The room is pitch black. Dance remixes of Top 40 hits are cranked to deafening levels. I'm being told to "embrace the dark" as purple and blue lights pulse, briefly illuminating those around me. I'm also on a stationary bike.
Only a few minutes into my first-ever spin class, a few things are obvious: First, this shit is hard. And second, people love it.
In Portland, at least a half-dozen studios proclaim to offer some sort of revelatory new spin class experience. While the atmosphere at each place differs, the basis for attending is the same—to cycle yourself to exhaustion in the name of fitness.
Here's a breakdown of what to expect from a few of Portland's most unique indoor cycling offerings.
Music selection: Hip-hop
Instructor motivation method: Choreographed cognitive behavioral therapy.
The BurnCycle facility in the Pearl looks more like a fitness-themed dance club than a gym. I arrived late, with the room already dark and Missy Elliott already blaring. The assistant helping me set up had to tap my limbs and then the bike in a mimed demonstration of where the seat and handlebars should be raised. Once I started pedaling, my first thought was, "This isn't so hard. I must be in better shape than I thought." I quickly turned into a quivering pool of sweat, as the ripped instructor, from her small podium at the front of the room, encouraged us to "pedal through the burn." Bike-dance moves included side-to-side rocking, bouncing and something called "figure eights," which I honestly never quite grasped. This was one of the hardest classes I attended—by the end, I had to pack my drenched attire in one of the plastic bags provided in the locker rooms.
4710 SW Scholls Ferry Road, 503-297-3479, vortexcycle.com.
Music selection: Now That's What I Call Music! 1999
Instructor motivation method: Y'know Trey, the fitness-bro Soulstice instructor from Broad City? Like that.
Situated on the outskirts of Beaverton, this small studio is a refreshing alternative to the swankiness of the Pearl District. "Everyone is welcome in the Vortex community," the studio's website reads, "where we ride and sweat together in a friendly, non-competitive environment." The first half of that statement definitely rang true. In the class I attended, an uber-muscled tank-top bro pedaled parallel to a graying older woman whose forehead was wrapped in a tie-dye bandanna. Class structure is similar to that at BurnCycle, with pulsing lights and music and routines incorporating bouncy dance moves. But rather than prompting deep dives into the human psyche, the instructor offered blanket encouragements like "Keep going!" and "Almost there!" At the end of class, it didn't feel like my legs had entirely turned to jelly. Overall, it was satisfying bike ride to nowhere, with the added perk of getting a week of unlimited free classes as a first-timer.
1218 NW Marshall St., 503-376-8031, revocycle.com.
Music selection: Dance club that serves only Earl Grey tea
Instructor motivation method: Calmness is the move.
At Revocycle, there are no flashing lights, no bumping club music, no amped-up instructors leading a dance party from the front of the class. The lights are dim but not completely dark, and the glow of battery-powered candles illuminate a small vinyl record collection. The instructor guides the class using an "intensity scale" that hangs in view of the class. "The idea," owner Michael Hosking explained as he helped me situate my bike, "is that you could be pedaling next to Lance Armstrong and you'd both get the same intensity workout because you're catering it to your fitness level." Revocycle's freeform bikes are unique in that they function like actual bikes and don't fling your legs around when the wheel's momentum gets going. At least 10 minutes at the start of class were spent talking about body alignment and proper breathing technique. Overall, the class was the closest to actual biking, and therefore easiest to follow along with.
535 NE 28th Ave. 971-271-7156, mobcycle.com.
Music selection: A hip '90s baby's iPod Nano playlist
Instructor motivation method: It's your workout, I'm just here to lead it.
MobCycle feels like the punk cousin to the Pearl District's shiny cycle spots. The studio's website asserts, "This is not your typical spin class," and promises a "kick-ass" workout. The difficulty level here is high, but only slightly higher than most of the other classes I attended. And the dance moves—rocking forward and backward and side to side, and doing what I think are supposed to be mini pushups on the handlebars—were just as hard to get the hang of. The instructor picked a Will Smith-heavy playlist, spoke less than the other instructors and pulsed the lights minimally. The workout was satisfying, and the instructor thankfully never got off her bike to circle the room while yelling at us to push past the pain.
Music selection: Beats curated exclusively for spin
Instructor motivation method: Your plane just crashed in the wilderness, and you're going to have to bike your way out.
Cold post-class towelettes on a silver tray, a steam shower in the locker room—I wanted to hide out in this studio after class just to exploit all the perks. And the spinning itself was some of the most deceptively difficult of any of the spots I visited. The motivation method here is to prompt self-competition. Sixteen bikes are packed tightly in a mirrored room. The only lights are a small strip of LEDs that line the baseboards and a row of fake candles at the front. "Find the beat," the instructor said, referring to the Spotify playlist she uses to structure the class. To my surprise, I was able to ride my hardest throughout whatever we were doing, which is probably a testament to the teacher's sequencing. "Yasss," the teacher exclaimed often, "work those beautiful asses!" At one point she suggested retraining our brains "to crave the feeling of exhaustion." And while, objectively, that sounds like a masochistic undertaking, the endorphin rush that followed setting fire to my thighs might actually have been worth it.