This post is updated regularly. Last update: 14 December 2020.
Home-based fitness that combines the economic and cultural characteristics of owning a mobile device with the traditional efficacy of high-intensity interval training was the disruptive trend of the fitness industry long before COVID-19 upended the world. Like most things related to COVID-19, the virus didn’t cause a rapid shift any more than it exposed the weaknesses already present in existing businesses and their business models.
There are many options for at-home fitness just as there are many gyms to join. Also, several fitness instructors have taken to offering Zoom classes in exchange for direct Venmo or Paypal payments. The average fitness enthusiast has several choices at varying price points.
In this blog post I’ll compare two options for spinning, a fitness category near and dear to my heart. It was never likely for a borderline obese and definitely middle-aged man to be attracted to spinning, but for a variety of reasons I was hooked from my very first SoulCycle class in San Francisco. Since my first ride in November 2014, I’ve ridden 2,591 times in-studio, once rode 700 times in a single year, once rode 102 times in a single month, and once rode all 7 classes offered in a single day at my local studio. Hell, I even got married at SoulCycle, during an actual class (seriously). Don’t do the math, just appreciate that I love the “sport” of spinning and, for this comparison, I love SoulCycle. I also bought a Peloton during the pandemic (before the SoulCycle at-home bike was available), and rode Peloton for about two months before purchasing the SoulCycle at-home bike.
The SoulCycle at-home bike is built and marketed by Variis, also a subsidiary of Equinox. Throughout this article, I refer to “SoulCycle” and “Variis” interchangeably. SoulCycle, the studio brand and experience, is not a focus of this article.
In this post, I’ll compare Peloton and SoulCycle at-home across several criteria, including:
- Bike specifications and quality
- User interface and user experience
- Class format and experience
- Community and support
- Marketing and business model
You’ll find that I won’t be able to sum up my recommendation into a nifty comparison table. For sure, Peloton is way, way ahead in terms of raw features, but SoulCycle is a rapidly improving fast-follower. The best choice for you really does depend on what you prefer and the kinds of classes you prefer to take. Your decision is inherently personal, and, frankly, you can’t go wrong with either option. Hopefully, this guide will lay out the differences so you can make the decision yourself.
If you were to force me to distill it all down to a soundbite, it would be this:
If what you want is a cardio class with clear quantifiable metrics to measure yourself against, go with Peloton. If what you want is a cardio party designed around a more qualitative feeling, go with SoulCycle.
Buy a Peloton bike and get $100 off accessories using promo code: 3RJQXG
Bike specifications and quality
Peloton offers two bike options. The “Peloton Bike” is USD $1900 and the “Peloton Bike+” is USD $2500. The SoulCycle at home bike is USD $2500. Peloton and Variis both offer financing with monthly payment options ranging from $49/month to $64/month.
According to the Peloton and SoulCycle websites, the bikes have similar dimensions:
- On-floor footprint for all three: 4' L x 2' W
- Dimensions: Total: 59" L x 53" H x 23" W for the Peloton Bike, 59" L x 59" H x 22" W for the Peloton Bike+, and 62.2" L x 53.5" H x 22.2" W for the SoulCycle
- Screen: 21.5" Diagonal (20.75" x 12.5") for the Peloton Bike, 23" Diagonal for the Peloton Bike+, and 21.5" Diagonal (20.75" x 12.5") for the SoulCycle
- Weight Total: 135 lbs for the Peloton, 140 lbs for the Peloton Bike+, and 142 lbs for the SoulCycle
All three bikes are sturdy and solidly built. The differences between them are fairly minimal. However, the shape of the handlebars and the angle of the seat are different, consistent with the differences in their respective class formats, which we will discuss later. The SoulCycle handlebars can also be adjusted forward and backward, in addition to up and down. Having a fourth bike adjustment (alongside the seat up/down and forward/backward) is really helpful for finding the perfect fit.
Peloton designs and builds its bikes, going so far as to have completed acquisitions that enable it to better control its supply chain. This is a fairly important distinction when we discuss marketing and business models later.
Meanwhile, the SoulCycle is based on a Stages SC1 bike. The Stages Power meter can also be paired with third-party apps, including the StagesPower app. Overall, the SoulCycle is more versatile because it is comprised of off-the-shelf bikes and components. It’s a good hedge in case you have doubts about Equinox’s long-term commitment to the business (as we will discuss later).
Both bikes have an Android-based multi-touch tablet attached in front of the handlebars. This is where the magic of at-home fitness comes from. The specifications of the tablet on the surface are the same for dimensions, resolution, and cameras (the Peloton Bike+ is larger). The Peloton Bike+ now supports Apple GymKit through an NFC chip embedded in the tablet (thus, syncing with the heart rate monitor on an Apple Watch, for example). The SoulCycle bike also has an NFC chip, but it has not yet been activated to support Apple GymKit.
Finally, there are a host of accessories to choose from:
- Hand weights (Peloton offers 1, 2, and 3lb weights, while SoulCycle offers 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and 10lb weights)
- Floor mat (kind of like a thick yoga mat, branded appropriately, and intended to be placed on the floor under the bike)
- Earphones and Bluetooth earphones
- Shoes, yoga mats, water bottles, and apparel (SoulCycle apparel is in a league of its own, but fortunately for my budget, I am far too overweight to fit into anything)
Side note: I purchased Apple Powerbeats Pro to use specifically with both bikes, and the Powerbeats turns out to be far too temperamental to maintain a stable Bluetooth connection with either bike. I recommend avoiding Beats products with these bikes.
User interface and user experience
On Peloton, the home screen starts with a list of classes, highlighting your favorite instructors, new classes, and classes your friends are taking now. Oddly, you cannot “favorite” an individual instructor. The Peloton home screen determines your favorite instructors based on your class ratings and previous classes. You can bookmark an individual class, however, so that you can find it easily later.
There are tabs below the home screen for the following:
- Programs, curated“packages” of classes that help you accomplish certain goals.
- Classes, where you can browse and search for classes according to various filtering criteria, including the instructor, music type, length of class, type of class, and more. We’ll discuss these more in the class format section, below.
- Schedule, a list of classes coming up in the week ahead. All classes are streamed live and available later on-demand.
- Challenges, a list of achievements and challenges you can sign up for.
During a Peloton class, you can swipe across the screen to reveal information panels:
- Current song: From the left, you can see the currently playing song and “favorite” it during class while the sound is still fresh in your mind. If you have Apple Music or Spotify linked to your Peloton account, a Peloton playlist will automatically get created and the song you’ve favorited will appear there. I find this to be an absolutely incredible feature.
- Feed: A constant stream of kudos, achievements by others riding with you, and “high-fives”. It’s a phenomenal community feature of the Peloton that distracts me so I always swipe it away. But it’s an inherent component of the Peloton culture to send positive vibes to your fellow riders, one which all fitness aficionados can appreciate.
- Heart Rate Monitor: If you have a compatible heart rate monitor configured, your heart rate can be seen by swiping from the left.
- Power Meter: From the bottom, you can see all manner of metrics related to your ride. This is the heart and soul of the Peloton experience. If you are in any way competitive, either with others or with yourself, you’re constantly tracking your metrics during a ride. The Total Output number (a calculation based on speed + resistance) is a great barometer of how well you’re progressing class-to-class. The quest to set “Personal Records” (or “PRs”) helps motivate you to push harder in the next class.
- Leaderboard: From the right, the leaderboard lets you see where you stack up against the broader community of Peloton riders who have taken that class. It’s an ingenious little feature that stokes the competitive fire, either among the broad community, just your friends, or even with celebrity riders. I found myself trying to keep up with NFL players and getting lapped about 5 minutes in (where they double my Total Output and never look back). Even the professional golfers are insane Peloton athletes. This feature is unique to Peloton, and they guard their patent and implementation fiercely for good reason. The Leaderboard enables you to see how well you’re performing in a class compared to others who have taken (or who are currently taking) the same class at the point in the class you’re currently at. It’s pretty addicting and motivating.
- Progress bar: From the top, you can see the format of the class (warm-up, weights, cool-down, etc.) and how much further you have to go.
Peloton’s community features are exceptional. We’ve discussed the Leaderboard, where you can see how others who have taken the class or are currently taking the class have performed relative to you. But in addition to the Leaderboard are features for finding friends either by linking to your Facebook account or searching for their handle, identifying when your friends are taking classes, seeing how you rank vs. your friends’ personal records and overall Peloton performance, and perhaps coolest of all, being able to ride with a friend and seeing one another via the front-facing camera. You can also give others taking a class with you “high-fives,” which makes even taking recorded classes feel alive and fresh.
The SoulCycle user interface is slightly different, with some innovation, but overall inferior to Peloton:
- Progress bar: similar to Peloton, but you reveal the Progress bar by swiping from the bottom.
- Metrics: similar to Peloton’s, with less detailed information, and can be seen by swiping from the top.
- Form Rider: you can swipe from the left to see a silhouette of a rider who is demonstrating proper form for the current moment in class. As we’ll talk about in a moment, SoulCycle classes place an emphasis on riding to the music, with choreography (specialized movements out of the saddle) playing a big part in that. The Form Rider is an attempt by SoulCycle to provide some instruction and demystify this often daunting aspect of a SoulCycle class.
I wish SoulCycle could sync to Apple Music and Spotify, and I wish they’d let me favorite a song in-the-moment. You are able to add songs from a class playlist to Spotify after a class is over, but it would be more impactful during class. These are my absolute favorite parts of the Peloton user interface, and I consider it somewhat of a miss for SoulCycle to not provide it.
SoulCycle recently added community features to the bike. For the time being, at least, they are inferior to Peloton. As you’re riding a live class, you can see who else is in the class with you. (You can change your display name in settings, and set yourself to “Anonymous” as well.)
Also, SoulCycle will never be able to offer a Leaderboard (Peloton sued competitor Flywheel for offering this in their home bike, and ultimately Flywheel discontinued the bike altogether). It is unclear if Peloton’s patents extend to their other community features (finding and following friends and other riders, high-fiving other riders, and seeing who else is in a class and joining them). Given that the bike includes a front-facing camera, one can assume that SoulCycle will, at some point, offer the opportunity to take classes with friends.
Overall, many of the features in the user interface can be duplicated. One company may be “ahead”, but the next company hopefully quickly catches up. Competition is good for everyone as it drives innovation.
Class format and experience
The format of the classes differs wildly between Peloton and SoulCycle, and that is the crux of the comparison between the two. Saying both types of spin classes are the same is kind of like saying all pizza is the same just because they have crust, sauce, and cheese. There’s a lot of nuances, and that nuance will most likely drive your purchase decision, so let’s dig into it.
Unlike in-studio classes, online classes have dramatically different legal requirements for music. Add the international component (Peloton is available in Germany, the United Kingdom, and parts of Canada as well as the United States), and the legal requirements to obtain the right to stream music are complicated. Peloton recently settled a lawsuit with record labels in this vein.
The music will get repetitive.
It may well be a situation where we see certain artists sign exclusive deals with certain at-home fitness companies, and such deals would subsequently be a key component of the company’s growth and marketing strategy. Peloton recently signed Beyonce, for example. Given that live concerts aren’t a viable revenue stream for the short-term future, it may be inevitable for such exclusive arrangements to eventually be consummated. If you’re like me and are a Swiftie and Belieber, that may one day guide your decision.
Peloton: As the leader and pioneer in at-home spinning classes, Peloton gets the enviable opportunity to set the criteria for evaluation. Peloton offers a variety of class formats, each with a variety of durations, ranging from 5-minute classes to 90-minute classes (I believe there are even longer classes as well!):
- Live classes (and on-demand). An instructor leads the class in front of a studio audience, and the class is streamed (and made available on-demand later) to an audience of thousands riding at home. Peloton has different types of live classes, ones which emphasize climbs (pedaling at high resistance), grooves (riding to the rhythm of the music, the closest approximation to SoulCycle there is at Peloton), intervals (ride fast and hard, then rest, repeat), low impact (recovery rides at low resistance and speed, predominantly in the saddle), and more.
- PowerZone, Heart Rate Zone, Pro Cyclist. Specialized classes designed to test the rider’s health and progress, prepare for road cycling, and more.
- Free and scenic rides. The tablet shows your bike riding through beautiful scenery while you ride to your own music and at your own pace.
Indeed, Peloton’s biggest strength at this point is the sheer number and variety of classes. You’ll have to work really hard to run out of new rides to take.
SoulCycle offers only two types of classes today.
- On-demand (pre-recorded) classes come in 20, 30, 45, 60, and 90-minute durations. The SoulCycle catalog consists of 250+ of these classes, all organized by a “descriptive title” (which isn’t descriptive at all in many cases) consistent with SoulCycle’s trendy brand identity, such as “Rise and Ride”, “All or Nothing”, and “Put It All Out There”. You can infer something about the class from its title, but not enough to know whether the class will fill a particular niche you’re interested in at any given time. In that way, it’s just like a regular SoulCycle class: find an instructor you like, show up to a class, pray they don’t play Coldplay.
- Live classes were rolled out to Variis subscribers recently. After some initial experimentation with live class formats, Variis seems to have settled on streaming “SoulCycle Studio Stream” classes from the West Village SoulCycle studio (WVLG in SoulCycle parlance) in New York City. These “Studio Stream” classes are available to stream to SoulCycle customers for $20, but Variis customers with the SoulCycle at home bike are able to stream them for free as part of their monthly membership.
All classes are streamed. It is not possible to download them to your device.
Over time, libraries get stale and what’s important is variety and new content, even more so than total volume of classes. In that vein, both companies keep their class libraries fresh, and what was once an advantage for Peloton is now no longer the case.
Recently, SoulCycle added a “Free Ride” experience that, as the name suggests, lets you ride on your own without having to take a class. You can see your real-time metrics, but those metrics are not stored. SoulCycle gives you two options for a Free Ride:
- Freestyle Mode, a beautiful “screen saver” with running clock so you can listen to your own music.
- Streaming Mode, the option to watch television on Netflix or Disney+. Presumably additional content providers will be forthcoming. It’s a unique and welcome option, especially for those who don’t want all the fancy SoulCycle aspects of the bike and who just want to sweat.
Peloton class experience vs. SoulCycle class experience
But the core difference between the two is the class experience. One is not better than the other. They’re just different. And identifying the type of class you prefer will best direct you to a purchase decision you’ll be delighted over.
Peloton classes are focused on metrics and Total Output. The overarching drive of every class is dialing resistance up or down and increasing or decreasing the speed at which you pedal. There is some synchronicity between the music and the moments during which instructors urge you to push or not push harder. After all, it’s hard not to get that little extra oomph when the beat drops.
But all in all, the Peloton class is focused on quantitative improvement. Instructors give you direction to dial Resistance to a certain numeric range or to drive your Cadence (pedaling speed) to a certain numeric range. The Leaderboard motivates you to drive your total output higher by raising both your resistance and pedaling speed.
The Peloton class also has a “live” feel to it, in a studio, with an audience of riders just like you.
Thus, many of the user interface differences between Peloton and SoulCycle that we covered earlier are driven by the style of class. Peloton’s leaderboard and community features are a direct consequence of the quantitative, metrics-based competition with yourself and your past performance and between you and others.
SoulCycle classes, by contrast, are focused on how you feel, via rhythm riding. A SoulCycle class is all about the music and riding to its rhythm. Instructors give you direction to lead with a certain foot, and that foot drops to the beat. Songs with a fast beat encourage faster pedaling, while songs with a slow beat encourage higher resistance and slower pedaling. Specialized choreography (which is always optional, and of dubious health benefit) gets sprinkled throughout a class as well, mostly to break up the monotony of pedaling fast on a bike that goes nowhere. With SoulCycle, the music is the star of the show, and you can find yourself getting lost in the music, “dancing” on a bike to the beat.
“Riding to the beat, riding a bicycle to the beat is a challenge. Give yourself permission to mess it up. Have a good time. We just want to dance. We just want to move.” — Chris Layda, SoulCycle instructor (from one of his classes)
A SoulCycle at home class is also more “cinematic”, with high production value, direction, lighting, and a focus on the instructor coaching the riders in the class. Cameras on gimbals and jibs follow the instructor and studio riders, weaving in between the bikes and panning across the podium. As a consequence, you really do feel like you’re in an actual SoulCycle studio.
Consistent with SoulCycle’s “cardio dance party” brand identity, the classes feel like you’re going clubbing. Depending on your personality, you may either be too old for this nonsense, or you may reflect with great nostalgia on your days of dancing until 3am, napping, and turning around at 6am to head into work with bloodshot eyes. Just as an example.
Regardless, the “cardio dance party” (again, SoulCycle’s words, not mine) is what got me into SoulCycle to begin with, it’s why I kept going (and going and going), and why the SoulCycle bike speaks to me at a more visceral level than did the Peloton bike.
At the end of a SoulCycle class, you get a “Beat Match” score, which was a fairly new feature (pre-pandemic) of in-studio SoulCycle classes as well. The “Beat Match” is roughly equivalent to Peloton’s “Total Output”. It’s a nod to the desire to obtain quantitative metrics from your fitness classes, but to not see them in your face while you’re enjoying the class itself. “Beat Match” is new to SoulCycle, but judging by how many people share their scores after class on Instagram, it seems popular.
Again, one is not better than the other. Your personality and what you’re looking to do will guide you. At the end of the day, with the bikes themselves roughly the same, with the user interface serving the style of classes themselves, the class format and experience is ultimately what will drive your decision and how happy you will be with your purchase. Where the Peloton feels like more of a verité or observational experience, SoulCycle is more of a cinematic experience. That’s not an indictment of one or the other, more of an observation that can inform your decision.
One more thing…
Both companies include a full library of off-bike fitness programming, including strength training, yoga, meditation, and much more. Subscription to the monthly service for either bike gives you access to this additional programming.
For example, Variis, in keeping with its strategy as a collection of fitness brands, offers classes from Equinox and other brands in the Equinox corporate family (such as SoulCycle, PURE Yoga, and Precision Run). Recently, Variis added third-party partnerships with Tom Brady’s new fitness brand (TB12), Solidcore Pilates, and Rumble boxing and training (which became a pre-pandemic addiction of mine.)
Between Peloton, Variis, the recent launch of Apple Fitness+, as well as thousands of freelance fitness instructors to choose from, it’ll be fascinating to see how the fitness industry shifts over the coming months.
Community and support
Neither company runs their own forums or Slack channel. Peloton moderates activity in the Peloton Facebook Group and we are told that representatives from Variis (the company responsible for the SoulCycle at home product) are present in the SoulCycle At Home Facebook Group. Both groups have a heavy dose of members of the community helping one another out. The communities are vibrant and active.
Peloton offers phone, online chat (via their website), and email support. Variis offers phone and email support. I’ve had to make use of both companies’ support during my ownership period. As a caveat, I used Peloton support during late April, at the height of the early 2020 quarantine period. That said, I found their support to be abysmal during that period, with wait times well over two hours and poor resolution of my issues. The trials and tribulations of a high-growth company…may we all be so blessed with such high-class problems in business.
Variis support is phone- and email-based, with turnaround times around 24 hours. There are numerous complaints about the delivery experience, build quality, and tablet app stability in the Facebook group, with wildly different times to resolution depending on the customer’s geographic region. Variis is clearly using local contractors to service these issues, some of whom cover large territories, resulting in sometimes long wait times. For a company with a relative handful of early adopters, Variis can improve considerably. That said, once Variis does send a technician out to address issues with a bike, the technicians are very well-trained and knowledgeable and will tune the bike for you and your style of riding.
Marketing and business model
So, this is the section where I opine a little. You’ve evaluated the product, the class format, and the community and support and you’ve made your decision. But which of these companies will actually “win”?
In Peloton’s case, “winning” or “losing” may be irrelevant: they will continue to be a viable company with a strong at-home offering for years to come. It is, in fact, their core business to offer numerous at-home fitness devices and a phenomenal service to back them. The service is month-to-month with no commitment. They release features constantly (AppleTV app, hashtags, and more, in the two months I’ve had my bike, alone). And their entire operation is set up for mass scale.
In SoulCycle’s case, “losing” may be a death knell. Will corporate interest wane? Will they fold up shop and stick to what they know: the physical studio model? Will the at-home bike perform just well enough to cannibalize studio activity but not well enough to be a sustainable business opposite Peloton? Thus, the SoulCycle at-home bike is both an inevitable decision and a risky one for Equinox. But the pandemic effectively made the risk more palatable: they have no choice but to try, and if they fail, the whole business was destined to fail anyway.
SoulCycle is a studio brand, first and foremost, and as a consequence, Equinox has formed a new business unit (Variis) to compete with Peloton. It is entirely possible that the SoulCycle studio brand shrinks considerably. Recently, SoulCycle furloughed the bulk of their instructors since most studios are not able to open at full capacity. In addition, SoulCycle has closed numerous studios, including Toronto, Malibu, and several more. But even as the SoulCycle studio brand shrinks in scope, the Variis online brand (“SoulCycle by Variis”) will likely thrive in this new world. When making your decision, it is important to separate any (legitimate) concern you may have about the long-term viability of SoulCycle, the studio, and the long-term viability of Variis online.
While Variis has the ability to function like a fast-moving tech company, there are some aspects of their product and service that bear flagging as concerns:
- The Variis service requires a 12-month commitment, which is suspiciously akin to an antiquated fitness industry model, complete with lock-in and early termination fees. Peloton is pay as you go, month-to-month, which is a de facto expectation of the modern consumer. I really want to see evidence that Variis has the freedom to function like a technology company, not a fitness company with an app.
- Equinox/SoulCycle announced the at-home bike on August 7, 2019. It took seven months for them to release the bike and service. Is this the kind of pace of execution we can expect going forward, particularly opposite Peloton’s blazing fast release cadence?
My biggest fear about getting the SoulCycle bike is that without significant cultural and business change, SoulCycle (Variis) will find it hard to compete with the pace and scope of innovation from Peloton. Add COVID to the mix, and we all know the physical studio component of the SoulCycle (and Equinox) brand isn’t coming back at pre-pandemic scale anytime soon and will be a drag on the overall business. In short, do you have confidence that Variis (and Equinox, the parent company) will survive the coming year and your at-home bike won’t become a luxury plant stand?
If I were Variis, I would work hard to change this culture. Specific ideas:
- Get online and be present in the Facebook group (or start your own forum). Be active, be visible, and ask questions. Everyone in the organization, from the CEO on down, needs to be personally impacted by customer feedback.
- Be far more transparent about features you’re working on and when you hope to ship them. Solicit input from your early adopters and let them upvote your ideas. Peloton already knows you’re going to copy them. It’s not a secret. Your early adopters want to know they made the right bet. And your teams need the accountability that comes with listening to customers and delivering features quickly.
- Speaking of which, get on the phone and call a sample of your early adopters. What’s going well for them, what’s not? How was the delivery process? What needs to change? There are a lot of complaints on the Facebook page and you need to get ahead of them.
- Close and move beyond the music gap. Can you sign exclusive media deals with top artists and use your Equinox parentage to fund Taylor Swift and Beyonce acquisitions to expand the music catalog? If you can’t negotiate exclusivity, you have to pay for the rights anyway. Closing the music gap could win the hardcore fans you need early on. “Ride to the artists you love” could be the winning positioning if all the device and user experience aspects were equal.
In the end, we’re keeping the SoulCycle bike. I’m a SoulCycle addict and I’m willing to bet on the company. $2500 is a lot of money to waste if it turns out that the bike ends up doing nothing, but I think it’s worth it for me to take that risk simply because of how much I love being in a SoulCycle class. If it turns out I chose poorly, c’est la vie.
Most of my friends are Peloton riders, even more so during the pandemic. I love so much about the Peloton and admire everything about the company they’ve built. Many of us nerds and entrepreneurs dream about building a hardware startup. We appreciate how difficult it is to build such a business and stand in awe of Peloton.
I wish you luck in your decision. I believe pretty strongly that whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong!
Buy a Peloton bike and get $100 off accessories using promo code: 3RJQXG