Battle of the Indoor Cycling Giants

Entrance to a SoulCycle studio
Richard Levine/Getty Images

Unless you’ve just arrived from a distant galaxy, you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz about SoulCycle, the indoor cycling franchise that has taken the country by storm. Celebrities like Katie Holmes, Kelly Ripa, Jake Gyllenhaal, and soccer star David Beckham swear by it. (Some fans and observers have even described it as having cult status.)

But what you may not know is this: SoulCycle’s biggest competitor is another indoor cycling franchise called Flywheel, which was started by one of SoulCycle’s founders. (For the record, Flywheel has its own celebrity followers including Jonathan Bennett, Sofia Vergara, Jimmy Fallon, and tough celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels.)

So you might think that the two indoor cycling brands would be carbon copies of each other. But that’s simply not true. Sure, they both have their own brand of bikes and offer 45-to-60 minute classes in dark studios with pulse-pounding music; and yes, they both offer online reservations and shoe rental on site, as well as complimentary towels. But the similarities stop there.

Here’s a look at how the two indoor cycling giants stack up against each other.

  • The instruction: There’s no warm-up but the instructors often ask cyclists to think about why they’re there, what their intention is (a nice coaching touch). During the ride, the instructors often tell participants to ride to the beat or watch the instructor’s legs to gauge pace.

  • The instruction: Highly motivating, clear and easy to understand, though no attention is paid to correcting individual riders' form (instructors tend to stay on the bike throughout the ride).


The atmosphere: Expect to find rows of dozens of bikes lined up very close together (packed like sardines, really) to simulate riding in a pack in a warm, darkened studio. It's cozy, to say the least. Mood lighting helps create a pseudo-spiritual vibe, thanks in part to the soft glow of candles on the instructor’s platform.

The bikes: They offer a smooth, comfortable ride but don’t provide any feedback (in terms of pace, watts, or other power metrics) or measure resistance. So your intensity is all about how you feel.

The music: Fast-tempo beats that motivate you to push those pedals quickly and lose yourself in the music. But the volume is extremely loud (there’s a reason free foam earplugs are offered when you first walk in—you’re going to need them!).

The instruction: They spend about half the time off the bike, which can be good if an instructor connects with riders, spurs them on, and corrects their form. But often the female instructors simply watch their own moves in the mirror, whipping their hair provocatively, or they prance around the room. It's more exer-tainment and DJ'ing than instruction on indoor cycling. At the end of the class, don't be surprised if the instructor cheers for the riders and raises his or her water bottle in a toast, creating a nice moment of camaraderie.

The workout: For the most part, a fast pace is the name of the game here. Riders are encouraged to pedal as fast as possible, often with little resistance on the bike, even while doing gyrations such as push-ups, tap-backs, and standing isolation exercises—all of which are taboo, according to indoor-cycling purists. Truth be told, performing push-ups in a seated position isn’t a big deal but they’re really just gimmicky since you’re not working against gravity; when you’re coached to do them in a standing position, however, with side-to-side leans in between, that’s just a recipe for disaster (as in a possible injury).

In many classes, you’ll see lots of bouncing in the saddle by participants and the instructor—a sure sign of too little resistance, too much speed, and bad form on the bike. Toward the end of the workout, you’ll be asked to do upper body exercises using small hand weights while continuing to pedal; besides setting new riders up for injury, the moves aren’t likely to produce any real benefits because the weights are simply too light. At the end of the class, there's a bit of stretching, done on the bike—yet another unsafe move that's not likely to enhance flexibility or prevent muscle soreness later.

How you’ll feel after: Drenched in sweat, which can make you feel like you had a great workout. All that fast pedaling in such a warm studio, with fellow cyclists in such close proximity, turns the workout into an unbelievable sweat-fest. But ultimately it’s not a particularly challenging workout in terms of building strength, stamina or overall fitness. The rides are really like revving your motor in neutral, in a slightly frenetic fashion. That's why some people feel mildly disappointed after a class as if they saw a highly acclaimed movie that didn't quite live up to its rep.

Details: Classes start at about $30 or higher apiece; you can buy packages of classes for a slightly discounted rate (they expire within 45 days to a year). SoulCycle studios are located throughout New York, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, the Washington, D.C.-area, Texas, and in Miami and Chicago.


The atmosphere: The sleek, state-of-the-art studios feature a dimly lit, tiered stadium layout that feels like a bit like a nightclub with dozens of well-spaced bikes. (The setting feels downright spacious compared to SoulCycle studios.) Toward the front of the theater-like space, a Torqboard display and ranks riders’ performance (you can choose to participate in this offering or not)—this is a feature that sets Flywheel apart. If you opt out, the computer on your bike will provide readings of your resistance (a.k.a., torque), cadence (RPMs), total energy, and current and overall power output. Fortunately, the Torqboard lights up only occasionally during the workout so that competitive types don’t become obsessed with winning this virtual competition.

The bikes: They offer a comfortable ride that’s as smooth as melted butter. Each bike is equipped with a torque meter that doesn’t lie; you’ll know exactly how hard you’re working by glancing at the numbers on the computer screen. As Ruth Zukerman, co-founder and creative director of Flywheel, says, “Flywheel was the first to incorporate innovative on-bike and in-studio technology to help take the guesswork out of indoor cycling.” It's pretty cool.

The music: Upbeat, fast-tempo music (mixes are common) that’s motivating and energizing so that you'll pedal at a brisk pace. The volume is perfectly reasonable—you can hear the instructor’s cues clearly and you don’t need earplugs to protect your hearing.

The instruction: Fortunately, they don’t ask riders to do anything unsafe or taboo; they seem to really want to help you get what you came for, namely, a challenging workout that’s designed for athletes (real and aspiring ones). While some instructors alternate between coaching and acting like DJ's (complete with grooving on the bike), others have really mastered the art of serving as an inspiring coach and trainer.

The workout: It’s a hardcore interval workout that simulates an outdoor ride with speed surges, sprints, simulated races, hill climbs, and other real-life scenarios. Rather than being an aerobic workout with odd gyrations on the bike, the Flywheel ride feels genuine. Pushing power and expanding your comfort zone (along with your fitness level) are the goals, and they're satisfying ones, especially if you get caught up in the momentum of the ride and the competition. The energy often becomes palpable in the studio, as each cyclist strives to achieve his or her own personal best. Toward the end of the cycling workout, riders are encouraged to pick up a weighted bar that’s nestled into the frame of the bike for an upper body workout.

Because you’re using two hands to do bicep curls or chest presses or triceps extensions while continuing to pedal, there’s less risk of injury than with lifting light dumbbells with each hand but the weight is so light that the moves aren’t likely to do much to build upper body strength. There's a brief bout of stretching at the end of the class but not much; to prevent soreness and stiffness later, you'd benefit from doing more stretching exercises on your own after leaving the studio.

How you’ll feel after: Tired (and drenched) but probably upbeat and satisfied as if you’ve accomplished something as an athlete (which you have!). As an extra perk, your performance metrics from each ride are saved in your Flywheel profile, which is accessible online or on an app for iPhones, making it easy to track your progress over time. Ultimately, that's the best approach—to strive to improve upon your own performance from one workout to the next.

Details: Generally classes start at about $28; you can buy packages of classes for a slightly discounted rate (they expire in a year). Some Flywheel studios offer longer classes (90 minutes) or shorter ones (30 minutes) as well as FlyBarre workouts (body-sculpting classes that rely on light weights and core-strengthening exercises). Flywheel studios are located throughout New York, Florida, California, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, as well as in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

So there you have it—an inside look at how these two indoor-cycling franchises compare. Chances are, you'll find cyclists who are fiercely loyal to one venue or the other (it seems relatively rare for people to alternate between the two). But that's not a bad thing—everyone should have a choice for where to get his or her cycle-groove on—and at least people tend to keep coming back for more at SoulCycle or Flywheel.

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