** Freestyle Fridays are dedicated to the random consumer technologies I adopt and my take on them, good or bad. These are solely my opinions and in no way represent my employer's, social affiliations', or my dad's opinions. I encourage you to share your feedback (or just tell me I'm being ridiculous) via Twitter: @melen_nial **
Let me be straight-forward with you: I was never an athlete. I loathed gym class in grade school, I played JV tennis for one year and was easily the worst person on the team, and the only sport I ever played outside of school was beer-league roller hockey, mainly for the "pre-meme era" memes and Wendy's chicken nuggets after the game.
You know that old saying about the Freshman 15? Where college adds some fluff? I was fine in college. Moving to Philadelphia, however, is a glutton's Mecca. I put a few pounds on FAST and grumbled about it until 2016 when I decided I needed to take my own health a little more seriously.
Let's be honest. Could you say no to a D'Alessandro's cheesesteak? If so - good for you, you masochist.
There's this weird appeal to group classes. Outwardly I tell myself it's a great way to switch up my workout. Secretly it's fueled by this desire to try and meet people and break out of my shell. I've done yoga, Zumba, and recently indoor cycling.
I also wanted desperately to get some home equipment because my inner millennial tendencies beg me for everything in my life to be more convenient. So at this set of crossroads, I've done both - studio cycling, and a home cycling bike. Studio cycling has been in a few forms - via my normal gym that offers varied fitness classes and through SoulCycle. The home bike is currently the only home bike with live fitness classes on the market - Peloton. I warned you, I am an early adopter.
So after a very long winded introduction, I want to outline the pros and cons of both - the social and "old school" version of fitness classes, and the technology-forward competitor. Rocky vs Apollo Creed, Eagles vs Patriots, who comes out the victor?
I'm going to go ahead and say I don't really care for the cycling classes at my local gym. There, it's out. The instructors are okay, they leave the lights on in the studio and the playlists are pretty uninspired save a song or two per class.
After this experience, I jumped into the Peloton. Let's talk specs: the bike itself is well crafted - metal frame, large HD touchscreen, magnetic based resistance adjustments (as opposed to belt-driven, which wears and requires replacement over time). The software showcases an intuitive GUI where I can look at upcoming live classes, search for on-demand classes, and review my statistics from sessions I've taken. The instructions for safe riding setup are very clear; knock on wood I've had zero injuries to date.
Trying real hard to get Pinterest-level points on my home studio setup.
The most obvious benefit of the Peloton is convenience. I can roll out of bed with frumpy hair, hop on the bike and get sweaty, and walk 25 feet to a shower when I'm done. Also, I'm not really a morning person so I can ride after work or before bed and not have to worry about mentally preparing myself to leave the house. As an added bonus there are live classes from about 6AM - 7PM ET daily, so most days I can participate real-time alongside 200+ other riders without ever walking out my front door.
The most understated benefit is the data. I'm not just saying this as a technology nerd (maybe I am, hard to tell anymore). First off, having raw data during a live class is powerful. Boutique instructors say "up resistance until it feels like you are pedaling through mud". Well how muddy? Like, "oh that's a little sticky" or "if I don't pedal I will sink into quicksand" muddy? That's too much wiggle room for me and I usually overshoot my capability 30 seconds into a resistance change. With Peloton, an instructor might say "increase resistance north of 50" - and I have an onscreen, numeric measurement of how much resistance to adjust to. I've also got a measurement of RPMs that determine the pace of my pedal stroke. It's extra motivating to see a call to move to 50+ resistance and get instant visual feedback telling me I am crushing it at 65, for example.
For the ultra-fit and ultra-competitive, the amount of energy you are exerting is calculated and displayed in kilojoules... and that data determines your place on a live leaderboard. I'm nowhere near a medal-worthy finish, but sometimes when I'm really on my game I pick a person a few places above me and work extra hard to try to beat their output. And for those of us always looking to squeeze dessert in after dinner, calories burned are also listed alongside the theoretical distance traveled. There's the ability to connect a heart rate monitor, and as an added bonus class types dedicated to specific heart rate zones, whether you are trying to work to the max or just increase your endurance. The cherry on top is that your data can be exported into Strava or Fitbit via stored login credentials.
One thing I did not touch on is the community - full disclosure, I don't currently have Facebook and can't take advantage of that aspect, nor will I attempt to rate it. I will only say that I have heard positive things. One additional note - while the company themselves does not run the Peloton rider Facebook group, they do offer "home rider invasion" events multiple times a year. These events happen at your local storefront and/or their NYC studio, riders are able to enjoy a class or two, indulge in happy hours, and socialize with peer riders (and in NYC, your favorite instructors).
Okay, okay, you can tell I love my home bike, so what about SoulCycle? Well, this was a recent experience. I'd always kind of rolled my eyes at the cost but a studio was within walking distance on my last work pilgrimage and there were many empty calories to be consumed later that day. SoulCycle benefits from it's social experience. Music is blaring, employees are laughing and dancing, and most of all they want to get you doing the same - and genuinely exude this attitude. I've heard/found horror stories about some locations in larger cities coming across as pretentious, but I did not experience this for a single nanosecond in the Austin Domain location. YMMV. If you do visit Austin, I highly highly recommend checking these guys out.
SoulCycle, from a tech standpoint, is almost polar opposite to the Peloton experience. You go into the studio, the lights dim, there are no cell phones, and smartwatches are either removed or the displayed is turned off. There are zero metrics on your bike - we get back into the "muddy/flat road/biggest hill you can climb" terminology for adjusting your resistance here. But it's done tastefully - the instructor takes you on a journey over a soundtrack and citrus scented candlelight. The pace is determined by the beat of the music. At first attempt, it was a little difficult for me to master (turns out I'm no musician either), but halfway through my ride my body had entered muscle memory in rhythm with the bass drum - left, right, left, right.
I do believe instructors make or break this experience. My instructor for this ride, Chris, made it. 110%. He would ride at the front of the class, take a moment to walk through the room and check on his riders, light and dim candles based on the tempo of the music, hop back on a bike in the middle of the pack and shout encouragement and sing along. If this is the secret sauce to boutique cycling classes, I fully understand why SoulCycle, FlyWheel, and others have a fervent fan base. You not only hold yourself accountable, but you are held accountable in the presence of others giving their best, and driven with motivation from instructor enthusiasm. I will be making more appearances at my local SoulCycle, despite my investment in my home bike.
So what are the cons here? Both have limited but differentiated cons. Some days, in the comfort of my home, I don't give 100% on the Peloton. I'll give it 80% because I'm in a bad mood and it's hot and <insert excuse here>. Sometimes it's hard to find that extra jolt of motivation in the privacy of my own home compared to being in a room of 20 sweaty people where your effort isn't hidden. A potential downside is the upfront cost. The bike itself, with a subscription to live classes and a set of accessories runs north of $2000. That's a big chunk of change to hand over in one sitting. Peloton does offer financing to alleviate that, both online and in store. The return on investment is dependent on your participation. If you attend multiple cycling classes a week, you can easily see return on investment in less than a year. If you use the bike as a fancy clothes hanger, it's going to feel overpriced. For me, it'll probably be about 1.5-2 years to see the cost savings and I'm fine with that timeline.
SoulCycle lacks that ease factor. I am guilty of having days where nothing will prevent me from sitting on my couch at the end of a work day, and there is no way I'm leaving the house after. I'm also a little weird about public showers so going before work isn't ideal. (Ahem SoulCycle: if you drop a location in Havertown/Upper Darby this would probably be less of a dealbreaker). The lack of measurement during rides is oddly distracting for me. I have to really focus on getting the rhythm right on songs I don't know. Also, defining "muddy", "light hill", "light resistance" are just too ambiguous and I can't help but feel like I am overdoing it or not pushing enough without some sort of definable range to base my ride on. I am a data nerd, sorry. Lastly, the long term cost of riding with SoulCycle is steep. SoulCycle does not offer any level of membership; you buy a package of classes at a time at approximately $30/class. While there is some discounting, a year of unlimited classes costs $3500, which makes Peloton the more affordable option if you are a long time cycling enthusiast. I don't know if I value the personal touch of studio classes at an additional $1000+.
This is only my opinion. I really do like both experiences immensely, and that's coming from someone who is in a long term, love-hate, on-again off-again relationship with a gym membership. My experiences with the personalities and enthusiasm of instructors on both sides has been nothing shy of amazing. Peloton has about 10 or 12 instructors and I religiously ride with 3 favorites - Hannah Marie Corbin, Cody Rigsby, and Emma Lovewell. As for soundtracks, both SoulCycle and Peloton give the instructors complete jurisdiction over the class playlists. This results in carefully curated journeys across all genres of music, bespoke for the pace and effort of each class. Where the studio vibe of SoulCycle offers the feel of riding in a pack while managing your own journey, the Peloton community has built a digital tribe of it's individual riders through Facebook communities, leaderboards, friends lists and class shout-outs. You can't go wrong choosing one or the other - or both.