April 19, 2019

Ruth Zukerman Spins Cycling Into Success

Spinning class aficionados know SoulCycle and Flywheel as the biggest names in the indoor bike business, but they may not know that Ruth Zukerman is the woman behind both. 

A divorced single mother of twins, Zukerman spun her love of stationary biking into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with SoulCycle in 2006. After surviving the dissolution of her business partnership, she struck gold a second time, opening competitor Flywheel in 2010. It now has 41 U.S. locations, four of them in the Los Angeles area. The July 13 episode of the PBS series “Breaking Big” chronicles her rise to success.

Zukerman, a former dancer who had given up the dream of dancing professionally in New York, got married and had twin daughters. After her marriage broke up, a friend suggested she try a spin class, and she was immediately hooked.

“There was something about this form of exercise,” Zukerman told the Journal. “It was emotionally cathartic. You can close your eyes and exert all this energy. The movement was choreographed to an incredible playlist, similar to dancing. At the end, you feel euphoric and empowered and that you can handle whatever is coming your way. The whole experience resonated with me. The classes helped me get through my divorce.”

Zukerman loved spinning so much that she became an instructor and joined forces with a friend and an investor to open SoulCycle, which became an immediate success. She didn’t want to divulge the details of the partnership’s demise but said she learned a valuable lesson from it. “Whenever you’re going into a business partnership with anybody, make sure you’re legally protected,” she said. “I did not do that and it cost me a lot.”

Finding even greater success the second time around with Flywheel still surprises her. “I’ve had the tendency to underestimate myself, stemming from self-esteem issues that were ingrained in me growing up,” she said.

The daughter of a physician father and a psychotherapist mother, Zukerman grew up in Roslyn, N.Y., in an affluent, predominately Jewish neighborhood. She was a cheerleader and dancer, popular and a good student, but “had a very tough, challenging mother. She caused some damage. She had a lot to do with my self-esteem problem. I’m still working on that,” Zukerman said. 

“There was something about this form of exercise. It was emotionally cathartic. You can close your eyes and exert all this energy.” — Ruth Zukerman 

Her family, of Polish, Russian and German-Jewish heritage, was Reform, her father’s side more practicing than her mother’s. “I accompanied my father to temple on the High Holidays. After he passed away, I didn’t go to synagogue anymore. It was too difficult for me,” she said. “But as my daughters got older, it became important for me to raise them Jewish, for them to have a Jewish identity. I’m very proud to be a Jew.” Kate and Rachel will turn 28 this month, and Zukerman said she hopes to take them to Israel soon.

Zukerman, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, continues to teach classes at Flywheel, which is opening a new location in Denver this month. Otherwise, expansion is on hold while she focuses on marketing Fly Anywhere, an at-home bike that incorporates the performance-tracking technology found at Flywheel. 

“I’m proud of my relentlessness, that I persevered through a lot of really tough challenges,” she said. “I didn’t let them get me down and stop me from succeeding again. I picked myself up and started another business on my own. It’s always a struggle for women. We’ve definitely made progress but we have a long way to go. I think that the more examples we see, the more hopeful we are.”

The “Breaking Big” episode featuring Ruth Zukerman airs at 8:30 p.m. July 13 on PBS.