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I was a little scared, to be honest. I'd heard so much about Soul Cycle—that it was an amazing (life-changing, even) workout that takes you completely out of yourself; that it was not unlike a cult; that it cost $30 or more per class. Of these, only the last one I knew for sure was true.  But after hearing a friend and my hairstylist both extol the many virtues of Soul Cycle, I decided it was worth a try.

For those of you who, like me, initially didn't know what Soul Cycle is, at its simplest, it's a cycling class done on stationary bikes that has taken New York and Los Angeles, among other cities (though it's pretty much an east and west coast thing right now), by storm. It's not enough to call it "a Spinning class." That wouldn't capture the experience of Soul Cycle, or the devotion of many of those who do it. (A January 2013 New York magazine article profiled some extreme devotees; one young woman was spending what would amount to $21,000 per year just on Soul Cycle classes, it reported.)

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For starters, there's no showing up out of the blue for many classes. You have to register on the Soul Cycle website and claim a bike number (I was #36) to be sure you have a spot. Classes routinely sell out, especially ones led by the most popular instructors. My stylist had specifically told me to hit Heather's Sunday morning class at 8 am at the Santa Monica location; my SC-loving friend instantly confirmed that choice as optimal. So I logged on, booked (and paid for) my reservation for $25. (I didn't realize that I could have called the studio directly and gotten a special $20 first-timer's rate, though that is clear on the website).

When I showed up at the studio at 7:40, it was still quiet and the space felt nothing if not spa-like. There were plenty of clean, white lacquered surfaces with touches of black and yellow, and a sizable boutique area featuring hip branded clothing and other gear. I signed my waiver, got my shoes (free for the first class; $3 thereafter unless you bring your own cycling shoes), and entered the still nearly empty room—a dark, heated space with dozens of bikes lined up cheek-by-jowl. There was barely enough room to get to my bike, let alone on it, with any sort of grace, but I managed to climb aboard. Elena, an SC employee, adjusted the bike to fit me and showed me how to clip into and out of the shoes on the pedals (the hardest part of the whole class, in my opinion) and how to increase and lower resistance on my bike.

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I'd been warned about the volume of the music (free earplugs are supplied to anyone who wants them), but as someone who routinely turns my iPod up to 11 when running, I wasn't put off. Plus, I knew that the music—which is painstakingly curated—was part of the immersive experience of a Soul Cycle class. The room was nearly dark—lighted only by candles and a pair of Exit signs—and the combination of sweaty bodies, heat, blackness, and a powerful bass line contribute to hastening your own private catharsis in the space of 45 or so minutes. I couldn't help thinking that in this way it's the perfect exercise for the easily bored and the easily embarrassed. It's built for working out in nearly complete anonymity.

When Heather started pedaling way, I realized that the class itself would have little preamble, nothing in the way of a traditional "warm-up." Within a few seconds, it seems, you're all in, pedaling furiously and repeatedly told by the instructor to turn the knob (meaning the resistance on the bike) up a half-turn or a quarter-turn. This being my first time in a class (and having run 9 miles the morning before) I concentrated on finding the rhythm of the class and just trying to look like I was approximating what everyone else was doing, rather than ratcheting up the resistance. (The volume of the music also sometimes makes it hard to make out what the instructor is telling you to do.) Just keeping up was enough for my body, though it was clear that the majority of the people in the Sunday 8 am class—mostly young, fit Angelenos, but some normal, not-so-young types like me, too—knew what they were doing.  

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And lest you think cycling is all or mostly lower-body (as I did), it's worth mentioning that SC bikes have a spot under the seat that holds hand weights; there's an upper-body routine in every class, making for a total-body workout. The class ends with a series of stretches done on the bike and off.

I hadn't realized it was only a 45- or 50-minute class and in spite of the frenetic, demanding pace it definitely went by quickly; I ended up wishing I had pushed myself a bit more. I also wished I had tested the fit of my bike better before we started. My biggest complaint about cycling has always been that my butt hurts while I'm doing it, and this was no exception (I'm told that this goes away after your body gets used to "riding" and that could be true).

I left the class drenched in sweat (just as my friend had warned me) but also invigorated, in spite of the early hour and my long run the day before. I can't say I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but I would definitely go back to Soul Cycle, and perhaps push myself harder next time. In truth, the only barrier for me is the price; it's simply not affordable for most people (though in L.A. the company is currently offering one free community class per week at each location).  Soul Cycle doesn't offer a lot of incentives even for loyal followers, which is likely an indication that they want to keep this white-hot workout hot for as long as possible.

Have you tried Soul Cycle, or another cycling or Spinning workout? Or do you ride a bike outdoors? Do you have any interest in trying Soul Cycle?