A recent phenomenon since the new millennium is “spin class.”  When the term first appeared, I thought it had to do with dancing or fast-paced calisthenics.  Not being particularly interested in either activity, it took me several years to learn that “spin” is actually performed on a bicycle in a health club.   Despite having several friends and a spouse who are spin enthusiasts, I spent several more years picturing spin as akin to riding a bucking bronco.  John Travolta came to mind when I learned there is a musical component.  I maintained that image in my mind until today, when I made my spin debut.

“Spin” was not on my agenda for this morning.   Instead, I awoke anticipating my usual weekend tennis game, while my wife headed off to her spin class at “the gym.”  However, the weather dawned wet and wild, so there would be no tennis.  Always practical, my wife suggested I accompany her so that a subsequent trip to the hardware store could be accomplished together without the need for an extra car ride.  “You can hang out in the weight room for an hour,” she suggested.  However, in my new occasional openness to new things, I volunteered to finally experience “spin.”

The first revelation was that we had to arrive early to stake out bikes.  Even though it was barely past dawn on Sunday morning, “spin” is somehow popular.  People pay to pedal!   Skeptical, but compliant, I joined the rush into the room at 7:40 for an 8:00 class.  Remarkably, the room was nearly full as we staked out two of the last available bikes.  I examined mine to see if there was any special feature that transformed this humdrum piece of hardware into a calorie-collapsing powerhouse.  Nope.  The bike looked notably pedestrian.  In fact, it was less elaborate than most bicycles I’ve encountered since there are no gears and no brakes, just a round control in the middle which adjusts the resistance.   “So far, so good,” I said to myself.  “This looks easy.”

While my wife chatted with several friends, I tried to wrap my mind around the popularity of spin, which I understood from our ride over, would involve being led through a regimen of sweat-inducing pedaling challenges by a loud-music-inspired taskmaster.  The “spin” aspect refers to the wheels, I suppose, indicative of slick marketing,   since it sounds significantly more satisfying than “stationary bike class.”  The class component means that, instead of just taking a difficult bike ride, if one is so inclined, one pedals, sweats and grunts in close quarters with twenty or thirty fellow non-travelers.

The class was comprised of a mixture of participants ranging in age from the mid-twenties to the outer limits of what can still be called middle-aged.  There were about twenty women and three or four men.  Though the population of any such exercise class is self-selected to be fairly fit, this spandex and tee-shirted crowd was not notably attractive.  In suburban North Carolina, perhaps, unlike in Hollywood, glamour is left at home on rainy Sunday mornings.

At the appointed hour, the instructor, Charles, swept in amidst our bikes and took his place on a platform in front of a mirrored wall.  He gazed out at us and shouted with unnerving cheerfulness:  “Is everybody ready to sweat?”  He then turned on some throbbing rap music and led us into a “warm-up.”  “Wow,” I thought.  “I am subjecting myself to this noise when I could be at home listening to Vivaldi.”

I tuned out the sound as much as I could and focused on the physical activity.  We pedaled slowly, mostly, and stretched our arms to the sides and above our heads.  It felt good.  From my spot in the middle of three rows I felt good-natured solidarity with those around me as we cheerfully set off on our ride to nowhere.

Directly in front of me, however, I noticed a young man pedaling furiously, as though he were racing up a mountain in the last stage of the Tour de France.   He was the student from central-casting who embodies the expression:  “there is one in every crowd.”  You know who I mean.  It is the guy who always sits front and center in class; the guy who always raises his hand to answer questions; the guy who dominates the instructor’s time.  This was a young man in an unnervingly bright orange cycling outfit who felt a need, during a short lull in the music, to announce to the instructor and everyone else:  “This is my first class!  Make it a good one!”

I rolled my eyes and attempted to focus on my own activity.  My wife warned me to react to Charles’s frequent exhortations to “turn it up” by moving my resistance dial in tiny increments.  Otherwise, I would find myself working harder than my legs could manage.  It was not clear, however, what she meant by “tiny.”  Is that an eighth of an inch, a quarter of an inch, or what?  I realized that there would be an unexpected moral element to this activity.  How hard one works is entirely up to oneself.

At first, as we progressed from warming-up to climbing an imaginary mountain, the activity was easy.  I moved my dial a modest quarter-inch and still did not feel much resistance.  Charles then instructed us to alternately stand and sit while pedaling.  This required a fair amount of concentration, particularly given that male anatomy is not ideal for rapid placement on a bicycle seat.  My haunches began to feel challenged.  A bead of sweat emerged on my brow.  Still, the exertion was manageable.

Misty memories of soccer practices emerged in my mind that I had not pondered for decades.  My college team had “brutality day” once a week, a practice that consisted almost entirely of conditioning.  We ran, then we did exercises, then we ran again, then we went en masse to the weight room that the football team grudgingly vacated for thirty minutes.  On those days, in the flush of youth, my teammates and I obsessed with avoiding exertion.  Each person dogged it as much as possible, oblivious to the counter-productiveness of our lassitude.  We all knew that better conditioning would help us win our games.  It was definitely a case of youth being wasted on the young.

I pondered the irony of how much more my youthful body could have endured while the college facility was free.   Now, I found myself paying to participate in a fitness activity; yet, once again, I was not working to full capacity, though I completely understood the importance of promoting good health.  The philosophical implications of effort and reward and the passage of time weighed on my mind.  These profound ruminations helped me ignore the loud and ostentatious exertions of the fellow in front of me.  I ultimately rationalized my sloth with the conclusion that I wanted to be able to walk the next day.

Another of the random thoughts that floated through my mind during spin, like flotsam and jetsam, is that one cannot know how much resistance one’s neighbors are imposing upon themselves.  The only objective marker of a spinner’s work habits is the puddle of sweat accumulating on the floor around their bikes.  In this category, I was failing.  I noticed that the guy in front was sweating so profusely that I was certain he had spilled his water bottle.  Not to be outdone, I turned my dial a half inch, with a flourish!  After all, I figured, we must be nearly done, and I needed to appear fully perspired when the class ended.

At that moment, Charles announced that we were halfway through.  “Halfway?” I gasped.  The guy in front of me shouted to Charles to “make it more challenging!”  Feeling my knees begin to wobble, I pondered if Alleve and Preparation H can be combined.  I relished a minute devoted to stretching.

The second half of the class proceeded like the first.  I found it harder because my legs were undeniably fatigued.  Yet, I was also more comfortable handling the frequent ups and downs, and I was now thoroughly “warmed up.”  I glanced at the earnest participants around me, including my wife, and admired their dedication.  Thus inspired, I turned the dial another quarter inch and tried to appreciate some aspect of the rap music that was reverberating in my skull.  I could not find any, but at least the misery in my ears helped me to absorb some of the misery in my thighs.

Sunshine emerged through the windows and brightened the room and the mood.  “Isn’t that nice!” shouted Charles, over the music.  “It’s going to be a beautiful day!”  Several classmates whooped and cheered.  I was still pedaling slowly, feeling as though my kneecaps were turning to jelly.  I leaned forward over the handlebars to relieve the tension in my back.  This enabled several drops of sweat to fall from my forehead to the floor and added to my sub-par collection.  When I sat back again I saw that Lance Armstrong in front of me was now swinging his arms to accompany his furious pace.

“Last mountain!” shouted Charles, as he adjusted the music even louder.  “Turn it up!”

I took a deep breath and contemplated my choices.  I could turn the dial just a little; I could turn the dial a lot and go out (or down) in a blaze of glory; or, as a devil-like figure seemingly whispered into my ear, I could act as though I were turning the dial without actually turning it.  No one would know the difference!  This was entirely my own choice and my own consequence.

Except me.   I would know the difference!   And that would not be good.  I have, at least, made some progress since I was twenty.  I adjusted the dial a moderate amount and pedaled through some moderate discomfort.  When the music finally ended, and Charles declared:  “See you all next week!” I made sure I kept pedaling until after the guy in front of me came to a halt.