SoulCycle vs. Zengo vs. PureRyde
How do you know which cycling studio is right for you?
It’s hard to imagine that many businesses can match the explosive growth of indoor biking. Cycling studios are the hot way to get your sweat on, and a symbol of the latest trend in the exercise industry—single-fee specialty studios that are replacing all-you-can-eat contract fitness clubs. Nearly 450 cycling boutiques dot North America, with more on the way, according to industry analysts. The Washington, D.C., area has 15 and counting.
Indoor cycling is not for everyone, though. As I said to my wife in the middle of a bike binge (seven classes in 16 days): “I’m going to get really fit or drop dead.” Neither happened, but I came away with a new appreciation for decibel-crushing playlists and the above-the-waist gyrations possible on a stationary bike. It’s hip to hop, flex, lunge and thrust on your pedals. As one of my fellow riders said, “I felt like I was at a dance party!”
The indoor cycling cocktail is two parts perspiration, one part aspiration. The industry term of art for this concoction is “exertainment”—all the stimulation and sex appeal overrides the pain of the workout.
If you want to look like the toned, cut, impossibly lithe instructors—and many of the riders, I might add—then be prepared to leave a puddle on the floor. “I worry about them pedaling too fast with not enough resistance,” says veteran instructor Dave Slikker. “I was thinking, this is like Richard Simmons on crack!”
Common denominators at these classes, apart from music to melt your eardrums (earplugs cheerfully provided), are darkroom-level lighting (to reduce self-consciousness, or possibly to obscure the butt in your face); bikes spaced thisclose to one another; the use of weights to work the upper body; a breakneck pace and exhortations! woo-woos! mantras! galore. Oh, and pity those not rocking something from Lululemon. Says cycling instructor Liz Corah, who has worked out at SoulCycle and other boutiques: “The low light creates a pack mentality. They want you to become attached to your instructor, who may tilt towards entertaining more than safety.”
Bethesda Magazine compared the three cycling-specific studios in our area: SoulCycle, Zengo Cycle (which has two locations) and PureRyde. I attended classes anonymously, and here’s what I learned:
SOUL is the alpha dawg: You say community, I say cult. Owned by fitness and leisure company Equinox, SoulCycle reported a $25 million profit from 47 studios in 2014 and was preparing to offer stock shares this fall to an adoring public, aiming to raise $100 million. The experience is “tribal” and “primal,” in the words of its founders. The pitch: “Change your body. Find your SOUL.”
Photo by Erick Gibson
ZENGO CYCLE is the wannabe challenger to the two-wheeled throne: cheaper, louder and darker. Founded in part by Dennis Ratner, the Bethesda guy who built Hair Cuttery, Zengo charges less for the same experience.
Photo by Erick Gibson
PURERYDE is the maverick. Budget conscious, less glitzy but with a twist: bikes that bend. A “purer” ride, in their view.
PureRyde uses RealRyder ABF8 bikes with an articulating frame that allows them to steer, bend, lean and imitate an actual road bike. The first one or two classes can be a bit unsettling—you may feel as though you’re going to topple over—but once you get used to it, it feels less awkward. Proponents claim these bikes put less stress on your back.
SoulCycle trains instructors for six weeks in New York City. There’s an emphasis on performance; applications are called “auditions.” The training, SoulCycle asserts, “will teach you how to inspire riders, change bodies and ultimately change lives.” The aptly-named Sunny Mae was inspiring, but not hectoring. Michelle bike-danced furiously while providing continuous patter, including healthy diet tips.
SoulCycle sells hip logowear that transforms cash into cachet. Hat ($48), zip front bra ($64), T-shirts (up to $64), tie-dye skull capris ($86), grapefruit-scented candle ($42). The clothing features the company’s iconic wheel or skull and crossbones logos and bears slogans such as “High on Sweat,” “Soul & Brunch” and “Find Your Soul.” You can even buy their custom yellow bikes for $2,200, not including tax and shipping.
How the Studios Stack Up
6910 Arlington Road, Bethesda, 240-743-4049
Wheel Deal: New riders can buy three classes for $45. A single class is $22; a package of five costs $100. Classes are 50 minutes.
Riders: Riders span the widest age range, from 20s to 40s, and dress in everything from stylish logowear to shorts and tees. Most seemed relaxed, less driven than at other studios.
Amenities: There’s lots of free parking in front, and a bakery and deli adjacent. Chilled eucalyptus-scented towels are available at the finish line.
That's "Exertainment": Kevin, who usually teaches Monday through Friday, plays a conga during the portion of his class when riders choose their own pace.
Good to Know: The studio also offers PureRyde Express, which combines 30 minutes of cycling with 25 minutes of Pilates for $35.
4931 Elm St., Bethesda, 301-803-7685
Wheel Deal: New riders pay $20 for the first class. After that, single classes are $30, and a package of five is $145. Classes are 45 minutes. A tutorial class called Soul101 is $35, but only offered as new studios open.
Riders: Very fit riders, mainly in their 20s and 30s, and togged in Soul-wear and Lululemon.
Amenities: The locker rooms are clean and spacious, with two showers and designer grooming products, including Whole Foods’ grapefruit shampoo and conditioner.
That's "Exertainment": Instructors are spotlighted, encircled by yellow Jonathan Adler designer candles. Extremely animated, the leaders preen and perform and orchestrate a “cardio dance,” mainly out of the saddle.
Good to Know: The fittest and most spirited riders are encouraged to occupy the front row. Specialty classes, such as those that use resistance bands, are generally not available in Bethesda.
4866 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-312-6658
215 Kentlands Blvd., Gaithersburg, 301-330-8333
Wheel Deal: The first class is free. Thereafter, single classes are $22; a package of five costs $105. Classes are 50 minutes.
Riders: Most riders are college-age to upper 30s, budget-conscious but fashionably clad in Athleta, Lululemon and Zengo tanks.
Amenities: There are two small changing rooms, each with two showers and generic products. Parking is free at the Kentlands location.
That's "Exertainment": The music is very loud and the lighting is very low to create high energy. A five-minute “zen” segment in the middle is meant as a meditation period, but mainly it’s go, go, go.
Good to Know: The emphasis is on sweat not glitz. A college student said, “Cheaper than Soul. Better workout.”
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.