How Pandemic Living Is Changing the At-Home Cycling Game For Good

Photo: Getty/SimonSkafar
Peloton is having the last laugh... again. The company that improbably hurtled past a failed Kickstarter campaign became the prestige brand in studio-level cycling in the pandemic age. Now, thanks in part to COVID-19-induced widespread closures of cycling studios and gyms, Peloton has reported a 172 percent year-over-year growth in total revenue and ended its fourth quarter this fiscal year with a 210 percent year-over-year jump in digital subscriptions, according to the company's shareholder letter—and just about every other growth metric in the book is ticking upward.

As much as the circumstances of pandemic living poised Peloton for meteoric success, Americans’ sudden need to live, work, and work out from home has caused the entire cycling fitness industry to race toward connected rides, driven by online companion content. This year, a variety of players from hardware providers (like Echelon and Stryde) to cycling studios (like SoulCycle and CycleBar) and app makers (like Apple, Zwift, and Rouvy) have introduced or bolstered digital programming while creating a lower point of entry for cycling at home.

At-home bikes: the new class

In September, Echelon, the maker of internet-connected indoor exercise bikes that start at $840, issued a splashy announcement: Through a partnership with Amazon, it would offer the “Prime Bike,” complete with tech familiar to Peloton fans (like a magnetic resistance system and adjustable resistance levels) and thousands of live and on-demand classes, for an unbeatable $499. That's about a quarter of the price of the Peloton Bike, which retails for $1,895. Then, just hours after its release, Amazon pulled the bike from its site, claiming no affiliation. Echelon remains committed to offering the lowest-cost bikes on the market.

Stryde—an in-home, internet-connected bike maker that launched earlier this year—came out of the gate offering screen-equipped bikes starting at $1,750 (discounted to $1,550 since the launch). The hardware is accompanied by an open-platform content membership for $30 a month that allows cyclers to access hundreds of workouts from any of its six studio partners and individual instructors (like former FlyWheel instructor, Fred Smith), or ride while binging on Netflix, if preferred.

Though Stryde doesn’t advertise much, the market seems to be responding to the mid-tier price point (something our reviewer determined equates to about 50 studio classes). Since starting to ship bikes in May, the brand has sold more than 1,000 bikes and built membership at a rate that "far exceeded our expectations," says founder Pasha Chikosh. What’s more, Chikosh says he expects to see continued rapid growth in the next few months. “From our point of view, there was never any real reason why at-home cycling should have been such a luxury option,” he says. “We believe the Stryde bike can compete with the heaviest hitters and at a more affordable price point.” It's worth noting that even prestige brands like Peloton have dropped their prices and offered more options so far more riders can workout from home.

Finding the best bike for you

The race to kick out the most wallet-friendly bike may make for a more democratized industry, but according to experts, hardware is just the half of it when it comes to standing out. “Creating new price points is all well and good, but it is far more important to address the needs of specific consumer segments,” says NPD Group sports analyst Dirk Sorenson. “For example, can unique content and classes be developed for student-athletes or an older demographic or for those solely interested in weight loss? When one looks back on the studio cycling movement where companies like SoulCycle, Flywheel Sports, and larger, national gyms seemingly were offering similar classes, the differentiation was really about tailoring messaging and classes to unique groups.”

One such sector of hardcore cycling enthusiasts previously untapped in the at-home cycling scene belongs to Schwinn. The industry pioneer, which has made indoor exercise bikes since 1965, built a loyal following of riders who recognized the brand from gyms. While the company never focused on consumer-facing content before the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 have helped the company see the importance of bolstering its own online programming for riders, says Helen Vanderburg, international master trainer and education developer for Schwinn Indoor Cycling. “Schwinn is one of the companies that was sitting on the concept of bringing virtual, on-demand classes to the consumers but hadn't done it in a big way until the pandemic,” she says. Previously, the brand’s online content was limited to free workouts found on Facebook but it’s now launched a la carte Zoom classes taught by its global pool of master trainers in partnership with the digital platform Homeroom Fit. Behind the scenes, the company is working to develop its own stand-alone digital offering, Vanderburg says.

Getting app-y while riding

Apple is scheduled to launch its Fitness+ app, which will include cycling, among other workouts (at just $10 a month). Meanwhile, apps like Rouvy and Zwift, offer immersive, simulated races and game-like experiences, something Sorenson calls the trend to watch in home fitness ."These immersive experiences that can be created can be gamified, provide rewards to the user, and engage users with multi-user environments not available by class driven content," he says.

Whether gamified workouts prove the next big thing, the growth of in-home biking is undeniable. "I think the competition is going to become intense, with a lot more options becoming available in the next six months,” says Vanderburg, as people increasingly "display the workouts on their TVs, phones, or tablets and ride to any workout online.”

Even those not previously thought of as players in the at-home fitness or tech spaces are getting in on the digital content game, now that a surge of studio riders have purchased at-home bikes. “This has been a boon to not only Peloton, Echelon, and other [bike makers], but I know of a lot of instructors and studios who have taken their own classes online and make a pretty good per-class income teaching their previous students,” says Jennifer Sage, a master instructor and founder of the Indoor Cycling Association. “Some studios have told me this has worked so well that even when they go back to studio classes when this pandemic is over, they will probably keep an online offering as well.”

One such studio is CycleBar, a franchise with 200 locations in the U.S. In late 2019, it began working on its own digital content platform called CycleBar Go, aimed at members looking to access a familiar workout when they couldn’t get to a studio. But when the pandemic hit, the project was fast-tracked for a March release and became lifeblood to the company’s survival. As studios nationwide faced closures to comply with state mandates, the business pivoted quickly by renting bikes to members for at-home use.“It was very eye-opening to us because we never wanted to compete with any at-home bike. But when COVID hit, we doubled our workflow for CycleBar Go content creation to the point where we had some instructors film three or four classes in a day on our sound stage just so we could have extra content on the app,” says Karen Maxwell, head of talent development and a senior master instructor at the company CycleBar Go. The company went from offering dozens of hours of content on the platform pre-pandemic to more than 100 hours of content available now. Studios like Swerve, similarly upped their online content game when confronted with studio closures.

Though Maxwell stresses the brand’s focus is on the live, in-studio experience and reports some 85 percent of studios have now reopened in some capacity since initial closures in March, she says the company will continue to expand its on-demand content. In addition to exposing app subscribers to master instructors who have become CycleBar-famous, the company is looking to build its online community and offer classes tailored for at-home riders (like one that tracks metrics via a heart rate monitor band).

Staying connected while working out apart

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much content a company creates: if it doesn’t deliver a sense of community, customers aren’t likely to stick around, our experts say. Because no matter how many content providers or hardware makers come onto the scene, making an indelible mark on the cycling fitness industry has always been about fostering connection. It’s not the prestige packaging that makes Peloton and SoulCycle industry leaders, but the affirmations, high fives, shoutouts, and togetherness that leave riders feeling emotionally connected to the experience.

Peloton has done a great job of building a digital community, "and that feeling of being connected brings loyalty," says Sage, pointing to the explosion of online Peloton fan groups. “These newer companies, as well as instructors or studios taking their classes online, need to focus on building that community as well. Studios and instructors teaching their own previous clients will have an advantage since they already know [their riders]. But if they want to build a bigger audience, they'll have to find ways to keep riders committed and loyal. Creating online fan clubs and groups is one way to do it, but being an inspirational coach cannot be beat.”

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