Americans have been known to fall in love with many kinds of absurd athletic competitions. Consider the Civilian Military Combine, a strength series of push presses, kettlebell swings, and burpee box jumps followed by a 5- to 7-mile racecourse studded with “military obstacles.” Or the Tough Mudder: a 10–12 mile course designed by British special forces in which participants swim through Dumpsters full of ice water (the Arctic Enema), belly crawl under barbed wire, and finish by pushing through a mess of electrified wires that can carry currents of up to 10,000 volts. But as I sit at my desk, red-faced and slightly woozy, I’ve come to the conclusion that even the Tough Mudder pales in comparative absurdity to what I have just put myself through: a spin class at Flywheel Sports.
Flywheel, in case you do not keep up with the stationary biking/clubbing scene in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Florida, Atlanta, North Carolina, Texas, or—now—Philadelphia, is a descendant of SoulCycle, another New York-based spinning cult. By “spinning,” I mean a fitness class where you ride on a stationary bike in a dark room, sprinting up imaginary hills to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. And by cult, I mean, well, cult. In my one and only SoulCycle class (a single class in Manhattan costs $34), I watched a group of ponytailed, aggressively fit women—many in makeup, at least one carrying a gold-embossed SoulCycle gym bag—line up on the sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side outside what used to be a bodega-sized store called Champagne Video. Their $34 did not buy them a locker room, or even a shower. It was good only for 45 minutes in a small room that was packed so tightly with bikes that it was difficult to maneuver between them, and a sound system so loud that I took them up on the complimentary earplugs. “Change Your Body, Take Your Journey, Find Your Soul,” read the manifesto on the wall
Flywheel, though it was founded by a former SoulCycler, is not SoulCycle. Indeed, pity the soul that confuses them—the two companies are fierce and unfriendly competitors, with strong allegiances and a divided clientele. In a New York Times article about the breakup, one frequent spinner put it bluntly: “It’s like team Angelina and team Jennifer.” Said another: “It would be wrong to go to both of them.”
I am apparently less aerobically loyal than those women, because when Flywheel opened its debut studio in Philadelphia, where I now live, I signed up for a free class. The studio, which is right in Center City, felt like someone had airlifted the New York fitness scene and deposited it into a basement beneath Schlesinger’s Deli. The bright lights of the windowless waiting area reflected off gleaming white computerized lockers, giving that odd timeless feeling of a casino. A crew of perky young women in Fly Philadelphia T-shirts handed out bottles of water and white Flywheel cycling shoes (Flywheel’s bikes require special shoes that are provided as part of the class) as another team of attendants helped customers adjust their bikes, which are arranged stadium-style in a mirrored room with the instructor on a raised platform in the center. The studio was as dim as a cocktail lounge. Flywheel ushers escorted latecomers to their bikes (which you reserve ahead of time by number) with flashlights.
Having gone to classes at many fitness studios in Philadelphia, I was surprised not to recognize anyone in the class. “Who are these people?” I asked myself as I looked at the Lululemon-clad crowd around me, the sinewy muscles, the foundation-smoothed faces. There were two men, both of whom picked discreet bikes in the back row, but the rest was a sea of ponytails and headbands bobbing back and forth as their owners pedaled in place, checking themselves out in the mirrors that lined the room.
The instructor, a suitably fabulous New York import who repeatedly asked if everyone in Philadelphia was this gorgeous, or if it was just us (“I think it’s just you,” he said, turning on “Gloria” in Spanish), led the room in a rousing, first-class-in-Philadelphia cheer. The class responded with whoops and hollers, as if we were at the start of a big, exciting adventure, or perhaps a Madonna concert. Then came the moment I had been dreading: He turned on the torque board.
Oh, the torque board. The torque board is what makes Flywheel different from all other spin studios. Every bike in the room has a torque meter—essentially a power gauge—that estimates how much effort you’re actually exerting based on the level of your resistance and the speed of your legs. The torque board itself is a computer screen above the teacher’s head that displays these measurements, ranking you against the other people in the room and essentially turning the class into a 45-minute race. (The torque board can also run actual races—I noticed options for 30-, 45- and 60-second races displayed on the teacher’s screen.) Unlike most spin classes, where no one can tell how high you’ve got your resistance cranked up—leading to a room full of women whose resistance is so low that they are bouncing in their seats—the torque board knows how hard you’re working. The torque board knows all.
The torque board is also usually optional, but not for this particular class: We all were up there, identified by bike number. I was on bike No. 7, and when the teacher first turned the board on (he only did so several times during the class, lest people like me actually kill themselves), I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I have not experienced since high school swim meets. Because once I saw my number up there, I knew I had to win.
While I try to hide it, the unfortunate truth is that I am an extremely competitive person. I love winning. It doesn’t really matter what the contest is. I have won a hand turned wooden bowl at a local craft show. I have won a “Guess the Weight of that Swordfish” competition at a local grocery store (370 pounds). I have won an American Standard Champion 4 toilet. But thanks to a combination of a severe tomboy streak and late-onset Type 1 diabetes—a chronic, autoimmune disease that puts me at an automatic health disadvantage—I am particularly susceptible to athletic competitions. I really, really like to win those.
This is precisely why I don’t often participate in them: A love of winning also comes with a hatred of losing, and the easiest way to not lose is to not compete at all. Or, at least, to not compete officially. I regularly take an interval training class at the gym, and when I’m on the rowing machine I will do nearly anything it takes to make my 500-meter pace better than that of the person next to me. Usually it’s not too hard—most people don’t really know how to use the machine, and besides, it’s always easier to beat people if they don’t know they’re in a race. But occasionally the person next to me will actually know how to row. In those cases, I’m staring so hard at the numbers on our screens that I hardly listen to the teacher: I just am trying to drop my splits. This technique is usually effective, though it also usually makes me feel like I’m going to die. (Recently it caused a finger injury. I am currently wearing a splint).
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.