On Adam Clayton Boulevard in New York City, between 137th and 138th Street, there’s a cycling studio with colorful balloons wrapped around a small gate. Outside, a chalkboard sign tells me how awesome and welcome I am before I descend into the basement of a brownstone. Inside, a table offers vegan nuggets and grilled “crawfish” from a local restaurant, as well as an assortment of ingredients for parfait bowls. Harlem Cycle is celebrating its one-year anniversary.
Tammeca Rochester, the owner, is a fresh-faced woman with an effervescent smile. She greets me at the welcome desk while her five-year-old son, whom she affectionately calls the front desk manager, plays games. Rochester checks me in, shakes my hand, and directs me to the cycling room, where she helps me adjust my bike to my five-foot frame. There are only about ten bikes—part of the studio’s appeal is the intimate setting. Throughout this 9 a.m. introductory class, Rochester adjusts the lights according to the rigor of each segment, her music gliding from Rihanna and Flo Rida to Whitney Houston and Toto.
Harlem Cycle, the only cycling studio in the neighborhood, will provide a high-octane 45-minute session—along with free water, towels, and fruit—for one-third the cost of SoulCycle. (Your first class at Harlem Cycle costs $12.50, and a single ride is $25.) The studio is a place where participants can burn more than 600 calories in a session while also absorbing a bit of the local culture, soul, and rhythm. Classes like Strivers’ Row are named after a historic enclave for the black literati in the 1920s and ’30s.
The studio is a place for people to work out in a welcoming environment with an upbeat team and energetic music, but it’s also a safe haven for people of color who used to be the “only one” at other gyms. In a 2012 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that four out of five black women are overweight. But fitness studios are predominantly white spaces, where many black women (and members of other racial groups) feel unwelcome. A viral piece published in 2014 on xoJane—and that was met with much criticism—detailed a white woman’s crisis when there’s a black woman in her class. Stigmatized by both their weight and racialized bodies, people of color have a steeper hill to climb when it comes to finding and attending a gym, which is a concern that Rochester, who is of Jamaican descent, took very seriously: “I have clients who told me that Harlem Cycle remedies this issue of being the ‘only one.’ I just left the corporate world a month ago—I got used to being the only one. But I understand what it means to be in my downtime: comfortable, being myself, and existing. If you’re concerned about your weight, and you’re in a room where you don’t share the same struggles as others, and you can’t afford a $15 salad, it adds up. Having a place where people can exist on their own terms is the goal of Harlem Cycle.”
Harlem Cycle is a safe haven for people of color who used to be the “only one” at other gyms.
Rochester, who teaches both the Intro and Express classes, coordinates the music according to the days of the week, as well as current events. Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin belt through the speakers on Soulful Sundays. There’s Reggae Rundown on Thursdays and Hip-Hop Sugar Hills on Fridays. “When Prince died, we had to have Prince in every playlist for the week. When Muhammad Ali died, we had songs dedicated to him,” Rochester says. Aside from paying homage to black icons, social activism is also incorporated into the music. A story in the New York Times about the studio notes that Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Angie Stone’s “War” were in heavy rotation after the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. As Rochester says, “We’re here to push you, but no one is here to judge you.”
This goal is palpable to Harlem Cycle regulars like Gisela Perez. “I’ve been to SoulCycle and Peloton,” says Perez. “Their music is pop, rock, and hip-hop and is geared toward a younger, white clientele, in my opinion. Harlem Cycle is better in terms of friendliness, cohesiveness, music, and vibe.” Like Perez, the studio’s consistent clients are mostly women ages 35 and up and across racial lines. According to Rochester, people continue to come to Harlem Cycle because other places cultivated too strict of an environment for them to persevere through the classes. By contrast, Harlem Cycle doesn’t even have mirrors in the studio.
The idea for Harlem Cycle took root from a failed biking experience in 2012. Rochester, a new mother at the time, decided to go on a bike ride with her son around 110th Street and Central Park. Not taking into account her son’s weight and its influence on her riding, Rochester found herself off-balance and unable to brake, with drivers honking their horns at her. “It was an undefinable feeling,” she recounts. “I’ve never been that scared that something was going to happen.”
Frustrated with that failed excursion and entertaining the thought of quitting cycling altogether, Rochester vented to a co-worker, who suggested that she try indoor cycling. But when Rochester tested Midtown boutiques, she found that the ambience and customers were great—but the music wasn’t. “I personally was not a fan of the high amount of techno and pop music at the other studios,” she says. “I felt they lacked inspiration and soul, and that’s what naturally motivated me throughout a workout. At many of the other studios, I felt like the employees made little effort to make me feel welcomed. They were ‘friendly’ in a professional way, but not welcoming.” At the time, cycling was a very niche market, and studios like SoulCycle weren’t as prolific as they are now. Recognizing this gap, Rochester started to make plans for her own venture in October 2015.
Although opening Harlem Cycle wasn’t easy, Rochester describes her process as “fast and furious.” She had ten years of experience running her own nonprofit and had worked in the corporate world as a senior brand manager for more than 12 years, so she channeled her skills into developing a business plan. Ultimately, Rochester decided to personally finance the studio, with two of her close friends investing in the business through renovation work. The studio officially opened its doors in April 2016.
As Harlem Cycle evolves, Rochester is thinking of how to expand and open more studios around the neighborhood. In the meantime, she’s thankful to have a steady stream of clients at such an early stage. But in a rapidly gentrifying Harlem—a Whole Foods is opening on 125th Street this summer—Rochester believes it will take even more effort to stay true to the soul and culture of the neighborhood. She hopes to establish a team of people who, despite their various backgrounds, will adhere to this mission. She also aspires to further distinguish the studio from SoulCycle and other cutthroat studios. “We’re not going to scream at you,” Rochester says. “You have to get people into this mindset that it’s for you and that you can really do this.”