Editor’s note: Mara Abbott was a professional cyclist for a decade and competed at the 2016 Olympic Games.
The bass was pumping and the lights were flashing. The people around me shouted with joy and excitement, and a few had tears welling up in their eyes. A row of thighs pumped in perfect time to the music.
I was in the middle of an indoor cycling class on my ’round-the-city exploration of Denver’s latest fitness trend. If you thought that indoor cycling was just a ride to nowhere in awkwardly padded shorts, you, like me, likely have a bit of catching up to do.
Turns out, whether you crave a spiritual awakening, a night at the club (complete with a disco ball) or are training for a race, there is a class for you, because Denver’s indoor-cycling scene is booming.
It’s not a new concept by any means. People have been pedaling their hearts out on stationary indoor bikes for decades. (And you can’t call it “spinning” anymore, since that word was trademarked in 1994 by Mad Dogg Athletics.) The trend of stand-alone cycling studios, however, has really picked up in the last 10 years.
Three of the six studios I visited around Denver had opened in the last two years, and two of those three have plans to launch additional locations in 2019.
Not a cyclist at all? Don’t worry. Many of the classes I found resemble outdoor riding only in the way that your legs pump in circles. No experience is necessary, evidenced by the fact that at four of the six studios, instructors told me the hardest part about being a new rider was clipping into the cycling pedals. (However, I used to race bikes, so for me that was not actually true. Across the board, my biggest indoor cycling challenge was moving in time to the music.)
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Boulder’s Mara Abbott finishes fourth in women’s Olympic road race
Many of the trendy, new-model gyms have been criticized by some in the indoor-cycling establishment, most vocally from Jennifer Sage, a master instructor. She and other detractors contend that the classes don’t provide an effective workout, don’t create an opportunity for sustained progress, and their dynamic standing moves could set some riders up for injury.
While it’s true that many of my instructors had bios that focused on gymnastics, dance and yoga more than bicycles, it’s also probably true that the average SoulCycle client isn’t overly concerned about setting a new record up Lookout Mountain.
“Some workouts are just designed as stand-alone training sessions to make people work hard and sweat a lot,” said Chris Carmichael, a Hall of Fame cycling coach and founder of Colorado Springs-based CTS, one of the most prominent endurance coaching companies in the country.
That description was apropos for many of the workouts I attended, all of which I finished out of breath and with a glisten of perspiration. I was never entirely sure why I was doing what I was doing, and even less certain that it was part of a strategic, progressive training plan. But loud music, packed studios and high-energy instructors conspired to make me quite certain that it was very important that I keep it up.
Unfortunately, the privilege to pedal at these studios doesn’t come without a cost.
With the notable exception of the YMCA, one 45-minute class plus shoe rental at any of these locations can set you back between $20 and $31. Many studios will offer a discounted first class as an introduction.
For those ready to slip into a pair of cycling shoes, the best studio is the one you enjoy and will return to.
“The accountability and social connections from group training are key to keeping people engaged in exercise programs. Any safe way to encourage people to get more exercise is a good thing.” Carmichael said in a vote of support — and that was even before he knew there was a disco ball.
Before we get into the trendy new cyling gyms, let’s start with old faithful: the YMCA.
25 E. 16th Ave.
Where: 25 E. 16th Ave., 303-861-8300, denverymca.org/downtown
When: Days and times vary, earliest class 5:45 a.m., latest 5:30 p.m.
Cost: $35 a month, full-facility membership
Shoes: No cycling shoes are available to rent, but the bikes can be used with SPD or Look Delta cleats, and have toe clips for those who would like to ride in sneakers.
First-time cost: three-day free trial
Length: 45-60 minutes
Classes per week: 7
Studios: five Denver locations
Reservations required: no
Studio temperature: 68 degrees
Extras: full locker room, combination lockers, free towels, toiletries
Best for: those who are independent and self-motivated; those looking for a no-frills workout that will translate well to riding on the road; those who are budget-conscious; those looking for workout options that come with a full gym membership
Less for: those more interested in an experience than bike riding; those motivated by high-stimulation studios or an amped-up fitness community
The basement cycling studio at the downtown Denver YMCA is spacious and spare, free of bells, whistles, mega sound systems and flashing lights. All bikes are equipped with computers that measure heart rate, cadence, speed and power, and during my class every cue was focused on one thing: riding a bicycle.
My instructor, Claire Martin (a former reporter at The Denver Post), has taught at the Y for 15 years, and she gave simple instructions as we moved through a traditional, comprehensive workout that included sprints, fast-pedaling drills, and a simulated hill climb set to an upbeat and diverse playlist. Apart from the climb, most of the class took place seated. There were only two other students the morning I attended, which meant that no neighbor-sweat infringed upon my personal space — something I have discovered is quite the luxury out in the world of boutique gyms that operate off of wait-lists.
The early-morning staff at the Y was welcoming and friendly. Although the front-desk workers didn’t seem in the mood to offer a new-client tour of the massive (and recently remodeled) facility, two longtime members spotted my confusion and happily pointed me in the right direction without my even having to ask — although one of them did send me in the wrong direction.
It’s worth noting that the cost of an unlimited monthly membership to the full-facility YMCA costs just a few dollars more than a single 45-minute class at many of the boutique studios. The facility is new, clean and has a cavernous locker room complete with showers, blow dryers and toiletries. Also: The Y was the only facility I visited that offered me free coffee. Unlimited free coffee.
Now, here are some of your stand-alone indoor cycling options.
1711 Sheridan Blvd.
Where: 1711 Sheridan Blvd., 303-477-0793, highridecycle.com
When: Classes offered daily at varying times. Earliest is 5 a.m., latest 7:30 p.m.
Cost: drop-in $20; monthly unlimited $140; annual membership $1,500
Shoes: Cycling shoes are provided. If you bring your own, they must have SPD cleats. Toe clips are available if you wish to use sneakers.
First-time deal: $15
Length: 45 minutes
Classes per week: 46
Reservations: recommended; book up to a week in advance
Studio temperature: 60 degrees
Extras: Showers, combination lockers, free towels, toiletries
Best for: those who want to pair the high of dancing at a club with their weekday workout; those who crave stimulation and excitement; and those looking for a power-packed, full-body workout in 45 minutes
Less for: those easily frustrated by complex moves, who dislike house music, or who would prefer a more traditional cycling experience
The glow of black lights in the High Ride Cycle studio illuminated a mural that loomed directly to my right.
“Sprint it out,” it read. “Turn it up. Walk it back. Side to side. Pulse it down. Tap it back.”
My instructor gave each one of those commands over the course of our workout as she motivated a packed room to dance on the pedals. Unfortunately, as soon as the first beat dropped, I discovered that this was also a partial list of things I am unable to do in time to electronic dance music.
The majority of the session was spent standing out of the saddle, and involved quick patterns of full-body movements like pushups, tap-backs, and four corners. It offered the mental challenge of keeping up with a new aerobics class in fast-forward and added flashing lights, pulsing dance music, and legs in perpetual motion. The dynamic movements engaged my core and recruited a variety of muscles through my hips and glutes. About two-thirds of the way through the class, we let our legs slow down and added a few sets of exercises to tone our upper bodies with light weights.
“It’s a dance party on a bike” is the studio’s tagline, and I heard it from more than one employee. I left feeling like I had worked every major muscle group in my body, though not really like I had ridden a bike at all. The dark studio has no clocks or cycling computers, leaving me free to focus solely on my movement and the constant encouragement of my instructor, who never once mentioned that I must be awfully awkward at dance parties.
The lobby of High Ride is bright and welcoming, invoking a community vibe that is important to co-owner Megan Hanson. She was the one waiting behind the front desk to size me for shoes and help fit my bike. Hanson, who is partners with her husband, Scott, emphasized that she wants her instructors to know the students’ names, and that everyone is welcome. A few regulars even ride along and enjoy the vibe without attempting the dance moves.
265 St. Paul St., Denver
Where: 265 St. Paul St., 720-400-8500, soul-cycle.com/studios/co-denver
When: Classes offered daily at varying times. Earliest is 6 a.m., latest 6:30 p.m.
Cost: Drop-in is $28. Super Soul packages ($3,500 for 50 classes) allow you to reserve your bike up to six months in advance and give you top priority on wait lists and invitations for exclusive events.
Shoes: Cycling shoes are required ($3 rental). If you use your own, they must have Look Delta or SPD cleats.
First-time cost: $20
Classes per week: 42
Length: 45-60 minutes
Studios: 92 nationwide
Temperature: 72 degrees
Reservations required: yes
Extras: showers, combination lockers, free towels, toiletries
Best for: those who crave an emotional experience as much as a calorie count; those who thrive off of community; those who want permission to cry and scream in front of strangers
Less for: those who enjoy personal space; those who like a quantifiable workout and tracking progress; those suspicious of candles and crystals
I had never before heard a fitness instructor say “reach fearlessly for support” when encouraging me to turn up the resistance on a high-intensity workout. Then again, I had never before been to SoulCycle.
The cycling room is dimly lit, with computerless bikes packed pedal-to-pedal and seat-to-bars. One wall was mirrored, but between the darkness and the crowd, it would be quite a trick to actually catch a critical glimpse of yourself. Regardless, my instructor, Dylan-with-the-super-shiny-nose-ring, was quite adamant that our focus should remain on emotions and sensation rather than measurements or appearance.
Most of the workout was standing up, and it included a variety of position shifts and core-stabilizing moves set to a diverse music selection, as well as a brief hand-weight session. Wrapped up in the challenge of keeping up with the quick choreography and entranced by the intense studio atmosphere, I only lost focus twice: once, to wonder if the miniature fans I finally spotted by the front door were even on, and a second time to speculate about the origins of an array of crystals that surrounded the instructor podium. Both times, Dylan called me back, crying, “What do you feel in your heart?”
It all sounded absurd. It was absurd, absolutely absurd, but upsettingly, I couldn’t help but have a spectacular time. I finished with absolutely no way of quantifying my workout. I didn’t know if I was dripping sweat because the room was hot or because I was working hard or because I had been sucked into some SoulCycle “sympathy sweat” vortex with my classmates. Thrillingly, I didn’t actually care.
I didn’t care, that is, until I contacted SoulCycle, as I did with every studio, to get the temperature setting in the class. I was routed to a PR representative who then declined to answer the question. Searching “SoulCycle temperature” online only turned up speculation that classes were tough because of the heat, not because of the workout. What made me determined to discover that number was the fact that they wouldn’t tell me.
SoulCycle is not an overtly competitive community. Unfortunately for them, I am an extremely competitive person and could see only one solution. I was going to have to return to SoulCycle, and this time, I would be armed with a thermometer.
The exclusive scoop? The Denver SoulCycle room was 72 degrees. Please tell everyone you know.
SoulCycle’s hallway and waiting area are crowded, with small signs posted in each locker to remind potentially blissed-out riders that the space is indeed co-ed (separate individual shower and changing rooms are available). Despite holding more than 50 sweaty bodies on both of my visits, the entire studio maintained the distinctively fruity-citrus aroma of a Jamba Juice.
Come to think of it, I bet they wouldn’t tell me how they do that either, so it’s possible I will have to go back a third time. Not because I’m hooked or anything. Just, you know, for science.
1230 W. 38th Ave.
Where: 1230 W. 38th Ave., 720-287-2083, (six other locations within 25 miles of Denver, with two more to open soon), lohi.cyclebar.com
When: Classes offered daily at varying times. Earliest is 5:30 a.m., latest 6:30 p.m.
Cost: Drop-in, $25; monthly unlimited, $169; membership can be used at LoHi, the Tech Center, and the soon-to-open Union Station location
Shoes: free to rent or bring your own cycling shoes with either Look Delta or SPD cleats
Class length: 45-60 minutes
First-time cost: $10 (free water bottle)
Studios: Franchise; 185 nationwide
Classes per week: 36 (LoHi location) with more to be added soon
Extras: showers, combination lockers, free towels, toiletries
Best for: those who crave challenge, stimulation and community; those who like a fast-paced and constantly changing workout; those who like feedback and an ability to track progress but don’t want workout stats to be the centerpiece of their experience
Less for: those interested in a workout that will translate to traditional cycling; those overwhelmed by extra-fast movements; those who prefer a larger changing area
The CycleBar schedule boasts a tantalizing array of options, from the traditional Classic, Connect and Performance options to themed rides like Wine Down Wednesday, Happy Hour, Sunday Brunch and mysterious specialty classes like “Hotlanta,” “Hip Hop into Spring” and “Queen vs. Beyonce.”
“Our studio is about community and fun,” said Lisa Locker, owner of the LoHi, Tech Center and soon-to-open Union Station locations. That community, she let slip, includes John Elway. John Elway, in — allegedly — white bike shorts.
I opted to go for a classic class, but it was far from an average ride. The CycleBar bike computers may have the full suite of pro-level metrics — including power, heart rate and time — but the first direction from my instructor, Allie, was to focus just on cadence (that’s the speed of your spin, measured in rotations per minute).
She meant it. With the lights dimmed in the spacious, stadium-style studio and the remixed pop tunes cranking, she soon encouraged us to pedal as quickly as we possibly could: “Get that number above 110, above 120!” A typical riding-along number for a trained cyclist would be 80-100. “HUP, Denver!”
Here is what I know: Consistently spinning your legs at 120 rpms is something that would virtually never happen in a real-life cycling situation. Physiologically, it spikes your heart rate, but it won’t do much for leg strength or a sustained calorie burn. Nonetheless, spinning wildly with red lights flashing and music pulsing felt frivolous and fun and left me with a wide-eyed, breathless high. I did wonder idly if that light-headed thrill might create a concussion risk for riders who got too enthusiastic about the “Nose to your bars!” cue during rapid-fire push-up intervals.
Much of the class was spent standing, with intervals and movement patterns smartly choreographed song by song. The second half of the class included a brief session with a weighted bar and a lower-cadence simulated hill climb. As the session went on, I discovered an additional benefit to the cadence display. Allie tended to announce each song’s beats-per-minute to the class. That meant that if I couldn’t find the rhythm myself (likely), I could still blend with the group if I buried my nose in my monitor — though this did mean that I missed a few of Allie’s mesmerizingly precise, over-the-head, ponytail-flip sequences.
The atmosphere was social and chatty in the close-quarters atrium and locker area. (The studio is equipped with separate shower and bathroom stalls.) Employees stood ready when I arrived to help me check in, size my shoes, and adjust my bike. The community vibe carried over into the CycleTheater™, where displays showed statistics for the group as a whole rather than a head-to-head leaderboard, and we were encouraged to work together to boost the stats.
After class, I got an immediate email that congratulated me on rocking my ride (thank you), gave me data to tracking my class-to-class performance, and contained a link to Allie’s Spotify playlist in case I wanted to “keep the inspiration going.” It also gave me my class rank, revealing that not everything was collaborative as it seemed at CycleBar. It turns out that I had been part of a competition I did not realize was going on, and I did not win. This, above all other things, makes me want to return to CycleBar.
2823 Larimer St. and 4433 W. 29th Ave.
Where: 2823 Larimer St., and 4433 W. 29th Ave., 303-416-4907, epicryde.com
When: Classes offered daily at varying times. Earliest is 5:30 a.m., latest 6:30 p.m.
Cost: drop-in, $25; monthly unlimited $130; full year $999
Shoes: $5 rental (call ahead to reserve size); use your own shoes with SPD cleats, or toe clips are available if you prefer to use sneakers
First-time cost: $30 for 20 days unlimited
Classes per week: 31 (RiNo location); cycling, TRX and circuit training classes available
Length: 45-60 minutes
Studios: two; third opening soon
Temperature: 66 (we opened the door during our class to let in fresh air)
Reservations: recommended for popular classes
Extras: full locker room and toiletries; bring your own towel and lock
Best for: those interested in a strategic, challenging ride that will translate well for outdoor fitness; those who are goal-oriented; those who know all of the words to Madonna’s greatest hits
Less for: those looking for a constantly-changing, multisensory workout experience; those not particularly interested in building cycling-specific fitness; those who have a strong opposition to bike shorts
“If you would not do it on your bike outdoors, you will not do it on our indoor bikes,” Lori Melchior, founder of Epic Ryde, promised me. Accordingly, the class I attended included no push-ups, no hand weights, and no side-to-side, back-to-front choreography. It did, however, include a disco ball, because the session I picked was a sell-out, twice-a-week themed workout called “Guilty Pleasures Karaoke.”
It’s one thing to have your pedal stroke choreographed to the beat, but you can hit a whole different motivation level when Aretha (accompanied by the rest of the class) croons at you to turn up the resistance “just a little bit.” We were encouraged to stand or sit, as we preferred, throughout the class. I discovered that it’s not a bad middle-of-the-week activity to count how many Larimer Street evening pedestrians can get past Epic Ryde’s glass garage-door storefront without singing along.
The cheerful yellow interior of Epic Ryde has a minimalist, industrial aesthetic. The bikes are all equipped with computers that provide power, cadence, heart rate and speed data, and are laid out on a steep stadium slope that gives every participant a clear view of the instructor’s podium. Epic Ryde was founded with a passion for outdoor cycling, says Melchior, and aims to give its Ryders a workout that will pay off outside the gym.
Even the karaoke ride has an exercise-science basis. The bulk of an endurance athlete’s training plan is made of low-to-moderate intensity miles, which help build strength, efficiency and (should you be interested in such things) also provide the best fat-burning opportunity. Coaches describe that target effort zone as one in which you are working, but could still comfortably have a conversation. And, as my instructor, Peggy, pointed out, “If you can talk, you can sing.”
1900 17th St.
Where: 1900 17th St., 720-440-5132, flywheelsports.com
When: Classes offered daily at varying times. Earliest is 5:45 a.m., latest 6:30 p.m.
Cost: drop-in, $28; monthly unlimited membership $250 a month
Shoes: provided for free or use your own cycling-specific shoes with either SPD or Look Delta cleats
First-time cost: first class free for new riders
Classes per week: 35
Length: 45-60 minutes
Studios: 42 nationwide
Studio temperature: Denver studio 65-68; national chain reports 65-75
Extras: Full locker room, combination lockers, free towels, toiletries, fruit
Best for: those motivated by competition; those who want to measure results and progress in a non-traditional cycling atmosphere; those who don’t like having to pay for bananas
Less for: those who prefer less structure; those turned off by data; those who enjoy a more self-guided fitness experience
Flywheel has discovered my two greatest weaknesses: a bowl of free fruit and competition.
Two large screens loom at the front of the Flywheel cycle “stadium.” At opportune moments, they morph into the Torqboard, a real-time window into riders’ stats that revealed who was winning the fitness class. (Don’t worry: You can opt out of the public Torqboard when you register for class.) The display included a countdown clock, helping us keep track of exactly how many seconds were left as we pushed through a tough interval.
I arrived tired at Flywheel that day, but as soon as the screens lit up, I forgot about everything else except for an inexplicable need to win the Torqboard. I didn’t just want to beat my stranger-classmates. I needed to destroy them. To her credit, my instructor, Jen, deployed the board only strategically, when we might be in need of extra motivation. Nonetheless, I am quite certain I have not been tricked into riding a bike that hard since I raced professionally and got paid to compete.
While my class involved more time seated and more conventional high-intensity cycling intervals than at some of the other boutique studios, the majority still took place standing, with rhythmic, full-body maneuvers, flashing colored lights, and a brief arm-strength session with a lightly weighted bar. Jen was upbeat without being overbearing and provided a frequent “LEFT, right, LEFT, right,” metronome in an effort to help us keep up with a fast-paced, remixed, workout-hits playlist.
The stadium is a vast, tiered rotunda, with ample space between bikes and clear view lines to the instructor’s podium. The bikes are equipped with computers, but rather than use standard power measurements that are generally expressed in watts and kilojoules, Flywheel uses Torq (resistance), cadence (leg speed) and current (energy output at a certain point in time). This proprietary system made it tough to compare my performance in my Flywheel class to any past cycling workouts. Why they chose this system — and where on earth those numbers came from — was not something the studio representatives could explain. Efforts to get that information from company higher-ups proved similarly fruitless.
The studio itself was full of creative touches, like a wall of numbered pockets where we could retrieve our pre-requested shoes. There was plenty of staff on hand to help size me to my bike, and they explained that my fit numbers would be recorded in my file so that the next time I arrived, my bike would be personalized before I walked in the door.