Who will save your soul? – Not Soul Cycle

Image by Brett Lamb

A city cyclist gets dragged to a Toronto spin experience.

Story by Cayley James

This story originally appeared on The Torontoist.

About a month ago I was out for a work date with Victoria, one of my oldest friends. About two coffees into our spreadsheet-addled afternoon, she leaned over and in a conspiratorial tone asked: “Do you want to go to SoulCycle?”

My immediate response was NO. I don’t spin.

But then, with horror, I remembered that when I was a teenager it seemed like a very grown up activity, so I went to four classes, which resulted in me announcing to the void of the internet via my Grade 10 LiveJournal that: “I LOVED SPINNING!”

Today, I am proud to announce that I’ve been a city cyclist for 15 years—and I haven’t been to a spin class since 2004.

“Come on!” Victoria coaxed, snapping me out of my horrific high school flashback. Then, remembering that I write for a cycling magazine, she said triumphantly: “You can write about it!”

I am not a team player, but I am very susceptible to peer pressure. That’s how I came to find myself clipped in on a stationary bike in a nearly pitch black studio, bar for the flickering candlelight, pedalling to Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” while an instructor “asked” the class, “ARE YOU GUYS GOOD?! ARE YOU WET? ARE YOU DRIPPING!?!” with nary a note of irony in his voice.

Toronto went a little bananas when SoulCycle showed up on King West (just like pretty much every time an American brand touches down in Canada). It seemed very GOOP-y to me.

It’s more of an experience than it is exercise.

Proof in point: when you navigate the SoulCycle website you see a lot of hashtag-ready phrases. Gems like, “With every pedal stroke, our minds clear and we connect with our true and best selves.”

I suppose it is a refreshing change from the, frankly, frightening tone that CrossFit and Tough Mudder have had in mainstream fitness. But I don’t want to feel like I might get a white wine spritzer enema after the whole experience, either.

SoulCycle founders attest: “…You won’t believe it unless you’ve experienced it yourself. Our community is calling your name, so come in for a ride…. Take your journey. Change your body. Find your Soul.”

That’s the schtick spinning cults have been peddling for 20 years now: the transformation (not the nihilism.)

Spinning has become a part of 21st century Pygmalion narratives. From Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion to Bridget Jones’s Diary, society dictates that women, usually in their late 20s/early 30s, seek out the key to unlocking their untapped potential (a phrase that makes my skin crawl)—and that key can be found in the stationary bike. It’s like the Tony Robbins of the exercise world: spinning is the illusion of freedom. It sells you the idea of escape but roots you in place.

There is a sinister sweetness to SoulCycle in the same way that westernized yoga has transformed original practice to something goal oriented, aestheticized, and drowning in group think. Their brand says: “The experience is tribal”—which immediately made me think about drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s no wonder the acerbic yet sweet Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had its eponymous survivor/hero hooked on the parody SpiritCycle. The branding, the patented routines, the experience, all service designed within an inch of its over(t)ly marketed life, is so completely and entirely devoid of soul.

But you know. The yellow is nice. And Michelle Obama likes it (which makes me feel better about the Grade 10 LiveJournal mishap). So, it can’t be that evil.

Victoria and I show up at the studio for our 5:30 class and sign a stack of waivers about 15 pages thick. The studio on King is as clean, white, and bright as any idea of what the future was going to be in 1965. Despite the sparse aesthetic, the company’s marketing, er, I mean, ethos may as well be pumped into the air supply. There is nothing on the walls except the tenets of SoulCycle in neon lights that read: addicted, obsessed, unnaturally attached to our bikes, high on sweat and the hum of the wheel, take your journey, find your soul! It’s all very Soulstice, from Broad City, and I was praying that an idiotic Trey would pop out from behind a pillar and say namaste and offer us a Luna Bar. But no such luck.

The place is buzzing with T-shirt-clad fitness ushers who shuttle you to your pre-booked bike and clip you in. (“If you can’t get your shoe out at the end of the class just un-velcro the straps.”) Victoria and I both imagined ourselves being engulfed in flames and our charred feet forever fused to clip in shoes. SoulCycle felt more like Satan Cycle, minus the bad boys.

In the mirror-lined, candle-lit studio, the gorgeous early spring evening is just a faint memory. The crowd’s a wide range of ages. Some with full faces of Kardashian-level contouring and others looking like they stepped directly out of the boardroom.

Even a cynic isn’t entirely immune to endorphins. Once the tunes were thumping, I couldn’t keep my jaundiced view totally intact. When I scanned the room at the other focused and frenzied faces, I was impressed by the woman who refused to increase her resistance or follow our instructor’s lead. Her arms limp at her side, her legs barely moved, I wanted to high five her as she gave people side-eye like a 15-year-old girl. (Of course, I was clipped in so I couldn’t reach.)

After 45 minutes of terrible music, with one foot starting to lose feeling, I concluded that this was a decidedly underwhelming experience. I couldn’t wait to get back into the mess of the city in rush hour.

But you might protest: “Isn’t it just exercise?” Yes, it is and I know tons of cyclists who have done it throughout the winter to keep the blood pumping (and the saddle sores fresh). It’s the exclusivity and corporate vision, that makes you feel like a lesser human being if you don’t want to prescribe to their idea of your #mostauthenticself. And, of course, you really should work on finding your soul.

As I cycled my way home from the studio that had the energy of a suburban nightclub, I breathed in the early night air and marvelled at the idiosyncrasies of the communities I rolled through. There were dogs in coats, folks in hip-waders holding fishing rods, kids having tantrums, couples pausing to give each other pecks on the cheek.

I don’t like cycling in place. It defeats the purpose of what draws me to two wheels in the first place: it’s a way to connect with the world.

And if I’m going to get dripping wet, it will be while I’m riding in the rain on my way to some place that never, ever, plays Evanescence.

Cayley is dandyhorse's current associate editor. 

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