug in headphones and clip into the pedals, the experience feels uncannily like the real thing, except without the commute.

Peloton is not like the exercise bikes and NordicTracks of yore that largely ended up as clothing racks. It’s managed to harness the energy, connection, and competitiveness of a live group fitness class. Thanks to a methodical “casting” system for instructors and a well-tended and well-studied community presence on Facebook, people are exceptionally loyal to the exercise modality. The company was founded in 2012 and delivered its first bike in 2014; it boasts of having more than 1 million users.

The Peloton at-home bike.
Peloton

Now, at-home, “connected” fitness options, like Peloton’s answer to SoulCycle, are ascendant. There are an abundance of class streaming apps, like the audio app Aaptiv, the so-called “Spotify of fitness,” that you only need a phone to use. But increasingly, more companies have been inspired by Peloton’s success to the point that they are asking customers to commit to pricey home equipment. There are now several Pelotons of rowing (Hydrow, Cityrow), a Peloton of weight training (Tonal), a Peloton of boxing (Rumble), and a Peloton of group cardio studio fitness (Mirror).

Like a lot of things that emerge from the wellness industry, Peloton comes at a steep price. It costs $2,000 for a bike, and that’s before you add in the monthly streaming service. The company is valued at more than $4 billion, and an IPO is likely imminent. Since people are busier and boutique fitness is more popular than ever, it’s not surprising that a business that accounts for both of these things is thriving. Peloton’s success is also a convincing sign that high-priced fitness has been normalized. It wasn’t long ago that SoulCycle’s high class prices were raising eyebrows, but now people are willing to pay up for a stationary bike of their own at home.

Peloton on the rise

Over the past decade, traditional gyms started to lose some of their customers to so-called boutique fitness studios that usually offer one very specific type of group class, like barre or stationary cycling. SoulCycle became the most visible of these, frequently garnering headlines (and cult comparisons) because of its $30-plus price tag for one 45-minute cycling class and the evangelism of its customers (or “warriors,” as they prefer to be called). But a rumored SoulCycle IPO was taken off the table this past spring because of “market conditions.”

According to a recent market survey published in Fast Company, the at-home fitness equipment market is worth $14 billion and 54 percent of Americans surveyed expressed interest in buying at-home equipment. (Currently, according to IHRSA, about 60 million Americans have gym memberships, spending $30 billion on them.)

Peloton is very popular and is still growing. It has more than 1 million customers, including anyone who has used a Peloton bike or taken a class. It’s sold 250,000 bikes since launch, bringing in $300 million in revenue in 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal. After raising $550 million in funding in August, the company is now valued at $4.15 billion. Its CEO and founder John Foley, who did stints at Evite and Barnes & Noble before starting Peloton, has suggested that the company will pursue an IPO in 2019. It just launched in Canada and the UK.

On top of the $2,000 price tag for a Peloton bike, the streaming service, where you can access hundreds of classes, is $39 a month. If you opt out of the streaming service, you only have access to three sample classes. Peloton is also about to start shipping treadmills, which cost almost $4,000, with the same streaming model. The company says it has presold 10,000 so far. Alternatively, you can work out on a non-Peloton machine of your choice using your phone and an app-only membership that costs about $20 a month, but you can’t stream this on a Peloton bike’s screen and game your way out of the $39-a-month tab.

At home on the bike, the screen is large, and the instructor is front and center, often looking straight into the camera and calling out by name riders who have reached certain milestones, like their 100th ride. You can see the silhouettes of riders in the studio in the mirrors behind the instructor, bathed in a violet light. Metrics like speed, calories, output, and mileage all scroll continuously on your screen, and a leaderboard on one side shows you how you’re doing compared to everyone else.

In the cycling studio, 12 instructors record classes about eight to 12 times a week each, in front of a live group of actual riders at an NYC studio; a separate treadmill studio is ramping up its offerings as the treads start to ship. Classes at the studio are $32. Lunchtime classes, which are hard to fill with paying customers, are often free.

Ally Love teaches a live class at the Peloton studio in New York City.
Peloton

Taking a live Peloton class at the company’s fitness studio feels like being in a TV show about a spin class, because that’s essentially what it is. The lights, cameras, and some scripted patter of the instructor are clues that this class is different from SoulCycle, Flywheel, or any of the other popular spinning classes that have taken over gym culture in the past decade. There are cameras mounted on the ceiling that zip around getting shots of the instructor from different angles, ultimately feeding the footage to a huge, high-tech video studio in the basement level.

The instructor takes care to speak to the camera more than to the IRL class. It felt slightly stilted, a thing that I found weird since it feels so authentic when you’re actually on the bike at home. I felt a little bit like a prop in the room. Brad Olson, the senior vice president of member experience at Peloton, acknowledges that having bodies in the physical space to create energy “does translate on camera. Ultimately, we’re optimizing for the million members, not for the 50 folks in the room.”

Pelotons of everything else are coming

New startups and old stalwarts alike have watched Peloton’s success closely, and they want a piece of that enthusiastic market. While Peloton has called itself the “Netflix of fitness,” new startups are now calling themselves the “Peloton of [insert exercise type here].” It’s become the go-to model, including the luxury price points.

Flywheel, a studio-based cycling company with 43 locations all over the country, started offering “Fly Anywhere” classes complete with a $1,999 bike at the end of 2017. In September, Peloton filed a suit against Flywheel alleging that it had stolen its proprietary technology, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Peloton declined to discuss the lawsuit.)

Rumble, a growing boxing club workout that counts Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun as an investor, just announced a partnership with Technogym. It will sell a $1,700 bag and $39 per month streaming classes (as well as a $20/month app-only option), but a launch video suggests it will also offer cycling and running classes, and will sell you the necessary Technogym equipment for that.

Then there’s NordicTrack. Perhaps like I was, you might be surprised to learn that NordicTrack makes more than NordicTracks, those wooden at-home cross-country skiers that were big in the ’80s and ’90s. It offers three different connected treadmills complete with screens and streaming technology, priced from $1,699 to $2,899. The first year of streaming classes is free, and then it’s, yep, $39 a month. There’s also a connected bike, and a rower just launched in November. The company says it has 1.9 million members and has been offering streaming classes on its equipment since 2015.

The surprise in all this is that there are a total of three new connected rowers, arguably the most boring workout and one ripe for disruption. CityRow, a NYC-based rowing group fitness class that intersperses rowing and strength training, launched water rowers for $1,395 and $19 a month to stream classes.

The Hydrow at-home connected rowing machine.
Hydrow

Bruce Smith, a US national rowing coach, has started Hydrow, complete with a sleek silver rower that is the quietest and nicest-looking one I’ve ever tried. It costs $2,199, and streaming is $38 a month. Delivery will start in May. The instructors are all professional rowers, and the classes are shot on actual bodies of water in real boats. When you watch it on the screen, it’s pretty engaging.

Finally, there are a few unique things coming. Tonal is a connected weight machine that looks like a giant iPhone hanging on a wall with movable arms attached that slide up and down and adjust to allow you to do multiple strength exercises. The resistance is provided by electromagnets, and the machine automatically adjusts if it senses you struggling. A coach pops up on the screen to walk you through your personalized workout, which is constantly changing thanks to AI. The unit is $2,995 and streaming is $49 a month. It currently only ships to San Francisco but will be more widely available soon.

Mirror, as the name suggests, hangs on your wall and streams cardio classes right to your living room. You can see yourself working out as well as follow an instructor. This might be the hardest sell, since you can already do this on your phone through any number of companies. But Mirror offers a lot of interactivity, a heart rate monitor so you can log stats, and, obviously, a bigger screen. It costs $1,495 plus $39 a month.

Peloton clearly made a savvy decision launching at-home connected spinning, a modality that has had a bigger boom than other types of fitness classes. However, diversifying into running shows the company understands that exercisers can be fickle and that it may face some competition.

The Tonal wall-mounted strength training system.
Tonal

What does Peloton think of all these interlopers? “We are mostly flattered, and we know there’s opportunity for other players in this space,” Olson says. “We’re watching and seeing what comes up. No one has really taken a bite out of our business yet.” Part of the reason might be because of the extreme devotion users have to the company.

Cult of Peloton

Peloton’s million members are an enthusiastic, vocal bunch. A peloton is a pack of cyclists that stick close to each other in a road race, drafting off one another’s momentum. A lot of the enthusiasm is because of the 12 cycling instructors who teach the classes, without whom there would be little motivation to set foot on the bike. This is ultimately Peloton’s secret sauce, and may be difficult for its competitors to replicate.

Every city has its “celebrity” fitness instructors, those people whose classes fill up instantly. It’s the same at Peloton, except that its instructors can reach more than 1,000 people each ride rather than several dozen. Instructors interact with riders on their own Instagram and Facebook pages, as well as on company pages. Olson insists that no one instructor is the most popular.

“It is surprisingly consistent across instructors. I give [Fred Klein, chief content officer] all the credit. He comes from a world of television where he casts characters, and he wanted a balanced cast that appealed to different folks,” he says.

There are the hardcore road cyclists, like Christine D’Ercole. There’s Ally Love, who has an unfailingly upbeat and motivational vibe. Cody Rigsby is a former dancer and is known for his fun playlists. Jenn Sherman, who is down to earth, is my personal favorite.

“I like Denis Morton,” says Gil, 43, who’s had a Peloton bike for a little less than a year. “He’s a charismatic guy and he looks good, so that is kind of a motivational factor. He seems like a cool, guy’s guy type of person, so I liked that.” Gil was a road cyclist (“My actual bike is in my closet right now, in pieces”) and had never done spin classes, but got the Peloton when life got very busy with a toddler at home.

Morton, who has a man bun and is chiseled from his cheekbones on down, is definitely a favorite of many. He even has a Facebook group dedicated to him called “Denis’s Menaces,” which has 5,400 members.

Ally Love, who taught the class I went to live, once appeared on Good Morning America because hosts Robin Roberts and Michael Strahan are Peloton fans. Love is also a model and the Brooklyn Nets’ stadium host during home games. She has more than 90,000 followers on Instagram and admits, a little sheepishly, that she does get recognized a lot. She’s taken selfies in bathrooms with riders. She once met a fan in a hotel lobby in Montenegro. Another fan chased her down yelling before she got into a cab.

“People want to come up and tell you that what you’ve told them affected them, and I think that goes beyond just being famous and recognized,” Love says. After the class I took, she posed for selfies with fans.

Riders share their personal bests on Instagram and interact on their Peloton screens with other riders, whom they can follow on a built-in social network and interact with during class, giving virtual “high fives” to each other, the Peloton equivalent of a Facebook “poke.” There are multiple Facebook and Instagram pages whereby hundreds of users interact with their favorite instructors and offer feedback, both solicited and not.

One such rider posted his stats on Instagram: 17.49 miles biked, 960 calories burned, 699 kilojoules of total ride output. For a man in his 40s, as his Peloton profile identified him, user “hjgo” had had a ridiculously impressive spinning session — but his personal best is not what made this workout interesting to his fellow at-home cycling enthusiasts.

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Personal best. #peloton

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“Hjgo” was actor Hugh Jackman, and while he proudly shared those stats, he also accidentally shared his username. “He reached out to our team, and he’s like, ‘Um, can you please change my username?’” says Olson. Jackman was “inundated” by people trying to engage with him, follow him, and give him high fives. (In case you’re wondering, Jackman’s favorite instructor is Alex Toussaint.) A fitness company couldn’t ask for a better free celebrity endorsement.

Peloton crowdsources improvements to its services constantly, often via two Facebook pages it moderates, the Official Peloton Members Page (115,000) and the Official Peloton Mom Group (almost 17,000). “It’s a gift to have 300-plus posts a day from members who are openly sharing their questions, their concerns, and their feedback, which is sometimes pretty harsh. But we love it, and we catalog every single piece of it,” says Olson. He says the brand has made “hundreds” of changes based on customer feedback, such as a feature showing the title and artist for each new song that’s played.

The studio has become a bit of a mecca for riders who don’t live in NYC. One 38-year-old rider, who requested anonymity because of her job, says, “Any time I go there for work, if I’m in the island of Manhattan, it doesn’t matter where I stay or what I’m doing, I’ll go to the Peloton studio to ride.”

Peloton hosts an event every year called the Home Rider Invasion, which brings Pel-grims to the city for a giant communal ride. It started with groups of riders just showing up but is now a more organized affair. The first official one brought in 350 riders. This year, the company offered spots for 1,000, and it sold out in three hours. Peloton had to host the riders at Chelsea Piers, a large athletic complex near the Hudson River.

Easy access to fitness, but hard to afford

Peloton and its competitors all promise to make a great workout more accessible, complete with a human connection. They’re also all really expensive and require that you have enough space in your home for a large piece of exercise equipment — a double whammy of privilege. The price is likely a limiting factor for a lot of people who could benefit from saving time by working out at home because of job and family commitments, because $1,500 to $4,000 plus $39 a month in perpetuity is a significant investment.

You can use Peloton’s app, and a multitude of other streaming apps, more cheaply, but it’s a different experience, and one that still often requires access to equipment. Olson is well aware of the criticism about the price. The company started offering financing a year ago and doesn’t charge interest for it. Buying a bike on a finance plan plus streaming will set you back a little less than $100 a month.

Since at least 2016, when the wellness industry started to really grow, critics have noted that wellness — a concept that began in the realm of public health as a way to prevent disease — became a luxury and an aspirational product somewhere along the way. $32 spin classes are not affordable for a good chunk of people. But we’re now numb to the price in many ways. Buying a Peloton bike plus streaming, via financing, is about the equivalent of three studio classes a month. Seems like a great deal, right?

The astronomical cost of working out has been normalized. “Most of our research suggests there’s a large swath of the US population that’s already paying that much or more for fitness, so we think the quality of our offering merits that $97-a-month investment,” says Olson. This also suggests that companies like Peloton won’t necessarily make fitness more accessible to a wider group of people. It will likely just see a redistribution of where that money is being spent.

Olson says, “We don’t want to trap you into staying; we want to convince you with the quality of our offering that you should be here.”

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