I Joined a Stationary-Biker Gang

Peloton aficionados say the latest exercise craze gives them a sense of community they sorely missed.

Bob Jacobson / Getty / The Atlantic

Robin Arzon works a crowd like Ariana Grande making a surprise appearance at your local mega-church. Last May, she bounded onto the stage of New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom to “All I Do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled, wearing a blindingly white minidress and flashing the red soles of her Louboutin stilettos, long brunette ponytail sailing behind her. “I have a feeling we have epic milestones in the audience tonight,” she predicted through her Madonna-style headset mic.

The audience of nearly 3,000 received her with faces upturned, arms waving, mouths open in screaming adoration. She gave a special shout-out to 10 attendees who’d provided selfie evidence of devotional tattoos. This was the first time I’d set eyes on Arzon, and as is the case with many things intended to be earnestly motivational in 2019, her shtick felt both deeply corny and like something I’d kill to believe in.

Arzon is the vice president of fitness programming and the most popular instructor at Peloton, a start-up that has put a $2,245 video-streaming exercise bike (and, more recently, a $4,295 treadmill) and its $39 monthly class subscription into the homes of hundreds of thousands of Americans. There is also a more affordable option: a $19-a-month app that allows users to take the same classes on any bike or treadmill, along with similar coaching for yoga, outdoor running, and strength training. Last December, analysts estimated that Peloton’s ridership had surpassed that of its major competitor, SoulCycle. The company has more than 1 million members, but, as with other start-ups such as Uber and WeWork, it isn’t yet profitable—it lost almost $200 million in the last fiscal year—and less expensive copycats nip at its heels.

This was the biggest night of Peloton Homecoming, the annual convention for the bike’s most ardent fans, and it was presided over by Arzon and her merry band of hard-bodied fitness instructors. The next day, attendees would stand in long lines, braving the pouring rain to shake hands and snap photos with their Pelo-crushes. Some of the faithful had made the pilgrimage that weekend to take their 100th or 500th class in person instead of in their basement or guest bedroom; many were there to see friends they’d made in one of the innumerable Peloton-centric Facebook groups and Instagram communities for, to name just a few: Christians who spin, theater nerds who spin, moms who are lawyers (who also spin). All around me, people who knew one another only from the internet would spot a familiar face, explode into squeals, and scurry in for a hug. The evening was themed as a homecoming dance, but it was more like a bizarro high-school reunion.

Among the tonally disparate delights on offer were an announcement of new app features, a slideshow of Pelo-fans who’ve found love on the bike, and a concert from the ’90s alt-rock prince Beck. (Yes, Beck.) One of the company’s yoga teachers attempted to lead a mass meditation, which was mostly thwarted by the effects of the venue’s multiple open bars. The crowd was much more rapt when CEO John Foley stepped onto the stage—a particularly enthusiastic cheer went up when he unveiled controls that allow riders to independently adjust the volume of the instructor’s voice and the background jam.

The scene was the stuff of start-up founders’ wildest fantasies. By combining this rabid customer loyalty with a framework for putting professional instruction and equipment into private homes, Peloton believes it can be the exercise brand to rule them all. Which is not to say that investors are entirely convinced. The life cycles of American fitness trends tend to be short and brutal—Jazzercise or Tae Bo, anyone? When the company went public at the end of September, its stock price dropped 11 percent the first day.

Once upon a time, people went outside. Even after the Industrial Revolution moved labor indoors, people still took to the outdoors to play. Children were sent out of the house in the summer and told not to come back until dinner. Communities were oriented around block parties and municipal pools. Cities built grand parks. Kids walked to school.

Over the past half century, people started to stay in, move less, and get bigger (air-conditioning, cable, and then WiFi accelerated the trend). Work changed, too: More than 80 percent of American jobs are now predominantly sedentary, a near doubling since 1950. In the space of two generations, physical activity was recast as an organized, expensive, time-consuming pursuit of excellence instead of a routine part of daily life. Kids joined competitive sports leagues, and adults went to private gyms or bought equipment to mimic the activities they once did outside, such as biking. People who couldn’t afford these luxuries went without, and the disparity in health outcomes between the rich and the poor grew wider.

This set of conditions created a perfect market for Peloton to exploit. It was founded in 2012 by Foley, a former Barnes & Noble executive who wanted the convenience of boutique fitness classes like SoulCycle’s in his home. Of course, suburbanites have long filled their bonus rooms with stationary bikes and treadmills and rowing machines. Peloton’s innovation, and its major draw, is the teaching component: the big, bright, WiFi-enabled video screen mounted above the bike’s handlebars, which allows riders to follow along with a live class or cue up one from the past. The video board also lets them interact with their classmates, cheering people on with virtual high fives. Become a regular with an instructor, and you might even get a verbal “You go, girl!” during class.

Seemingly everyone I chatted up at Homecoming used a version of the phrase changed my life to describe why they gave a damn about an exercise bike at all, let alone enough to book flights and hotels to celebrate its existence. Many of them cited other Peloton riders or the company’s coaches, instead of the bike itself, as the agent of change.

Jacqui Cincotta had traveled from out of state for Homecoming, and when her friends nudged her forward to answer my question about people’s experiences with the bike, she choked up. Cincotta has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and started riding the bike in 2016 after one of the most painful flare-ups of her life, eventually enlisting with a Facebook group of “road riders”—people who also enjoy outdoor cycling. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve been cycling for 20 years or 20 days. It’s extremely supportive. That’s the mantra: ‘Road riders ride together,’ ” she said. “There are meet-ups all over the country. Your fake friends from the internet become your real friends in real life.” Cincotta has been in remission and medication-free for more than two years, which she credits largely to the workouts and the camaraderie.

When I asked Danica You-Hamilton why she’d come to the Peloton extravaganza, she responded by assuring me that she was normal. She’d bought the bike after giving birth to her son, when her new baby and postpartum depression sometimes made leaving the apartment seem impossible. “I just physically and mentally wasn’t there,” she said. It took her about a year to become an avid user of her bike, mostly because that’s how long it took to find the right Facebook group. Except for the brand’s official page, which has nearly 200,000 members, the Facebook groups are run by ordinary fans, with no involvement from the company. You-Hamilton landed with the Peloton Monthly Challenge Tribe, which is what it sounds like: a clutch of intensely dedicated users who set new workout goals every month.

“I joined on a whim, and they happened to be having an in-studio meet-up the week after,” recalled You-Hamilton, who lives in New York City. “I went and met this small group of people, and we just really connected.” She has since thrown baby showers and birthday parties for people she met through her bike. “It sounds kind of bizarre,” she admitted. “Even saying it out loud makes me mildly uncomfortable. The whole idea of an online community is never something I’ve been a part of.”

Peloton, through significant fault of its own, calls to mind a certain sort of person. Much of its advertising has depicted the young, fit, and wealthy. Buffed and brightened specimens of humanity pedal top-of-the-line bikes while taking in verdant views through the windows of their (obviously) palatial homes. At the convention, however, I found a sea of pretty regular folks, ranging from muscular women in heavily beaded cocktail dresses—the theme was homecoming—to retirees with average American bodies. The typical attendee was probably a woman in her 40s—as opposed to the intimidating 20-something spin hottie who populates coastal fitness studios. And there were a good number of black and brown people.

Not everyone I met was rich, either. Peloton has a financing plan, and even though when you add in the monthly subscription fee the whole package isn’t cheap, it’s certainly less expensive than a fitness studio, where a single class can run up to $40.

Richelle Martin had traveled to the Peloton weekend from Frisco, Texas, to meet up with members of the XXL Tribe, a Facebook group she runs. Intended for what she calls “people of size,” her group rallies those whose needs fitness entrepreneurs rarely deign to consider, and for whom going to a class or a gym can be profoundly alienating and embarrassing. People snicker or stare—photos of fat people in gyms are routinely ridiculed online. “Outside of the fitness world too, in their lives, they feel like people judge them,” Martin said of her 6,300 members. “Just to have a place to belong—that means so much.” Martin was one of many who, sometimes abashedly, referred to Peloton as a “safe space”—a circle of people who just want the best for you.

Peloton doesn’t have a perfect record with its plus-size members—larger sizes in its branded workout gear only became available this year, after Martin herself finagled a meeting with an executive. But the company is making a good-faith effort to include people of all fitness levels, she said: offering classes as short as five minutes, clearly labeling the intensity that riders can expect (a basic courtesy some of its boutique competitors don’t provide), and encouraging riders to modify workouts to their abilities.

Peloton also avoids using body-shaming to motivate the already thin. A few weeks after Homecoming, I took a SoulCycle class to compare it with the Peloton class still in my future. During it, the instructor shouted at us to pedal harder in order to thin down our arms for tank-top season. In the back, fat and already wearing a tank top, I tried to get off my bike and storm out, but I couldn’t figure out how to unlock my spin shoes from the pedals. I dreaded having to climb on a Peloton bike to subject myself to another dose of humiliation and rage, in spite of what all those very nice people had promised me.

“Regret to report I loved the Peloton,” I texted my editor after the class I hadn’t wanted to take. Back at home, I felt the post-workout endorphins that I’d sworn didn’t really exist, and while I stripped off my sweaty workout tights, I looked around my New York City one-bedroom to see how I might rearrange the furniture to accommodate a bike.

Inconsistently talented instructors are a major challenge for the more common fitness-studio model, in which growth depends on opening lots of new locations and thus hiring lots of teachers. But Peloton subscribers can take classes with the best two dozen instructors the company can find. Mine was led—in person—by Alex Toussaint, a standout among the standouts. He talked almost constantly: I always knew what I was doing, what I was about to be doing, and how long I could expect to be doing it. Throwing out feel-good exhortations in between instructions, he projected his own confidence onto me.

Services like Peloton, which draw followers with the structure and group-aspirational ethos characteristic of religion, are often dismissed as cultlike. I saw how easily I could be absorbed into the Peloton fold, how Arzon and Toussaint could convince me of things. I imagined adjusting my budget to let it happen, and getting up a little early every day to pedal while being showered with motivational platitudes. And … what exactly would be wrong with that? I was so prepared to hate the whole enterprise, to be immune to its positivity and to be judged by its adherents, that I hadn’t considered what might happen if it actually addressed the obstacles of time and inertia and shame that have kept me from embarking on any kind of exercise regimen. I suddenly didn’t see what was so bad about wanting to believe.

This article appears in the December 2019 print edition with the headline “The Tribe of Peloton.”