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Sundays at 7:30 a.m. are usually not a peak hour for the nation’s noisy nightclubs. SoulCycle, which combines indoor cycling and high-energy music into arguably the world’s most notorious fitness brand, is a different story.

One dreary October Sunday, nearly 50 riders and I rose with the sun and clocked in at SoulCycle’s Union Street studio in San Francisco. The studio’s aesthetic combines a clean, calm concierge and signature white and yellow hues on the outside with a rumbling rager on the inside. It’s designed to make you pedal, dance, and sweat to the beat. The morning’s instructor, athlete and dancer Bea del Rosario, kept the studio lights dim with the exception of two grapefruit-scented, Jonathan Adler-designed candles—meditative, perhaps, if it weren’t for the music, which leaned heavily toward bass-heavy EDM (del Rosario curated it herself).

“Is this person you are right now, at this very moment, the best version of yourself?” she would yell periodically to the crowd. No faking was permitted; she would occasionally step down from her front-and-center pedestal, approach each rider individually, shake her head in disappointment and turn up the resistance on their bike. By the time the cathartic class ended at 8:15 a.m., the California sky was blindingly bright, sweat rendered everyone’s clothes a different color from when they came in, and 50 new riders were waiting eagerly outside the studio for their turn.

From Cramped Studio to Celebrity Status

This year marks the one-decade anniversary of these rituals, whose blend of cycling, candlelight, and clubbing has taken the boutique fitness world by storm. Since its founding in 2006 in a former funeral home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the SoulCycle network has relied primarily on a grassroots, word-of-mouth marketing strategy to grow its network. Now the company has 66 studios, nearly 25 percent of which were opened this year alone. According to its most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the franchise plans to expand this number in the long term by nearly fourfold, to 250 studios.

SoulCycle’s unforgiving intensity has even forged new pop-culture personalities, from BroCyclers (male riders) to front-row nerds (only the most experienced riders can sit in the front row), all of whom fit under what SoulCycle itself has dubbed “Soul evangelists.” Beyond the studios, the brand’s tight-knit community spans more than 383,000 unique riders and nearly 500,000 fans combined across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and has been featured in parodies by the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Such over-the-top personas and parodies reaffirm the paradigm shift that SoulCycle has carved into the fitness world, intentionally or otherwise: one that is less concerned with actual fitness and more interested in social capital, celebrity appeal, and experiential glamor. The class experience itself is a hybrid of groupthink (everyone cycling to the beat in sync), exhibitionism (instructors and front-row riders showcasing their abilities to the rest of the room), and financial exclusivity (paying a heavy price tag for classes—$30 on average per ride, and up to $70 for priority booking in New York City). This culture has given rise to nicknames such as “the Valentino of exercise” that stand in contrast to its modest upbringing.

Motion-Picture Fitness

But in fact, entertainment lies at the heart of SoulCycle’s roots. One of its three co-founders, Julie Rice, worked previously as a talent manager at Handprint Entertainment, a management and production company whose first client was Will Smith. SoulCycle’s instructors—many of whom, like del Rosario, have a dance background—go through a competitive, American Idol-inspired audition process, bolstered by an internal scouting and training team in a model that starkly resembles recruitment for Hollywood films.

“Every time you come in, it’s a mini-production,” Rice explained at South by Southwest earlier this year. “It’s curtain-up, curtain-down. That’s what you get for your $30.” Over the past few years, the SoulCycle team’s sharp eye for entertaining content has attracted dozens of celebrities, including Hilary Duff, David Beckham, Chelsea Clinton, and Michelle Obama, who have leveraged the upbeat classes for everything from brand sponsorships to political fundraisers.

SoulCycle’s most vocal critics have argued that this warped priority structure, elevating fame and appearance over individuals’ fitness goals, makes some of its competitors more attractive. For instance, unlike its biggest indoor cycling rivals Peloton and Flywheel (the latter of which SoulCycle co-founder Ruth Zukerman started independently in 2009), SoulCycle provides no real-time rider statistics or other methods to track individual performance over time. Several certified cycling instructors and exercise scientists have also outlined in painstaking detail how some of SoulCycle’s signature moves (handlebar push-ups, free weight exercises and “tap-backs”) actually have detrimental effects on calorie burn, posture, and other aspects of health.

Staying Positive

Nonetheless, SoulCycle transcends its critics because it understands, and to an extent controls, the rapidly shifting demands of fitness marketing. Around the time of SoulCycle’s founding, health and lifestyle magazines from SELF to Shape were publishing headlines such as “Go From Heavy To Hot!” and “5 Minutes to Flawless Skin” that propelled accusatory subtext toward its readers while proposing more or less ephemeral remedies to these self-perceived problems.

“Today’s consumers have different expectations for what fitness can be,” explained Carolyn Tisch Blodgett, VP of brand marketing at Peloton, in an interview with the HPR. “People don’t just want to run on an elliptical while watching CNN and counting the minutes until it’s over. We’re helping them realize that a 45-minute morning workout can be the best part of their day.”

This transition in fitness marketing from amplifying insecurities to preaching confidence and body-positive thinking has extended to technology and fashion as well. Fitbit, Garmin and other fitness trackers have driven the rise of the “quantified self,” a concept that demands every movement and heartbeat be recorded as a concrete, analyzable, and reportable data point (a philosophy from which SoulCycle interestingly deviates). The “athleisure” clothing market, meanwhile, has seen unprecedented growth as a complementary good to fitness classes. The sports apparel and footwear market grew by 42 percent to $270 billion over the past seven years and is projected to grow by another 30 percent by 2020, according to Morgan Stanley. Research by the NPD Group suggests that the U.S. women’s activewear market alone represents more than $18 billion in annual sales, up 21 percent from a year ago. SoulCycle itself designs 12 collections a year.

Plateau Performance?

Perhaps SoulCycle’s biggest challenge is growing a boutique fitness brand for a specialized clientele on a national scale without losing sight of its niche origins. Riding on a bicycle is not a “boutique” act, but rather a universal phenomenon that crosses demographic and geographic boundaries. “To me, it’s a human experience,” SoulCycle co-founder and co-chief creative officer Elizabeth Cutler explained during a talk at Google. “Fitness is our core business, but what’s really going on in that room has a lot to do with where you are in your life. It doesn’t matter where you live.”

To an extent, however, it does matter. Inferring from its SEC filing, SoulCycle as a business remains hyper-localized: only three of SoulCycle’s vendors accounted for 49 percent of the company’s retail sales from January to September 2015, and its cycling studios in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco alone generated 84 percent of its revenues over the same time period.

At the same time, the company has been trying to break free from its local molds with a more global strategy and in turn has been accused of abandoning its cult following for a mass-market approach. In addition to pursuing high-profile partnerships with the likes of Target, Spotify, and Netflix for complementary classes and pop-up experiences, SoulCycle has sacrificed its boutique business model, operating instead under a larger fitness chain Equinox Holdings Inc., to which it sold a majority stake in 2011. Perhaps to expand its clientele, SoulCycle has also established a College Ambassador program to target younger crowds and has developed a mobile app to compete with Peloton and Flywheel’s more technological, performance-driven approach to cycling.

As SoulCycle’s growth pedals toward Hollywood proportions—the company is preparing cautiously for an IPO—it is in danger of forgetting why its riders are willing to show up before sunrise for class. They don’t want just any typical blockbuster movie; they want to get drenched in private, candlelit, instructor-led evangelism that discards the boundaries between fitness, entertainment, and religion. If the cult of SoulCycle is to preserve its authenticity and original appeal, it would somehow have to continue sharpening and cultivating its unique voice without losing grip on the noisy, pricy, and fashionable workout trail in its wake.

Image Source: Wikimedia/Nicki Dugan Pogue

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