As soon as I saw the torque board, I knew I had to win. I obviously wouldn’t be satisfied with third place, but second would have been worse—psychological studies people who get bronze medals are happier than those who win silver. If I got second in spin class, I would have made the same face U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney made when she won silver at the vault.
The teacher kept the board off for much of the class, and I used that as my time to do a stealth hit on my competition. I didn’t take breaks. I cranked up my torque gear 10 or 12 levels higher than the teacher told us to. When he had us take out our hand weights and do 6-pound biceps curls (seriously?) I kept pedaling just as hard as I’d been during our hill climb. I actually thought to myself, “This is where I can pull ahead.” I’m not proud of this, but it’s true.
The teacher included two races in the class—30-second torture sessions, measured on the torque board, in which the entire class sprints against each other—and though I felt like my head was going to explode, I won both. And when teacher revealed the torque board results at the end of class, there I was, bike No. 7 in first place. My torque score—whatever that really means—was 27 points ahead of the nearest woman’s (bike No. 5) and 35 ahead of the closest man’s (bike No. 14). I had succeeded: I had won Flywheel. The teacher encouraged us all to applaud for ourselves, but I didn’t do it. True winners don’t gloat.
Or at least they don’t gloat out loud. Inside, I had an internal monologue going on along the lines of, “I beat everyone! I was better than every person in the class!” I was feeling pretty great. No, scratch that—I felt more than great. I felt awesome. I felt so awesome I kept expecting people to come up to me in the locker area and say, “Were you on bike No. 7? Because that was amazing.”
As if she could hear my thoughts, the woman on bike No. 5 did come up to me as I was thanking the teacher. (As the silver medalist, she was the only person in the room who could possibly care.) “She’s the winner,” bike No. 5 said to the instructor, who wasn’t paying attention to either one of us. “She won!”
And I did win. But what? There is no trophy for Best Flywheel Participant. The intensity of the exercise and stress of competition can make your body release extra glucose and stress hormones into your blood (and cause insulin resistance), so I ended the class with blood sugar four times higher than it should be—which means it wasn’t even good for my health. And besides, what had I really proven? That I was faster than anyone else in that particular class on that particular morning at ending up exactly where I started? That I am excellent at exercising purely for the sake of exercising? That I am extremely good at biking on a stationary bike to nowhere?
I’ve spent too much time doing grapevines back and forth behind a Reebok step to really be able to think objectively about modern gym culture, but I have come up with a few hypotheses: Maybe we’re craving an outlet for a competitive drive that would be inappropriate in other social situations. Or, perhaps we are trying to create a sense of meaning and satisfaction in our likely perfectly-fine-but-maybe-a-little-bit-boring lives. Or it could also just be that some of us will never get over high school swim. One day, when I am a better person, I will go for a hike, or play catch with my husband. I might even take my real bike outside on an actual ride. But I am not there yet. That day, after I won, I actually stopped at the front desk and asked one of the young women at the front desk if there was ever any sort of prize for winning the torque board. She looked surprised, as if it had never occurred to her that someone might actually care enough to try.
“Well, if you get 2,000 torque points in a month, you get a special T-shirt,” she offered. I quickly did the math: If I kept up today’s effort, it would take roughly seven classes to get enough points. Flywheel is planning to charge $25 per class. So that would be nearly $200 for a commemorative T-shirt I’d be embarrassed to wear outside. Plus, I might kill myself trying.
I thanked her, and took a complimentary banana. I retrieved my normal shoes. Then I climbed the stairs and walked back into the daylight, leaving my victory—and my need for it—behind me in the dark.