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Cycling studios add 'mental life coaching' to physical workouts

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By Vicky Hallett
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 5:14 PM

To Marc Caputo, Velovoom isn't just a boutique cycling studio. "It's a nondenominational sanctuary," says Caputo, who had never even taken an indoor cycling class until 21/2 years ago.

But 51 pounds lighter and unimaginably happier after discovering the power of pedaling, the 44-year-old financial services exec is bringing his new religion to Bethesda in the form of a sleek, white-and-orange hideaway that proclaims its mantra to all who enter: "Change your mind, change your body, change your life."

Fitness is always a transformative experience, but Caputo believes the 45-minute classes at Velovoom - which combine cardio, strength and "mental life coaching" - can lead to as much of an emotional makeover as a physical one. The dark classroom, the carefully crafted playlists, the rhythmic choreography as the pack moves together and the no-distractions policy (no cellphones!) help riders find real focus. And the bikes provide the ideal vehicle because their resistance knobs determine the intensity of the workout, making it accessible to almost anyone.

Other than the light dumbbells that it incorporates for upper-body toning, the program doesn't sound all that different from a cycling class you can stumble into at any gym.

But Caputo emphasizes Velovoom's singular focus on cycling. "You're there for a specific reason," he says. Everything about the atmosphere and experience is designed just for people to slip on their cycling shoes - they can clip in and "become one with the bike" - and ride. And although this is the first such Washington area facility, similar concepts have proved popular elsewhere.

Nowhere is it bigger than in New York, where the now uber-trendy SoulCycle chain started as an oddity back in 2006. Rather than rely on Spinning, the trademarked style developed by former pro cyclist Johnny G, SoulCycle's first studio offered an alternative take on bike-based cardio, adding body-rocking moves and weights to make it a more complete workout and pushing the "soul" that co-founder Julie Rice says "puts the joy back into exercise."

Rival company Flywheel, started by former SoulCycle instructor Ruth Zukerman, is known for its higher-tech equipment, including screens in the front of the room that flash riders' performance numbers to get those competitive juices flowing. But at Flywheel studios, which are even more common in New York now that they've taken over Ride the Zone (yet another boutique cycling biz), the most critical encouragement still comes out of the instructors' mouths.

"We help them get through whatever they're grappling with," says Zukerman, who knows her services are especially necessary when it's time to climb a hill and the resistance is way up. By helping them pedal away the anger and cultivating a yogalike mindfulness, she adds, the classes have come to replace therapy for many students.

This form of exercise certainly struck a chord with Caputo, who lives in Owings Mills, Md., and had been struggling with work and health problems when a friend dragged him along to these New York studios during a visit there. "I felt better, I got stronger and I got addicted to it," he says. But it was quite a commute from Maryland, so he's spent the past year developing the concept for Velovoom, which opened Monday.

The result is more coaching-focused than the other studios he's visited, partly because of co-founder Kelly Weinberg, a social worker who hopes to start a confidence-building program for teenage girls that takes advantage of the nonjudgmental nature of a dimly lit room. (One way they hope to attract adolescent attention: Let them help pick the music.)

In a typical class, that will translate into instructors who double as motivational speakers. Last week, at a preview of the program, Melissa Kullen introduced riders to the Velovoom signature experience with the energy of a preacher at a revival meeting. Instead of staying in the saddle, she repeatedly hopped off her Schwinn to leap around the room. "This is the challenge!" she declared. "This is where you say, 'This is uncomfortable.' Turn it up!" She bobbed her body in a wild dance as she got up in the faces of riders, who generated enough heat to fog up the mirrored walls.

If their yelps of joy are any indication, Caputo may be right that this is just the first location of Velovoom. But he'd better be prepared for competition. SoulCycle, which is launching a national expansion, has its eyes on Washington and promises to open a location here by the fall.

Start your engines

Velovoom is at 4866 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. Single classes are $24 but can be as low as $20 with a package. If you don't bring cycling shoes, you'll need to rent them for $3. Every Monday at noon, the site opens reservations for the upcoming week (Tuesday through Monday). You can hold not just a place in class but also a particular bike.

Follow @postmisfits on Twitter for updates on fitness throughout the week.

Next week Lenny Bernstein writes about the psychology and physiology of suddenly not being able to do the exercises you love.


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