Spinning: The Macarena of Health Clubs
"Match my speed," says Lenny Deaso, leader of our cyclist team. "We'll warm up with a couple of miles of smooth countryside road before we hit those mountains up ahead." We are cycling through Ireland this morning, revving up to tackle long, steep hills. I am the only newcomer to the group; the rest are seasoned cyclists, veterans of recent trips to the Rockies, Nepal, Hawaii. "Visualize that black tarmac before you," advises Deaso. "Breathe, relax, and concentrate." It takes concentration because before us is not a lush, green hill of Ireland but a rather uninspiring empty racquetball court courtesy of Gold's Gym in Fairfield. The members of the team, riding hard on their stationary bicycles, keep their eyes on the road, determined to make it to the crest of the next hill. They are all committed fans of Spinning, the current Macarena of the health and fitness clubs. Although bicycles have been mainstays of the gym floor for years, most models, with their magazine racks, beverage cup holders, reclining seats, and flashing calorie counters, have never quite captured the essence of pedaling full speed down an open road. Spinning offers an intense cardiovascular workout combined with the sociability and physical highs associated with pack cycling. Developed by cyclist, personal trainer and California native Johnny G, Spinning combines a specially designed bicycle with a trainer-led workout featuring visualization, driving music, and the continuous exhortations of the team leader. After creating the bike to prepare for his 3000-mile sprint across America, Johnny G teamed with Schwinn to promote his signature Spinner bicycles and motivational program to health clubs around the country. "Part yoga, part Tour de France, part 12th-century torture chamber," the ads boast. G tries to incorporate a level of meaning beyond simply working off the fudge cake you had for lunch: "Your Spinning journey begins with a single pedal-stroke. Your training will require strength, determination and fortitude. The body and mind do not change on their own. You are responsible to change yourself." While they've been Spinning in California for over six years, the trend has gained national attention only this past year. By December 1996, 330 licensed Spinning centers dotted the country, a number that Schwinn hopes and expects to continue to climb upwards. Schwinn's success has led to the sincerest form of flattery: Reebok, Kaiser and Lifecycle have all begun marketing their own versions of "studio cycling." At the heart of Spinning is the bike, equipped with a fixed gear and a 40-pound iron flywheel. The racing saddle and contoured handlebars put the rider in a racing stance. Feet are strapped into toe clips, and the momentum of the heavy wheel forces the rider to pedal constantly. A hand brake is attached to the frame for emergency stops and a tension knob allows the rider to "shift gears" on the fly, simulating terrain and elevation. Sound like just more bells and whistles? Spinning enthusiasts insist otherwise. "The class is an outstanding workout," says Greg Dinatale, fitness director of Gold's Gym in Fairfield. "It's like personal training. Each person can push themselves to their limit. We tell the class that no one in the gym is working harder than they are. No other machine works you so hard." Forty minutes of Spinning burns an average of 500 calories, results that the treadmill and stair-stepper can't touch. Our music has changed to a fast Irish jig. "OK," Deaso warns us, "It's time for hill training." The other riders crouch down, shift gears, and begin to labor up the hill. I, too, shift gears by inching my tension knob a fraction to the right. The pedals tighten slightly, and I feel somewhat cheered that I seem to be keeping up with my teammates. Lenny notices my lack of discomfort and cranks my tension knob up two full turns. My smooth black tarmac through the gentle green Irish countryside has disappeared and I am toiling up an unforgiving craggy slope. In real life, this is the part of the trip when my teammates would sprint sleekly off into the distance, leaving me behind to wend a slow, arduous path, accompanied only by my own wheezing. In class, we remain united in our tight, athletic team. Because the tension and speed are adjusted on an individual basis, the same Spinning class can accommodate a star athlete next to a overweight novice. "Everyone can do this," says Schwinn spokesperson Michael Porter. "In any Spinning class, you could have a tri-athlete next to a de-conditioned first timer." In addition, Spinning draws an equal number of men and women, unlike other types of group aerobics. Requiring only the ability to ride a bike, Spinning breaks the dreaded "coordination barrier." Mark Esposito, owner of In-Shape Fitness Centers in North Haven and Branford, admits that although he has owned a gym for ten years, he has never tried aerobics. "OK, I might like to dance, but I never felt coordinated enough to try step-aerobics. Almost all the participants in our aerobics classes are women. We call the basketball court ïmen's aerobics.'" But when Esposito and his wife tried Spinning at a trade convention, he was hooked. "It's an excellent workout that appeals to everyone. I've been on long bike trips before. I know that when someone is pushing you, you can make it up the steepest hill. You know that on your own, you'd be walking that bike. It's the same at the gym: On most machines, you get tired, you get bored. With Spinning, you keep motivated, focused, energized." "Time for interval training!" Deaso shouts happily. "Racing sprints! Left side, 20 seconds, then right side goes!" My side takes off; right side cheers us on with raucous shouts of encouragement as we furiously race towards the summit. We make a good effort, but right side attacks the hill with a vengeance, hair flying, legs pumping at cartoonish speeds. One thing is certain: There is no amount of money or athletic prestige that would ever induce me to pedal so hard, so fast, on a real bike. "Beautiful!" Deaso shouts. "Get into that pain in your legs!"