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Does SoulCycle have Chicago soul?

Written by
Laura Baginski

SoulCycle, a New York–based cycling studio chain that’s said to offer a more enlightening experience than similar studios such as Flywheel, opened its first Chicago location yesterday in Old Town. After reading articles calling SoulCycle a “cult” and about the gladiator-style competition to gain a coveted front-row seat in class so as not to get distracted by less in-shape or enthusiastic people, I was dubious about its success in Chicago.

Chicagoans are, generally speaking, a more laid-back, practical people. Are they really going to get on board with instructors shouting zen koans at them while they perform dance moves on a stationary bike in a candlelit room, at $30 per class (not including shoe rental)?

I attended the studio’s first open class on opening day yesterday, and I’m happy to say that at least many of my doubts were allayed (except for the price per class—a nonstarter for many, I'd think). The studio itself is gorgeous, all shiny white, black and yellow. The lockers offer plug-ins to charge your phone (you are strongly asked to keep your mobile devices out of the cycling studio), and the locker rooms feature showers and some nice amenities like face wash, hair dryers, hair ties and plastic bags in which to put your sure-to-be-completely-sweat-soaked workout clothes after your ride.

In the darkened cycling studio, the instructor's bike sits on a small raised platform lit by four candles, and the tightly packed rider bikes surround it, like pews around an altar. And unlike at Flywheel, whose studios have a stadium-seating set-up, all of the bikes are on the same level. This meant that I became intimately familiar with the contours of the backside of the woman in front of me, and I can only imagine the woman behind me could pick my butt out of a lineup as well.

The 45-minute class was, in a word, intense. Nearly every song had us doing some kind of push-up on the handlebars while furiously pedaling to the beat of Drake, Kanye and other popular hip-hop artists. Anthony, our impossibly fit and handsome instructor, constantly commanded us to crank up the resistance on the flywheel, to the point where if I turned the knob one more inch, I wouldn't be able to pedal at all. Did he occasionally encourage us with some feel-good maxims about our ability to do anything we wanted to do if we put our minds to it? Yes, but not obnoxiously or intrusively. 

Nearly three-quarters through the class, during the part where we lifted weights (to the beat of the music, of course) while still pedaling, I thought I might not make it through to the end. (And I work out four times a week, including grueling spinning and kick-boxing classes—I can't imagine how an exercise newbie would fare.) But I did. As we stretched out our depleted muscles after the ride, I felt like I might pass out from exhaustion, but at least I finished. 

As everyone trudged toward the door, they stopped to grab a sanitized wet-nap and walked back to their bikes to wipe off their sweat (and, possibly, tears). "Wow," our instructor said as he noticed us cleaning up after ourselves. "Nobody does that in New York!"

Welcome to Chicago, SoulCycle.

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