After expensing $5,100 in Dior bags, SoulCycle's CEO was suddenly out. Now, an executive exodus and a culture war threaten to send the company off a cliff.

  • SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan was pushed out of the company in 2019 after expensing $5,100 worth of Christian Dior bags, former employees said.
  • Insiders say there is a culture war between SoulCycle and its owner, Equinox, which pushed the company to over-expand and led to empty studios and disgruntled instructors. 
  • In the past year, at least 11 executives have left the company, and some top instructors are fleeing now, too, accusing SoulCycle of racism and bigotry. Rumors of bankruptcy are swirling, insiders said.
  • Whelan told Business Insider that she reimbursed SoulCycle for the bags and that her exit was a mutual decision.
  • A SoulCycle spokesperson dismissed rumors of a Chapter 11 filing and said it sees "enormous opportunity ahead."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In the summer of 2019, Melanie Whelan, the CEO of SoulCycle, purchased two Dior bags — a book tote for herself and a backpack for Patrick Ryan-Southern — on the company credit card for $5,100. Ryan-Southern, the managing director of international markets, was known as one of Whelan's "favorites," former staffers said.

The bag was a thank-you for his role in opening SoulCycle's London studio, Ryan-Southern told Business Insider. And the generous gift didn't go unnoticed.

The staffers said Whelan was repeatedly asked to produce a receipt for the purchase after they say the CEO attempted to pass the two bags off as one big gift for Ryan-Southern.

"It was a huge issue," one of the staffers said.

"She lied about it," another former corporate employee added. "It was never up front."

Whelan denied allegations of misleading the company, and said that she was never pressured to produce a receipt.

But the apparent deception unraveled the board's faith in Whelan, the former corporate employee said.

In the weeks following the purse incident, the company's chief people officer, Adrienne Gemperle, held secret meetings — some of which took place outside the New York corporate office, in a nearby Starbucks or restaurant — with then-CFO Sunder Reddy and the company's lead counsel, Maria Harris, according to the former staffers.

In November 2019, Equinox's top brass met to discuss Whelan's removal as CEO of SoulCycle, two former staffers said. The Dior bags were exhibit A.

A week later, Whelan left the company. "SoulCycle and I mutually agreed to part ways," Whelan told Business Insider.

The Dior debacle symbolized larger issues looming at the company, which many sources said morphed from a beloved boutique fitness brand to a profit-hungry mammoth under Equinox, which bought SoulCycle in 2011. From the outside, SoulCycle appeared to be on a roll, opening swanky studios in London and Las Vegas, being satirized on "Saturday Night Live" skits, and designing a home bike to rival that of Peloton.

But to many, internally it seemed a mess, overrun by misbehaving executives, fuming instructors, and an overbearing parent company, people familiar with the inner workings of SoulCycle said. In the past year SoulCycle has struggled to keep the wheels from falling off as top executives and talent flee and customers flock to competitors.

Business Insider spoke with more than two dozen current and former SoulCycle employees who painted a picture of a toxic corporate culture exacerbated by a first-time CEO who was pushed for lightning-speed growth by Equinox. The company has seen an exodus of at least 11 executives, accusations of racism from a number of star instructors, and now rumors of a possible bankruptcy filing, insiders told Business Insider. Many sources asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons. Their identities are known to Business Insider.

In a statement, a SoulCycle spokesperson dismissed rumors of a Chapter 11 filing and said the company was reopening studios in cities where COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. It's also launched SoulOutside, an outdoor-studio concept, in nearly 30 locations.

"We are confident in our current liquidity position," the spokesperson said, "and see an enormous opportunity ahead of us."

'Black Cadillac Escalades showed up'

Early employees like to say that SoulCycle was "loved into existence." Founders Julie Rice, Elizabeth Cutler, and Ruth Zukerman opened their first spin-class location, nicknamed "Utopia," on Manhattan's Upper West Side in April 2006.

Riders squeezed into the candle-lit studio and rode stationary bikes in rhythmic unison to top hits. Chiseled instructors led packed classes in choreographed "tap-backs" — bouncing on the bike seat to the beat. At least once a ride, everyone would swing their white sweat towels overhead in a joyous tribal ritual. It was new and enthralling. A 45-minute class cost over $30, and no one seemed to care.

Then movie stars showed up, and the fad became a sensation.

"We exploded in the summer of 2007," Zukerman, SoulCycle's first instructor, told Business Insider. (She left the company in 2009.) "Everyone found out about us. Black Cadillac Escalades showed up. It was a very heady moment."

Kyra Sedgwick, Caroline Kennedy, and Katie Couric packed the studios, and even those stars seemed to idolize the instructors. Unlike other fitness brands built around equipment or methods, SoulCycle marketed its personalities, like Kelly Ripa-favorite Stacey Griffith, who sold out classes and built die-hard followings.

By 2011, SoulCycle had seven studios in the New York area and was the darling of the boutique-fitness world. A SoulCycle tee, with its ubiquitous skull-and-crossbones motif, became the status symbol du jour on the Upper East Side.

In May of that year, the fitness giant Equinox Group — which owned 50 luxury Equinox gyms as well as Pure Yoga and Blink Fitness — bought the cycling company for an undisclosed sum.

Equinox was run by Harvey Spevak, age 56, the longtime chairman and managing partner with a penchant for custom-made Devon Scott suits and Audemars Piguet watches. Spevak had a reputation for being a shark.

"Equinox is a big corporate entity that has a pretty well-known horrible culture," a former senior SoulCycle employee said. Last year, trainers at its luxury gyms told the New York Times that there is a "Hunger Games"-like atmosphere in which they struggled to survive on low pay and sued for unpaid overtime.

Nonetheless, Equinox appeared to be putting SoulCycle on the fast track to success. In 2012, SoulCycle opened its first batch of California studios. Former US track star Angela Davis' Los Angeles classes lured in Beyoncé and Oprah. Demand was so high at its studios around the country that the company introduced "SuperSoul," for which riders shelled out $70 a class in exchange for access to early sign-ups and preferred bikes.

But even as SoulCycle boomed in popularity, some say Equinox slowly began to cast a shadow over the company.

"SoulCycle comes from this place of passion and vulnerability and authenticity, and that is the antithesis of corporate culture," Zukerman said.

Like 'Mean Girls'

Spevak brought Whelan onboard as SoulCycle's COO one year after buying the company.

Previously she had been the vice president of business development at Equinox. After three years at SoulCycle, a 38-year-old Whelan was promoted to CEO.

Many employees felt that she was ill prepared for the role and Spevak's presence loomed large.

Soon after buying SoulCycle, Spevak and his team were on a private jet when he declared "God" had spoken, and the two companies were now one, two people familiar with the incident said.

("Since the purchase of SoulCycle, Spevak has never declared that any two brands are one company and encourages independent thinking amongst the portfolio of brands," a source close to SoulCycle said.)

Afterward, stunned SoulCycle executives expressed worry over their company's future in the hands of Equinox.

But Whelan, a first-time CEO, remained indebted to Spevak.

A former staffer who worked closely with the C-suite said she felt as though Whelan was "terrified of Harvey."

"She worked for Harvey," a SoulCycle insider added. "Harvey put her in this role. She was a 38-year-old CEO of a really big company. He knew she wasn't ready. Of course he was really involved. It was hard for Melanie to have her mentor as a board member."

Not only was Whelan a young CEO, she was a female CEO of a company that was founded by three women and whose clientele was largely female. But rather than be lauded for that position, and her results, Whelan found herself trying to fight off gender bias.

"Equinox has not had the best track record at retaining female leaders," said a former long-tenured SoulCycle employee.

Last year, at a 250-person company event, Spevak declared: "We hired Melanie when she was in diapers to put this together," a former SoulCycle employee who was at the event said. 

Senior SoulCycle leadership felt the remark "belittled the CEO," people familiar with the incident said.

But Whelan's success spoke for itself. When she became CEO in 2015, SoulCycle had just 11 studios. By May 2020 it had 99 in three countries. SoulCycle revenue, reported as $36 million in 2012, climbed during Whelan's tenure as COO and CEO to an estimated $250 million last year, according to two insiders with knowledge of the company's finances. The cycling company also hired 2,000 people during Whelan's tenure. SoulCycle declined to comment on its revenue. 

Whelan said it was "unfair" to suggest she was "scared" of Spevak. 

"My role was to deliver against an aggressive growth mandate while maintaining the culture and magic of our brand and community. These two goals were at times in real conflict with one another, especially in light of the speed with which we were expected to grow," she said. "I did my job, which is why the early summer of 2019 was an all-time high for the brand."

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Management found that CEOs who are women are more likely to be dismissed from their roles than men — even when their company is performing well.

Which might explain Whelan's work ethic.

Whelan stated publicly that "the idea of work-life balance is not really something I believe in" — and she expected her employees to adhere to the same philosophy, several former staffers said.

"It was the norm to be available at any and all hours of the day, weekends very much included," the former staffer who worked closely with the C-suite said. "The hours were extremely intense, and everyone was expected to answer emails within two hours at the most."

In August 2019, Whelan told Gary Gaines, SoulCycle's former senior vice president of global operations and studio experience, that "paternity leave is for pussies," according to allegations in a lawsuit filed against SoulCycle by Jordan Kafenbaum, a former executive who had managed talent.

Whelan's alleged comment, which came in response to Gaines' planned paternity leave, "spread like fire" through the corporate office, the complaint claims. Ultimately, Gaines did not end up using the full 12-week paternity leave he was entitled to.

"This statement attributed to me is absolutely false," Whelan said. "I fully encouraged this executive to take time with his family."

Several former staffers, though, felt Whelan had little regard for employees' personal time.

Whelan, who went through five assistants during her four-year reign as CEO, regularly reminded people that she started working at SoulCycle three weeks after her daughter was born in 2012, two ex-employees said.

Whelan told Business Insider that she was simply sharing her "experience returning to work as a way of underscoring the need for change at the company because, when I had my children, the company policy included only one paid week of leave for each year of tenure, which throughout my time at SoulCycle was a policy I was committed to improving."

She said she was instrumental in expanding SoulCycle's family-leave policies and personal-time-off programs.

Still, some employees felt pressure to work nonstop, staffers said.

On one occasion, the former staffer who worked closely with the C-suite says Whelan complained that she felt "blindsided" when they rushed out of the office with a 103-degree fever to go to an urgent-care clinic.

That former employee and another ex-colleague said they were discouraged from taking sick days when they were ill. Both said they recalled several occasions when certain employees had to stay at the office late into the evening while Whelan and other executives drank tequila shots in their offices.

Several former employees felt that Whelan was a "bully," saying she would often talk down to her employees.

Two former staffers said Whelan required her assistants to stand up at their desks whenever she entered or exited her office.

"Everyone was subservient to Melanie," the former staffer who worked closely with the C-suite said. "If you weren't in that echelon of favoritism, you were spoken down to."

The former corporate employee said that Whelan would call people "stupid" behind their backs.

"It was like 'Mean Girls,'" she said.

One former employee said she had a "very 'Game of Thrones'-esque" encounter with Whelan on her last day at the company, in 2018.

"She was like, 'You need to remember I know a lot of people in this city and you need to remember to watch what you say going forward,'" the former employee said. "She sounded very much like Cersei Lannister."

Whelan told Business Insider these allegations were "absolutely false."

"I always encouraged our teams to leave as soon as their work was done, to ride in the studios whenever they wanted, and to prioritize their health," Whelan said.

Caroline Gogolak, SoulCycle's former head of retail, said that when Whelan hired her, the CEO generously gave her "the reins to grow the business," delegating control of SoulCycle's vast line of products. "I was a happy employee," Gogolak said.

A former executive also defended Whelan, saying the CEO just had high expectations for her employees — a character trait that doesn't negatively define male bosses.

"If you have thin skin or are underperforming, you're going to feel it from her," the former executive said. "At SoulCycle, people showed up there with this 'kum-ba-yah, we all love each other' spirit, because that's the culture. But that doesn't mean that you don't need to perform. If a man has conviction or pushes people on their numbers, is that being a bully?"

Still, the former executive said Whelan could be difficult to work for.

"I think, honestly, being her assistant would be an awful job," the former executive said. "She moves so quickly. She is not easy to work for in that capacity."

'Jordan finally got pregnant!'

Whelan wasn't the only executive that some insiders said behaved inappropriately at SoulCycle.

Its former chief people officer, Gemperle, a key player in Whelan's departure, was also accused of unprofessional behavior in Kafenbaum's lawsuit.

At a November 6, 2019, SoulCycle conference in Miami — three weeks before Whelan's exit from the company — Gemperle gave a presentation about SoulCycle's new parental-leave policy. She also revealed that Kafenbaum was pregnant, the lawsuit claims.

According to the complaint, Gemperle announced in front of 100 employees: "Jordan Kafenbaum's mother actually just called to thank me for changing our policy because when we did … Jordan finally got pregnant!"

Kafenbaum was "embarrassed and shocked," the complaint said, that Gemperle disclosed details of her personal life "in such a disparaging manner — as if she calculated the timing of her pregnancy only after knowing that she would be entitled to 12 weeks of paid leave."

At that point, Kafenbaum had shared the news with only "a handful of people" at SoulCycle, the complaint says.

Kafenbaum's complaint alleges that after she confronted Gemperle about the incident back at SoulCycle's New York headquarters, Gemperle retaliated by giving Kafenbaum the "silent treatment" and excluding her from decisions under her purview.

In April, five months after the Miami conference and 32 days after she gave birth to her first child, Kafenbaum was fired.

"What happened to Jordan Kafenbaum, as set forth in the complaint, shows a company increasingly focused on the bottom line rather than its 'Soul Family,'" Jeanne Christensen, Kafenbaum's lawyer, told Business Insider.

Gemperle did not respond to phone calls or emails asking for comment for this story. SoulCycle did not provide comment on any of the suit's allegations.

'$10 million for the Peloton killer is nothing!'

As troubles brewed internally during the first half of 2019, a home spin bike to challenge Peloton's provided a ray of hope.

"SoulCycle was struggling to really innovate," one former senior employee said. "The home bike was one attempt of many to try and reinvent SoulCycle."

Employees said there was a major tech effort to create an internet-connected bike that could stream SoulCycle classes into riders' homes. SoulCycle executives believed the rival Peloton bike wasn't sturdy enough, its music wasn't prominent enough, and the experience was metrics-based, lacking SoulCycle's unique communal spirit that bred fiercely loyal customers.

On August 7, 2019, the day the bike was announced, news broke that Stephen Ross, the billionaire chairman of the Related Companies, which owns Equinox and SoulCycle, was hosting a fundraiser for President Donald Trump at his Hamptons estate.

Many SoulCycle devotees felt betrayed, with celebrities including Chrissy Teigen calling for riders to quit, and riders protesting outside studios.

"The Trump fundraiser news breaking the day they announced the home bike was an omen of many bad things to come," a former high-ranking SoulCycle executive said.

"That product was cursed from the beginning," a former staffer added.

A corporate tug-of-war over the home bike ensued. As the tech team finished work on the first big SoulCycle product to live beyond the studios, Equinox's rapacious financial eye narrowed on the target, employees said.

Equinox chief Harvey Spevak plucked the home bike from SoulCycle and dropped it into Equinox ownership. He wanted control of the new digital product so that Equinox could extend it across its various fitness companies, former employees said.

"There was a lot of drama. We wanted to do it ourselves. We didn't want to sell it. It sold it for way below ask," the SoulCycle insider said, adding that it was ultimately purchased at cost, for about $10 million. (Equinox, a majority owner of SoulCycle, bought the intellectual property rights in order to compensate the other minority investors.)

Key members of the home-bike team, including chief technical officer Jeremy Landis, were irate, sources said. Morale plummeted as the team watched its work get swiped by a separate company for far below value.

"$10 million for the Peloton killer is nothing!" the SoulCycle insider said.

'They tried to grow too fast, and it turned toxic'

The at-home-bike struggle was the latest skirmish between SoulCycle and corporate parent Equinox.

One longtime SoulCycle executive said Whelan found herself "caught in the middle" of a culture clash.

"Equinox had lots of MBAs," a former employee familiar with both companies said. "SoulCycle was like a start-up. People used lots of exclamation points in emails. Melanie did a good job of shielding us," he said, referring to Equinox's tough culture. "And I think it was hard on her."

When Spevak and other Equinox board members visited the SoulCycle offices, employees were told to remove birthday or work-anniversary decorations and turn down the music, three people said.

Employees say tensions increased in 2018 when, pressured by Equinox to increase profits, SoulCycle raised the price of classes, which vary regionally from $3o to $36, by several dollars, not long after cutting instructors' salaries. That same year, SoulCycle pulled its much-delayed IPO due to "market conditions," the company said at the time.

Equinox pushed SoulCycle to open studios in properties owned by the Related Companies or in locations where the parent company had planned to open Equinox Hotels, the former staffer and former longtime employee both said.

A number of these new openings were failures, including, said the former staffer, the 2018 studio at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. The 2019 opening at Hudson Yards, Related's New York City megadevelopment, also raised eyebrows at the company. The former longtime employee said a number of New York studios were not performing well at that time and opined that it was ill-advised to expand in the city.

"Most riders at Hudson Yards were Equinox employees who rode for free," said the former longtime employee. "Most of those classes were comped." (The Hudson Yards location is currently open and hosting outdoor classes.)

As more studios opened to a lackluster reception, some instructors began to voice frustration.

"We were asked to open a lot of studios — 10 to 15 studios a year — which impacted the morale of the instructors who struggled to fill the rooms," one former member of the leadership team said.

Equinox mandated that instructors be paid by how full their classes were, down to each bike sold. According to the same source, the instructors didn't want to look out and see dollar signs instead of people.

"They tried to grow too fast, and it turned toxic," a former talent executive said.

Whelan appeared to sympathize with the instructors. She went on a cross-country tour after the Stephen Ross fundraiser to assure studio staffers of SoulCycle's values.

But the CEO's spending on the company dime didn't help her reputation, staffers said.

The former staffer who worked closely with the C-suite and the SoulCycle insider said that on several occasions Whelan expensed $750-a-seat helicopter rides from her Tribeca apartment to her Hamptons home through the charter service Blade.

Whelan told Business Insider: "This allegation is true. On the very rare occasions when I needed to work in the company's New York City office late into the evening and had to be in one of four Hamptons studios for an early company event in the morning — I therefore took a helicopter to maximize my time in the office and also see my children for a few hours before arriving in the studios in the morning."

Whelan also approved seemingly lavish expenses for her favorite executives, people said. More than once, the company's chief talent officer, Halle Madia, expensed Ubers from the office to her home in Princeton, New Jersey, which cost $250 one way, two former employees said.

Whelan said she didn't treat employees differently with regard to comping transportation, and, in the case of Madia's Uber, "We would always encourage employees who had worked very late at the company's request to expense their transportation home out of a concern."

The CEO's penchant for what many sources viewed as reckless spending appeared to be exemplified by the Christian Dior purchases. Three former employees said Whelan tried to hide that she bought a bag for herself, as well as one for Ryan-Southern.

Ryan-Southern told Business Insider that when he received the gift he was not aware of how it would be accounted for.

"Melanie never mentioned to me, 'Don't tell anyone about this.' She just said thank you for your hard work," Ryan-Southern said.

He added that he didn't find the gift to be unusual because SoulCycle had a history of gifting employees for jobs well done. Whelan said that SoulCycle had annual gifting budgets designed to reward employees.

"In 2019 we even paid for part of the wedding of two of our instructors as a gift," Whelan said.

But after SoulCycle's chief people officer, Adrienne Gemperle, started to suspect that Whelan had tried to hide the double purchase, she started "building a case" against Whelan, alongside members of the CEO's own inner circle, the former staffer said.

Whelan said the allegations that she tried to mislead the company with regard to the Dior purchases were false.

"In 2019, following the opening of SoulCycle's London studio, I decided to buy a thank you gift for my colleague who had led the massive operational effort — including relocating and working most evenings and weekends — for this incredibly successful market launch," she said. "I purchased one bag for myself, as well, for which I fully intended, and did in fact, reimburse the company."

Whelan added, "It is false to say that I was pressured to provide a receipt."

While the former CEO maintains that Ryan-Southern's gift was in line with company protocol, she reimbursed SoulCycle $5,100 for both Dior bags in September 2019. 

The reimbursement apparently wasn't enough.

"Melanie's exorbitant spending of company funds was definitely called into question because they weren't sure if they had missed any major things like the Dior bag in the past," the former staffer said.

The "coup," as the three former staffers referred to it, was a success. Whelan left in November 2019.

"The company separated from Melanie Whelan almost a year ago, as it was time for a change in leadership," a SoulCycle spokesperson said.

Nevertheless, Whelan called leading SoulCycle "one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences" of her career.

"One of the hardest parts of my job was balancing the expectations of all of these groups," she said. "I always put the community first and led with compassion and positivity, while supporting strategic decisions essential for the company to prosper and grow. I am proud of the business we built; but more importantly of the personal and meaningful impact SoulCycle had in the lives of so many."

'Sunder is just a money guy. He doesn't care if employees don't like him.'

In November 2019, Whelan was replaced by the frugal chief financial officer Sunder Reddy.

He didn't turn out to be the savior employees were looking for, staffers said.

Since Reddy took over as SoulCycle's interim CEO, at least eight executives have quit, including chief commercial officer Greg Gittrich, chief people officer Gemperle, chief technology officer Jeremy Landis, senior vice president of retail Caroline Gogolak, and senior vice president of global operations and studio experience Gary Gaines.

Two former staffers told Business Insider that high turnover in SoulCycle's leadership was a well-known phenomenon. One former high-ranking employee said that before she was hired, a headhunter warned her not to work at the company.

"The staff turnover, especially at the executive level or the senior leadership, was crazy," the former employee said, blaming the hard-charging culture. "They churned through people. It would not be uncommon to see empty offices."

Several former staffers said that many corporate employees lacked confidence in Reddy's leadership because his financial focus seemed out of step with a brand built on towel-waving classes and sweaty high-fives.

"Sunder is just a money guy," the former corporate employee said. "He doesn't care if employees don't like him."

One point of contention occurred during the early days of the pandemic, when much of New York City began to shut down and companies including Amazon and Microsoft had already directed their New York employees to work from home.

But during the week of March 9, Reddy still asked his employees to go into SoulCycle's Manhattan office, even when he himself refused to, the former staffer said.

"He straight up told one of the executives, 'I don't want to take transit. I don't want to risk it,'" the staffer said. "His whole team, the finance team, definitely noticed and they were not happy that they were forced to go in and he was MIA."

(The source close to SoulCycle told Business Insider that employees were not asked to go into the office if they were not comfortable.)

Kafenbaum's suit also alleged that Reddy made an inappropriate sexual gesture in the office in 2018.

In her complaint, Kafenbaum said she met with Reddy, chief talent officer Halle Madia, and a SoulCycle instructor about the instructor's class rate and pending pay raise. Later that day, Reddy came to Kafenbaum's office with Madia.

"While [Kafenbaum] was sitting in a chair at her desk, and Reddy and Madia were sitting on the desk top, Reddy said that the instructor had sent Reddy an email thanking him for the meeting, after which Reddy then gestured with his hands and mouth what is commonly known to reference to a blow job," the lawsuit alleges.

Kafenbaum was "disgusted" by the gesture, the complaint says. Reddy did not return requests for comment.

The SoulCycle insider said that the company "was a tough place to work," but not everyone was bothered by the occasional bouts of Hollywood behavior and off-color jokes.

The former executive said that she found the corporate culture at SoulCycle to be "super positive."

"There was nothing nefarious going on at the company," she said. "When you hear grumblings, it's because people felt empowered to say when they didn't like things or to speak up, versus a more authoritarian culture."

'Instructors were the secret sauce, and now they are quitting'

This past summer, many instructors — the faces of the company — appeared to have had enough.

Several high-profile instructors — including Mary Kate Hurlbutt of San Francisco, Tina Jackson of Los Angeles, and Soeuraya Wilson of New York/Miami — announced they were quitting on social media.

"I can no longer allow my body to be used by a company that ultimately stands alongside its investors and individuals who continue to support racism and bigotry," Wilson wrote in a July post. "Six years ago I started working for SoulCycle. A very different one than it is today."

The resignation struck the reeling company like a bomb. Not only was Wilson a top instructor, she was the face of the newly released at-home bike.

Other instructors who quit cited the company's failure to address social issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. In interviews with Business Insider, several Black instructors said they felt pressured to host a Black Lives Matter fundraiser ride from their homes without adequate tech support or personnel.

"Instructors were the secret sauce and now they are quitting," the SoulCycle insider said. "It's a really big problem. People only ride with their favorites and it's really hard to convince people to try someone new."

Some instructors felt particularly burned after they were demoted during the pandemic and management asked teachers not to change their titles on social media to avoid online backlash, two instructors said.

"The instructors drank the Kool-Aid. They really believe in it. They want to make people feel good. The higher-ups didn't get that," the former talent executive said.

Many SoulCycle executives echoed that sentiment. The mission of SoulCycle didn't change. The company did.

"Riders who feel disillusioned need to know that every one of the instructors was emotionally invested in the mission," the former high-ranking executive said. "They loved what we were doing. That was real."

'Do I still work there? I actually have no idea.'

Today, some say SoulCycle's corporate office is clouded by an atmosphere of gloom where employees speculate about layoffs and the future of the company.

The executive exodus has been so severe that SoulCycle's lead counsel, Maria Harris, has had to fill in as the company's interim head of human resources since July, according to two sources.

Instructors across the country have said they're rarely in touch with the company.

"Do I still work there?" asked one furloughed instructor from the San Francisco Bay Area. "I actually have no idea."

A number of studios have reopened again after COVID-19 closures. In some areas instructors gamely haul studio bikes into parking lots for outdoor classes they describe as heavily work-intensive and low on revenue.

Other studios are opting to permanently shut down. New York's Union Square studio, one of the company's first locations, closed this summer. In July, Toronto riders complained on social media that a studio there went dark without warning, leaving riders with purchased classes they couldn't use.

SoulCycle has been refusing to accept its own gift cards for weeks and has taken to selling idle bikes from its studios online. "They need cash," the SoulCycle insider said.

Meanwhile, the fear of bankruptcy is ever present for some, especially after a spin-studio competitor, FlyWheel, filed for Chapter 11 last month. The former corporate employee said that "could never happen" at SoulCycle because Equinox would swoop in and save the company. But other insiders interviewed are less confident, citing SoulCycle's mounting debts and idle studios, which a bankruptcy could allow a big company to restructure.

The SoulCycle spokesperson dismissed any speculation about a bankruptcy filing.

Despite the bumpy road ahead, many riders remain faithful, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their home bikes, which began shipping in May, and signing up for distanced cycling classes at the reopened studios.

But with some top employees on the run and others questioning SoulCycle's leadership and values, many current and former employees say the Equinox-led company has lost its identity.

"Decisions at SoulCycle are driven by the Equinox and Related teams," the former member of SoulCycle's leadership team said. "The notion that SoulCycle is an independent company is completely false. It is now just part of a corporate machine."

Ruth Zukerman, the first SoulCycle instructor and cofounder, said: "SoulCycle came from a place of passion and vulnerability and authenticity. This is 1,000% about the big corporate success of spin getting away from those grass roots."

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