Scroll through the hashtag ‘#Fitfam’ on Instagram and you’ll find pictures of Sunday night meal prep, toned muscles and post-workout selfies — but you won’t find Nick Rivera. The current FlyWheel instructor, a graduate of the NYU Musical Theatre program and former Warby Parker glasses guru, prefers to prepare for class by sleeping or eating about “8 cookies” (or so he claims) instead of taking selfies or showing off his new Nikes.
It’s 10:45am on a Sunday morning, and the Lincoln Square studio is a swarming beehive. Women and men in a variety of tight, bright and sweat spattered clothes weave in and out of each other. Some, the ones with red blotchy faces, have just finished a spin class, while the rest of us strap on our black shoes and wait patiently for the next one to begin. As we shuffle into the dark room and find our bikes, a man enters wearing a light brown beanie. It’s Nick. He passes out high-fives and tells jokes, and in hindsight, I wonder if he’s happy to see us or if he really did just eat eight cookies.
The class begins with a popular Drake song that, after about fifteen seconds, suddenly erupts into aggressive trap music. We pedal quickly, trying to keep up. My legs pump in rhythm with my heart; I am now fully awake. Sweat begins to drip down my back, forming little streams like oil on a frying pan. This is only the warm-up.
The room is dark, making it easier to disappear into the movement of your body and the waves of music that wash through the room. We surround Nick, who sits on a bike at the front. A dull light lands on him from above, leaving some of his face in shadow. He’s removed the beanie and he pedals hard with the rest of us. His voice is strangely calm and surprisingly deep as he urges us to dig in. Halfway through our next song, he pops his head up and scans the room from left to right in slow motion with wild, tantalizing eyes.
His voice booms over the music: “Add torque. 3, 2, 1… Now.” Nick never politely tells the class to ride harder, he demands it. He does not use the word ‘Go’, as in ready-set-go, he simply says ‘Now’. There is no option to back down. Thirty people on pedals that won’t take us anywhere, suddenly push down with more strength than we know we physically possess. But mentally, the class pushes us to another level.
Every trap infused remix is harder than the next, but Nick’s voice booms over the loud music, playfully taunting us to continue: he has turned into the little devil on my shoulder. He’s tough and mischievous, as if he’s teasing each of us to achieve our peak performance level. His tone has changed from conversational and joking to deep and thunderous. The small globe of light he’s enveloped in at the front is a new arena for performance. Nick’s created a new sort of musical theatre.
“Reach down and add more. I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t firmly believe that you are fucking fierce. You can do it.”
The deep bass and big beats makes it easier to pedal in rhythm. Later, I’ll learn that Nick’s passion for musical theatre, which he studied at NYU and still pursues today, lies in the music. When he’s not teaching cycling classes, he’s adding final touches to the electronic music show that he wrote last year or working on new tracks with friends. His knack for rhythm, tone, beat, and all things musical also serves him well when creating playlists for his class. Nick can hear a song and recognize what torque and speed would work with it. Song after song is perfectly in sync with the impossible speeds that he requests us to ride at.
After class is over, he’s wearing his light brown beanie again. His smile is contagious and I think about the instructors I’ve met before– all of them unique, all of them keeping our city in shape, but none of them quite like Nick. Sipping coffee an hour later, Nick says nonchalantly, “You’re stronger than you think.” He’s returned to his normal easy-going, light-hearted voice. We’ve migrated from the studio to a little café on the same block and sit at a table in sweatshirts to keep our sweaty skin from giving us a chill. Nick explains how intense the training is for FlyWheel instructors. In the final week before he became an instructor, he rode the equivalent of thirteen classes in just three days. I assume anyone who loves cycling enough to ride that long in such a short period of time will be able to explain the allure of the FitFam phenomena, but when I ask him about it, he laughs, almost spewing coffee over the table.
“Hashtag fitfam!” he says, striking a pretend flex pose.
After a bad breakup, Nick turned to Flywheel just to get out of the house, to have a location to go and disappear to for a little while. He went back, time and time again, because he came out on the other side feeling better about himself. “Before FlyWheel, I’d never taught fitness before.” But as someone who didn’t always love working out, and still probably wouldn’t go to a gym by himself for fun, Nick understands the scary side to the fitness craze that’s overpowering the United States, resulting in the eruption of thousands of studios in New York City offering yoga, cycling, dance-cardio, pilates and more. It’s a big industry, and sometimes an overwhelming one.
“There’s two sides of fitness, right? There’s the side that I think a lot of people get scared away by. It seems ‘otherising’ and it seems like when you walk into a boutique fitness studio or try to workout when you’re not someone who’s grown up doing it and knows nothing, which includes me, you assume you’re an outsider.”
Motivation comes in all shapes and sizes. Some people enjoy being a little more competitive. They thrive in the Fitfam community that’s shared over 1.3 million photos on Instagram because of said competition. But Nick worries that the mirage of flexed muscles and healthy muffin photos (that probably don’t taste great anyway) can be intimidating. The community online might be working against itself by ostracizing people who feel like outsiders, instead of welcoming all people.
The barista grinds coffee with a high whining sound and Nick leans in closer to my phone, recording our conversation, and speaks louder addressing it as if there’s a little person inside taking notes, “Can you hear me in there?” he jokes inches away from the screen before going on to satirize the ‘jumpy photo’. ( A photo of people holding hands and jumping as if it’s the most carefree thing – a picture of pure fun after fitness – even though it is clearly planned with the ‘1-2-3 jump and look fun and happy’ sort of approach.) He’s a goofball. I can’t imagine him waking up at five am for Barry’s bootcamp or tracking ‘gains’ each week with an Olympic lifting program. Yet, here he is, making a living off of teaching incredible, ass-kicking cycling classes. Maybe there are more than two sides to fitness. Maybe there are three, or four.
Nick wants anyone to feel like they can work out. He works to actively combat the feeling of outsidership that the FitFam introduced to the game: “I want people, once they try a class, to feel like they can just do it again. Even if it’s not with me, or cycling, but just that they can go out and do something that’s scary and be like ‘Oh yeah that’s fine’.”
Nick still posts on social media about working out, but it’s just a little bit… different. He has a more carefree approach. My favorite post of his includes a sort of dark millennial gate with a small image of himself photoshopped coming out of it and a schedule overlayed on top. He paired it with the caption, “Future me dropped in to say that taking class this week is a good idea, so book your bike.”
A woman enters the coffee shop and waves at Nick enthusiastically. She’d just taken his class and although her face is flushed, she’s glowing. Her face displays the feeling after pushing yourself to your physical and emotional limit: contentment, confidence.
He’s friends with a lot of the people who come to his class. Some of them even came to his birthday party. He gets up to say hello to her and trade a few laughs and then sits back down. There’s an energy radiating from his six-foot-something frame. “You get to make people feel good about themselves, so you feel empowered to do things that are positive and feel impactful and meaningful. And I’m also getting paid to do that, so that’s even better.”
Despite his love for the job and making an impact, he says his friends still can’t believe he’s a cycling instructor even though he’s been doing for over a year now. He’s one of those go-with-the-flow and the do-what-you-have-fun-doing kind of guys. As we walk out of the coffee shop, his laughter is contagious: “I am literally a fitness instructor and I laugh everyday because I’m like guys – I’m still pulling this scam.”
Charlee is a writer from Colorado. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Non-fiction writing at Columbia.