One Thursday evening in March 2007, Julie Rice stood in the small indoor-cycling studio she had started just 11 months earlier on New York City’s Upper West Side. She watched in amazement as Bill Clinton worked the room. The only one dressed in a business suit rather than spandex shorts, the former president weaved among the tightly packed bikes greeting Hillary Clinton supporters who’d all donned T-shirts that read EXERCISE YOUR VOTE. Smiling and shaking hands, he assured them that his wife would make a great presidential candidate in 2008.
Rice marveled at how, in less than a year, SoulCycle had morphed from a start-up that sometimes gave away classes to a citywide phenomenon boasting such fans as Kyra Sedgwick and Katie Couric. Now, with the visit from Clinton, it was getting the best publicity hit of all. The event had been dreamed up by a SoulCycle client, the daughter-in-law of U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who was casting about for an innovative fund-raising concept. “It was a slow media day, so we got tons of press,” Rice remembers. “And the Clinton appearance coincided with the opening of our second studio. All of a sudden the city was buzzing about SoulCycle. It went viral.”
Rice, who spent 15 years as a Hollywood talent agent, working with stars such as Jennifer Lopez and Sean Combs, knows a thing or two about helping a brand reach fever pitch. “I was in the talent-management business right at the time when actors were becoming small businesses, with extensions like clothing lines and recording deals,” she says. So it felt perfectly natural that she conceived of her own business not only as a place to ride a bike but also as a philosophy, a fund-raising force and in some ways a source of entertainment.
Today, SoulCycle has expanded to six studios across the New York metropolitan area, plus one in the Hamptons and another in Los Angeles. And now the company is poised to once again get bigger: In May 2011, Rice and her cofounder, Elizabeth Cutler, entered into a strategic partnership with Equinox, the giant sports-club company, to open 50 to 60 locations by 2015. Celebrities like Kelly Ripa, Lady Gaga, Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields all swear by the brand’s rigorous workouts. SoulCycle also raises about $500,000 for charity every year.
And it’s all because Rice couldn’t find a place to work out.
In 2005, Rice and her now-husband, Spencer Rice, also a talent agent, moved from Los Angeles to New York, where she’d grown up. They were looking for a fresh start, and the promise of a friend’s rent-controlled apartment sealed the deal. “I loved working in the entertainment business; I had a great job and a wonderful experience from my early twenties into my thirties,” says Rice. “But I’m an all-or-nothing type of person, and I could not picture doing that job for 25 more years.” So she took an interim step, agreeing to open a New York office for her L.A. agency and hoping the pace would be less hectic than in Hollywood.
The genesis of SoulCycle was one of those “if you build it” epiphanies: If you can’t find the exercise studio you want, build it yourself, and like-minded people will show up. “I had no intention of quitting my job and starting a Spinning studio,” Rice recalls. But she had every intention of doing a lot of Spinning, a sport she had fallen in love with in L.A.
Spinning is a high-intensity form of group indoor cycling, invented in the late 1980s by an endurance cyclist named Johnny Goldberg, who later trademarked the term. Participants ride bikes equipped with a flywheel to control resistance and mimic real-world terrain; riders use specialized shoes that hook into the pedals, and follow an instructor through a challenging routine that typically includes sprints, intervals and hill climbs.