2014 Date Geography North America

Hollywood, Part I: Spinning in Tinseltown


En-route from Hawaii back to London, I spent the past week in Los Angeles. My brother and sister-in-law live there, virtually in the shadow of the famous Hollywood sign, which is perched on the hill behind their apartment block. To them “Hollywood” is just part of their address, but to most of us it so much more: a global icon, a synonym for the movies, and an immediately recognisable backdrop from countless films and television shows. Not to mention a beacon of hope, a city of dreams that draws in those in search of fame and fortune, from every corner of the globe.

So anyway, my sister-in-law is an avid Hollywood spinner. And in saying this I am not talking about the ability to schmooze and “do lunch”, even though she is a reality-TV producer and this sort of “spinning” is an essential tool of her trade (more on this next week).

No, I am talking about spin a-la cycling in a gym. Over the last twenty years this has exploded onto the fitness scene, becoming one of the most popular forms of group exercise out there, and a staple feature in gyms and health clubs everywhere.

So much so that even those not overly renowned for their fitness (ahem, ahem) have probably taken a spin class or two, and I have spun in places as diverse as Sydney, Singapore, London and San Francisco, where the experience is always more or less the same. That is, I arrive at the gym, mount a stationary bike in a room full of people doing likewise, an instructor puts on some heart-thumping music, and I pedal my little heart out for about an hour while the instructor occasionally barks instructions. At the end of a class about 600 calories has left my body to become a little pool of sweat on the floor, and I leave feeling worn out and utterly exhausted.

Therefore, when my sister-in-law invited me to join her and my brother at their regular Saturday morning spin session, this was pretty much what I expected. But as I was to learn, in Hollywood – the razzle-dazzle capital of the planet – they do the whole spin thing differently. A whole lot differently, in fact.

To start with, we had to book in advance. Apparently, the classes are in such demand we had to reserve our $25 (!) tickets for the session, days before.

Second, the class was not being held in a gym or health club, but in a centre devoted entirely to the singular act of spinning. We arrived and entered into a light and airy reception room, which looked a lot like the waiting room in a doctor’s surgery. Apart that is from the large chalkboard, on which in big capital letters were printed random words designed to get you in the mood, like INNOVATE, LOVE, and INSPIRE.

Next up, an incredibly attractive receptionist – no doubt a budding starlet just filling in time until she gets her big break – signed us in. She handed me a pair of special bike shoes, a bottle of water, and two little white towels. Nearby a bunch of fit, good-looking and irritatingly cheerful young people hovered about. They were all wearing tight-fitting t-shirts that said something like “CREW” on the back. Most had oh-so-cool tattoos decorating their arms and legs.

One of them approached me, checked I had put my shoes on properly, and then proceeded to escort me through a door, and into the spin room itself. Inside it was pitch-black, so my escort pulled out a little flashlight to point the way: it seems that in Hollywood you get ushered to your bike in a spin room, just like being in the cinema. In hushed tones he explained to me how the bike worked, and adjusted the height of my chair. It being America I felt like I needed to give him a tip, but before I could blink he had faded away into the surrounding darkness, so that all I could hear was the sounds of puffing  people and whizzing wheels. And then there was a sudden blast of music, and a bright single-beam spotlight came on, lighting up the scene, and revealing a spin class like no spin-class I’d ever seen before.

The room contained about forty bikes, all of which were occupied. They were arranged in semi-circles on three tiers – what in the official marketing lingo is called “stadium cycling”. We were, however, packed in so closely that I was virtually bumping knees with the cyclists on either side of me. Apparently this is deliberate, so as to “channel the group’s energy”, and in line with this we were all energetically pointed towards the same spot, a raised platform at the centre of the room on which a solo spandex-clad lady was furiously pedalling away.

All hail – this was our mighty instructor! Blonde, pony-tailed, muscle-ripped, and obscenely fit, she was brilliantly lit up in the spotlight, making her the focus of attention for all eyes in the room. And what with a wireless headset and microphone, a laptop computer besides her, and two large LED screens mounted on a mirrored wall behind her, you could have easily have mistaken her for a rave-party DJ.

It was all quite dramatic, and it very much felt like we had departed from the real world, and entered instead into a parallel universe of make-believe and fairy-dust, otherwise known as Hollywood.  I half expected someone to jump out at the front of the room with a clapboard, to start us off by calling out “Action!” Which they may as well have done, because just then the music revved up a notch, and over the noise our instructor screamed: “Are you ready people?” Although this was obviously not meant as a rhetorical question, because in unison the room roared out in reply, so loudly that I almost fell of my bike: “YEAH!” (Including even my brother, if nothing else proving he has been living in the USA for way too long).

And then we were off, for an hour of non-stop cycling-cum-theatre. In the darkness we powered up imaginary hills, and sprinted along imaginary flats. We worked every part of our legs and butts and core until it felt like our muscles were about to be ripped clean from the bones. All the while Madam Instructor kept up a virtually non-stop commentary, barely breaking a sweat, damn her.

But unlike other spin classes I have been to, she dished out not only instructions but words of inspiration as well. All at very high volume and, for the most part, artfully timed to coincide with the music. So, for example, as a remixed George Michael got to the chorus of his song “Freedom”, our instructor called out in time: “Freedom, people – can you feel that FREEDOM?” Later she added other pearls of wisdom, like: “reach for it NOW; your potential is limitless”; and “I won’t let you down – no, hear me clearly people, I WON’T LET YOU DOWN!!!” To which she was met each time with a resounding cheer from the room full of spinners, and at the end of each segment, outright applause.

It was like we were at a show, and she was the star performer. Although the cheering and clapping made it also feel a bit like I had stumbled into a meeting of some bizarre cyclist cult, or an evangelical Christian conference. Frankly my staid Anglo-Saxon sensibilities were finding it a touch overwhelming. I mean, I am accustomed to the more reserved, meek and mild ways of the British, where all this motivational mumbo-jumbo, not to mention the group hollering ecstatically in response, is considered just a touch gauche. And so very, um, well, … how shall I put this politely, …. so very American.

But wait – the show was far from over. As we got to the halfway point of the class, the screens behind the instructor lit up, displaying a list of all the bikes in the room, including nick-names for the riders that had presumably been assigned to us before the class began. I was Bike 29, and now discovered that my saddle-alias was the very cool KeepOnGroovin. The super-duper hi-tech bike was electronically measuring my pedal speed and power output, and that data was now being projected up on the screens, alongside everyone else’s, in first to last order. Meaning that without warning I was now a participant in a race of sorts, against everyone else in the room.

So there we were: hi-energy music, blackened room, a spot-lit instructor urging me to “feel your inner power”, and forty dripping cyclists all cheering and clapping at the same time as they were trying to obliterate me on the race-board. Something in all this must have tripped a wire in my overloaded brain, because I found myself pedalling faster and harder than I ever have before, and the rest of the class floated by, as if in a hazy, sweaty dream.

At the end of it I was whooping and hollering along with everyone else. And after the class was done and I joined the single-file queue leaving the spin room, it seemed perfectly normal that the instructor should be standing at the exit, fist-bumping or hugging each cyclist individually. And offering us each one final motivational sound-bite, to go (in my case, it was a first-bump along with something that sounded like “awesome effort – stand proud in the light, brother”. Although I was pretty close to passing out at this point, so I can’t be sure).

For the rest of that day, I felt the same muscle-aches and bone-numbing exhaustion I feel after any spin class. But I felt something else as well, which was pumped up and light, and almost elated. Anywhere else in the world, what I had done that morning was a spin class – a good old-fashioned workout. In Hollywood, on the other hand, a liberal sprinkling of Tinseltown’s magic dust had transformed spinning into something much more than exercise. It was now also entertainment.

Which I guess is what the dream factory is all about, isn’t it?

Hollywood boulevard sign, with palm trees in the background

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