The View From London

03.17.14

London’s Own Badass SoulCycle

Brits are hooked on Psycle, which combines hardcore spinning with pouding music and flashing neon lights—all based on the latest in sports psychology.

Is it a nightclub? Is it a spa? No, it’s London hottest new fitness craze: Psycle. And I’m just a little bit hooked.

While researching my latest book, The Ministry of Thin, last year, I began to notice how hard-core exercise had become. It’s no longer enough to swim 30 lengths of the pool or do a gentle aerobics class, and those friendly Jane Fonda DVDs are for wimps. These days, fit women and men get sculpted, ripped, chizzled. Go Hard or Go Home. Forget legs, bums and tums, it’s all about the burn, the bootcamp, buns and biceps of steel.

What happened to turn us all into our own personal trainers—why must exercise be so punishing? My favorite is kickboxing: a love-hate relationship because it pushes me to my absolute limits. And when I come out of kick-boxing my face is a deep magenta, and I feel hugely energized. There’s nothing like a hard session of skipping, jumping, boxing and roundhouse kicking to drive away the cares of the day.

While trying out various new fitness trends in London, I came across SoulCycle in New York. It’s a combination of spinning class and inspirational coaching using exercise bikes and resistance bands, hand weights and intense core work all set to high-energy music. It claims to engage and empower riders—known as ‘rockstars’—to strengthen them mentally and physically. It tones the entire body, abs, obliques, biceps, triceps, shoulders, back and legs, in classes known as ‘fat-burning cardio parties’. Fans include Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Forbes estimates they train around 8,000 riders a day. According to the founders, “SoulCyle isn’t just in the business of changing bodies, it’s in the business of changing lives.”

SoulCycle didn’t exist when I lived in New York—but I’ve discovered something even more awesome in London. Psycle, in the heart of the city, offers a whole new spin on spinning, with a full-body workout conducted in semi-darkness to pounding music and flashing neon lights.

Psycle’s founder, former international triathlete and über-trainer Tim Weeks, has done his research. From consulting with sports psychologists and the latest science, to selecting the optimum beats-per-minute rhythms of the playlist—think Vybz Kartel, Rizzlekicks, David Guetta, and dubstep Rihanna remixes—every aspect of Psycle class has been meticulously formulated. As Weeks explains, “there is silence at the start, which exercise psychologists say really makes people think about their body, what they are doing… But then it bursts into a show which gets motivation soaring.”

As someone who cycles around 50 miles a week, I thought Psycle would be easy. How wrong I was. We’re in constant movement: cycling standing up, bodies angled forward, then leaning right over, Tour de France style, then seated while using hand weights, then executing multiple push-ups on the handlebars, clapping, stretching, always pedalling in time to the beat. Try cycling standing up, without allowing your upper body to bounce up and down: this is what it means to ‘engage your core’. And it’s carefully designed not to create ‘bulky thighs’—as Weeks explains, by using cleated cycling shoes you get a balanced workload through your legs, hamstring, hip joints and bum.

With the lights low and the music high, and everyone cycling in unison, white shoes flashing in disco light, there’s an incredible group energy.

With the lights low and the music high, and everyone cycling in unison, white shoes flashing in disco light, there’s an incredible group energy (and I’m really not into group exercise).It induces a kind of physical and mental euphoria I haven’t experienced since my clubbing days after all-nighters on the dance-floor. We vary the bike’s resistance constantly—turning it way up high to Michael Jackson’s Beat It, for example, while simultaneously punching the air. Psycle works your upper body too, with even the men working those ballet arms.

Halfway through the class there’s a single musical track to give you time ‘to do your own thing’. You can cycle fast or slow, as long as you keep time to the beat. I find it a beautiful, meditative few minutes in the darkness, a spiritual sanctuary which really clears my head.

As for afters, forget a grotty gym shower and leaping into your street-clothes: the post-workout is as much fun as the class. Spacious turquoise-tiled showers are stocked with lush Ila Spa products: ylangylang and rose geranium shampoo, and velvety-soft apricot, vetivert and pettigrain body wash. I’m a product junkie, and found it very hard to get out of the shower. Changing rooms supply fluffy white towels, body lotions, girly neon-pink hairbands, even hair straighteners.

Like all the best workouts, Psycle leaves you ravenous. There’s an onsite café to refuel and rehydrate, with cold-pressed juices, superfood energy bars, chia seeds and cinnamon protein balls, quinoa, egg and avocado snackpots. ‘Meatless Mondays’ specialties include spiced chickpeas with spinach and tomato compote, and roasted squash with sesame seeds, kale and pomegranate. All carefully formulated by top nutritionists—and guilt-free, considering classes burn off around 1200 calories.

Set in a cavernous industrial-style warehouse, Psycle HQ feels like a club you want to be a part of. The instructors are an impressive line-up of former Olympic gymnasts, choreographers, and street dancers, and they clearly love their high-octane work. They wear funky lycra, shout encouragement through their headsets, and never stop smiling. It’s infectious:  when I finally made it to my next meeting, I was floating on a Cloud 9 of endorphins, and I couldn’t stop smiling either. My agent sniffed suspiciously, and told me I smelled like a tart’s boudoir! I don’t know what she thought I had been up to… but one thing’s for sure: Psycle is the most fun you can have with your clothes on in London right now.

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf