WASHINGTON — The promise of SoulCycle is that you can do anything.
On a bike at the boutique cycling studio chain, which started in New York, you're told you can climb the steepest hill imaginable. You can power through another 30-second sprint. You can pump out biceps curls no matter how much your muscles protest. And — thanks to the brand's massive celebrity following — you can do it next to the most famous people on the planet.
So, of course, when SoulCycle opened its first location in the District of Columbia, this characteristic positivity was on display, despite construction delays. Even people who'd signed up for classes that were subsequently canceled were utterly upbeat. Neal McKinney, 27, of Washington, had purchased a new outfit to attend what he thought would be the chain's D.C. debut. Instead of sounding upset, he said that with the extra time, he could maybe also buy a pair of cycling shoes.
McKinney was introduced to SoulCycle in New York by his ex-partner. After getting hooked on the workout, he sampled several cycling studios closer to home. But none of them compared. At one, he remembers thinking, "What is this? I'm not even sweating." So McKinney would be ready whenever SoulCycle was ready.
I, on the other hand, was antsy. But sure enough, I arrived before my scheduled 5:30 p.m. class to find doors open and decorated with giant yellow balloons. A sleek check-in counter offered hand sanitizer, hair ties and earplugs. All around were neat racks of apparel and assorted gear bearing the circular SoulCycle logo.
The only hint that they were scrambling to get ready was the hum of vacuuming coming from the back.
"Do you know which bike you're on?" (Each of the 57 bikes is numbered so clients can reserve seats, like at the theater.)
"Do you need shoes?" (Everyone must don cycling-specific footwear that clips into the pedals. For first-timers, a rental is free. After that, it's $3 per class.)
"Do you want water?" (Bottles are $2 for a small, $3 for a large.)
Mood-setting music (played at a volume that explained those earplugs) blared as students were shuffled into the coed locker area. Off to one side is the women's bathroom, with toilets, showers and privacy. (The men's room, on the opposite side, apparently offers the same.)
Inside the studio, Sophia Cantizano had already saddled up. The 20-year-old Columbia University student is home for the summer and thrilled that her favorite workout is in town now, too, although she admitted that the steep $30-per-class charge will require some budget-tightening.
The even more daunting figure to me, however, was "4." That's what was printed on Cantizano's bike in the front row of the room. She had chosen it specifically to be near the instructor. "All of them are so inspirational," she gushed.
But with that proximity to power comes pressure. Before coming to class, I spoke with Janne Clare, another SoulCycle obsessive. The president of operations for Washington's Modus Hotels regularly travels to New York to get her workout fix. Her two major pieces of advice were that you have to book classes at precisely noon on Monday, as soon as signups begin, and that bike position matters.
Sitting up front, she explained, means you're a leader to everyone behind you. So Clare had never budged beyond the second row, although she planned to move up for a class she'd scheduled just for her employees. "It's my city and my studio. I've got to be in the front row," Clare said.
Thankfully, my bike — 34 — was situated in the middle of the room. So I breathed easy as other dozens of women and a handful of guys filed in and found their spots. When anyone showed the slightest sign of confusion, employees in yellow tank tops rushed over to help adjust bike seats and handlebars.
Everyone looked ready when instructor Megan Kelly arrived and proclaimed, "I feel like we've been waiting forever for this!" She asked first-timers to raise their hands, and a forest of palms shot up. Her reaction? "That is so cool."
Kelly dimmed the lights, drawing attention to the candles flickering beside her, then quickly demonstrated the hand positions she'd be using during class. As we started to ride, she wanted us feeling "nice and neutral." "Nod your head," she requested. "Close your eyes. See what you want and don't give up until you get it."
Each tune on the thumping soundtrack welcomed a different challenge. Kelly urged us to maintain our cadence despite spinning the resistance knob to the right. ("Turn it not just because you can, but because you want to!") We leaned forward on the handlebars to do pushups as we pedaled. We rose up and down. We sprinted. We climbed.
On the second-to-last song, we grabbed a set of dumbbells and pushed our way through an upper-body toning routine. For veteran SoulCyclers, that's the sign that all that remains in the 45-minute class is a final chance to drain any leftover stamina, and then stretch.
People were panting as Kelly announced she had one extra assignment for us: Sing "Happy Birthday." It was for Joanne Peck, of Washington, who was seated on a bike in the back of the room.
After class, Peck said this had been a memorable way to mark turning 65. "It's been a long day for me and not in a good way. So this was a release. I feel revived," said Peck, who had unwittingly followed a popular celebrity trend. (Lady Gaga, Lena Dunham and Oprah Winfrey have all held SoulCycle birthday parties.)
But Peck wasn't the only student celebrating. Diana Ellis, 26, had driven from Philadelphia with friends to keep up her streak of attending SoulCycle openings. This was her sixth.
"Sometimes I push myself so hard I cry," said Ellis, who can't get enough of the classes. (There's no SoulCycle in Philly.) For a novice crowd, she deemed the D.C. experience just right. Once everyone grows more comfortable with the choreography, she said, instructors will throw in more complex moves.
After posing for photos with Ellis and other sweaty students, Kelly joined the gathering that had formed on the sidewalk. People signed up for later classes were excitedly milling about.
"I'm just blown away right now," Kelly said. She spent a year teaching at SoulCycle in Los Angeles, but this was a new kind of energy, she noted. And that bodes well for the D.C. SoulCycle team's next job: building a community.