What’s New York’s latest fitness obsession? Cycling. In particular, intense spin classes taking place in near darkness while you shout out mantras such as ‘Be honest about who you are trying to be’. It goes by the name of SoulCycle; everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah Winfrey, Jake Gyllenhaal to Bradley Cooper has jumped on its saddles; and according to Forbes, its 25 studios train 8,000 riders a day — and at an average £18 a class, that’s over £50 million a year.
So before it hits these shores, it’s no wonder somebody else got there first. Welcome to Psycle — it’s newer, harder, stronger and, best of all, dreamed up in London.
The heart of a Psycle class is moving to a beat: you move your arms and torso in rhythm, working your whole body while pedalling on a fixed bike. The trainers are not your common or garden fitness dudes. In fact, barely any of them have a straight gym background. Rather they include a GB gymnast, a ballerina formerly with the Royal Ballet, plus dancers who have choreographed Strictly, toured with Rihanna, Jay Sean and Girls Aloud, or worked on stage in the West End.
On the one hand, they bring the kind of seductive physicality to the classes that simply makes you want to be there (that desire to join in that you get when you watch Fame). On the other, they each bring their own flair to a class, so clients can choose the vibe they prefer. Says instructor AD, a choreographer and member of street dance troupe Flawless, who has also danced in Madonna’s videos: ‘We all have different backgrounds, so we will all bring different styles to the classes. The way I attack a song or respond to a chorus will be different from someone else.’
Then there’s the music. ‘If you’re doing something you genuinely love, which uses the power of music to carry you, you can optimise your exercise and enjoy it,’ says Psycle’s programme director Tim Weeks. A former international triathlete and a trainer who works with A-listers and Olympians, Weeks is an expert at making even the most reluctant people want to work out. To this end he has enlisted experts, from choreographers and sports psychologists to coaches who work with Tour de France racers, to structure sessions in which the exercise intensifies alongside a crescendoing playlist. The result is a session that is challenging but encouraging, and which leaves you on a high.
Miranda Sawyer, a self-confessed music snob who made a series for BBC 6 Music about the link between music and emotion, reckons it works. ‘Psycle has all the nightclub tricks: it drops the lights down, lets you cycle at your own pace, then brings you up and you get a massive hit. I don’t have much time, so if I can get the same serotonin rush I’d have from raving for seven hours, and get fit, in 45 minutes, I’m up for it. I hate places with rubbish music — you feel resentful and demotivated. At the end of this class you feel like Jesus. You want to lick strangers’ faces. Like lightning is shooting out of your arse. It’s unbelievable.’
I tried an early taster session and found it exhilarating. The opening number (‘Easy’ by Groove Armada) was surprisingly gentle, but as the class developed, we started to move our bodies forward and back on the bike, pedalling harder to a dubstep remix of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. During some numbers we punched the air or moved our arms in funked-up disco moves, attempting to follow the sensuous grooves of the instructor, sometimes with almost balletic grace.
Because everyone pedals at the same speed (varying the heaviness of the gear according to individual fitness), there is a strong sense of unity: our white cycle shoes, turned purple in the light, whirled round in unison, our arms simultaneously reaching to the beat.
As I’d been setting up, AD had told me about the rush he gets as ‘the movement brings the class together as one: with everyone in sync there is a group energy that is extraordinary’. Now I get it. It hurt like hell but I couldn’t stop grinning.
It’s also efficient. The Psycle HQ is a white, rough luxe space with parquet floors, exposed brick and plain white walls, just off Oxford Circus. The changing rooms are stocked with organic Ila products, the showers with Bumble and Bumble shampoo and there are rows of hairdryers and fluffy towels. There’s that pleasing tray of body cream, cotton wool and hair ties. In under an hour you work the whole of your body, completely, and are showered, changed and back on the street.
To avoid injury, the first time you come you’re fitted to your bike and your settings recorded in your profile, so that you’re always correctly aligned. The cleated shoes that engage the connection between hamstrings and glutes (to promote lean and toned rather than bulked-up thighs) are provided so you need bring minimal kit. The science is all in the way the classes test your body, then give you arm-focused tracks to flush through the lactate before pushing you harder.
Instructor Rhian Stephenson, a former Canadian national athlete, is also the Psycle nutritionist. She’s devised cold-pressed juices to hydrate and fuel before and after your workout, chia seed and cinnamon protein balls, and pots with quinoa, egg and avocado.
Post-Olympic London is an obvious target for spin trends such as SoulCycle. Sport in the capital is booming, from the surging interest in triathlon observed by Olympic medallist Alistair Brownlee, to sponsored marathons and adventure races. Even George Osborne has been spotted out on runs wearing the zazzy exercise wristband Jawbone UP.
Equinox, the überluxe American gym that owns SoulCycle, opened in Kensington last year and will launch SoulCycle later this spring. New York’s other major spin concept, the competitive race-based Flywheel, is available in gyms including Shoreditch House. Chelsea’s Lomax gym offers the RealRyder indoor cycle, where bikes have oscillating frames that can steer and lean like an actual road bike. Barry’s Bootcamp, LA’s far more glamorous, indoor take on British Military Fitness, has also set up in Euston. So how is Psycle, due to launch on Monday, going to overtake the competition?
‘The key to fitness is making you want to come back, keeping you in the right frame of mind,’ says co-founder Colin Waggett, the former CEO of Fitness First, who teamed up with Tim Macready, an early investor in Ella’s Kitchen baby food, to create Psycle. ‘That’s why we called it Psycle.’ In terms of seeing off its stateside competitors, this slick and uplifting venture is surely a contender.
Psycle is at 76 Mortimer Street, W1. Classes from £16.25 (psyclelondon.com)
Original article published in ES Magazine, in March, 2014