Before Peloton There Was Spinning®: How 2 Guys Named John Birthed the Unwieldy Fitness Trend

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Before Peloton There Was Spinning®: How 2 Guys Named John Birthed the Unwieldy Fitness Trend

In 2014, FiveThirtyEight published a story by Mona Chalabi titled “Why Women Don’t Cycle,” examining studies that attempted to answer the baffling question of why a gender gap exists among outdoor cycling enthusiasts. The article found a number of wide-ranging answers, including cost, safety, fashion, and convenience. Women didn’t cycle outdoors because they could be attacked or because bikes couldn’t haul both children and groceries. Bikes are expensive and, as the article so eloquently states, “women earn less than men.” This gap has closed somewhat—according to a report from fitness tracking app Strava, more women are biking outside during the pandemic. But though women may not have been biking in the streets, they were cycling their hearts out en masse indoors at studios like SoulCycle or FlyWheel.

Walk into any cycling studio today and more likely than not the instructor, front desk attendant, and cyclist next to you is a woman. While outdoor cycling may have been seen as a male-dominated sport, in the last decade, indoor cycling has become the domain of women, a stronghold that has transcended exercise trends and is now situated in something akin to women’s lifestyle. But that wasn’t yet the case in 1991 when two guys, coincidentally both named John, opened their first commercial cycling studio in Los Angeles and started what would be one of the longest-running trends to come out of the ’90s.

In the last decade, indoor cycling has become the domain of women

Before there was a multibillion-dollar indoor cycling industry with every kind of theme class one can imagine, there was Spinning. Spinning—the exercise method, the most replicated style of bike, and the specific pedagogy—was created in 1991, during a partnership between elite cyclist Johnny Goldberg and entrepreneur John Baudhuin.

Goldberg birthed the modern-day style of cycling almost by accident. In 1989, he was training for the Race Across America. But his wife was pregnant, and as a compromise to keep him home more, Goldberg rigged one of his bikes to be stationary so he could maintain his training without leaving his kitchen. That one kitchen bike attracted Goldberg’s fellow riders, who started taking turns testing out Goldberg’s new rig. The visits became so frequent that he eventually opened up a tiny studio to help more cyclists train at once and get all of them out of his kitchen.

The two Johns met serendipitously in California after Goldberg had opened his first studio in Santa Monica. Baudhuin was working full time and going for his MBA and came up against a common foe of fitness enthusiasts: there just wasn’t enough time to train. “It was really difficult to fit in workouts, especially if you want to go out on the road in LA,” he told Jezebel in a call. “It was always a time constraint.”

He first met Goldberg at his studio, where he was working to train other elite cyclists by teaching classes in a room filled with stationary bikes. “Johnny was a trainer and a coach,” Baudhuin says, “but he was also training for the race across America.” To train for the grueling ride, “you really need to spend probably no fewer than eight hours a day on the bike” However, the bikes that Goldberg was using for training, which Baudhuin described as “basically just bikes,” and didn’t “work out for what the exercise was.”

While the Johns’ Spinning classes are largely responsible for the current cult status of indoor cycling, the exercise itself is quite old. The first stationary bike, the Gymnasticon, was invented in 1796. It was an enormous contraption that required the rider to sit upright in order to move two huge wheels using both the arms and the legs. The stationary bikes of the late ’80s, designed for the casual at-home user and weren’t made to accommodate high-speeds and copious pedaling that the Johns needed to properly train for road cycling year-round. Some bikes featured handles that moved, similar to the modern-day assault bikes found in CrossFits and gym franchises the world over. But the Johns needed a bike that would allow students to simulate changing road terrain and stable enough to not shake or tip when riders increased their speed. So they started building bikes in their respective garages, and in 1992 the first Spinner bike was born.

Photo:Courtesy of Mad Dogg Athletics Inc.

The design of the original Spinner serves as the blueprint for bikes used in classes today. The weighted front wheel (known as a flywheel), the shape of the handlebars, and the compact frame solved the problems of bringing an outdoor workout into the home. The flywheel, arguably the most important component on any stationary bike, limits the wheel’s rotation and allows for heavy resistance. Even the bright yellow color feels incredibly familiar to anyone who’s ridden on a SoulCycle bike circa 2006.

What neither man could have possibly imagined was that indoor cycling would transcend cycling altogether, becoming more status symbol than fitness activity

Though the Johns trademarked the term Spinning long before it became shorthand for the workout, as with all great things, there are more and more offshoots presenting themselves as the one true way. Like Kronos eating his own children, indoor cycling brings down one group to create another. In the early 2000s, SoulCycle was perched at the top of the proverbial mountain, and now Peloton reigns supreme. According to Baudhuin, though, there is intra-cycling beef. “We filed a lawsuit against Peloton for patent infringement for a product we built in 2009,” he said, “that was essentially a bike, the coaching, and so forth.” (The suit is still ongoing.)

Originally, the Johns wanted what they were doing outdoors to translate indoors, helping other elite cyclists train year-round. But Baudhuin says he knew from the first class that Goldberg had created something special, something that could potentially change not just elite cycling but fitness as a whole. What neither man could have possibly imagined—indeed, what neither of them wanted—was that indoor cycling would transcend cycling altogether,
becoming more status symbol than fitness activity, particularly for the thin, white, affluent women who flock to it. As Baudhuin opined on a call, what can kill any exercise program is “the minute it becomes elitist or overly complicated.”

Bernadette Sidney is a Spinning Master Instructor based in California with eight Ironmans under her belt, who remembers when “Spinning was just beginning to be really big.” Before the birth of her second child in 1997, Sidney was a dance instructor and looking to drop the baby weight quickly after she gave birth. “Everyone was talking about this Spinning thing, so I wanted to try it,” she said on a call with Jezebel. “I really wanted to lose weight fast.” Sidney fell in love with Spinning because of its endurance component, which she said paved the way for her to compete in Ironman. Eventually, she became an instructor and worked her way up to Master Instructor level, mainly so she could go to a Spinning convention in 1999 for free.

Despite the original intention of the Johns in creating a universal exercise that could be done by men and women equally, indoor cycling is blatantly marketed towards women by other women. Who can forget the now-iconic Peloton Christmas commercial where a timid woman is gifted a Peloton and, with the help of a pedaling montage and inspiring one-liners from Robin Arzon, blossoms into a confident and fit Peloton Wife? Something that is just an exercise is now somehow sold off as an empowerment ritual, and thousands, myself included, are more than happy to throw down some money to cycle and cry to a soundtrack crafted by someone whose job it is to both empower you and remind you that you’re not good enough to stop attending classes.

Sidney talks about Spinning with a fondness reserved for beloved high school sweethearts. “The bike is an instrument to connect you with your soul and your body and your energy,” she says. “It’s about getting in tune within yourself, really finding yourself within the bike. It was more about soul searching.”

By the time Sidney had come to love Spinning in ’97, the two Johns had been on a slow but steady rise to the top of the fitness industry. In 1995 indoor cycling was featured in Rolling Stone’s hotlist as the hot new exercise of the moment, only a year after Goldberg and Baudhuin started their company, Mad Dogg Athletics Inc. The Johns had transitioned from teaching a few classes a day out of a garage to a serious studio in Los Angeles, where Goldberg was teaching more and more people the gospel of Spinning. In 1994, under the Mad Dogg umbrella, the Johns created the Spin instructor certification program, allowing for more teachers to work at the studio and host more classes. The training program for elite cyclists morphed, slowly but surely, into a fitness craze for everyone.

The training program for elite cyclists morphed, slowly but surely, into a fitness craze for everyone

Both the Spinning method and the Spinner bike really found their stride, according to Baudhuin, when Doug Levine, founder of Crunch Gyms, took a class with Goldberg in LA. “He took a class and fell in love with it,” Baudhuin said. Levine asked if Baudhuin and Goldberg could make more Spinner bikes for his New York studio, marking their first “real bike sale to a club” in 1993. Before the internet and social media fitness influencers, Levine’s connections played a similar role. Levine promoted Spinning to the major players in publications in the fitness industry. It was the partnership with Crunch Gyms that ultimately made the leap to national fitness craze possible.

Baudhuin and Goldberg produced 200 bikes before the demand became too much, and they licensed the design to Schwinn to handle their distribution.

While indoor cycling is now packaged as a more feminine activity with boutique studios filled to the brim with mostly young fit white women, Baudhuin always saw it as a universal activity. “It was very gender neutral since there were no real barriers to trying a class.” Sidney, who used to teach classes in LA at five in the morning, noted that early classes were usually dominated by “Type A individuals or athletes,” both men and women. She did, however, have some insight as to why current-day indoor cycling has become more popular with women. “The Spinning program is for road cyclists. So a lot of these guys that teach or train outdoors won’t come into an indoor cycling class because they think it’s the dumbest thing,” she said. Men would walk into her class and be shocked to find she was teaching pure cycling. Those same men, still viewed indoor cycling as a watered-down version of their own routine, especially after the meteoric rise of SoulCycle after 2006.

However, SoulCycle is not so distant as Spinning practitioners
might like to think. While the average SoulCycle class is designed to be an emotional purge as well as a sweat session, Spinning, by Sidney’s description, also delves into the emotional deep end. “Spinning incorporates your heart, your feelings, your emotions, your passion,” she said. “That’s what I got from it more than anything. It made me feel good about myself. Even though I was going for the losing of the weight, I found all the things that were really good that made me deal with my own life. We dealt with stuff that I was fearing because Spinning, you know, you can [work] your fears out [with] it.”

Sidney, who was on her bike the first time we spoke, also believes that were it not for the method she learned in the ’90s, indoor cycling would not be where it is today. “Spinning was more based on making cycling more of a mind and body connection, almost like doing yoga. But…there’s a purpose that you have for every workout, whether it’s one of the five energy zones or five movements, and with that method, there’s a pattern to be followed, a structure. People strive for structure.”

They’re expected to emerge from that dark room with all the strength and confidence needed to get through the remainder of their day

Whether practicing at home or in a studio, most cycling enthusiasts make a similar argument: it isn’t just a class. It’s sold as a reprieve from the challenges of a woman’s life: the one-hour most women get to not deal with their kids, not look at their phones, and perhaps most importantly, not exist in the world of men. They’re expected to emerge from that dark room with all the strength and confidence needed to get through the remainder of their day, even if that room was tainted by a predatory instructor. But really, all it is, and all it’s ever been, is a way to squeeze in more exercise. The rest is just window dressing.

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