- Flywheel Sports
There are two kinds of people in New York City: Those who go to SoulCycle, and those who go to Flywheel.
SoulCycle devotees observe the ritual of signing up for $34 classes when the clock strikes noon on Mondays. They say they’re addicted to working out in a sweaty, cramped room with a teacher who howls yogic platitudes. The company has recently filed to go public, showing how profitable the business has become.
But one of SoulCycle’s founders, Ruth Zukerman, has started a major competitor: Flywheel.
To its devotees, Flywheel is the antithesis of SoulCycle. The no-fuss workout makes no claims about being a spiritual experience, and there’s no discoballs and “dancing” on the bikes. Instead, it features a stadium layout, and a display that ranks riders serves as a lure for competitive athletes.
From SoulCycle to Flywheel
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Flywheel opened its first studio in 2010, but its origins lie in Zukerman’s divorce 14 years earlier. She spoke with Business Insider to explain why – after a start with SoulCycle – she wanted to do things differently. It was after her 1996 divorce that Zukerman, a former dancer and aerobic instructor, took up indoor cycling at a Reebok gym on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“I just instantly became addicted to it – I knew right away there was something about the physical combined with the mental component which really actually helped me get through my divorce,” she said.
Her prowess landed her a gig teaching indoor cycling at Reebok (the gym is now an Equinox), but some of the clientele had bigger ideas in mind. In 2006, one of her students approached her said she wanted to start a boutique fitness studio, using Zukerman’s teaching methodology and energy as the foundation. Zukerman was thrilled – and SoulCycle’s doors opened.
The thrill didn’t last long. Zukerman won’t publicly dwell on what prompted her to leave SoulCycle, but she said she found a chance to start over when she met Jay Galuzzo and David Seldin, who became her partners in Flywheel.
“Quite frankly, through my experience at SoulCycle – there were many things I wanted to improve upon,” she said to Business Insider. “And meeting my partners and starting Flywheel was such a great opportunity to do that.”
In just five years, she’s nearly caught up. Flywheel has 34 studios. That means it’s grown nearly as large as SoulCycle, which had 38 by the end of March, according to its IPO prospectus.
Flywheel, which is private, doesn’t disclose its financials, but SoulCycle’s IPO prospectus offers a glimpse at the kind of financial success Zukerman might enjoy: The company has more than $100 million in annual revenue, and its two cofounders, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice,sold most of their shares in the company earlier this year for close to $180 million.
SoulCycle declined to comment for this story, citing the quiet period before it goes public.
What Flywheel gets right
It starts with a simple workout: 45 minutes of intervals, simulated hills, and sprints for an intense sweat.
But one key way Zukerman wanted to improve upon SoulCycle’s workout was by incorporating technology.
Flywheel is known for its TorqBoard, which measures resistance (“Torq”), cadence (“RPMs”), and current and overall power output. There’s also a leaderboard, where riders have the option to see how they stack up against one another during the class. This, the company says, is about measuring self-improvement and tracking performance. (Via the app and the website, which gives each rider a report on their progress.)
Flywheel is also not about creating a social hierarchy.
- Flywheel Sports
Zukerman says she wanted to create an inclusive environment- one not just for the young and glamorous. She didn’t want people to feel left out. She also addressed some of the finer details that can prompt complaints about SoulCycle – like how cramped the studios feel, or the fact that water and shoe rentals cost extra.
“I wanted … hands-on customer service, right down to several people on staff walking around the room before class start, so every one can be set up properly, and people can feel comfortable asking questions,”she said to Business Insider. “And down to creating a space with wide hallways, so when sweaty people were coming out of a room, they didn’t have to rub up against people who hadn’t taken a class yet.”
Who is the clientele?
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Flywheel boasts that it attracts a diverse clientele, including a higher percentage of men riding its classes than its rival boutique fitness studios.
“I have a huge split – male/female,” Northeast creative director and master instructor Danielle Devine-Baum said to Business Insider, “and I have riders that are 15, and riders that are literally 75, and they’re all doing the same thing to their own ability at the same time.” Zukerman is out to eradicate the myth that you “have to be in shape to take an indoor cycling class.” She says she and the Flywheel team are “opening our doors and opening our arms, to speak, to a very diverse demographic of people, so that, again, no one feels uncomfortable.”
Not everything is different
Still, not everything is different. Music, for example, plays a big role in both workouts. Like SoulCycle’s, Flywheel’s social-media pages mostly show young and fit people, and profiles of its trainers on its Website are loaded with glamour shots and platitudes about how their “real passion is being around a group of people who leave all judgments behind and come together for 45 minutes as one force of energy.”
And then there’s the cost. At $34 for a single class in New York City (the same as SoulCycle charges), it’s not cheap. The studio does offer memberships for frequent riders – $375 a month in New York City and cheaper elsewhere – but that’s still pricier than a $205 a month membership at a gym like Equinox. Flywheel also has a similar sign-up procedure – the week’s classes open up at 5 p.m. on Sunday and can book up fast – and lets customers pay even more if they want to jump the line. On this front Flywheel offers a perk to loyal customers that SoulCycle doesn’t. It has a loyalty program called its PowerUp program, which lets the most regular customers also jump ahead of others without paying extra after achieving 3,500 power points.
Finding the right instructors
Flywheel recruits new instructors twice a month, and like many fitness instructors they can come from all walks of life – dancers and actors, for example. Many of its staff come through recommendations from current employees.
Devine-Baum says that instructors should be knowledgeable about music so they can curate great playlists. She said the company looks for people who are motivational, enthusiastic, confident, and most importantly, come equipped with “athletic prowess.”
Devine-Baum said right from the get-go, it’s an instructor’s job to know who is riding for the first time (a roster indicates who’s a newbie) and to make sure that person feels comfortable and is set up properly. One criticism of SoulCycle is that its new riders are advised to stay toward the back of the studio, where it is tough to see what’s going on in the front and also difficult for an instructor to keep an eye on a newbie in the dark. Flywheel’s stadium set-up mitigates that problem.
- Flywheel sports
And bigheaded instructors have no place in Flywheel, Zukerman says.
“I can sniff it [a big ego] a mile away,” Zukerman said, “and if I get any wind of that, I will personally touch base with the instructor, or again, have my senior team get in touch and ground them and remind them what it’s about. And if ultimately that doesn’t work for them, then they’re not gonna last at Flywheel.”
Not everyone likes it, though
Flywheel isn’t for everyone. Zukerman likened Flywheel’s “races” to “running the 50-yard dash” as a kid – and while that’s fun for some, it’s not fun for everyone.
The leaderboard – which the team maintains is designed to promote self-improvement and competing against oneself – is alienating for some. Catherine Price of Slate called Flywheel “SoulCycling for the truly sadistic.”
And while Flywheel forgoes SoulCycle’s choreography and push-ups, it still has a weightlifting section with a body bar. Many cycling traditionalists say the weightlifting section is pointless and inefficient. Jennifer Sage, a master-spinning instructor with a degree in exercise science who writes for the Indoor Cycling Association’s blog, denounced Flywheel after a workout staged for Good Morning America. “No muscle strengthening is going on,” she wrote, regarding the weights section. (Sage isn’t a fan of SoulCycle either – she’s also written a post called “I’d Rather Sell My Soul Than SoulCycle.“)
Devine-Baum, the master instructor, says safety isn’t compromised in this section; Flywheel makes sure riders maintain a safe resistance during the arm section and that the workout is done on safe planes of motion. She affirmed that she thinks “it’s really smart way to get some upper-body work in within the context of an indoor-cycling class.”
But some people feel so strongly against Flywheel’s athletic, competitive focus that they’ve voiced these opinions on Twitter, proving just how divided the indoor-cycling community is.
@LAURASTYLEZ I hated Flywheel, but I think it was the instructor. I love Soul Cycle with Selena or Jo.
— PressandtheCity (@PressAndTheCity) August 24, 2015
Flywheel exercise craze: SoulCycle for uber-competitive sadists.
— Patrick Steadman (@ptsteadman) July 14, 2015
Unsurprisingly, team Flywheel has had more than a few words to say about SoulCycle, as well – especially in light of SoulCycle’s IPO:
— RMO (@BecintheUS) August 1, 2015
— lia belardo (@liabelardo) April 26, 2015
And no one was more distraught than the One Direction zealot who learned Harry Styles went to SoulCycle.
HARRY WENT TO SOUL CYCLE AND I DO FLYWHEEL UGH
— Mackensie (@mack3nsie) August 9, 2015
Flywheel is growing and shows no signs of stopping
The company is posed for tremendous growth led by CEO Ed Kinnaly, who has worked at athletic companies including Nike and joined Flywheel at the start of this year.
And by 2015’s close, Flywheel will have 36 studios – but by the end of 2016, the brand is looking to add 20 more studios. By 2017, Flywheel is looking to Europe and Asia. Within five years, Kinnaly expects to have 150-175 studios across the continental US and 75 international studios.
The company has added on FlyBarre, a toning workout, as well as new variations on the core workout such as FlyBeats, which focuses more on music, all as ways to continue to engage the customers.
Ultimately, the pitch boils down to a few tenets – an intense workout that’s also low-impact and the company’s inclusive ethos.
“We have created a very kind of supportive and encouraging community of people where it’s not about who’s prettier or who has more jewelry or who has the better workout outfit,” Zukerman said to Business Insider.
“The greatest thing about indoor cycling is it’s low impact, so if I know how to impart a really safely taught ride with this low-impact exercise, I know that I can continue to literally have riders in their 70s taking classes at Flywheel,” she said.