Not long ago, getting into a SoulCycle class didn’t just mean a 45-minute workout; it meant status. No boutique fitness class was as exclusive, and no clientele as glamorous or devoted, showing up multiple times a week to ride a bike in the dark.
In Los Angeles, Beyoncé rode with Angela. In New York, Bradley Cooper went to Charlee. When Michelle Obama was first lady, she booked private classes with Garrett in DC. This workout wasn’t just for people who wanted to get sweaty, but for wealthy, popular, and important people who wanted to get sweaty.
Inside each spin studio, every element furthered this air of aspiration and commitment: the welcoming sans-serif logo and uplifting mantras on the walls, the grapefruit-scented candles, the gorgeous instructors, the low-watt mood lighting, the chilled bottles of Smartwater, the amethyst crystals that supposedly absorb bad energy. Acolytes spoke the secret language of the initiated (tapbacks, roosters, doubles, tribe) and wore the uniform of the converted (Lululemon leggings emblazoned with the company’s skull-and-crossbones logo).
Getting into a class also meant forking over Soulcycle’s steep $34 per-class price tag at its peak. Cleaving logic from money wasn’t the difficult part. Many paid hundreds a month, attending two or three classes a day. (SoulCycle is said to have a soft limit of three classes per person per day but did not strictly enforce it.) The difficult part was booking the bikes. On Mondays at noon, SoulCycle’s online booking system would open, and an entire week’s worth of slots would be up for grabs. The best time slots with the best instructors were gobbled up in seconds. People would do whatever they could to game the system — a system that was designed to keep people out instead of letting them in.
During the height of SoulCycle’s popularity from 2013 to 2015, front desk staffers at New York City’s flagship NoHo location had to stop answering the studio’s three phone lines at 11:50 am at the beginning of each week. Savvy riders figured out that if they called a studio and found an unwitting employee, they could stall them on the line until noon, pleading to have a bike booked through the studio’s back end. Those riders learned to avoid asking for managers and targeted the newbies.
“You had people saying, ‘I logged on right at 12:01 and everything was sold out,’ and we’re like, yeah, no shit,” says Rachel, a former SoulCycle employee of six years, laughing at the imagined computer glitch. “You have people calling, emailing, and complaining, going, ‘Where am I on the waitlist? Your system is broken.’ It’s not broken. There are just a lot of people trying to book for the same class.”
According to former staffers — all of whom, like Rachel, are being referred to by pseudonyms, either because they have signed NDAs or because they fear pushback from the company’s wealthy, well-connected riders — chaos rippled across the country every Monday. Extra staffers were assigned at flagship locations just to accommodate the deluge of calls, emails, and walk-in schmoozing from riders hoping that some extra effort could get them into a class.
“If you emailed us and asked, we would try to do that for you, because we were a culture of yes,” Rachel explains. “You had riders who had special relationships with front desk staff who, come Christmastime, would give them bottles of booze, $500 Amex gift cards, and their daughter’s old Dior bag they didn’t want anymore.”
You could call SoulCycle a phenomenon, a craze, lightning in a bottle, but that doesn’t fully capture the fanaticism.
“The cult thing was real, but in a positive way,” says Rachel. “Because it was a family, right?” Everyone involved felt like they were part of creating something new and important, and in many ways they were. SoulCycle revolutionized the fitness industry, and was, for years, its sexiest player. It made working out transcend being a chore or even a necessity, becoming something spiritually and physically empowering, possibly even emancipating.
The brand touted community and used words like “tribe,” “crew,” and “posse” to sell its experience. But behind mantras like “we inhale intention and exhale expectation” and “our own strength surprises us every time” was rampant gossip about which instructors were sleeping with which riders, secret lists of instructors’ favorite and least favorite clients, and dehumanizing language from some of the most privileged people in the country. Everyone wanted to be on the inside, and exclusivity begat bad behavior from instructors and clients alike.
At the end of 2014, according to an IPO S-1 filing, the company was seeing revenue of $112 million, coming from more than 30 studios. That year, the company sold 2.9 million rides on bikes that went nowhere.
When the phones stopped ringing just a few years later, Rachel knew something was wrong. The asks for favors stopped coming, strings didn’t need to be pulled, the anxiety that her body had sharpened into instinct was gone. The IPO never materialized. The tribes, crews, and posses had dwindled.
“It was awkward because we still had all this staff, and then we’d just be sitting around like, ‘Wow, Monday was really quiet today!’” she says. “It started to feel awkward and uncomfortable because you were used to this energy and then it got silent.”
The quiet preceded more quiet. By 2017, SoulCycle had more studios than ever, more instructors than ever, and a plan to keep expanding to more cities, but it also had more empty rooms and not enough riders to fill them, according to studio employees and instructors I spoke with. In 2020, the pandemic crushed the company financially, forcing it to shut down studios across the country and furlough employees.
On the surface, the pandemic ravaged SoulCycle the way it did many companies, especially those in the group fitness sector. But according to former instructors, executives, and other staff, the pandemic didn’t ruin SoulCycle. Rather, they think it simply sped up the company’s inevitable downfall.
SoulCycle was never built to be for the masses. Keeping people out was, it seems, just as important to the business as loyal riders. The bigger SoulCycle got, the less desirable it became. The less desirable it became, the less people had tolerance for the culture it fostered. The minute the company became mainstream, the magic dissolved.
It’s impossible to scale exclusivity.
“I still remember the morning that I decided to quit,” Rachel says, describing the pressure she felt in her chest. “I finally had to put myself first. I felt like they weren’t taking care of me anymore. So how could I justify giving my life to them?”
SoulCycle is the brainchild of talent manager Julie Rice, realtor Elizabeth Cutler, and instructor Ruth Zukerman. The three opened up the first SoulCycle studio on 72nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2006, believing they could change spinning, making it less of a chore and more recreational. The room was all but hidden. It lived in the bones of an old dance space, tucked away in the rear lobby. The studio wasn’t visible from the street level, and signage couldn’t be put out front due to the building’s landmark status. The founders defied this rule by propping a yellow rickshaw outside, as well as a sandwich board that earned them daily tickets.
This stealth branding “actually became a plus,” Zukerman says, as it added to the allure. (Zukerman left SoulCycle in 2009 and founded the rival spin company Flywheel in 2010, which she exited in 2018. Rice and Cutler did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
SoulCycle became known only through a whisper network. One had to have heard about the spin class from a friend. Luckily, the city’s wealthy, trendy, and fit run in tight-knit cliques that generated enough buzz to fill the studio’s 33 bikes.
“You have to realize that circle of people is pretty small,” Zukerman says. “So when one person talks about it, everybody hears about it. It just goes down the chain.”
The game changer was the business’s second studio, the Barn. Opened in 2007 and still in operation today, the cavernous space holds 75-plus bikes (depending on how generous the fire marshal is feeling that day), and, better, it’s in the Hamptons, where affluent Manhattanites go to escape summer in the city.
“The Barn had just opened up,” a former SoulCycle rider says, “and I remember Charlotte Sarkozy telling me, ‘Oh, my god, there’s this super-hot lesbian teaching this amazing workout. All the mothers are in love with her. The workout is so good.’ Her group all went — five or six of them in the clique — and when summer ended, it carried on into the city.”
(For those unfamiliar with French social hierarchies, Charlotte Sarkozy is the ex-wife of Olivier Sarkozy, half-brother to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Olivier is also, perhaps more importantly, Mary-Kate Olsen’s ex-husband.)
Zukerman says that after that first summer in the Hamptons, she started seeing Escalades lined up outside the Upper West Side studio’s 9:30 am classes.
The actual SoulCycle workout has remained relatively unchanged in the 14 years the company has existed, still largely the same as the one Sarkozy was gushing about. Classes are offered in 45-, 60-, or 90-minute iterations; they take place in studios that are totally dark except for some lit candles and mood lighting around the instructor’s podium that leave just enough visibility to see reflections off the sweat on everyone’s bare skin. The goal is to get the entire class in sync to the music, so that each pedal stroke is in unison.
I got hooked when SoulCycle opened in DC. I can vouch for Soul’s combination of fun and physical results (I lost 25 pounds during my first year of riding). I left every class I took — more than 1,000 over six years — with a puddle of sweat under my bike. This is how I knew that the “super-hot lesbian” in question was Stacey Griffith, a SoulCycle senior master instructor.
Putting instructors front and center is a reversal of the usual exercise class. Before the era of boutique fitness that SoulCycle ushered in, people would join gyms or take group classes at yoga studios where the workout was more important than the teacher. SoulCycle changed this.
In 2007, SoulCycle regulars didn’t take SoulCycle; they took Stacey. Or they took one of her fellow original instructors like Laurie or Rique. Each had their own specific style, clientele, backstory, and favorite music they brought to workouts. The idea of a teacher being more important than the workout persists at SoulCycle today. The instructors named herein did not reply to requests for comment.
Griffith, who still teaches, apparently taught that Barn class so well, and was so charismatic, she could coax a crush from the frostiest of uptown moms. She, like the other stars, was also compensated handsomely for attracting riders to her classes. According to two former employees, she made a minimum of $800 per class — what former staffers say is probably the highest per-class rate in the history of the company. Top Soul instructors could make over $400 per class.
At 15 classes per week, Griffith’s rate adds up to more than half a million dollars a year. That doesn’t include incentives like sellout bonuses, which some instructors received, that could push the per-class rate to above $1,000. Nor does it include gifts from riders: holiday tips and gifts, fancy meals, trips to vacation homes. After the rise of Instagram, instructors were able to further bolster their salaries with sponsorships and ads.
Cutler and Rice (who in their pre-SoulCycle days had a hand in creating careers for the likes of Ellen Pompeo, Selma Blair, and Justin Long at Hollywood’s Handprint management firm) were fantastic at finding talent. They recruited instructors who could cut through the noise of New Yorkers’ lives and convince them to carve out an hour to go to Soul. If instructors didn’t know how to do that naturally, SoulCycle could teach them.
Master instructor Janet Fitzgerald was hired to train would-be SoulCycle stars not just on how to ride but also on what makes a class a success: the different kinds of songs that should make up a session’s playlist, how a track’s BPM dictates the mood, how to position the candles. To this day, she teaches trainees the “messaging” of SoulCycle — the uplifting credos that jaded New Yorkers would consider corny if muttered in any other setting (“Be obsessively grateful!” “We ride as one!”). She teaches them how to memorize their riders’ faces and names.
She also teaches them how to market desire, a key part of Soul’s appeal.
“Your riders should want to be you or fuck you. That was the mantra,” a former instructor I’ll call Bobby says. “And those two concepts are not mutually exclusive.”
Bobby says Janet gave him the “be you or fuck you” speech in front of other trainees around seven years ago. Another instructor who was in the room with Bobby and Janet confirmed Bobby’s account: “It was so fucking awkward.”
Multiple instructors and staffers report that Fitzgerald often says things like “sex sells” and encourages trainers to wear red lipstick. She refers to her riders as “little sluts.” Her Instagram handle is “SpinPimp.”
Bobby taught at Soul for more than five years. In the beginning, he says, when he was struggling to fill his classes, Fitzgerald told him he needed to get laid. He says he watched Fitzgerald grill another instructor about keeping the beat and teaching a better class, asking the woman when she and her husband last had sex.
A former employee shared a photo with Vox of a sticky note that hung in the studio’s office. On it, a quote attributed to Janet said that if riders start asking if they were on cocaine or say that they look like they had an eating disorder, it means that instructors are hitting their goal weights.
While Fitzgerald is explicit about marketing sex in training sessions, the push is more implicit on the client-facing end. Around 2011, instructors started skewing younger, with sharper jawlines, more defined cheekbones, and abs that seemed to have their own set of abs. Some were part-time models, and many posed in SoulCycle’s retail designs for the website.
Whether or not instructors follow Fitzgerald’s red lipstick suggestion, the idea is that they be able to pull riders into their orbits. They need to make their classes can’t-miss events and convince riders that a bike in the second row was better than one in the back, but not as good as in the very front. There was always more for riders to want. Some riders would even take two or three classes back to back with the same instructor.
Not unlike American Gladiators or Cher, the best Soul instructors were always known by their first names — Stacey, Akin, Angela, Charlee, Danny, Karyn, Pixie. Sometimes, they’d gain notoriety from the A-list celebrities who took their classes, like soccer star David Beckham or model Karlie Kloss. As SoulCycle grew in popularity, instructors began appearing in music videos for Kid Cudi and Zedd. They posed for magazine spreads and went on morning talk shows; some were featured in Page Six. They became mini celebrities.
“I remember checking the Hamptons frequently throughout the summer of 2013,” Shawn, a former staffer who worked at Soul for four years, says of Griffith’s classes. “There were over 300 people on her waitlist, and that’s a big studio, so there were 70 bikes in the room.” By the morning of the class, he says, “the waitlist was over 400.”
When Cutler, Rice, and Zukerman started SoulCycle in 2006, the term “boutique fitness” hadn’t fully been established yet. Traditionally, people who had enough money and cared enough about exercise belonged to gyms. Those gyms had a plethora of classes to take, spin classes included. CrossFit, which also revolutionized moving fitness away from gyms, was founded in 2000. Standalone yoga and Pilates studios existed too, but exercise was largely tethered to gyms.
The SoulCycle founders smashed that notion with a velvet hammer.
Before starting the company, Zukerman taught classes at the Reebok club, a full-service gym that offered every kind of group fitness class you could imagine, as well as a basketball court and an Olympic-size swimming pool. “But what I noticed,” she says, “is that the lines for my spin classes started getting longer. Everybody who took spin class only took this class. They didn’t use the gym for anything else.” Zukerman took those lines as “a huge sign” that if there were a studio just for spin, people would skip the gym entirely.
The idea of the “SoulCycle experience” was to become a destination — in order to experience the best spin class in the world, you had to go to SoulCycle. The playlists would be tailored. The workout was synchronized to the music. The instructors were specifically trained to teach spin.
A testament to SoulCycle’s early business plan is that it withstood the market collapse of 2008. You would think a luxury spin class would be one of the first things people cut from their budgets during a recession. But that never happened. A major part of that was how affluent SoulCycle’s clientele was. Even if everyone was tightening their belts, Zukerman says, her riders didn’t see “feeling good” as an expense they would cut.
The other saving grace during the recession was the shift toward less visible forms of wealth and status. The term “stealth wealth” popped up to describe how rich people began shying away from consumerism that actively flaunted their income — cars, clothes, bags. Minimalist labels and less flashy brands thrived. Luxury health and wellness benefited from the effect too, seen as ways to spend money and not seem gauche or insensitive.
SoulCycle capitalized on its insider status and became the definitive spin experience. To put it in perspective, the company achieved all of its success without launching a national advertising campaign, something the company finally did in 2017. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, group cycling participation jumped from just under 5 million participants in 2010 to over 10 million in 2019 — the IHRSA largely credits SoulCycle and boutique spin companies with the increase.
Cutler and Rice knew how to make every person at a studio, from maintenance staff to front desk workers to instructors, feel like they were doing something valuable. They made it known that no task was insignificant and that the company was more of a family than a business. This allowed even the most arduous parts of the job to seem like something to be grateful for.
“Our front desk, we would have to get up and set up for 5 am classes,” Rachel says. “That means we had to be at the studio no later than 4:30, but we wanted to do it. We were pumped to do it.”
The mantra that front desk staffers learned was “find the yes.” Soul was “a culture of yes.” Employees should always go above and beyond to make things happen for the clientele. That could mean taking extra time to teach a new rider to clip in to a bike, holding someone’s luggage behind the desk, or charging a rider’s cellphone while they’re in class. Cutler and Rice knew small acts of kindness made all the difference.
But being a “culture of yes” had a toxic edge.
“In the beginning, that meant you give the socks off your feet to a rider if they forgot their socks,” Rachel explains. “I’ve literally seen people do that. That built that sense of community — ‘We would do anything for you’ — but what that became actually was something sort of abusive internally and externally.”
The byproduct of building an entire brand around service and scarcity and “noon on Monday” is that inevitably some clients don’t get the things they want. Certain instructors’ classes were getting more and more popular. More people were getting shut out. Shutting people out made those classes even more desirable. Star instructors were given a lot of control over something very valuable.
Veteran riders knew that beyond the official waitlist, some instructors had their own waitlists to ensure their favorite regulars got bikes. Studios also had what was called a “move list” — a list you can put your name on to get closer to the front row. Some instructors also had “secret” move lists to dictate who was good enough to sit in their front rows. Having a front row full of seasoned riders who could hit the choreography looked cool, but it also allowed newer riders to watch and keep up with the class.
Founding senior master instructor Laurie Cole is often cited — by front desk staff, corporate employees, and instructors — as someone who took advantage of her star status.
Cole, according to multiple former staffers, instructed administrators to hold her front row bikes so that she could put her best and most attractive riders on them. She would yell at staffers if they put “the wrong person” on a bike she didn’t feel they deserved.
“She would say, ‘I don’t want that person in my front row,’” a former employee says. “She would say, ‘I don’t like the way they ride. I don’t like their attitude. I don’t like the way they looked at me. I don’t like looking at them.’” Several other staffers confirmed this.
Another employee says Cole fat-shamed a rider over her microphone during a class and often belittled the cleaning crew. One studio manager created a folder of screenshots that they shared with Vox, which included emails and texts from Cole berating staff about her front row, a text message fat-shaming an employee working the front desk, and multiple messages criticizing the studio managers.
Studio staff say they also had to deal with vitriol from riders, some of whom were unwitting victims of instructors’ bad behavior.
Shawn, who worked at New York City’s NoHo studio from 2012 to 2016, recalls that a popular instructor once told him not to let a specific rider book what’s known as the “boyfriend bike” — the bike that’s directly in front of the instructor’s podium. The instructor said they didn’t want to look at the rider.
The rider was able to book the bike anyway, and so the staffer, honoring the instructor’s wishes, moved the rider.
“She called literally within 30 seconds of me doing that, because you get a notification email when your bike gets moved, and began verbally assaulting me,” Shawn says. “The words she used, oh, god. She called me stupid. She called me the r-word even. She belittled me based on the fact that I worked there. She threatened to come into the studio and ‘fuck us up.’ And it was all because I moved her one [bike] over.”
Several front desk staffers said that being yelled and cursed at was a regular occurrence. While SoulCycle was promoting a culture of community and belonging, it was also serving privileged adults indulging their worst impulses.
The exclusivity also drove riders to form cliques. Several employees note that the most notorious riders were a faction of what’s known as Akin’s Army — riders devoted to instructor Akin Akman. Former employees say that though Akman, who now has his own fitness company, AARMY, with fellow ex-SoulCycle master instructor Angela Manuel-Davis, was always friendly to staffers and clients, some of his riders were another story.
“They would bully people who booked front row bikes and would confront them in the studio physically,” Rachel says. They would then fire off emails to “Your Soul Matters,” SoulCycle’s customer service inbox, and complain about how the rider ruined the experience. “I watched grown women cry,” she adds.
Instructors often fed into their riders’ loyalty, both intentionally and unintentionally. Many would hang out with their most adoring fans outside of class, and those riders would then talk about having drinks with their favorite instructor within earshot of other riders, resulting in even more hostility.
“Think about it: Riders are getting to the studio 30 minutes before class, taking three back-to-back classes at 45 minutes each, then you’re hanging out with him afterward. These women are spending five, six hours a day with him,” Rachel explained about Akin, but also said many instructors shared these kinds of relationships with riders. “His full-time job is taking care of this flock of women following him around.”
It wasn’t uncommon for riders to see their instructors as much as, if not more than, their friends, families, and partners.
“That’s when you get this competition and people are fighting over the attention of the instructor,” Bobby says. “Some people would walk out in tears because Conor didn’t go up to their bike.”
Conor is Conor Kelly, a star instructor whose home base was Greenwich, Connecticut. The friction among his cohort, according to three former staffers, was due to his reputation for allegedly having sexual relationships with riders. Soul instructors giving their clients off-the-clock rides was a regular occurrence, sources told Vox. Indeed, the company became known to Barstool Sports fans when founder Dave Portnoy’s then-girlfriend allegedly slept with a New York City instructor (in retaliation, Portnoy and Barstool fans dubbed it “CuckCycle”).
Those relationships could create more problems, and an oft-repeated story of Soul sabotage centers on Kelly: While studios usually have lockers, the women in Greenwich would line up their handbags and makeup pouches neatly in a row in the studio bathroom, in order to reserve spots in front of the mirror to freshen up after class. Someone apparently thought Kelly was giving too much attention to one rider, who he let ride on the podium with him. Later, employees say, the rider found a used tampon in her purse.
Despite the claims of bullying, these riders would keep coming back to SoulCycle, and employees would endure it. In retrospect, employees like Rachel and Shawn recognized that the odious behavior was more common than uncommon. Rachel found the conduct emotionally exhausting and draining. Shawn says he became more disillusioned the longer he worked there, recognizing that toxicity was more of a feature than a bug.
Even if this was a place where feelings were hurt, adult men and women were still eager to belong. The high is a little like being a popular kid in school. The bullies and bullied alike were part of something. It might have felt awful, but it was better than being on the outside.
“SoulCycle loves to pretend that it’s inclusive when, in reality, it only exists and functions off of extreme exclusivity,” Shawn says. The power dynamic between instructors and riders and staffers could also veer into uncomfortable territory.
More recently, allegations surfaced that instructor Mike Press pressured a rider to perform oral sex on him. The rider, according to Business Insider, says she alerted SoulCycle about Press and was ignored.
SoulCycle responded to allegations against Press and stories about instructors’ bad behavior in a statement to Vox:
At SoulCycle, our priority has always been to build a community centered on our core values of diversity, inclusion, acceptance and love. When we receive complaints or allegations related to behavior within our community that does not align to our values, we take those very seriously and both investigate and address them. We are committed to continuing to make improvements and ensuring that we live up to the values that our teams and riders expect of us.
There’s a direct relationship between the company’s cool factor and the amount of mistreatment endured. It was easier to gloss over outbursts and cattiness during the glory days, when SoulCycle was still the hottest fitness brand. When classes weren’t selling out anymore, when it got quiet at noon on Mondays, it was harder to ignore the bad behavior.
In 2011, the Related Companies real estate firm took a majority stake in SoulCycle, putting it under the auspices of Equinox, the luxury fitness giant its principals partly owned. This purchase helped SoulCycle expand to 36 studios by 2014; Equinox’s plan was to add around 15 or more each year. The objective, for the parent company at least, was for the spinning studios to be everywhere.
SoulCycle filed a registration statement in 2015, the first step in taking a company public with an IPO. According to SoulCycle’s filing, each of the company’s studios was generating an average annual revenue of $4 million. That same year, Melanie Whelan was named CEO, and Cutler and Rice took spots as chief creative officers.
Former employees say that Cutler and Rice clashed with Equinox chair Harvey Spevak. He didn’t like their cavalier spending. They didn’t like Equinox’s focus on streamlining and scaling the business they created. When the company hit 60 studios in 2016, Cutler and Rice left with $90 million each. There was never an IPO.
A vanishing IPO isn’t necessarily cause for alarm or a sign of financial weakness. But it does signal something changed. David Erickson, a senior fellow and lecturer at Wharton and an expert on IPOs, told me that SoulCycle’s S-1 filing was used as an example in one of his classes around the time it was filed.
“I was a big proponent of [the IPO]; I thought it was gonna be great, because it was a great growth story,” he told me. “Just like Shake Shack, it was only, like, 30 stores. And huge margins, and they sell [retail clothing] to people — the shirts sell for [around] $80 that cost like $5? So it was a great story.”
Erickson said SoulCycle’s numbers and projected growth were similar and compared favorably to Shake Shack, the now-inevitable burger chain from Danny Meyer. He explained that SoulCycle’s business seemed even stronger when you consider the relatively low and sustainable overhead costs of just getting people into a studio. It’s not like the company was purchasing buns, meat, and ice cream every month. And their growth rates were even higher than what Shake Shack was doing.
“When a company withdraws a registration statement, that just means something’s changed,” he said. “It could be they don’t think there’s an opportunity for them to go public. It could be they potentially see another strategy, where maybe they sell it themselves to somebody. And it could be financial issues, but not always.”
Erickson said that while he was a SoulCycle rider (in the back, he said), he wasn’t intimately familiar with the business’s inner workings. But he did follow some of the company’s news. He said that a confluence of factors, including the co-founders stepping away from the company, the debt needed to buy them out, and the growth of the group fitness industry, especially with Peloton’s boom, could all be reasons it was pulled.
Only the board and SoulCycle’s top executives know for sure why the IPO never came to be; one former executive believes the IPO was a hollow gesture that was never meant to happen.
It was also becoming clearer that rapid expansion wasn’t the right move. The more studios that opened in hubs like New York, DC, and San Francisco, the more empty classes could be found, former employees said. Equinox didn’t seem to understand the impossibility of scaling exclusivity. Taking the magic of NoHo or Union Square’s back-to-back-to-back sold-out classes and trying to replicate it 20 times over wasn’t going to happen.
“The faster we grew, the more diluted the brand became,” a former employee says. “These friendly, familiar faces were gone.” SoulCycle had been a startup, and the Equinox purchase meant that its future would be growth at any cost.
Internally, morale began cratering.
The corporate directive seemed to focus on “numbers instead of people,” and former employees say studios started to see budgets cut and stringent rules about expenses. Instead of “find the yes,” the directive became, effectively, find the no that saved the most money. Instructors who weren’t grandfathered in saw their base pay rate slashed, and the pressure to fill classes was intense.
Even Griffith, who briefly left New York for Los Angeles, wasn’t able to fill up rooms as easily.
This is the point when Rachel, who worked her way up at SoulCycle, realized the phones had gone quiet. The Monday noon rush stopped. SoulCycle devotees didn’t want to ride in an empty room or with new teachers. With sparsely attended classes, grumpy instructors, and a front desk staff that wasn’t, literally or figuratively, able to give you their socks, the company lost its core base of riders.
The “SoulCycle experience” no longer existed.
“The identical thing happened to Flywheel, which is the new people in charge had absolutely no idea what these businesses were about,” Zukerman says. She witnessed SoulCycle’s boom from a rival’s point of view, and saw her own competing business flourish. Zukerman also observed firsthand how much the group fitness industry had expanded since those early rickshaw days on 72nd Street, and the perils that come along with that kind of massive growth.
For those “new people in charge,” as Zukerman puts it, the goal was different. “They’re focusing on meeting the bottom line. The bottom line is making as much money as they can, as quickly as they can,” she says. “When that became the focus, everything else got lost.”
While trying to chase that bottom line, the company also committed the crucial misfire of underestimating its competition. Peloton, the at-home fitness brand known for its spin bikes, had been growing exponentially since introducing its at-home bike in 2014. As Marketwatch reported, “in its 2019 fiscal year, Peloton recorded revenue of $719.2 million from sales of its fitness machines, up from $348.6 million in 2018 and $183.5 million in 2017.”
During this time, SoulCycle tinkered with the idea of creating an at-home bike of its own but never fully committed, a former executive says. SoulCycle didn’t see the company as competition at first. Soul was selling the feeling in the room, while Peloton was selling an at-home workout. It wasn’t until it saw Peloton’s growing success, and its own empty rooms, in 2018 and 2019 that SoulCycle decided to explore that market.
SoulCycle’s at-home bike and attendant app weren’t ready to go until 2019, but then were delayed further by Equinox, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. The bike was SoulCycle’s Hail Mary; there were more studios bringing in money, but the studios were not exceeding their revenue goals, according to two former employees with knowledge of the numbers.
In a statement to Vox, a SoulCycle spokesperson said its studio numbers were actually better in 2017-2019 than in its early years. “As we have scaled the SoulCycle experience and introduced the brand to new markets, we have increased our average utilization,” they said (utilization is the term SoulCycle uses to indicate how full a room is). “Over the course of 2017 to 2019, we filled 65% of our capacity on average compared to 61% on average from 2014 to 2016.”
A former longtime New York City employee with knowledge of those numbers said utilization could be bumped up by SoulCycle cutting low-performing classes or shortening studio hours. That could explain the revenue goal misses while keeping utilization percentages slightly higher. In year-end documents provided to Vox, the raw number of New York City metropolitan-area paid rides — which represented roughly 25 percent of SoulCycle studios worldwide — declined from 1.89 million in 2016 to 1.62 million in 2019.
Meanwhile, instead of pushing SoulCycle’s separate app and at-home bike, Equinox allegedly used the app and model to create its own app and fold in SoulCycle, undercutting the work the SoulCycle team had put into it, a former executive said.
Then, in the summer of 2019, on the day that SoulCycle finally announced its at-home bike, the company found itself at the center of Stephen Ross’s pro-Trump fundraiser controversy. Ross, who owns Related, which has major stakes in both SoulCycle and Equinox, was publicly backing a president known for xenophobia, sexism, and racism. SoulCycle’s teachers revolted. Riders felt betrayed. The corporate office, which had already seen rapid turnover, was emotionally crushed. To many, Trump’s values ran counter to everything SoulCycle stood for. The company’s message of community, already degraded, felt even more hollow to those tasked with keeping up the facade.
Whelan — who some workers described negatively as a detail- and budget-oriented “spreadsheet” and others acknowledge positively as a leader in a thankless role — resigned as CEO in November 2019 as SoulCycle opened its 98th studio in Notting Hill, London.
On December 1, 2020, SoulCycle named Evelyn Webster, the former CEO of the Guardian, its new CEO. The company’s CFO Sunder Reddy acted as the interim CEO between Whelan and Webster. In its announcement of the leadership change, SoulCycle said building “company culture” would be one of Webster’s immediate goals.
The pandemic has ravaged SoulCycle, like it has the entire group fitness industry. Studios can’t open because of transmission risk. Without open studios, revenue disappears, though rent on the nearly 100 studios still needs to get paid. Some instructors have been furloughed, and others have been laid off. This summer, SoulCycle closed its famed Union Square studio, as well as outposts in Toronto and reportedly Malibu.
In May, parent company Equinox was granted an extension to delay repurchasing a portion of SoulCycle’s debt. That figure, S&P Global Ratings stated in June, was $72.8 million. Moody’s, the bond credit rating business, downgraded Equinox’s debt rating in November and surmised that it “will not have enough cash on hand to satisfy its obligation as a guarantor of SoulCycle’s credit agreement.” Equinox has just a few cold, coronavirus-ridden weeks to come up with the money by its February deadline; even with a vaccine in sight, it’s a tall order.
The good news for Soul is that it finally has its at-home bike, and its Soul Outside classes (which take place outdoors with social distancing) have been selling out. With all of its New York City and its California indoor studios closed, SoulCycle is popular again.
According to the company, there are nearly 30 outdoor locations, many operating classes with significant waitlists. There’s some divine symmetry there, a noon-on-Monday indicator from above.
“It’s funny, because now that they’re doing these rooftop classes, it’s kind of like what it used to be,” says Bobby, the former instructor. “You know? You can’t get in.”