In France, Spin Class Is a Laid-back Experience

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Photo: Tom Merton/Getty Images

Parisians do not exercise like New Yorkers. There is no Tracy Anderson of France. French model Caroline de Maigret says she only started exercising at 39. Clémence Poésy says she tries to be on her bike as much as possible. Lola Rykiel, Sonia Rykiel's granddaughter, recently told Vogue that “SoulCycle will never come to Paris.”

But guess what, Rykiel? Much like green juice, il est arrivé à Paris! My French friends told me that editors and PR girls have been flocking to a place called Dynamo for an American-style spin-class workout, so when I was in Paris for Fashion Week, I tried it out.

“That seems ... interesting!” says Laura, the concierge at my hotel’s front desk, when I tell her of my morning plans to bicycle in place for 45 minutes. I head off dressed in my finest athleisure combination of Lululemon and Outdoor Voices — the only person on my entire 40-block walk dressed in Spandex. 

American SoulCycle always seems to be conveniently located near a juice bar. Meanwhile, Dynamo is down the street from Bagelsteins, which sells what appears to be French bread bent into the shape of bagels. This feels like a metaphor: Perhaps Dynamo is what happens when you take the laissez-faire French attitude toward exercise, and bend it into the shape of a SoulCycle.

Inside Dynamo. Photo: Courtesy of Dynamo

At Dynamo, cheerful employees gleefully greet riders with “Bonjour!” while proffering spin shoes and bottles of Evian. The “early bird” class starts at 10 a.m., and the atmosphere is very, very chill. Unlike American SoulCycle, where you overhear phrases like “You’re going to die but it’s going to be fun, I promise!” I hear no mentions of death or pain. The faces of American SoulCycle attendees are generally a blend of nervousness, braced fear, bloodlust, and resignation, but everyone at Dynamo looks placid. Most of the crowd is wearing shirts with sleeves, and I wonder if it’s an indicator of how difficult the class is going to be. American SoulCycle doesn’t even sell shirts with sleeves for women (unless it’s for après SoulCycle).

I enter the studio to the sounds of Nicki Minaj’s "Truffle Butter." Apart from a wall decorated with phrases like Laissez (let go), La Musique (music), and Rayonnez (shine), it looks virtually indistinguishable from an American spin studio. Our instructor, Clotilde, enters, clad in a Lululemon sports bra and legging capris. She is not built like someone who has ruled out baguettes from her life, but she definitely has abs. She comes over to introduce herself, and I tell her I’m American and have taken classes before in New York.

Clotilde sings out a class introduction that I understand zero percent of, and we begin spinning at a leisurely pace to the Weeknd. Bamph, Bamph, bamph, bamph, right, left. Clotilde directs as we ride to the beat. It's easy to lose yourself to the joy of the music, particularly when your instructor is speaking a language you speak at a second-grade level (thankfully, Beyoncé is the same in every language). Three songs later, we are still spinning at a leisurely pace. My sweat-activated deodorant is napping under my armpits. I begin to worry that I may not earn the French bacon sandwich I've promised myself as a reward after class. 

Surely, Clotilde told us all to turn up the resistance and I just failed to understand? I surreptitiously turn the resistance wheel two turns to the right. The French riders around me look nonplussed by the pace of class, even the one riding in a sports bra in the front row. Six songs later, we are still moving at a pace that feels like a warm-up on flat terrain. I don’t think I’ve ever spun on a bike as though I am actually ... biking.

But as the playlist shifts to Ariana Grande, I realize I am being an idiot grande. Why am I so insistent on trying to build sweat equity? Why can’t I just enjoy the class as it’s intended? Why can’t I just enjoy the workout without worrying about whether it’s effective? Is my attitude toward this workout class why I got Slytherin on a recent Harry Potter personality test? 

Working out is complicated. It can be equal parts joyful, terrible, excruciating, a necessary evil, not fun, and results-driven. It can also be accompanied by feelings of shame (“I need to work this hard to burn off that half of a potato I ate for breakfast” ) or ambition (“I’m going to outwork the girl next to me”). In class at Dynamo, I realized that all the negative feelings associated with exercise don't have to exist. No one in my class looks stressed. No rider here is trying to outride the other riders except for idiot me. No one is even trying to out-ponytail-flip Clotilde. At one point in the class, when we pedal backward, Clotilde actually comes around and turns my resistance wheel way, way down as I smile sheepishly. Midway through the class, Clotilde yells, “La Americane est arrivée!” and everyone cheers and I’m not sure if she is referring to me or Justin Bieber, who has just started playing. And yes, I do finally break a sweat even though our sprint song is “What Do You Mean?” I make it through an entire arms section of a spinning class for the first time in my life.

Clotilde and the other Dynamo instructors. Photo: Courtesy of Dynamo

The class ends to clapping, and my fellow riders look happy and flushed, rather than exhausted and overwhelmed, as is occasionally the case after an American spinning class. Clotilde asks if I had fun. “I did!” I said, surprising myself with the realization that that’s never been a factor I've considered after a workout. Perhaps I need to reevaluate what a “good” workout is.

As we chat about the French versus American approach of exercise, Clotilde tells me she is a yoga teacher and used to live in Los Angeles. “Yes, I found that Americans can be a little crazy about exercise,” she says. “People would be like, I’m going to have kombucha. Meanwhile, I was like, Pff. I’m going to have some wine and maybe some pain au chocolat.” Call it out for being a Gallic stereotype, but I believe Clotilde, and I believe that none of my fellow riders are carb-free. (Also, none of them leave Dynamo to walk the street in leggings.)

As I exit the studio, I spot a group of young women who look stereotypically Los Angeles in ankle booties and skinny jeans. Seeing me clad in Lululemon, one of them asks in American-accented English, “Did you try spinning?” When I admit that the pace was a little different, the other adds, “So you didn’t really burn off anything?”

“Well, at least you burned off something!” another says guiltily. "We need to do that considering how we’ve been eating.”

I smile with recognition and head off to find my French Comté and bacon sandwich, patting myself on the back for my good workout.