How SoulCycle Got Stuck Spinning Its Wheels

It could have been the battle of the bikes.

If only SoulCycle had been able to get its highly anticipated exercise bike to market in time to meet the demand of its enthusiastic (bordering on obsessive) riders, who because of the coronavirus pandemic have been unable to go to any of the company’s 99 studios, closed since March.

Instead, many turned to Peloton, the at-home cycling company, for their fitness fix. Even the most “ride or die” SoulCycle goers who took hundreds of classes per year, paying $36 (sometimes $72 for a double) to bop up and down on a stationary bike in a dark, candlelit room while an instructor bellowed positive affirmations.

“SoulCycle is now late to the market,” said Winnie Clark, 33, an advertising creative director quarantining with her family in West Palm Beach, Fla. Last year, Ms. Clark spent more than $5,000 on SoulCycle classes.

She got hooked on her father’s $2,245 Peloton bike two months ago and now takes four on-demand classes per week. “I love the community Peloton has already built. I have a lot of friends on there,” Ms. Clark said. “I am a Peloton convert that may possibly go visit SoulCycle after.”

There are many other converts out there. Peloton is seeing record growth, with revenues up 66 percent compared to last year during its fiscal third quarter that ended March 31.

But for SoulCycle, part of the Equinox Group, the ride has gotten a little bumpy — and not just because Peloton is stealing its riders.

Stephen Ross, the billionaire real-estate developer and chairman of the Related Companies, which owns Equinox and SoulCycle, held a fund-raiser for President Trump last August. This news was not well-received by many riders; some threatened to boycott.

Around the same time, SoulCycle announced it was coming out with a $2,500 bike for home use, partnering with Variis, a digital platform that would stream spin classes and many other Equinox workouts. The first bikes shipped the week of May 4, and only in select markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City — about six months later than initially planned. Variis’s virtual workouts are already available for Equinox members.

“I was waiting, waiting, waiting because I wanted the SoulCycle bike to come out. They released the pre-order, and I realized they didn’t service the area that I’m in,” said Erica Baddley, 26, who used to routinely drive 45 minutes from her home to the nearest studio, in Denver. “I would have been first in line.”

Four weeks ago, Ms. Baddley ordered a Peloton.

“While the original intent was to launch in Fall 2019, the Equinox Media team was focused on perfecting the experience while in a beta phase, which provided valuable insights on ways to improve the product before launching to members and riders this spring,” a spokeswoman for Equinox Media wrote in an email.

Michael Sonnenshein, 34, a managing director at a cryptocurrency asset manager, was one of the loyalists who received his at-home SoulCycle bike last week. Previously, he rode regularly with his fiancé in Manhattan and the Hamptons.

“You’re going to get that same experience from home, other than being densely packed next to other people in the dark having the heat turned up,” said Mr. Sonnenshein. He doesn’t know if he’ll be back to a studio anytime soon. In the meantime, he plans to ride from his Upper East Side living room every morning.

But there were not enough customers like him to prevent what Harvey Spevak, Equinox Group’s executive chairman, called “modest head count reductions” of the SoulCycle staff last week, following a more significant furlough in March. (The company last year lost three key executives: Melanie Whelan, chief executive; Taryn Jones Laeben, chief operating officer; and Mayssa Chehata, director of business development.)

This week, however SoulCycle will reopen in Dallas, which has two studios. The company has sent an email to riders with an extensive list of new safety measures: no more showers or “high-touch amenities” like gum, razors or Q-tips. Staff will get temperature checks before shifts. There will be fewer people in classes and more classes added to the schedule. But even with stringent protocols in place, many may be scared to go back to sweaty studios.

Mr. Spevak is confident SoulCycle’s loyalists will come back to the group experience. “Some people are going to be there day one, some people it’s going to take a little bit of time and other people it’s going to take longer,” he said.

SoulCycle was a giant of the industry, but smaller cycling studios also have had to scrambled to get online.

Ride Society, which has one location in Pensacola, Fla., rented bikes to clients after closing in March. “It killed me to think these bikes would sit in the studio not used,” said Claire Campbell, Ride Society’s founder and owner.

In April, Ms. Campbell rented all 30 of her studio’s bikes for $250 each, including shoes, weights and yoga mats. She created a digital portal where members could stream daily prerecorded classes and one live class per week for $50 a month.

“We borrowed a truck and packed up our bikes and dropped them off to everyone,” Ms. Campbell said.

Such measures will not be enough to make up for studio closures. The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association estimated that the U.S. fitness club industry lost $3.5 billion in revenue between March 26 and May 1. If most fitness clubs remain closed through June 1,
this amount could reach $6 billion.

“No business has been insulated from disruption,” said William Lynch, Peloton’s president.

Instead of shooting content from a state-of-the-art New York City studio, Peloton instructors are filming classes from their homes. There’s also been a delay in delivery times because of increased demand. Many are on weekslong wait-lists to get a bike, despite Peloton more than doubling production since early March. Mr. Lynch said bikes normally arrive within five to 10 days.

There are plenty of other choices. The number of global fitness clubs and studios using digital content has increased nearly 15 times since last fall, according to research from Club Intel, a data firm that tracks the fitness industry. By the third week of April, 74 percent of clubs and studios offered group on-demand or live classes, up from 5 percent last October.

Joey Gonzalez, the Barry’s Bootcamp founder and chief executive, said at least half of the studio’s signature workout can be replicated online. Before the coronavirus, hourlong classes alternated between treadmill run and floor” (strength training) intervals.

“Barry’s at Home,” a digital platform that offers about 80 classes per day, went live in April. Some sessions require props and others don’t, and a few are tailored for treadmill owners. For everyone else, Mr. Gonzalez suggests running (safely) outside.

“It’s a little less random than a cycling studio saying ‘Let’s do push-ups.’ It’s still in line with what we do, there’s just a component that you have to take outside,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Virtual workouts that require little to no equipment (dance) or that can be easily adapted for the home (Pilates) are also a hit with “quaran-toners.” So are the trainers that were early to bring their workouts to social media.

In fact some might come to prefer the choice and convenience of working out at home to visiting gyms, and therefore there’s still opportunity to sell plenty of bikes (to those who don’t already own a Peloton). “SoulCycle’s window may not be gone,” said Andy Mantis, the head of data insights at 1010 Data, an analytics firm.

Ms. Baddley, the Peloton convert, she said she’s open to returning to SoulCycle when possible in her area, as long as bikes are spaced out. But she’ll “definitely be going a lot less.”

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