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Although cycling is the second-most popular exercise activity in the world next to walking, when it comes to health club members, group cycling is often one of the most intimidating classes on the group exercise schedule and one of the scariest rooms in the gym. Typically, most group cycling rooms are equipped with metal bikes topped with small, hard seats, an instructor who seemingly relishes in inflicting pain on others, and a dark, black-lit room.

Adrian McClyde isn't afraid of a tough, kill-your-legs type of group cycling class, but he can see why others might be leery of the format.

“I think, for most, the class is intimidating because when people leave the [cycling] room, they are drenched,” says McClyde, an IT specialist from Odenton, MD, and a former member of World Gym Fitness Center in Largo, MD. “You can tell by looking that they got a good workout.”

In the past, group cycling hasn't been marketed well to the deconditioned, even though the format is perfect for them, says Jay Blahnik, group exercise spokesperson for IDEA Health and Fitness Association and a former IDEA Instructor of the Year.

“I really believe there are some advantages to group cycling that don't exist in any other format,” says Blahnik, who teaches a cycling class once a week in Laguna Beach, CA, and consults with 24 Hour Fitness and Bally Total Fitness on their cycling programs. “You don't have to worry about being coordinated, and if you're not strong, you can lessen the resistance.”

To reap these benefits and appeal to a broader audience, many fitness facilities are dropping group cycling's tough-guy image and are creating a number of new classes to draw in the average, deconditioned member. After talking with a number of fitness facility managers and interviewing group cycling experts, Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro identified the following five trends in the group cycling arena:

  1. Fusion Classes

    Group cycling isn't just about the bikes anymore. In the last few years, fitness facilities have combined their cycling classes with just about every group exercise modality out there.

    At the University of Missouri-Columbia, Mizzou Rec offers university students, staff and faculty a class called Ride and Relax, a blend of cycling, yoga and relaxation. The 60-minute class begins with 40 minutes of interval-based cycling drills, followed by 20 minutes of stretching and relaxation to build strength and flexibility. The class was first offered in January 2006 and has been well attended, says Angela Eastham, fitness coordinator of Mizzou Rec Services and Facilities.

    “The response to the class has been wonderful, as many participants value the importance of stretching following a cardiovascular activity,” Eastham says.

    Crunch Fitness has also added fusion classes to its cycling schedules. Typical classes offered at most Crunch Fitness locations include Yoga Ride (cycling and yoga) and The Ride and Abs, a cycling class with climbs and sprints followed by 15 minutes of core work.

    “Crunch Fitness is always looking for new ways to keep members engaged in their workouts and having fun at the gym,” says Keith Worts, executive vice president of operations at Crunch Fitness.

    Clubs are smart to do this because fusion classes are more welcoming to the deconditioned market, Blahnik says. Thirty minutes of body conditioning and 30 minutes of cycling is much less intimidating than an hour of pure cycling.

    “If the club supports [group cycling] for all levels and the club promotes it that way, then people of all shapes and sizes can enjoy classes,” Blahnik says. “We have to think outside of the 60 minutes.”

    Despite the popularity of fusion classes, it is important to leave a few traditional group cycling classes on the schedule to appease your regular cyclists, says Steven Watland, fitness manager of Naval Base (NB) Kitsap in Silverdale, WA. At NB Kitsap, traditional classes are still very popular, drawing in a diverse group of men and women of all ages and abilities. Of the naval base's five fitness facilities, two offer cycling classes.

    “It's a very popular program and gaining in popularity amazingly,” Watland says. “We thought the popularity would drop off, but we're ordering new spin bikes because over the last three years, we've steadily increased in patronage.”

  2. Express Classes

    As people's schedules become more hectic, they have less time to work out. Some clubs are catering to these time-crunched members by offering condensed classes. In fact, at many facilities, hour-plus endurance rides are being replaced by shorter, sometimes more intense classes.

    “It depends on the club and the instructor, but from my feeling, if you're teaching a class where they're working at the appropriate pace, they shouldn't need to ride two hours,” says Mellissa Thomas, group fitness director of California Family Fitness, which offers 30-minute cycling classes. “You don't need to be doing cardio forever if we've designed an effective workout.”

    Mizzou Rec also offers a 30-minute cycling class: Cycle Express.

    “These shorter classes also make working out more accessible to those who may be slightly deconditioned as they can progress to the longer classes after starting with one that may not be as challenging and physically demanding,” Eastham says.

    Watland is considering adding a 30-minute class but says the shorter time frame is challenging, especially in a military environment.

    “A lot of our patrons spend more time talking than working out,” he says. “Junior officers want face time with the senior officers, and it's really a social gathering. We have to allow for some of that.”

  3. Virtual Biking

    One of the latest technology trends in cycling is virtual biking. While many virtual biking machines are for individual use, many clubs are introducing the technology into the group exercise format.

    Mizzou Rec began offering Scenic Cycling in 2005 to reduce the boredom found in many traditional group exercise classes, Eastham says. The class uses a projector system to feature videos of cyclists riding through trails in Hawaii, Yellowstone Park and the Pacific Northwest. The class brings in a broader range of members, she says.

    The new technology, however, doesn't come without a few caveats. Blahnik recommends that fitness facilities have their most advanced instructors lead virtual reality classes because of the high level of sophistication and motivation needed.

    “The virtual reality thing is a tough road,” Blahnik says. “Once you invest the time and commitment, it makes it really difficult for the instructor to teach. Now, [instructors] have to organize a ride around the virtual outside.”

    Bikes themselves are also becoming more “real,” says Thomas. Of the 13 California Family Fitness clubs she oversees, four of them feature specialty bikes that re-create a more rugged mountain biking experience in addition to traditional cycling classes. Although the new bikes cost the same as traditional bikes, an entire new set was a significant investment for the club company, but it's been worth it, she says. At most of the club's facilities, about 10 percent to 20 percent of all people coming into the club attend a cycling class when one is offered. At the company's women-only facility in Fulton, CA, that number is about 75 percent, Thomas says.

  4. Start and End Dates

    Classes with a specified start and end date are also becoming hot tickets for cycling programming.

    “It can be a six-week class and it can even be on the schedule the same way, but it should have a focus,” Blahnik says. “You don't have to sign up for it, but it's part of a bigger story, and there's going to be an ending. I think those conversations resonate better with people. Otherwise, you feel like your dropping in on something that never really started or ended.”

    Often, these limited-time classes are linked with an upcoming race or event. To draw on Crunch Fitness members' excitement for the Tour de France, the company branded its own cycling program, Tour de Crunch. Although not a traditional group exercise class, the program pitted members on virtual reality bikes against each other at Crunch Fitness locations across the country. The competition, which took place from July 9 to July 29, had three stages, each with two courses. Members with the fastest cumulative times (male and female) of all six courses represented their club and raced against other club winners in the final heat on July 30 and 31. Members could race on the Internet-connected bikes at any time, says Worts of Crunch Fitness.

    “The Tour de Crunch offers a fun workout with an element of competition, not only with members in the same gym or city but nationwide,” he says. “It allows the members to test their skills and also have a chance to win a road bike.”

    At NB Kitsap, cycling instructors talked to their participants about the Tour de France while it was taking place in July. Classes focused on hills and sprints as a fun way to link the classes to the event, Watland says. Next year, the base's fitness centers plan to offer training for Tour de Kitsap, a 100-mile scenic ride that goes through Washington towns Seabeck, Port Gamble, Poulsbo, Keyport, Illahee and Manette.

    “We want to sponsor people, get logoed shirts and really interact with the community,” he says. “We want to get the Navy garb on to represent us in the community.”

  5. Outdoor Rides

    Indoor cycling is also heading outdoors in attempts to become more community-based and beginner-friendly.

    When it's not raining and cold at NB Kitsap, instructors move their group cycling bikes outside. Besides allowing the instructor and participants to enjoy the sunshine, Watland says it's a great way to showcase the class and ease beginners' fears because they can watch a class before they take it.

    “We put the class outside our front doors with music blaring,” Watland says. “It's a good marketing opportunity. It gets people looking our way, and they see how fun it is.”

    At other clubs, members meet outside the clubs to ride their own bikes on good weather days. Although away from the actual club itself, this type of ride builds community and friendships within the class, making it stronger, more fun and more successful, Blahnik says. Riding outside can also aid in retention and bring in new members.

    “People who ride outside who have never really considered using classes for training may see you,” Blahnik says. “Providing a place to train when they can't get outside attracts a bigger audience.”

    However, unlike indoor classes where people of all abilities can ride together, outdoor classes should be targeted to a participant's intensity so that everyone is comfortable, he says.

    “The more we can teach classes that are more like bike riding, the bigger chance we can get a different group of people [into the classes],” Blahnik says. “Make it about real biking. Always connect the ride to the outdoors.”