On a recent Monday evening, around 60 of the most formidably fit and relentlessly upbeat residents of Washington, D.C., filter into a white-walled studio space and hop onto shiny rows of yellow-and-gray exercise bikes. They insert their cleated shoes into the pedals with satisfying little snicks, and soon the whirring sound of dozens of spinning flywheels fills the grapefruit-scented room, one wall of which is emblazoned with a long mantra that includes the words CHANGE YOUR BODY, TAKE YOUR JOURNEY. Women (in spandex capris and tank tops, their hair gathered in topknots) outnumber men (muscle tees and shorts), and almost everyone sports a logo in the shape of a wheel or a skull-and-crossbones on at least one item of clothing. Laurie Cole, a veteran instructor who has flown in today from Los Angeles to lead the ride, plunges the studio into candlelit darkness and cues up Sia’s "One Million Bullets," the first song of a playlist she stitched together during the flight. It roars from the speakers at nightclub volume.
This sweat-inducing, self-actualizing, multisensory experience is, of course, SoulCycle, which, after beginning in a single makeshift studio on New York’s Upper West Side a decade ago, has expanded to cool urban neighborhoods and affluent suburbs from coast (the Hamptons) to coast (Malibu). SoulCycle will offer 160,000 classes this year at 62 studios, but this one is a little special. Not only is SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan here—crushing it in the coveted first row, which is always reserved for expert riders—but she’s not even the biggest VIP in the room.
Alongside her is a woman who pretty much everyone at the company refers to as simply "her" or "FLOTUS": Michelle Obama, whose world-renowned biceps, can-do attitude, approachable stylishness, and regular attendance at SoulCycle basically make her the personification of the brand. SoulCycle is a beloved form of exercise for an Oscar party’s worth of bold-faced names, from Hollywood stars (Lena Dunham, Jake Gyllenhaal) to pop hitmakers (Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande) to CEOs (J.Crew’s Mickey Drexler and Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal). Obama is riding tonight with friends and members of her crew (including her hairstylist). "It’s her sanctuary—where she goes to let her hair down with her daughters and connect with them in a way that’s really fun," says Whelan of the First Lady. "That’s the ethos of what we do."
For the next 45 minutes, the instructor, Cole—wearing a Madonna-concert-style headset and makeup that’s surprisingly on-point, considering how much sweat is involved—shouts motivational slogans as the class whoops and grinds its way through simulated hill climbs; furious, high-tempo sprints; moves designed to work each rider’s core; and an arm-toning sequence of dumbbell exercises. It’s all performed with enough synchronized precision to make a squad of Beyoncé backup dancers jealous.
Something undeniable does happen, amid the darkness and the volume and the heat—the heat!—as the tightly packed riders churn through the routines. It’s the same trancelike rush that comes when you push a little harder than you thought you could, an addictive feeling that keeps people coming back for more. Well, that and the excellently on-trend gear available for sale in the lobby, the tanks and caps and tights and sweatshirts, featuring wheel and skull logos, that reveal to the world that you’re part of the tribe. "It’s not a demographic, it’s a psychographic," says Whelan of her customers. "These people value experiences. They place a premium on community, they like to build relationships, they like to know about what’s going on."
In an era where Amazon has been able to steamroll traditional storefront operators faster than you can pedal a spin bike with its resistance turned down, running a retail business built on a communal experience just may be the only way to compete. While other fitness studios may offer spinning, SoulCycle’s experience, underpinned by the company’s culture, has made it unique. "You’re sweating your butt off, but you’re also with a group of people that you usually know," says Warby Parker’s Blumenthal. "That combination is powerful. It’s why people come out energized and wanting to do it again and again."
That devotion has helped SoulCycle generate eye-popping financials. In July 2015, the company filed its IPO prospectus, which revealed $122 million in 2014 revenue and profit margins nearing 30%. Our conservative estimate is that the company will generate $175 million in 2016, and Whelan has indicated that she will take SoulCycle public when market conditions improve. (The company, citing the "quiet period" restriction against releasing results not in its SEC filing, declined to disclose its current financials.)
Skeptics wonder how long the indoor-cycling trend—or any modish exercise—can stay popular. And even if it does, what’s to keep riders loyal to the higher-priced SoulCycle brand? Can such a quintessentially New York experience translate to the rest of the country? And will the riders who give SoulCycle its cachet—all those movie stars and early-adopter cool kids—still show up once everyone is doing it?
To Whelan, these questions totally miss the point. SoulCycle, as she sees it, isn’t competing against other fitness companies. "I always say that our real competition is Netflix," she says, meaning anything that might keep you at home and not out in the world. "SoulCycle isn’t about fitness," she reiterates. "It’s about a very powerful breakthrough for people, which can be physical, but can also be emotional or about community, about connection. Once people connect to it, it becomes part of their life. So, $30 for that?"
Whelan, 39, has the lean, toned physique of a lifelong athlete who takes five SoulCycle classes a week, and her manner is both friendly and intense. She grew up in Baltimore, and while attending an all-girls school in the suburbs she began working out in a local gym and played field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse. "Not well, but I played," she says. "I was more of a team leader than the best athlete, but I loved the feeling of being part of a team." When she got to college, at Brown University, she planned to become an architect or engineer. "I’ll never forget the day I gave up engineering," she says. "I was sitting in my dorm room and I had this massive turbine that I had to design and I just looked at it and was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ "
Her summer internships with engineering firms, meanwhile, had shown her that her interests lay much more with what was happening on the corporate side. Her father—an entrepreneur who ran a D.C. messenger business and later, when the fax machine took a bite out of his revenue, a transportation company—provided Whelan with her earliest model in life and business. "He got up every morning at five, and would go swimming for an hour before he got on the bus and the train," she says. Whelan recounts a favorite story about being at a Busch Gardens amusement park as a kid, watching her dad lug around an early briefcase-size cell phone so he could be reached. "The hardest part of his job was if people let him down or didn’t live up to the way he operated," she recalls. "But the people that did, he’d really take care of them."
Whelan arrived at SoulCycle to run operations in 2012, after her employer, the gym chain Equinox, acquired a majority stake in the fitness startup. Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler, the brand’s near-mythical creators, who, as young moms in 2005, partnered with spinning coach Ruth Zukerman to create a form of exercise that was quick, efficient, and addictively fun. (Zukerman left a few years later, and teamed with investors to launch SoulCycle’s main rival, Flywheel Sports, which is more competitive than communal, and thus skews somewhat more male.) A year earlier, SoulCycle had just six studios and annual earnings of less than $5 million. Whelan had run a team at Equinox that looked for business-development opportunities. Impressed with a SoulCycle class, she briefly considered trying to duplicate the experience with a new, competing brand. "I think the expression is ‘for a hot minute,’ " she says. "But we realized that the brand and experience was so unique and there was so much buzz around what Julie and Elizabeth had created. It was much better for us to bring what we did best at Equinox—operating expertise, real estate expertise—to fuel the back end and let them run with the experience."
Rice and Cutler still sit on the SoulCycle board, although they mostly cashed out their stock (to the tune of $90 million each) when Equinox increased its ownership stake in the run-up to the IPO. The board, which also includes Whelan’s old Equinox boss Harvey Spevak, passed the CEO job to Whelan last year. "Melanie was as instrumental in the growth as anybody," says Spevak. "When we were thinking of taking the growth to another level and considering an IPO, it was just obvious that she’s the right person."
On an Amtrak train from her home in New York to Washington, D.C., Whelan wears a long gray cardigan, light-wash jeans, and a pair of silver-glitter slip-on Vans. She and her team, including Anthony DiMaggio, her VP of development, are preparing for a packed 24-hour visit, including a panel as part of the United State of Women Summit (where President Obama will declare himself a feminist). At 1 p.m., the train pulls into Union Station, and Whelan orders an Uber for her and her team. Whelan carries around a large leather duffle, which no one offers to take—a sign of the CEO’s refreshing lack of pretense, but also the strong likelihood that no one on her team is more capable of carrying it comfortably.
First on the agenda is a trip to visit new sites Whelan is considering for expansion. To real estate developers, SoulCycle is more than just an amenity—it’s a symbol of urbanely affluent style, which has allowed company execs to negotiate below-market rents as it expands. This wasn’t always the case: When SoulCycle first grew out of New York, it was perceived to be a bit of a nuisance. The studios are loud; they require a lot of parking; they create traffic snarls every hour as classes change over. Each needs about 4,000 square feet of mostly open space. That’s why Equinox is such a good corporate partner; the gym chain is owned by the real estate giant Related, which helped SoulCycle find good locations at attractive rates early in its growth. (SoulCycle still gets first looks at prime spots in new developments, such as New York’s vast upcoming Hudson Yards project.)
As the brand’s clout has risen and so much of traditional retail continues to get Amazoned, SoulCycle has become that rare thing in the world of retail: a destination with energy. In that regard, the studios aren’t so different from Apple Stores; in fact, SoulCycle’s first suburban D.C. studio opened in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2014, directly across the street from the tech retailer. "SoulCycle studios punch above their weight," says Related CEO Jeff Blau, who credits the brand with adding value to his real estate portfolio. "You put a SoulCycle in [a development], and it’s confirmation of the location and the building."
For competitive reasons, Whelan asks that the specific neighborhood she’s visiting today remain unnamed, but it is both affluent and youthful, with a residential-but-urban vibe. The first potential location we see—currently occupied by a sleepy sporting-goods store in a circa-’90s development that could use refreshing—has much of what SoulCycle needs, including public-transportation access. "The neighborhoods need to be dense, but we don’t necessarily have to be on the corner," says DiMaggio, who worked with Whelan at Equinox. "We’ve discovered that we can be a couple of blocks away and people will still come to us."
Whelan and her team don’t find their way to areas like this by accident. SoulCycle carefully monitors an email inbox where riders can express their interest in prospective locations, the addresses of its social media followers, and the popularity of various pop-up events, such as a 10-city collaboration with Target earlier this year, which offered classes as well as a line of Target x SoulCycle gear. Studios in some of those Target cities, such as Houston, have already launched. Others, including Denver and Atlanta, are on the road map as part of Whelan’s plan to open at least 13 studios this year.
But nothing beats on-the-ground intel, which is why SoulCycle sends scouts—and sometimes the CEO—into potential new markets to understand the local exercise culture and start to identify evangelists for the brand. A block away from the old sporting-goods store, Whelan ducks into a boutique that sells workout clothes. She quickly buttonholes the young woman working the cash register—who turns out to be a huge SoulCycle fan—for opinions about the area and its residents. "Whether it happens now or in 2017 or 2018, it’s good to understand the market," Whelan says afterward. "The demos and psychos seem to line up."
Energized by the encounter, Whelan hops back in an Uber to visit SoulCycle’s Georgetown studio. It’s after 3 p.m., and the only solid food she has consumed is half a gluten-free muffin. Otherwise, she takes in nothing but liquid: a berry smoothie, several bottles of water, and two iced coffees—one with almond milk, one with coconut milk. "I am not a foodie," she says cheerfully. "Too many other things to do. If it’s not liquid, I don’t want it. Lunch is for suckers."
Inside a downtown Manhattan dance studio a week after Whelan’s D.C. trip, a group of about 20 SoulCycle instructor-trainees (and a few vets) circle up around their leader, ready to absorb some key tenets of SoulCycle’s brand of hospitality. The mood is very high school drama club, with lots of touching and hugs and casual massages, but the stakes are high. Last year, more than 1,000 people auditioned to be instructors, and just over 100 were hired. When Marvin Foster, a dance and fitness trainer and SoulCycle’s director of new talent, cues the music—Rihanna and Drake’s "Work"—the entire group whoops with delight. Following Foster, they swivel and groove and crawl like tigers along the floor. They pair up and bop down an imaginary runway. They twerk (mostly the dudes) and pirouette and bust out pole-dancing moves. It looks like about as much fun as a human being can have."We started the dance workshop as a way for the groups to get off the bike, get out of the studio, and not worry about the method, just celebrate movement," Foster says. "But it also helps them understand [their students’] vulnerability."
This class is one of the final stages of a 10-week boot camp known as Instructor Training One. "What keeps riders coming back are our instructors," says Foster. "They need to have what I call their X-Men power, the secret power inside of them that we can help bring out."
The program is part of Soul University, a comprehensive slate of coursework that’s designed to provide employees an ever deepening immersion into the SoulCycle way. For Whelan, it is the element that makes the SoulCycle experience almost impossible to replicate. In order to grow the way Whelan wants, she has had to codify SoulCycle’s values in a form that would allow staff that never met the founders to be able to channel them. When she first arrived, a small team, including Rice and Cutler, developed six "core values," a list that has since expanded to 10. The one which all the others grow out of, is: "We are a culture of ‘yes.’ That’s how we hire, that’s how we operate, and that’s how we engage with each other," says Whelan.
It wasn’t enough to print up those core values on a bunch of mouse pads—though SoulCycle did that. More crucially, they had to be shared and absorbed and consistently reaffirmed by employees. One of the tools SoulCycle uses to make them tangible is to give each staffer a set of 10 pins, each representing a core value—like WE GET DIRTY, meaning no one is too important to help clean a studio, or RECHARGE. Employees are encouraged to hand them out to coworkers who embody each of the particular ideals in a major way. (Everyone seems to agree that a beloved longtime facilities worker at company headquarters has the biggest collection.) "That is how we’ve been able to scale this," Whelan says. "Once you articulate these things clearly, you’re able to develop a whole set of principles and operating metrics and hiring plans and review strategies around your core values."
These instructors who dance with abandon—athletic, charming, good-looking, comfortable in their bodies—are not just celebrating that they’re about to lead their first SoulCycle classes, the last step in their training. They’re missionaries, spreading the brand’s gospel one ride and rider at a time. Some will teach "roosters," the mega–type A sorts who ride at 6:30 a.m. on their way to work. Others will cater to very different riders, like the ones who go to Brooklyn classes set to punk rock and metal tunes, led by a tatted-up, formerly obese rocker dude who begins by saying, "My name is Noa and I’m an alcoholic. . . . Oh, wait, wrong group!" There are classes set entirely to Kanye West, the Grateful Dead or, famously, the Hamilton soundtrack. And now there are classes in Pennsylvania and Texas and Illinois, and soon enough, no matter where you live, there will likely be a class near you, too.
"If we can get through to the First Lady, who is one of the busiest, over-prioritized people in the world?" Whelan says. "That gives me great hope that there are many other people SoulCycle can still affect."
[Photos: Emiliano Granado]
A version of this article appeared in the September issue of Fast Company magazine.