The lights were dimmed to a shade best described as blue-black. Dance music shook the floor, and at the center of it all was a sleeveless dynamo with a winsome grin playing the role of DJ. This is as close to a high-end dance club as exercise can get — minus the craft cocktails.
It was Sunday afternoon at Flywheel Sports, an indoor cycling studio at the Shops at Prudential Center, and Richard Downing, shoulder-length hair pulled back from his chiseled cheekbones, led a room of 50 stationary cyclists arranged stadium-style around him.
In 2012, there was just one boutique spinning studio in the city. Last year, a few more opened. Now, more than four years after the spinning craze first took hold in New York and Los Angeles, the two biggest spinning chains in the country finally arrive here.
Flywheel, which operates 25 locations across the United States and one in Dubai, opened in October. Next up: SoulCycle, the ne plus ultra of spinning, with its ardent, some might say obsessive, following, finally rolls into Chestnut Hill in March.
“The lights are dim, the music is loud, and the instructors are amped as hell,’’ Rob Sulaver, a personal trainer who contributes to Men’s Health and GQ, said of spin studios. “It’s like a nightclub with bikes.”
At the heart of the spinning craze is the number of people who are willing to pay $20 an hour or more for a specialized workout. For decades, people flocked to gyms for generalized workouts, sweating through stints on the treadmill and weight machines. Now a growing number of fitness buffs order up their exercise a la carte, heading to specialty studios for group classes. One day might mean a trip to a yoga studio. The next, a bootcamp or Pilates class somewhere else. CrossFit-only studios have sprung up by the dozen across Boston in the past few years.
“The cult of indoor cycling is really just a microcosm of the death of personal training and the move to group fitness courses,” said Brian Bronstein, a trainer and author who has written five books on fitness. While many gyms offer spinning classes, “People would rather exercise with friends in a different environment that doesn’t feel as intimidating as a gym floor. That’s why things like Zumba, CrossFit, and even adventure races work. It becomes less about individuality and fitness expectations, and more community based and fun.”
That’s why 32-year-old Bostonian Amy Axelrod is a spin junkie. Despite the difficulty of getting to a 6 a.m. spin class (she frequents Recyle Studio in the South End), she extracts herself from bed for the thumping, high-adrenaline workout. She’s even contemplating dropping her gym membership, which she finds “kind of boring” in comparison.
“You start pedaling, the teacher starts shouting, and you think ‘All right, I’m in this,’ ” she said. “You forget that you didn’t want to do this because it’s so motivating.”
That kind of adoration is driving business. Recycle, which has two locations, claimed the title of Boston’s first boutique cycling studio. Last summer, the Handle Bar opened in South Boston. Soon after Flywheel arrived, Velo-City opened its doors.
They all employ a similar formula: a darkened space, pumping music, and insanely motivational, easy-on-the-eyes instructors. Some keep candles burning to add to the atmosphere. And 45 minutes of pedaling.
Now, into that competitive mix comes SoulCycle. Long touted by celebrities such as Kelly Ripa, Katie Holmes, and Bradley Cooper, SoulCycle has 25 studios across the nation, and about 8,000 riders a day, according to Elizabeth Cutler, founder and chief executive.
And it’s not just a place where people go to exercise, it’s a slice of status. Like Pinkberry or Shake Shack, the SoulCycle brand has become well known to those who live nowhere near a location. You can buy SoulCycle sweaters, socks, candles, nail polish, and other accessories to tell the world that you managed to reserve a coveted spot at a studio and that you work out at the same chain as Lena Dunham, Chelsea Clinton, and Lady Gaga.
Michael Menna, a Bostonian and junior at Columbia University, says he knows several people who take multiple classes a day, at $34 per class plus $3 for shoe rental; generally, many attendees pay by the ride, though monthly memberships are available. The cost for classes in Boston has yet to be announced.
“I would almost go there on a date,” Menna said. “I’ve said ‘What do you want to do this Sunday? Do you want to go to SoulCycle?’ It’s like going to dance and exercise at the same time.”
Not surprisingly, the big players in the spinning business want to be in high traffic, monied areas. Flywheel needs high ceilings for its tiered stadium platforms, others require rooms without columns to provide unobstructed views. SoulCycle, which is going into a custom space as part of the new Chestnut Hill Square development, may be the first of many here, according to the company.
“We’ve wanted to open in Boston for some time,” SoulCycle’s Cutler said in an e-mail. “And are thrilled to open our first of several Boston area locations.”
Likewise, Jay Galluzzo, cofounder and chief executive of Flywheel, says the Prudential location will be the first of multiple studios. Which means that boutique spinning studios could soon become as common as yoga studios.
Although the Goliaths are rolling into town, local studio owners are trying to see the positives. The presence of the big chains, they say, will only increase awareness of the trendy workout.
Jessica Bashelor opened the Handle Bar in Southie because she’d tried indoor cycling at studios in New York and thought Boston was lacking. She also saw the boom of the boutique exercise trend and wanted to be a part of it.
“Since I started the process of opening, I heard about SoulCycle and Flywheel coming,” she said, “I would say ‘OK, let them come.’ Competition is a necessary evil for business.”
Allen Potts, one of the four men who opened Velo-City, said he and his partners think the studios are all different enough that people will gravitate to what appeals to them.
Local studios could have the upper hand when it comes to pricing. Classes at Flywheel are $28. Boston’s independent spin studios generally charge in the low-to-mid $20s per class. There are no membership fees at any of these clubs.
“Right now, I’m not worried about oversaturation,” said Potts. “People want specialization in their exercise, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. People don’t want to be working out in big boxes anymore. They want a party atmosphere, they want a group, and they want a sense of community.”