MAY 16, 2008 — In an office building in Los Angeles, in a large room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Westwood Village, sit forty bicycles. Dressed in athletic gear with a water bottle and towel, I walk into the room and prepare myself to spend fifty minutes there, pedaling on a bicycle that can’t move.
A cycling instructor, a flawlessly fit man with a shaved head, yells at the class like a German drill sergeant into a headset microphone that makes him look like he’s about to join Britney Spears on a concert tour. I wonder if his name is Diethelm or Rolfe. Knowing I’m a newcomer to his class, he tells me ominously, “Your only goal is to finish.” Maybe he’s trying to inspire me, but now I’m more nervous than ever. I attach cages to the pedals to hold my sneakers (I don’t have cycling shoes yet), sit awkwardly on my bicycle, attempt to appear normal, and prepare myself for the ride.
I look around the room. I am surrounded by the prettiest women I have ever seen. A personal trainer from Alabama once told me that when she worked at gyms in the South, all of her clients were overweight, but all of her Los Angeles clients are already in shape. I decide that in Los Angeles, especially for these women, there must be an attractiveness arms race. Looking at them, I am sure they are the last women on Earth that need to be in a studio cycling class. I want to tell them that they’re wasting their time; they already look perfect, and they’re making other women, and in fact all of us, look like the world’s most unattractive people. The more time they spend at the gym, the more time the rest of us need to spend just trying to stay in the race, building ever bigger Russian intercontinental ballistic biceps.
My plan is interrupted as pounding techno music begins, and Diethelm begins yelling into his headset, “Pedal! Push yourself! Faster!” I do what he says because I am terrified of the possible consequences otherwise. I pedal as fast as I can, trying to stay in time with the music. I look down at the resistance knob on my bicycle and realize that this easy pedaling isn’t going to last much longer. Diethelm yells, “Add more resistance! Turn it a full turn to the right!” I turn my knob, and I can already feel my quads starting to burn.
“Add another full turn!” he commands. The beautiful women bounce up and down, up and down. We’ve been pedaling for 20 minutes. I feel like we’ve been pedaling for 20 days. The energetic supermodels look like they just stepped into class from a glamorous movie shoot and are still wondering when the workout is going to begin. I’m drenched in sweat, looking at the instructor with desperate eyes, but he shows no compassion.
Of course, different classes have different instructors, and their varying personalities keep things interesting. One instructor has a stern, kindergarten teacher-like demeanor, and I suspect that when she’s not in class, she’s a teacher or a mother.
“Keep pedaling. Push yourself hard,” she says in a measured voice. “Don’t take a break between songs. Keep pedaling all the way through. You can give me two more songs, right?”
The bouncing beauties all nod in agreement, insinuating that they could pedal through a hundred more songs if only she asked. Running out of energy and sopping wet, I want to negotiate for maybe only one more song, but I’m afraid of the pain they might inflict upon me if I try. The only other guy in the class can’t make it. He stops pedaling and leaves. With their eyes, the women express their disapproval. I am so glad I’m not that guy.
“Add another half turn! Faster! You promised me two more. You promised,” the kindergarten teacher reminds us. She’s right, I think. I promised. The peer-pressure inflicted by my classmates’ killer bods is overwhelming.
Yet another instructor acts like our therapist. “Let all the worries of your day melt away,” she says. “Be in this room and only in this room. Think about why you’ve come here on a Friday evening during happy hour. It’s no small feat.” I think about it but have trouble remembering why I subjected myself to this.
It’s a unique form of torture, working so hard to make a bicycle stand still, but as the class reaches its halfway point, the pain in my quads and butt begins to melt away, and I feel like I’m getting a new boost of energy. The fans overhead begin to turn, and I feel wind in my hair and endorphins rushing through my body.
“We’re almost done! Then you can go home and eat a piece of celery!” yells Diethelm. I imagine going home and eating an enormous turkey dinner, with a pizza for dessert.
“Give me four and a half more minutes,” the kindergarten teacher says in an utterly convincing voice. I want to argue her down, but I don’t.
“Think about why you’re here and what it means,” coaches the therapist in a soft tone. I realize that I have no idea what it means.
Near the end of the workout, Eddie Vedder’s song “Hard Sun” from Into the Wild fills the room: “There’s a big/a big hard sun/beating on the big people/in the big hard world.” It’s a strange song, because while the song’s lyrics dwell on life’s trials, the music itself is uplifting. As I pedal to the rhythm, I look out over Los Angeles, and there’s a moment when I think my bike is moving. I feel like I’m cycling past the beautiful girls, crashing through the room’s huge windows, and working my way through gridlock on the nearby 405 freeway, an unforgiving sun beating down on me as I pedal and pedal and pedal. My legs feel like they’re on fire and sweat pours down my face as the road steepens sharply and I slowly power my way up a towering asphalt hill. I arrive at the peak, but I keep pedaling intensely, sure that if I push hard enough, I will launch into the air and fly, like E.T., over the city.
But I can’t. I’m bicycling to nowhere.