The Faces Behind The Peloton Phenomenon
Cycle fan Claudia Bixer shares her immense enthusiasm of the Peloton experience and interviews some of their superstar instructors
By Claudia Bixer
As a self-proclaimed Peloton addict, I was beyond excited when the opportunity arose to speak to some of my ‘Peloton idols’. I’ve spent many hours staring at the instructors through the screen as they somehow manage to convince me to push my body far beyond its perceived limits. This is all whilst I am (technically) alone at home on my state-of-the-art piece of fitness equipment: the Peloton bike.
When the first lockdown hit, I was deprived of my regular endorphin boost gained through studio cycling classes. When the second lockdown came around, I decided enough was enough and took the plunge: I purchased a (very expensive) Peloton bike. Emboldened by the three-month return policy, I was sure that I would solely use it for this period of time and then return it and get all my money back. Oh, how very wrong I was – now, you would have to drag me kicking and screaming to return that thing. And this dramatic change of heart, I believe, was strongly influenced by the Peloton instructors, who truly are the stars of the show.
Founded in New York City in 2012, Peloton has now grown into a global interactive fitness brand which currently boasts over 5.9 million members. In 2018, the company raised $550 million in funding and today it continues to grow. The Peloton app offers studio-style workouts to be enjoyed in the convenience of your own home. These workouts are conducted on the brand’s high-tech bike and/or treadmill. The bike, which is what Peloton is best known for, allows you to track a wealth of metrics whilst you follow an instructor in one of up to 14 daily live and thousands of on-demand classes.
My initial scepticism of these classes came from my disbelief that it was possible to match the energising feeling gained from in-studio classes. Yet, ironically, in my conversations with the Peloton instructors, it was the word ‘energy’ which kept popping up. New York-based instructor Jess Sims told me she always starts a class by scrolling through the Peloton ‘leaderboard’ to see the milestones energising her for what’s ahead [when you reach a milestone, such as your 100th ride, your instructor gives you a ‘shout out’ during the class]. On this leaderboard you can see the thousands of others taking part in the class (or those who have completed it) and even compete or cheer each other on. Jess told me: “It’s incredible to think that there are thousands of people all over the world, sharing the same moment.” It is a reminder that when using the Peloton bike, you might be physically alone at home, but you aren’t really alone.
For myself, Peloton was a lifesaver during lockdown, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the company – unlike many businesses – actually thrived during this time. The company is now expanding and breaking into the Australian market. And it seems that the instructors took remote teaching in their stride, too. When I ask the instructors about their experience of this during lockdown, they say that teaching in front of just a camera screen felt natural, as they had previously been familiar with teaching classes to empty rooms. Leanne Hainsby, who became Peloton’s first female instructor in the UK in 2018, tells me that being able to connect with so many people during lockdown was extremely rewarding. “I’ve been teaching in the studio on my own since March 2020 and never felt lonely, because the sense of community is always there. Having said that, it will be an incredibly emotional moment when we can welcome members back.”
Her fellow instructor Matt Wilpers adds: “As a coach who gets excited about seeing his athletes achieve their goals, I absolutely miss seeing everyone and can’t wait for that to return, but as a person who focuses on what I can do, rather than what I cannot, I took the transition to empty classes as an opportunity to work on my on-camera performance.”
Instructor and former athlete Hannah Frankson believes that a key success of Peloton classes is the riders’ ability to compete with others all around the world. During lockdown when she wasn’t teaching, she would jump on the bike and compete too: “I particularly remember trying to keep up with one member, #SweatwithSteph – she kept me going!” Although, Hannah says, it’s not just the ability to compete, but the ability to choose to compete: “One day you can be competitive, the next you can hide the leaderboard. One day you might decide to take a ride for the community and to high five, while the next you may take a scenic route [courtesy of a camera crew, this gives you the choice to cycle through a beautiful landscape]. [Peloton] can be so many things and offers so much variety depending on your mood.” On this, I couldn’t agree with Hannah more: Peloton has such an ability to cater to every fitness mood, and even your availability (classes range from five to 90 minutes), there really is no excuse not to hop on!
When I ask Hannah if she misses the competitiveness of athletics, she tells me that she doesn’t. Although she adds that finding a new motivation to exercise wasn’t easy. “I understand so much more about doing this for my body because it’s a display of love – not punishment, not expectation, just a self-appreciation act.” I also ask Hannah about her experience in becoming a Peloton instructor. She tells me that she first met Cycling Director Cody Rigsby when he came to the UK and selected Ben Alldis and Leanne (who are now engaged). At this time, Hannah was not quite ready to begin her Peloton journey. This was also the case for Jess when Peloton first reached out to her, at a time when she was still new to the industry: only after a year of “grinding and growing” did she feel ready to take the leap.
When discussing the rigorous selection and training process involved in becoming an instructor, I question what it is that’s required for the job. The instructors seem to come from varying backgrounds: Jess was a kindergarten teacher, Matt received an offer from Peloton at the same time as getting into medical school, and Robin Arzón (a VP of Fitness Programming and instructor in New York) was a lawyer. Aside from having some experience in teaching fitness, Jess explains that what unites the instructors is “a strong belief in themselves [and what they] represent.”
Leanne told me how when she first joined Peloton she went to New York and spent two months training at the company’s headquarters. I asked her what’s changed since then, to which she replies: “The values are exactly the same, but there are literally millions more members who share those values now.” She also says that the company’s milestones are just getting “bigger and bigger”.
This exponential growth is what attracted Jess to the company in the first place, and she believes that her mission to “unite the world through fitness” is aligned with that of Peloton. Referring to Peloton’s ‘mission’ makes it all sound a bit sentimental, perhaps. And it is, but in a good way. Matt, too, speaks in a similar vein: “I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to help so many, and I feel very lucky.”
All the instructors, in fact, are full of motivational quotes like these. But to enjoy that kind of vibe, you have to remove feelings of self-consciousness and be fully in the moment – and this is exactly how I feel during a Peloton class. My favourite quote comes from Jess, who is an ex primary-school teacher and skilled at memorable sayings. What she says encapsulates the Peloton experience: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” When I asked Jess what this means to her, she replies: “If you decide to cut corners in your workout, whether you realise it or not you might find yourself trying to cut corners in your relationships and/or your work. By taking pride in what you do always, in all ways, you essentially take control of the controllables. It’s demanding greatness and your best from yourself all the time.”