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The Boston Phoenix Spin City

Johnny G has become a fitness guru by infusing a stationary-bike workout program with a quest for spiritual happiness. But is he just the ultimate peddler?

By David Andrew Stoler

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  The first thing you notice is the thick scent of candles. The room's fluorescent lights have been turned off, and the only direct light comes from two candles, their aroma mingling with the tang of human sweat. On the wall a pair of posters show an intense orange-and-red sunset over the legends FOCUS and INSPIRATION. But your attention is drawn forward, to the front of the room, to the altar, where a microphone sits on top of a stereo that will soon be cranking out carefully chosen rock and New Age music.

Oh yeah, a stationary bike is up there too.

Although this might sound like some neoteric religious experience, it is actually one of the biggest exercise fads going. It's indoor cycling, and it is the latest in a long line of exercise programs that have inspired cultlike participation. Right now, I'm at Suburban Fitness, a gym in Scituate, Rhode Island, that is one of at least 5000 to have signed on to the Mad Dogg Athletics/Schwinn Spinning program.

The physical part of this program is simple: get on a modified stationary bike and pedal your gourd off for 50 minutes. But Spinning is not simply an exercise craze. An entire mind/body dogma goes with it, one that includes words like visualization, personal journey, and transcendence, and one that has attracted a following of more than a million people worldwide.

Spinning even has its own guru, Johnny G, who appears on his Web page dressed in karate garb, his long black hair pulled back samurai-style. He sits with his legs folded, ocean waves crashing around him, his hands together in a meditative pose and his eyes closed. If a normal exercise program represents one spoke in the wheel of total mental and physical health, the point of Spinning --which Johnny G (real name Johnny Goldberg) invented -- is "to complete that wheel, to be the other spokes." To help people become those other spokes, Goldberg has created a program that includes diet suggestions and inspirational readings.

Don't think for a second that all this stuff -- anything, in fact, with the word Spin in it -- hasn't been copyrighted. This assertive trademarking (and the aggressiveness with which Goldberg and his company, Mad Dogg Athletics, defend those trademarks) is just one of the things about Spinning that has raised the eyebrows of fitness experts who say that Johnny G just might be a millionaire shyster selling transcendence to a spiritually bereft culture. Says Jeff Martin, an associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at Wayne State University, in Michigan, and a former world-class distance runner: "Whenever there is money involved, you wonder about somebody's motives."

At the beginning of the fitness boom of the 1980s, the cult activity was aerobics, plain and simple. Among other things, Jamie Lee Curtis's tights-clad buns in the 1985 movie Perfect provoked runs on health-club memberships and a marketing blitz that did wonders for companies such as Reebok and LA Gear. If a gym didn't have aerobics, it couldn't compete. Later it was step classes. Now indoor cycling is dominating the health-club scene, selling out classes and inspiring followings that verge on the devotional. Says Andy Fitzgerald, owner of Gold's Gym in Worcester and a national presenter for Mad Dogg Athletics: "It's huge -- any club that doesn't have an indoor-cycling program is truly at a competitive disadvantage. People walk through the door now and say, 'Do you have Spinning?' That's what they are interested in."

The roots of Spinning are all Johnny Goldberg. To help him train for a nonstop bike race across the US, he invented an indoor training bike that simulated the weight and friction of a touring bike. He eventually began to train others on the indoor machines, and soon he realized he had a potential gold mine. Goldberg coupled Spinning with what he calls the spiritual "search for answers," which he started as a teenager in his native South Africa. He coupled that with a licensing deal with Schwinn, and a new exercise fad was born.

Today, there are three competing indoor-cycling programs: the Mad Dogg/Schwinn version, a Reebok version, and a Keiser program. But Mad Dogg, based in Southern California, owns 85 percent of the market. It certainly is the most idiosyncratic.

"There is this whole mind-body connection," says Fitzgerald. "You literally close your eyes and for 40 minutes you take a journey."

The terminology -- the journey, the "transcendence" -- is part of what has hooked trainers, who, in turn, serve as apostles, spreading the message of Spin. Says one Rhode Island trainer: "Personally, I believe in it. It's important to us to be part of a bigger scheme of things."

Step into a Spinning class and the trippy stuff starts right away.

I was prepped for my ride by the owner of Suburban Fitness, Rick Provost, an intense and thoroughly fit guy who looks a bit like Vanilla Ice, but I am clearly unprepared.

First, I'm five minutes early, and already the class is full. And even though every trainer I've talked to tells me that all different kinds of people Spin, forget it: the room is all women. In fact, a glance at the sign-up sheet shows that, of the 100 or so names, exactly five are anything like, say, Bill or Rob or Dave.

And the women here are already Spinning. They're whirling away on bikes, lined up like a pack of Tour de Francers, and wearing the padded bike shorts that Provost suggested I wear (which I'm not, of course). They are a vision of sports bras and sweat, and class hasn't even begun.

There's no bike for me, so Provost has to ask someone to leave, someone whose name is lower on the list than mine.

She is not pleased. "I am on the list," she says. She continues pedaling. "So," she says, and looks forward, bearing down on her Spinner.

"Since one of the bikes in the room is broken," Provost begins to explain. But no, she'll have none of it. She pulls the brake on her bike and throws him this look. "Vicious," is how I'd describe it. It's a "Better check your brake lines before you get into your car, Rick," type of look. She stamps out of the room.

Now Provost points out what distinguishes an official Mad Dogg Johnny G Spinner Schwinn from an ordinary stationary bike. First, the seat can slide back and forth to simulate different kinds of riding. Then, the front wheel of a Spinner is a 40-pound flywheel, so it has the inertia thing going for it. The direct-drive wheel is hard to start and stop; if you stop moving your legs, the wheel will start moving them for you. There is also a knob that acts as a standard bike brake, but the knob, when turned, increases the wheel's friction to simulate hills and other terrain.

As mood music plays, Provost, who has changed into biking shorts and an official Spin biking jersey, starts the class off with light pedaling and an introduction into what the rest of the ride will bring. "Look up to the sky, stretch your arms up to the blue, blue sky," he says. Of course, we're all indoors, but behind me, most of the women have their eyes closed anyway.

"Okay, see your journey -- see your goal," he says. "If you don't have one, you better get one, because we're all going to make it today. We're all together in this, right, ladies?" There are yells from the women, all pedaling away now. "Okay, turn your knobs up one complete circle. We're starting," Provost says, as the Cure pumps out of the stereo. And off we don't really go.

Ask people why they Spin, and you'll hear a few reasons over and over. "Calories" and "inches" are two of them. But there's also the high -- "the next level" that Spinning takes you to, the magic feeling caused by endorphins, a chemical the brain releases during exercise.

"With Spinning, you get a high level of endorphin release, which gives a general spirit of well-being," says Provost.

Whether the endorphin high exists is, in itself, a debate among scientists. Some would argue that there's another reason Spinners may get that feeling of well-being: they're satisfying an exercise addiction stemming from the obsessive-compulsive symptoms surrounding such issues as low self-esteem. The intensity and dogma that characterize Spinning's 750-calorie-an-hour workouts offer a powerful lure to people looking for control over their lives.

"There's something going on with group dynamics, framing it with candles and lights," Martin says. "A lot of people are looking for meaning in their lives, people trying to get comfortable with themselves. [But] the nonprofessional in me says, 'You know, this is a crock.' "

To Roger Fielding, an assistant professor of health sciences at BU, Spinning -- like any similarly intense exercise program -- gives people a socially acceptable way to exert extreme control over their weight. "The excuse that one's so thin is that she's working out all the time," he says. "It's bad if you don't eat, but it's good if you burn enough calories to look lean."

On a more general level, he says, "it gets outside of fitness. One of the reasons people work out is for body image, and a lot of the reason people work out is from some [inaccurate] sense of body image."

So while burning a few calories isn't a bad motive for doing something that, after all, is damn good for the heart, that desire for control can get out of hand. Boston University sports psychologist Leonard Zaichkowsky compares it to alcoholism. "When you get to the extremes, it is dysfunctional," he says. "If they have to take three hours a day to exercise, are thinking about it all day -- 'I have to do this Spinning stuff' -- they become fanatics.

"It's almost cult-like behavior. It is kind of a new identity for people. Pretty soon there is going to be a church for exercise."

And Johnny Goldberg, of course, will be its Jerry Falwell. Indeed, for Goldberg, the whole point of Spinning is to make people healthier in a spiritual way. "There are two ways to get spiritually healthy," he says. "One is to work the body from the inside out, the other from the outside in. I wanted a tool that would translate the barrier, to push very heavily into the philosophical while pushing hard physically."

But not everyone agrees that exercise is the place to get spiritually fulfilled, or that Goldberg is the man to do the fulfilling. Wiggins, who has seen many of Goldberg's videos, says, "[Johnny] is compulsive, he's an egomaniac, he is a guru. He is mesmerizing. He definitely has some power that has attracted a lot of people."

Though Johnny G and Mad Dogg aren't exactly hypnotizing folks into joining Spinning classes, it's clear that he is not in the business simply to "doggedly pursue his dream of improving people's lives through exercise," as his Web page contends. Goldberg gets a cut of every Johnny G Spinner Schwinn bike bought (Provost says he paid $7800 for the 13 bikes at Suburban Fitness). Plus, in order for a club like Suburban Fitness to become a certified Spinning gym, at least six trainers must shell out $275 each to attend a one-day Mad Dogg seminar and pass a test that, according to a Braintree trainer who took it, includes multiple-choice questions like "Why is hydration important?" and short-answer questions like "What did you think of the certification process?"

With 5000 facilities and more than 30,000 certified instructors worldwide, Goldberg is sure to be hoisting some hefty green. Mad Dogg spokesman Barry Sanders, interviewed late last year, predicted that the company would earn $7 million in 1998, more than doubling its 1997 earnings.

The money comes not just from the bikes and classes but from an entire catalogue of Spinning products: sports bras, stickers, fleece outerwear, and "antibacterial" padded biking shorts with a copyrighted Spinning label that run $53.95 a pair. And let's not forget a slew of videos, a book, and the Nike Spinning shoe on the way.

The company isn't afraid to enforce its copyright, requiring gym owners either to adhere to the Spin program -- buying Johnny G bikes, going through his certification process, and signing his licensing agreement -- or to tell members interested in Spinning that they do not, in fact, offer Johnny G's program.

Sonja Anastasie, cofounder of the Crank Cycle indoor-cycling studio in Worcester, bought the bikes and said so in her brochure. Then someone faxed her brochure to Schwinn. "Schwinn basically said, 'You need to run the program the way we tell you to. Just sign our licensing agreement and you'll be all set,' " she says. "But I didn't want to be told how to run my program. It appears to be -- I hate to use the word scam -- a way to channel the program into a promotion of their product. You don't see Reebok . . . and Keiser doing that."

Johnny contends that he enforces the copyrights and certification standards because the educational aspects are an essential part of the program. Besides, he says, he did the work, and therefore he deserves the money. The other programs "haven't gone through the mettle," he says. "People laughed at me for 12 years. When you see a Spinning logo, it stands for something that was born in my heart and soul, with goodness and health and fitness in mind."

Most people agree that Goldberg is a driven athlete. He sits on both the California Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and the advisory board for Women's Fitness magazine.

But as for the transcendental aspects of Spinning, "I think he's gone off the deep end," says fitness writer Sarah Bowen Shea. "I think anyone who is really into a sport can think there's a Zen, but I think sitting in a room with a bunch of sweaty people is not Zen."

But oh, Zen, I'm so close. Really pounding away now. Springsteen's on the stereo, and after a few songs, the class is really together now, rooting loudly at each hill we climb, at each goal we reach.

As the opening guitar of U2's "Bad" echoes through the room, Provost says, "Okay, ladies . . . and David, a big climb here. Let's turn it up two complete circles."

Two complete levels for the seven-plus minutes of this song -- no way is there any hill like that east of the Berkshires. But I do it anyway, twist the tension on the bike higher, start pushing. Feel the burn in my quads.

But this odd sensation takes over my left calf. I'm ignoring it. My eyes are closed. I can see the hill.

And even though the music keeps fadiing in and out on the stereo, I've got it in my head. I am heading into the Zone. I can tell. The "next level" approaches. I'm almost there. . . .

At this point, a fierce cramp tears through my calf. The muscle is visibly bunched up into a tiny ball on my leg, and I am crying like a baby in front of 10 middle-aged women still getting up their personal hills. I'm off my bike, as far from Zen as I have ever been, beating my fist on my poor, poor, bastard of a calf. It finally relents after five minutes.

"Let's go, David," the women cry out behind me. And, damn me, I remount for the last time.

After another half-hour, it's over. And, sitting beneath the cold fluorescents of the Suburban Fitness locker room, I feel pretty much at peace. There's a bathroom here, hot water. All my stuff is waiting for me in a locker. The visualization of experience, it turns out, is not actually experience at all. I'm still, after all, in the locker room. I never left the building.

Goldberg says that this is one of the key points of the program -- because Spinning participants are in charge of turning up their own knob, in charge of creating their own hill in their mind, "you cannot fail to get up that hill." And this inability to fail, he says, means you are guaranteed a self-esteem boost, a positive and healthy internal experience from Spinning.

So people Spin, sweat, "take a journey" without risking, say, getting lost or in a major accident. For an hour, they get to control their lives in every possible way. But in doing so, they avoid the actual journey, the push through the fall leaves, that last real hill on the way home, when there is no tension knob to choose not to turn any tighter. There is no guarantee that the control, the accomplishment, will extend past the walls and into the real world. As Leonard Zaichkowsky says, "They are training virtually for nothing."

David Andrew Stoler is a freelance writer living in Somerville.

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