In a small gym on the fifth floor of the Sarasota Modern Hotel, I adjusted the seat of the Peloton bike—the $2,000-plus indoor exercise bike with a touchscreen monitor that streams workout videos for a $39 monthly subscription fee. As someone who prefers outdoor cycling with no subscription plan, I was puzzled by Peloton’s cultish following. The company, founded in 2012, has sold 400,000 bikes, has a million users and is taking steps to go public. I thought of bygone fitness fads—Suzanne Somers’ Thighmaster, the NordicTrack and Richard Simmons. Would this be any different?
Comfortably settled in my saddle, I created a user account. I plugged in my email and chose the dumbest username I could think of, CoolGuy69. Then it was time to choose my class and instructor. My touchscreen alerted me to a live class in an hour, but I didn’t want to wait. I scrolled through the available classes in stock. They ranged from 20-45 minutes. The thumbnail photos of instructors for each class show attractive trainers whose sweat and teeth glisten with equal wattage. I read through classes with names like “Discover Your Power Zones” with Matt and “45 Minute Low Impact Ride” with Denis. I chose “30 Minute Black History Ride” with Jess King. Jess was white with dark red hair and a green bandana wrapped around her forehead. Behind her were silhouettes of people pedaling.
Jess looked me square in the eyes. It was unnerving. She didn’t blink once. Over the next 30 minutes she yelled positive New Age slogans while Donna Summers and Destiny’s Child soundtracked our workout. “We’re not here to compete,” Jess implored. “We’re here to unleash.”
Overlaying the video screen were moving numbers. On the left was a notification that congratulated someone named “Janice” for taking classes 45 days in a row. The bottom of the screen lists the rider’s “Cadence,” “Output” and “Resistance.” When Jess asked me to “give it all you got,” she gave me a range to aim for. I adjusted the knob in front of me to increase the resistance, pedal faster to have the proper cadence and create the desired output. Then her vocabulary became revolutionary: “We are all in this together, united!”
On the right side of my screen were the other 2,093 people who attended the class with me. Even though this was a prerecorded session, my numbers ranked me relative to everyone else taking the class. As I pedaled harder I watched my name rise over other users like BradNeedsAbs40 and Alwaysinbluejeans.
Sweat soaked my shirt. If I had been working out by myself, I probably would have taken it easy the rest of the way. But there was Jess. She wouldn’t let me give up, and there was the leaderboard to keep me in check. “Don’t be shy,” Jess told me. “Be brave.”
I finished in 96th place and burned 515 calories. My legs felt like jelly and exercise dopamine washed over me. Jess kept pedaling, slowly, and broke eye contact for the first time. She put her hands together in prayer, raised them to her forehead and closed her eyes. “We are all born whole,” Jess said, pedaling still.
By the end, I was too exhausted to be cynical and I felt good about myself in spite of my best efforts not to. Jess’s positivity was infectious. And, I was alone. Even if I wasn’t No. 1 on the leaderboard, there was no one around to judge me. Peloton’s allure was clear, but I’m still $2,000 short to become a member.