Cerabino: Pop-up SoulCycle finding a warm welcome in Palm Beach

Dec 21, 2017
Pop-up Soul Cycle studio is in Palm Beach until Jan. 1. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s a good thing I registered a day early.

I figured that SoulCycle in Palm Beach would be popular. But how many people would be willing to pay $40 to sit in a dark room pedaling a stationary bicycle for 45 minutes? The answer: More than you’d imagine.

SoulCycle, which started 11 years ago in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is a triumph of marketing. It turned one of the most mundane forms of exercise — going nowhere on a stationary bike — into something coveted by discerning arbiters of pop culture. It has since spread throughout the country, mostly in upscale urban locations where branding and what Freud referred to as “the narcissism of small differences” matter.

And this month, the company is experimenting with pop-up studios in Palm Beach and Aspen, Colorado.

The one in Palm Beach opened in a vacant space at the Royal Poinciana Plaza on Dec. 15, and is scheduled to hold daily classes there through New Year’s Day.

I’m no stranger to riding bicycles. I’ve pedaled a road bike on the streets of South Florida for thousands of miles, including a couple rides around the 120-mile circumference of Lake Okeechobee.

And I belong to a gym in Boca Raton, and sometimes take early-morning group spinning classes there. “Spinning” was the first evolutionary step in jazzing up riding a stationary bike. By having a weighted flywheel and an adjustable knob that allows the resistance on that wheel to be increased or lessened, riding in place was made to approximate the experience of climbing hills or sprinting on flat roads.

At my gym, the bikes are hooked up to a screen hanging in the front of the room that serves as a kind of leader board, measuring each bike’s total output of energy. The riders are all ranked on that board based on effort, and it makes for a kind of race, even though nobody is going anywhere.

SoulCycle is more spiritual than competitive. There’s no leader board. No mirrors. No constant exhortations to keep turning that tension knob to the right.

Instead, there are grapefruit-scented candles, and lots of choreography in the form of arm movements, jumps in and out of the saddle, and shoulder, biceps and triceps exercises with small barbells that are in a tray on the canary-yellow bikes.

And you don’t just sign up for a class in SoulCylce. You pick among the photo array of smiling, fit instructors who cultivate the kind of following usually associated with yoga studios.

My choice on Thursday was between classes led by “Julie D.” or “Heather A.”

I perused their profiles. Heather A. promised me “a full-on mind-body cardio party!” Julie D. hinted at something that sounded like the Lulelemon version of Homer’s Odyssey.

“A native New Yorker, Julie encourages riders to embark on their own unique journey, conquering challenges, unleashing inner strength, building confidence, and finding peace along the way.”

That’s a lot to cram in during 45 minutes. I moved fast, registering for one of the few open slots in Julie D.’s 54-bike class at 10 a.m.

I got there early, in plenty of time to peruse the large merchandise area, where riders could buy the branded apparel that marks you as a regular. There was even some workout clothes sporting the “Palm Beach Soul Cycle” name — like an $88 white pullover — even though the studio would be gone in a little more than a week.

In the next room, I could hear Heather A. bringing the 9 o’clock class to its mind-body cardio climax.

And then they filed out, looking like 50 people who just fell into a big swimming pool, and we filed in to take their place as the third class of the morning.

So how was it?

Hot. Dark. Sweaty. Energetic. All that choreography made it a great cardio workout.

And Julie D. knew when it was time to make us all scream “Wooo.”

By the end, I was pretty knackered, and didn’t miss looking at a leader board.

Most of the people in the class were just visiting Florida for the holidays or the season, and many of them were regulars at SoulCycles in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. They showed up to the class already branded in the SoulCycle apparel.

“Where do you ride?” Julie D. would occasionally ask during the class.

And riders would answer with a SoulCycle location in another city, and then the discussion will go to some beloved instructor in that city.

“It’s definitely got a cultish vibe, but not in a bad Jim Jones way,” said Josh, a 29-year-old New Yorker who was in the class with his 22-year-old girlfriend, Rachel. “The camaraderie is really good.”

They’re used to going to the SoulCycle in New York’s West Greenwich Village neighborhood.

As for the expense, Josh has a way to justify it.

“People belong to a gym and never go,” he said. “At least you just pay for what you are using with SoulCycle. And everything you pay for is a good workout. It’s not like paying hundreds of dollars for a gym membership to sit in the steam room.”