Fad Fitness: A Fair-Weather Cyclist Tries Flywheel

Week 1: He's a self-proclaimed exercise ignoramus and, apparently, a masochist

This is about the furthest thing from cycling you can get while on a bike. I’m on bike number 30, on the third tier of the snug four-tier auditorium, and I can see my reflection on the opposite wall, a mirror—more of a suggestion of a reflection, really, since the lights are down. The rising keyboards of “Where The Streets Have No Name” begin to fill the room as I look around to see thirty-odd backs hunched over, bobbing with The Edge’s pulsing guitar, in eerie synchronicity.

“Okay, we’re going to hold this RPM,” the instructor says in rising tones—he’s on a platform in the middle, facing us on his own bike.

“Hoold iit—”

The music builds. The rhythm section kicks in.

I’m at 75 RPM and starting to sweat. I look at the rightmost TorqBoard—a live scoreboard with power rankings, by gender. Only one male, a middle-aged guy two bikes down, chose to participate in the live rankings today, and based on my first-minute stats on my bike’s monitor, he’s killing me.

“Hooold iiit—”

Right as Bono launches into “I want to ru-uun,” the instructor shouts the signal through his head set:

“Go! Go! Up to full speed! Bring it up to a hundred RPM!”

And we’re off on our first 30-second sprint, pedaling furiously to U2. I top 100 once or twice, but can’t sustain more than about 90. I’m only two minutes in and that’s the fastest I get all day, with 43 minutes to go. Time to pull back and try to make it to the end.

This is my second class at Flywheel, a chain of indoor cycling gyms appealing to hip urbanites, and I’m already starting to learn: Hold back or you won’t make it. In fact, that’s the advice my instructor, Steven Little, gave me after the class: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Merely keeping up with his instructions, he advised, should be my long-term goal.

This time I fared a bit better. Last time my right shoe (size 9.6) kept popping out of its pedal lock when I bent down to adjust the “torq”—resistance—while in the standing position, forcing me to jerk my leg upwards and out to keep my shin from getting clobbered. This time it doesn’t happen, but only because I learned that to suddenly slow down is to invite hazard. No choice but to keep going…

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Lebetkin, and I’m an exercise ignoramus.

Some specifics: I’m a fair-weather cyclist, and an even fairer-weather gym-goer—which is to say I don’t ride my bike nearly enough and, until the start of this project, I’d never been to the gym in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve passed through many a gym on my way to the pool, (youth swim league veteran here), but never stopped to try out an elliptical, lift any weights, or hop on one of those things I thought of as “exercise bikes.”

Until a girlfriend disabused me of the notion a few years ago, “spin class” evoked the image of a room full of people, pirouetting spiritedly in time with an aerobics instructor’s commands: “…and twirl and lift and twirl and lift…”

But, no, it’s indoor cycling, and Flywheel is one of its leading purveyors.

Flywheel isn’t exactly indoor cycling, either. Like its competitor, SoulCycle, Flywheel is about sensory immersion. You’re in a dark room with loud, continuous music pumping—in my first class, the music flowed for 45 minutes as if mixed by a DJ. There’s an instructor who’s more like the world’s most encouraging drill sergeant—not far off in the case of Steven, who told me he was in The Marines—and who also happens to make the playlist and modulate the volume throughout the class. Actual quote: “You’re going to take this fucking workout and say ‘You’re mine!’” And yet, after the first 30 minutes of non-stop sprinting, upright pedaling, lifting, such an exhortation sounded about right.

I chose Flywheel for this project for a couple of reasons. First there’s the inclination factor: I enjoy cycling. If anything could get me through the doors of a gym, it’d have to give me something specific to look forward to, in this case the musculature and stamina for long rides around and out of the City, come spring.

There’s also the buzz factor. Flywheel, along with its competitor SoulCycle, has taken spinning from a class you can take at your local gym and turned it into a thing that Time Out raves about. Both chains keep opening new gyms in major urban centers, and have new competitors to boot, including the equally sleek-looking Revolve in D.C. and New York.

Based on my stats, which Flywheel collects for you on its website, I have a long way to go. They track my average and maximum RPM and what they call “torq,” but what I call “imaginary hills.” They also track other stats, including average speed and calories burned. I’ll save the numbers—and the possible embarassment—for next week.

About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit, Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.