Rolling Like a Rock Star

SoulCycle meets Skynyrd at "Friday Night Rock Rides" on the Upper West Side


On the night I went to Sean Linehan’s SoulCycle class, the temperature was 13 degrees. With the wind chill, it felt a lot closer to zero. I wouldn’t have pegged 6 p.m. on a Friday to be a wildly popular hour for exercise, but the small lobby of the boutique spinning chain’s Upper West Side studio was packed with riders peeling off their snow boots and parkas. The class was sold out, and even in these frigid conditions, there wouldn’t be any no-shows. Such is the magic of Linehan’s rock-and-roll rides. Our workout would be scored by the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed on vinyl, which, at a length of 42:21, could hardly be more convenient for a 45-minute class.

I’d been to SoulCycle once before, but this seemed different, even if the feel-good, power-of-the-pack vibes and grapefruit aroma remained the same. For one thing, while women easily constitute the majority of SoulCycle riders overall, Linehan’s class was about half men. (He’ll later tell me that another instructor has fondly described his loyal fanbase as “all the dads of the Upper West Side.”)

Perhaps a dozen riders were dressed for the occasion in “Friday Night Rock Rides” tees listing Sean’s past themed rides on their backs—including tributes to David Bowie, Billy Joel, and U2’s The Joshua Tree—like the itinerary of stops on a band’s world tour. Your average SoulCycle class is heavy on electronic dance music, chased with hip-hop and pop—maybe a heart-pumping cocktail of Galantis, Big Gigantic, Cardi B, and Ariana Grande. But Friday nights at West 77th Street are, uniquely, all about rock. That’s what’s secured Linehan a loyal, sweaty following. Regulars waved hello to one another across the crowded studio. As we stretched to a few minutes of Goats Head Soup, Linehan informed the class that he’d hoped to get his hands on a brand-new pressing of Let It Bleed to play, but it hadn’t arrived in the bad weather. That meant we’d be listening to his “old, dirty copy,” with the snaps, crackles, and pops left by previous listeners, a “physical history” of the record.

Linehan is 37, with long hair ideally suited for head banging, or for on-bike crunches that you can almost convince yourself are a form of head banging. On his left biceps is tattooed a line from “The WASP,” the Doors song: “No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” Linehan tells me that he hopes his rides approximate the experience of the laser light shows he grew up attending at Hayden Planetarium. A native of the Upper East Side, he inherited his parents’ love for classic rock, then fell hard for grunge in the early ’90s. He learned to play the piano, the trumpet, and the guitar. He began to collect vinyl as a teenager, working at an independent music store in East Hampton where he could buy used records at cost. Linehan had a successful career in music video and commercial production, working inhouse for Arista Records and MTV, and then as a freelance producer for brands like Amazon Kindle, Coca-Cola, and American Express. When his sister invited him to come along to SoulCycle in 2013, he agreed, despite having little idea what SoulCycle was.

“Before I walked into the first class I ever took, when I was standing in the lobby, I told myself, ‘I will never come back to SoulCycle again,’” he recalls. “It was too many sweaty people, I couldn’t figure out how to walk in the shoes. Once I got inside the door, it changed my life.” To his surprise, the instructor, Sue Molnar, played the Stones, Paul McCartney, and the Who. “I was like, ‘I can do this. I like this.’” Linehan really does mean that, about the class changing his life—not just his career trajectory. Today, he and Molnar are engaged.

Linehan began hosting rock rides about four years ago. The Allman Brothers Band had scheduled a stop on their final-tour residency at the Beacon Theater, a few blocks away from the  SoulCycle studio at West 77th and Amsterdam, on a Saturday. Linehan decided to slot in an all-Allman Brothers ride in the group’s honor for that week’s Friday 7 p.m. class, a recent addition to the schedule. Twenty-five people showed up, a coup for that then sparsely-attended timeslot. After an even more successful Guns N’ Roses ride, the studio invited him to devote the month of October 2014 to “Rocktober,” with a themed rock ride in every Friday 7 p.m. timeslot. All four sold out.

Linehan has kept up the tradition every week since—sometimes honoring one artist, other times playing through a full album, and always peppering his classes with trivia (did you know “You Got the Silver” was Keith’s first time on lead vocals?). “I’ve had people who have been riding with me now for three and a half to four years,” he says. “The cool thing is that there are people that just come week to week, regardless of whether they know the band or not.”

SoulCycle instructors are encouraged to express their own musical tastes: The breadth of theme rides recently on offer include Rihanna vs. Tinashe, The Evolution of Demi Lovato, and even Dear Evan Hansen. Classical musicians from Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect provided a live score to a SoulCycle class to celebrate the New Year. But EDM is “probably the predominant genre” heard in classes, Linehan says, widely favored for its “huge energy.” For the record, Linehan is most definitely not anti-EDM, but he prefers the “hidden moments of energy” found in rock music, which come upon the listener out of nowhere. “It’s not like an EDM song, when the energy builds, then the big drop. You know what’s coming,” he says. “With rock music, it’s a lot more subtle. But when it hits for me, it’s that much more powerful.

“Playing in bands, you all have to do something physically, at the same time, to make the chorus happen—whether you’re playing guitar, or drums, or keys, or whatever,” Linehan explains. “There’s a little bit of a rush: Hey, we did it! We all hit the chorus at the exact same moment! When I came to SoulCycle and everybody’s riding together and all of us tap back on the chorus to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ it’s that same experience.”

Coming up on Linehan’s class calendar are a Jimi Hendrix ride on February 16 and a Foo Fighters ride on February 23. He also tells me he’s mulling a grunge ride, or maybe a My Morning Jacket one. Linehan’s favorite band is the Black Crowes, whom he’s seen in concert “probably 50 or 60 times, some absurd amount,” but he’s already discovered that they don’t sell well at SoulCycle. Just as, within the broad spectrum of rock, he’s learned that some albums work better than others for the purposes of scoring a spinning class: Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon, and Purple Rain happen to be perfect, Linehan says, suitably varied in pace to match the intensity of whatever mix of hills, sprints, and arm segments he might have in mind. Other excellent albums—Nevermind, say, or Pet Sounds—are “terrible” to ride to. But whatever the record, Linehan insists that vinyl takes the class to another level, the same way it does an at-home listening session.

“If I just clicked play in iTunes, I could get up and walk away whenever,” he says. “Putting on an LP has this ritualistic and meaningful quality to it. I am choosing to invest these 45 minutes of my time in this album. I consciously have to make the decision to flip it and continue listening.” And that’s exactly what Linehan did in class, hopping off his bike and flipping the record when the A-side came to an end.

Let It Bleed is an album I know well, but in this disorienting context—climbing imaginary hills in the dark, surrounded by dozens of strangers—song after song came as a surprise. Almost every track elicited a collective woo of recognition, as did Mick Jagger’s twangy shoutout to New York City in “Country Honk.” One rider intermittently banged along to the rhythm on his handlebars. Another waved his complimentary sweat towel over his head. I felt a little ridiculous at first, listening to the woman on the bike to my right singing along. But by “Monkey Man,” so was I.