It’s a little before 10:45 a.m. on a recent Friday and a song by Eminem is blasting from an army of speakers studding the walls of SoulCycle’s West End studio.
“Hi! My name is (what?)/ My name is (who?)/
My name is Slim Shady ...”
Wayne Phillips, however, needs no introduction. When the 6-foot-3, 24-year-old instructor enters the room, the sellout crowd of 58 cyclists — mostly women — sits up straighter. All eyes focus on him as he ascends the votive-lit podium, adjusts the mike on his headset and faces the sea of spandex. Even the guy warming up like he’s competing in the Tour de France slows down. It’s like a maestro tapping the stand.
The studio goes dark except for the grapefruit-scented floor candles and a spotlight trained on Phillips’s yellow bike. “Watch me,” he booms over heavy bass. “Keep your eyes on me.”
Then Phillips starts riding his bike like he wants to destroy it. He hops off occasionally to walk the floor and pumps his fist to the beat while yelling “Awesome!” or “Push it!” For 45 minutes, he leads a nonstop cardio-bordering-on-heart-attack workout — at one point incorporating one-pound weights. The riders dance on their pedals, moving up and down from their seats to Jay Z, to Nicki Minaj, and to a techno remix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The thump-thumping of the pedals makes the floor shake, and riders yell out when the spirit moves, as if in church. “Yessssssss!” hollers one woman. If a thunderous, grueling, smelly, sweat-soaked bike session can be transcendent, this one comes close.
After class, riders high-five or hug or take selfies, faces dripping, smiles ecstatic. Before they hit the showers and head back to work, they crowd around Phillips, four deep, waiting to say hello, asking him if he’ll e-mail today’s playlist. (Find an annotated workout playlist at the bottom of this story.)
“You know, I’m on social media,” Phillips reminds them.
His wayneknowsdope Instagram feed is full of photos, song recommendations, encouragement and exhortations. “ATTENTION!!!!!” reads one. “THERE IS NO POSSIBLE WAY I SHOULD HEAR ‘YOUR SCHEDULE DOESNT WORK WITH MINE’! I TEACH ALL DAY EVERYDAY!”
It’s surprising to learn that this idolized instructor started as a cleaner, and became a bike-studio star in less than a year.
SoulCycle is the hurts-so-good indoor cycling company that has been called both a phenomenon and a cult. (Its leaders would prefer it to be called an experience, and control its public image more tightly than a pair of $86 bike capris.) The studios are massage-room dark, the music is dance-hall loud, and the pedaling ranges from energetic to Roadrunner.
Founded in 2006 on the Upper West Side of New York by Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice (the third co-founder, Ruth Zuckerman, left in 2009 to start competitor Flywheel Sports), the company, which is preparing to go public , now has 45 locations across the country and welcomes 12,000 riders a day, among them celebrities such as Lena Dunham and Lady Gaga. By year’s end, there will be 54 studios — including Georgetown, Mount Vernon and 14th Street. One class costs $30 (plus $3 to rent the shoes that clip into the pedals). Packages begin at $145 for five classes and climb to $3,500 for 50.
SoulCycle depends on the charisma of its instructors to spin out the strenuousness, personal attention and quads-of-steel success that make such prices worth it. But even so, Phillips stands out. He’s known as Wayne the Train, an alter ego that has spawned a hashtag (#waynetrain) that clients use when posting selfies with him. His ardent devotees include philanthropist/socialite Ashley Taylor Bronczek, fashion blogger Candace Ourisman and Stephanie Carter, wife of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
“I travel a lot for work and go to multiple SoulCycles, but Wayne is hands down the best,” Carter says. “His energy, the music and the way he engages the whole class makes me work harder than I ever thought was possible — even at 6:30 p.m.!”
“His riders are the most loyal,” says assistant manager Jen Cahn. So loyal that the company has given him less-popular time slots. Four-thirty in the afternoon and 8:30 in the evening “are not prime-time spots,” Cahn says. “But they have become prime time with Wayne.”
There was no hint that the shy Brooklyn boy raised by an accountant father and a social worker mother would someday possess such an impressive physique and intense athleticism.
“He was a chubby kid,” says Phillips’s older sister, Quana Bell, 33, a stay-at-home mom in Tennessee. “We would fight over the snacks in the house.” It wasn’t until their mother died from breast cancer when Phillips was 14 that he started juicing and eating healthy, Bell says. “He saw our mother doing that when she was sick.”
Another legacy his mother left him is his love of music. The radio was always on when she cooked breakfast on Saturday mornings, and some of the songs that filled the house, such as “Let It Whip” by the Dazz Band, have found their way onto Phillips’s playlists.
In high school, Phillips played basketball and baseball, and became more outgoing and confident. He hosted a radio program showcasing hip-hop club music at Brooklyn College, where he earned a degree in television and radio production in 2013.
That summer, Phillips took a job on the cleaning staff at SoulCycle’s SoHo studio to earn money for graduate school. He wiped down the bikes, cleaned the bathrooms. In the fall, he clipped in for the first time (all staffers are encouraged to take classes). “It was such a huge shock to me,” he remembers. “I wasn’t in the best shape.”
But by March 2014, cheered on by instructors who had noticed his talent, he was auditioning to become one himself. The job offered him a stage where he could share his interest in both fitness and music. “I want people to walk out of my class and say, ‘What just happened? I just danced,’ ” he says.
After a 12-week training program, Phillips became the first SoulCycle employee to transition from cleaning staff to instructor, leading classes at the NoHo location before co-founder Julie Rice chose him to move to the Washington studio in January. (He also teaches in Bethesda.)
“The riders see him as a celebrity,” says Cahn.
Says Miles Johnson, another D.C. assistant manager who worked in SoHo with Phillips: “He cleaned up people’s crap, and now he’s teaching them!”
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Phillips’s storyline brings to mind that of Abbi on Comedy Central’s “Broad City.” She’s a janitor at a boutique Manhattan gym called Soulstice who longs to be an instructor and blows her big chance by flinging a kettleball into a mirror.
“I’ve heard it all,” Phillips says, smiling. “Turn your resistance all the way up to Gandhi,” he adds, quoting a “SpiritCycle” instructor from Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
Earnest and soft-spoken outside the studio, he avoids caffeine and he drinks water when he goes out with friends. “When I’m feeling frisky,” he says, “I’ll get a lemon.” He unwinds by watching documentaries about World War II or visiting the roof of his Foggy Bottom apartment building at night. He is single but is “talking to someone.”
It can be hard for a non-SoulCyclist to put a finger on exactly why he’s so special. “He’s so hardworking and humble,” Cahn says. And “he’s so built, so defined, he’s an inspiration himself!” says Patrick Chauvin, a founding agent of Washington Fine Properties and a regular in Phillips’s classes.
Then there’s the music, which Johnson describes as having “a deep dance beat.” Phillips has more than 50,000 songs on his MacBook. “It’s what sets him apart,” Johnson says.
Phillips, who spends up to three hours preparing a playlist for a class, lets the music do the talking. “Instructors can be very ‘Kumbaya/We’re all one rider’ type of thing,” says Clinton Alsip, a finance officer and another regular. “Wayne is short on words in class. I don’t need someone to explain my journey on a bike.”
What his riders need most is support and a challenge. “He sees everyone from the front row to the back,” Alsip says. “It’s like one-on-one attention in a group of 58.” And there is no slacking. “It’s a really, really tough class,” Alsip continues. “My socks are wet when I’m with Wayne.”
Intense exercise releases a rush of endorphins, and when that high occurs at the hands of an instructor, says D.C. sports psychologist Keith Kaufman, a strong emotional bond is forged.
“You come in with these doubts: ‘Can I do this?’ ” Kaufman says. “And then, when you go through this intense experience with this charismatic guide who helps you reach your goals, the mind can’t help but give some credit to the instructor.”
Alsip gives voice to those sentiments. In Phillips’s class, “You feel like you’re breaking through something big,” he says. “He’s been a boost to my ego and self-confidence that, at age 53, I didn’t think was possible.”
Phillips isn’t fazed by the adulation. “I kinda went through it in high school,” he says. “I’m tall. I’m athletic,” he ticks off. “I’m cool. I’m modest. I’m here.”
At least he’s here for the moment. Phillips would like to earn a master’s degree in film and television. And he wouldn’t mind DJ-ing. Or leading a boot camp.
“Maybe he’ll be training celebrities,” theorizes his sister. “There is no limit for him.”
It’s 9:15 p.m. on a Friday night, and Phillips has just taught his last sellout class of the day. Sweaty women congregate at the reception area, inspecting $48 tank tops and $102 lace-up capris. “Did you get a picture?” a cyclist with a blond bun and sweatband asks her friend.
After they’re gone, Phillips stands bathed in the white light of the empty reception area and picks up a tall metal bin filled with rental shoes. One by one, he takes them out, sprays them with disinfectant, and puts them on the counter. Just like old times.
“I’m just trying to help out before I leave,” he says and sets another pair neatly down.
“Hola’ Hovito” by Jay-Z: “Always like to start off with my favorite artist.”
“Baby Boy” by Beyoncé: “It’s a party starter, yet smooth and sexy.”
“Touch the Sky” by Kanye West: “I love the combination of a ’70s vibe with modern-day rap lyrics.”
“Alright” by Kendrick Lamar: “This song calls for a nice thick climb and grind.”
“Bang That” by Disclosure: “Reminds me of those summer nights in New York City.”
“1960 What?” by Gregory Porter: “Like to give my riders a listen to some music they don’t usually hear.”
“Take Care” by Drake (featuring Rihanna): “You can never go wrong with a Drake and Rihanna combo.”
“Berzerk” by Eminem: “Something aggressive always gets the heart going; combo Eminem with some electric guitar.”
“I Get Money” by 50 Cent: “I remember having a special dance to this song in high school.”
“The Whistle Song” by Frankie Knuckles: “The godfather of house music; such a huge impact on my early childhood.”
Contributor Cathy Alter last wrote for the Magazine about a spiritualist church in Georgetown.
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