By Published: March 1, 2019

In 2015, SoulCycle co-founder Elizabeth Cutler (DistSt'89) launched a spin sensation.

Elizabeth Cutler on a spin bikeAmid the sea of freshmen fidgeting in the stands of CU’s basketball arena at convocation in August 1985, Elizabeth Cutler (DistSt’89) pondered what she’d just heard.

“First, he said 25 percent of us wouldn’t be here next year because we’d flunk out,” she said of a dean. “The second was that we’d have to be our own advocates, because CU is a large school. The third thing he said is don’t get too focused on what job you think you are going to do, as 90 percent of us are going to do a job that has not yet been invented.”

The final point struck a chord: You can blaze your own way.

Two decades later, in 2006, Cutler and a partner did it by opening a fitness center, SoulCycle, in a 1,400-square-foot former dance studio in Manhattan. It proved the start of a high-end fitness phenomenon.

“You could hardly find our front door, and we turned the hallway into the locker room,” Cutler said. “But we were beyond freaking-out-excited.”

 SoulCycle was born of Cutler’s search for community in New York.

Today, SoulCycle is a marquee name in the business of boutique fitness, operating 90 studios across North America. There are no memberships — exercisers book seats online by noon on Mondays — and classes sell out fast, even at $40 or more per session. Charismatic instructors teach up-tempo cycling classes in candlelit rooms, shouting encouragement to cyclists by name. It’s not uncommon for riders to cry as they pedal in sync in the dark.

“As I dabbed my eyes and my sweat after class,” wrote an Atlanta magazine journalist in June, “I wiped away my cynicism, too. Whatever the special sauce, whatever the science, I’m sold on SoulCycle.”

Acquired in 2015 by Equinox Fitness, SoulCycle was born of Cutler’s search for community in New York.

Although a big-city girl from Chicago, she’d moved east from tiny Telluride, Colo., where she’d lived 10 years, working as a real estate agent and Jin Shin Jyutsu acupressure practitioner. She was used to seeing familiar faces on the street and taking restorative hikes with friends. 

“By the time the hike was over, we had solved our problems and were ready to get on with our day,” she said.

After the birth of her second daughter, in 2005, a friend invited her to a spin class. Cutler was anxious — about whether she’d finish, about how she’d feel afterward. She hungered for an urban sanctuary offering the physical, social and psychic benefits of an outdoor escapade with friends.

Soon Cutler met Julie Rice, a former Hollywood talent agent with a similar yearning for socially fulfilling exercise. Over lunch they hatched a plan for a cycling studio prioritizing communal feeling.

“[T]here was really nothing out there that was efficient, that was joyful, that was about community,” Rice told Business Insider.

Cutler found a tiny West 72nd Street studio for rent on Craigslist and the pair opened shop. They charged $27 a session and adopted the then-unusual per-class reservation system to encourage riders to feel invested — and show up.

“We wanted to create an experience where people could clip into the bike when the lights came down, listen to a teacher who spoke to them in a real way and leave the class after 45 minutes having allowed their being to be able to sort everything out,” said Cutler.

As SoulCycle grew, first in New York, then in California, celebrities discovered it. Kelly Ripa raved. Jake Gyllenhaal, David Beckham and Lady Gaga became regulars. Oprah came on her 60th birthday.

“We were in service for people living their best lives,” said Cutler, who left SoulCycle in 2016, after she and Rice sold their full stakes to Equinox for $90 million each. They now run LifeShop, a business advisory and investment firm.

Cutler still enjoys the fellowship of SoulCycle. Visiting Chicago last year, she joined a class — pedaling and sweating her way into harmony in the dark.

In our print edition, this story appears under the title "Master of Soul." Comment on this story? Email