Like many college students, Madeleine Rosuck spent much of her first year at the University of Texas in pursuit of a good party. She road-tripped with 19 sorority sisters for a spring break beachside bacchanal, hit the weekend-long blur of fraternity parties known as Roundup — and panted through five classes a week at Cyc, an indoor cycling gym in Austin.
“They’ve been one of the greatest social events of my year,” Ms. Rosuck, 19, said of the spin classes, which she calls “a party on a bike.”
Ms. Rosuck, who says that she arrives 15 minutes early to hang out and that most students do the same, added, “It’s nice because it’s a place to go where people are concerned about having a healthy mind and body rather than just drinking all the time.”
Cyc, which promotes itself as the place to have “a social active life,” is hardly the first boutique fitness company to tout its festive atmosphere. But the brand, which opened studios last fall in Austin and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is the first to explicitly target college students, a demographic more traditionally associated with sleeping through a class than sweating through one. Three more studios are scheduled to open in the next nine months, including one near New York University, said Cyc’s chief executive, Stephen Nitkin.
Mr. Nitkin, a founder of Marquis Jet, a private jet access card company (since acquired by Warren Buffett’s NetJets), said students today are more health conscious and sophisticated, and may have parents who spin. The moment that inspired Mr. Nitkin to start Cyc is telling: when an influx of college students on winter break in 2011 locked him and his friends out of their favorite Manhattan spin classes.
Still, Jared Shrode, 31, who rides his bike in Austin, said he was surprised by the student turnout, especially in the early morning. In January, when Cyc ran a two-week “10,000-calorie challenge” that required participants to attend near-daily classes at 7 a.m. in Austin and 8 a.m. in Madison, the company sold out of slots. Sixty percent of Austin’s challenge riders were students; 100 percent of Madison’s were, according to company figures.
Mr. Shrode, who works in sales for a technology company, said: “Nobody I knew in college got up in the morning and tried to work off a hangover like some of these guys do. Paying for exercise was something I never considered. We’d just go and play basketball.”
Classes for students cost some $17 each, not exactly budget friendly. “That’s almost three six-packs of beer,” said Alexander Kowalsky, 21, who opted for a spin class at one of Wisconsin’s free campus gyms. But Mr. Kowalsky, who graduated last month (and, for the record, is not a big drinker), said he could understand the company’s appeal to wealthy students who don’t want to wait to use equipment at peak times. All the Cyc student customers interviewed said their parents paid for their cycling habit. Prices will be about $18 for students in Manhattan; similar classes at other studios (most of which don’t offer student discounts in New York City) cost about $30.
In the land of cheap beer and free T-shirts, it seems students will pay (or ask their parents to pay) for a hard-core workout, and instructors perceived as toughest are the most popular, Mr. Nitkin said. There is no exercise equivalent of an easy A; all of Cyc’s classes are intense, he said. Keoni Hudoba, an opera singer turned fitness expert (he shrank himself from 327 pounds to 180), created the 45-minute session that features a wider range of arm moves than is found at most cycling studios. Riders use hand-held beanbag weights for more than half of the roughly 15 songs, compared with the standard one, two or three songs.
“We’re not about burning candles, we’re about burning calories,” Mr. Nitkin said.
Grapefruit-scented candles are a hallmark of the popular SoulCycle chain. A SoulCycle spokeswoman declined to comment.
Starting this summer, Cyc customers will be able to log in, check out which friends have signed up for class and what bikes they are riding, and challenge them to races. They can also see who the cute guy on Bike 22 is (assuming he has opted in) and send him a message. Currently, the clientele is predominantly female, though. “It’s always kind of special when there’s guys who show up,” said Nathalie McFadden, 22, a senior at Wisconsin. (In May, the spinning chain Flywheel Sports introduced a feature that lets customers see which of their Facebook friends have signed up for class; SoulCycle will unveil a new Web site in August with social elements.)
Cyc’s studios (all curved metal and glass, bathed in blue and fuchsia lights) have a nightclub vibe. They were designed by Glen Coben, whose past projects include Niketown and Mario Batali’s restaurant Del Posto. A so-called Cyc road trip is “like being part of kinetic sculpture,” said Susanne Voeltz, who meets Ms. McFadden, her daughter, for workouts. (Ms. Voeltz works in the arts.)
During particularly tough-to-pedal sections called “brake stops,” cyclists are encouraged to yell out motivations. Some answers from a recent Austin class: “Someone just broke my heart,“ “Finals” and “Because it’s almost Thursday night” — a reference to the best night to go out.
Brad Cardinal, an Oregon State professor who has studied college-student fitness, said that universities’ recreation centers (membership in which students have already paid for through activity fees) are becoming ever more lavish. Ohio State’s, for example offers a climbing wall and stationary bikes with video monitors that let students ride with friends and compete against other schools. But student fitness levels are “in a downward spiral, like the rest of the population,” he said. It hasn’t helped that the number of four-year colleges requiring physical education courses for graduation has fallen to less than 40 percent, down from some two-thirds in the 1990s, according to his research.
Dr. Cardinal said he welcomed anything that gets student bodies moving. “Our campus is pretty compact, but there’s now a bicycle-taxi service,” he said, sounding slightly incredulous. “Students take that instead of walking.” Activity levels tend to drop further after graduation, Dr. Cardinal said, something that could make Cyc’s attempts to attract students good news for spin studios elsewhere.
Jake Morgenstern, 22, who was at Cyc twice a week during the last semester of his senior year at Texas, recently arrived in New York to find a job. He is also on the hunt for a good spin class. “I’m already thinking about where I’m going to get my next fix,” he said.