I have a love/hate relationship with bicycles.
If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s more of a hate/hate relationship.
When I was a kid, my bike was my only mode of transportation in the summer but as I got older, the allure of the bicycle diminished. Somewhere between my prepubescent Barbie doll years and the monthly cramps that came with menstruation, my trusty pink Schwinn stopped representing carefree summer days and started representing diet culture.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know was that two things were happening: the first was that my growing body was developing in a way that was not acceptable. I had hips and curves, but more hips and curves than my classmates. My body was rounder, softer. Bigger, which made it A Big Problem. In response, my mom forced me out the door and onto my bike. When my dad got a stationary bike and I could now ride in the dead of winter and on rainy Saturdays, my mom resorted to bribery in order to get me on it.
I had been conditioned to treat cycling as a form of punishment, so when my friend Nicole suggested we go to a spinning class one summer morning several years ago, I was hesitant. Somehow, she managed to talk me into it. The class was one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done and while I felt like my legs were going to fall off, by the end of that initial class I was hooked. Soon, I was a spinning regular.
Spinning, also known as indoor cycling, takes a fancier version of that stationary bike of my dad’s and puts a whole bunch of them in a room together. Instead of this being a true bicycle, each bike has one big wheel, known as the flywheel. At the front of the room, an instructor leads the class — or “pack” — through a ride, mimicking different types of terrain like climbing up hills or sprinting on flat roads, with a killer playlist pumping through the speakers.
Spinning, like many fitness activities, has different styles. In some studios you’ll ride in the dark, while others utilize television screens and colored lights. I’ve gone to spin classes where the music is our guide, everyone’s pace changing to match the beat of the next song, while other classes have bikes with monitors that let us see the RPM (rotations per minute) and the instructors encourage us to aim for certain RPMs that way.
The overall aim of the studios and classes are the same, which is to raise riders’ heart rates using a combination of speed and resistance. The lighter the resistance, the faster your legs can move. On the flipside, increase the resistance and it will feel like riding a bike through mud, forcing you to work really hard to get the flywheel to go around just once.
Know Before You Go. Here are some of my tips for your first spin class:
1. Front Row Etiquette
Some studios encourage newbies to sit in the front row, so they have a better view of the instructor. Other studios prefer that only experienced riders sit in the front, as those riders set the ride for the rest of the class. Hopefully this information will be on the website, but if it’s not and you need to pick a bike as part of the online booking process, feel free to give them a call first and find out.
2. Get There Early
Indoor cycling bikes are adjusted to each rider and there is a fine art to finding the right combination of seat height and handlebar distance. When you first arrive, introduce yourself to the instructor and they will help you get your bike set up. Different gyms and studios use different bikes and each has their own nuances, so you may need to do this at each first class.
3. Shoe Policy
Shoe policy will be studio-dependent. Some allow you to wear just regular sneakers and utilize the cages on the pedals, while others make you clip in with dedicated spin shoes. In the latter case, they will usually have some that you can rent. (That said, if you end up really liking indoor cycling, I highly recommend you purchase your own pair. It was a real game changer for me and my experience on the bike.)
4. Follow the Instructor, But Know Your Limits
Instructors are there to encourage and motivate you and also lead you through the class. I always recommend trying to follow the instructor as much as you can. However, as a newbie, there may be things you just have to work up to. Standing sprints were one of my challenges. That’s where you pedal while standing up. Pedal fast, usually, hence the sprint part. They are difficult and not something I could do at first but as I kept going back to classes, I found myself getting stronger. That’s one of my favorite things about spinning — it’s easy to track the progress you’re making, whether it’s sprinting for longer or being able to ride at a higher resistance.
5. Yes, Your Ass Will Hurt
Unless you are someone who frequently rides a bike, chances are your derriere will be uncomfortable during your first few spin classes, as well as after. But if you keep up with it, I promise you will get used to it. It’s also important to remember that this happens to everyone, not just fat riders.
I have just one warning: if there is one thing I have learned after years of getting on a stationary bike, clipping my shoes in and pedaling my little heart out until a small puddle of sweat has pooled on the floor like a halo around my bike, it’s that those indoor cycling instructors sure do love their diet culture.
It’s frustrating and aggravating, to the point where I purposely stay away from my local spin classes around the holidays. I don’t need Tiny Tina up there encouraging me to ride a little harder so I can “earn” the mashed potatoes served alongside my turkey or some Christmas cookies.
FOOD DOES NOT NEED TO BE EARNED, TINA.
But, if you can get past that part, you’ll discover a really challenging but really fulfilling physical activity.
If nothing else, just channel your diet culture anger and frustration into your bike and have a really good ride.