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(Bloomberg) -- SoulCycle Inc., the exercise boutique with a cult-like following of more than 18,000 "spinners" a day, has been introducing a redesigned bike since May in select New York locations. The company hopes the new equipment will reduce maintenance costs—enabling quicker expansion—while also giving its members a harder workout.
Called the Soul Bike Next Generation, the new bike looks bigger and sturdier, though at 115 pounds, it’s actually 15 pounds lighter than the old version, because of its aluminum frame. The company aims to roll out the new bikes nationally by the end of 2018.
The biggest change is a switch to electromagnetic induction to supply the friction, instead of the previous model, in which the brake comes into direct contact with the flywheel. Using a carbon-belt drivetrain built by Portland, Ore.-based Stages Cycling, it’s smooth, quiet, requires no lubricant, and almost never needs to be adjusted.
It’s also a much tougher workout: As anyone who’s ever taken a Soul Cycle class knows, one of the great joys of the class is climbing hard and then giving yourself a breather while you coast. With the new bikes, you can’t quite cheat like this as much. You have to do more turns on the resistance knob to come to a grinding halt, which cuts down on the ability to cruise along at high speeds after pedaling hard.
“The wheel is a little heavier than the old wheel, so it takes more effort to keep the same tempo on the new bike,” said Daniel Wiener, a master instructor at SoulCycle who has been with the company for nine years. He says that a “zero” level of resistance on the new bike feels more like one and a half turns on the old one.
Gabby Etrog Cohen, senior vice president of public relations and brand strategy, says the magnetic system will cut the time spent on maintenance by half, due to the lack of physical wear and tear. And a lower-maintenance stationary bike will make it easier to open new studios. “The ride is smoother, more comfortable, and more effective,” Cohen said. The ride is so smooth, one reviewer has called it “the Marvin Gaye of spin bikes.”
When I tried it out at the West 77th Street location in New York, I found the handle bars have more cushion and slant upward, instead of lying flat. There is a nook to allow for better grip and form, too. Upper-body choreography was a bit easier—I didn’t get close to smashing my face or elbows as I usually do—while bouncing up and down or attempting pushups without losing speed.
“The bikes feel like they’re working all your muscles more than the older ones,” said Nina Cochrane, who was in my class. “You definitely finish the 45 minutes dripping with sweat, and you can feel the intensity of the workout the next day.”
Even then, the transition to the new bike can be tricky. I found that it’s easier now to adjust the seat and handlebar positions, thanks to levers instead of knobs. But others found them wobbly, less secure, and difficult to set up. The bike still keeps the standard-setting, split-seat design pioneered by the original designer, Villency Group.
Founded in 2006, the workout has become an icon of the independent fitness boutique movement in part by staying low-tech, even as competitors such as Flywheel Sports Inc. and Peloton Interactive Inc. have lured others by using big data to attract riders. SoulCycle’s new bikes stay true to this culture: There are no computers or data measurement tools. Riders must continue to rely on red faces, drenched bodies, sweat puddles, and that shell-shocked feeling to measure performance.
The workout has been so popular that riders will dole out roughly $34 for a single class, more than competitors with fancier bells and whistles. In 2011, an arm of the giant gym chain Equinox Holdings Inc. bought out majority ownership and then upped that stake to 97 percent in 2015. (The company declined to say how much it’s spending on these new bikes, only that it replaces them every five years when the warranty runs out.)
In a 2015 SEC filing, Equinox documents a jump from 12 studios in 2012 to 36 in 2014, increasing annual riders from 969,000 to 2.9 million. Operating income jumped to $26.5 million from $7.8 million in the same period. As of this year, the company claims roughly 6.6 million riders per year and 85 locations.
But there was one flagrant flaw that Wiener and some of his early morning riders found on the new bike: The beverage baskets have been replaced by horizontal trays, giving them no place to keep their fresh cups of coffee within hand’s reach during the ride. “You can’t put your coffee in it anymore,” he said. “That’s what I miss, and a lot of people say they miss.”
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