The internet of Peloton is vast, but easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. God knows I white-knuckled alone through many a sprint before discovering the Facebook group that first sucked me in.
Like thousands of other riders, I’d bought my $1900 bike at the height of the pandemic, with hopes of arresting my quarantine slide into sloth. But in the bike, I also found an unexpected ticket into a weird virtual universe—one where optimistic, attractive, aspirational people punctuate their every sentence with exclamation points and build elaborate, hand-lettered shrines to Peloton in the basements and rec rooms of their sun-drenched suburban houses.
By my count, there are at least 300 Facebook groups devoted to Peloton, some boasting hundreds of thousands of members. Peloton can also claim a 165,000-person subreddit, at least one unofficial podcast, a news aggregator, an endurance training forum and a small battalion of TikTok fan accounts and Etsy merch stores. Hundreds of Pinterest users have dedicated boards to the design and decoration of Peloton “home studios,” for those with the surplus square footage to give the bike its own room. Meanwhile, an Instagram account with 3,700 followers solicits photos of the toned derrieres of (mostly female) riders, often clad in Peloton-branded Spandex, which start at $68.
All cult fitness brands have online followings, but Peloton’s is more than a fandom: It’s a core part of the company’s corporate identity, a lifeline for thousands of riders, and, increasingly, the secret sauce that separates Peloton from an exploding field of internet-connected competitors. “This brand has really become embedded into individual’s lifestyles,” said Dr. Jenna Jacobson, an assistant professor of retail management at Ryerson University, who has a study forthcoming on the social communities around fitness brands. “Peloton sales skyrocketed during the pandemic, in part because of consumers’ commitment to fitness, yes, but also because of this sense of community and connectivity it provides to users who are sitting home alone, unable to connect.”
“Connection” has always ranked among Peloton’s core buzzwords, dating back to the 2013 trade show where founder and CEO John Foley debuted the bike under the only-slightly-maudlin tagline “you’ll never ride alone.” Two years later, in 2015, the company launched an official Facebook group, which now boasts more than 405,000 members.
But don’t bother with the official, Peloton-run pages, which riders regularly pan for their unprovoked, internecine dramas and fixation on the personal lives of Peloton instructors. The real action takes place away from the high-gloss glow of the official groups, where users have splintered into a rapidly expanding universe of volunteer-run—and often fantastically niche—affinity pages. On Facebook, in particular, there are groups for Peloton clergy, Peloton horse girls, and Peloton nurse anesthesiologists. Peloton Boujee Bs—short for “bourgeois bitches”—serves as an internet home for those highly relatable Peloton-owning women who’d also like to solicit luxury car recommendations and debate the merits of real vs. lab-grown diamonds. The tone of these groups is generally upbeat-aspirational, much like Peloton itself: reports of personal records (called PRs) smashed and challenge rides vanquished, punctuated with mirror selfies, #pelopups, and screenshots from the Peloton app.
On Reddit, meanwhile, a slightly more self-serious crowd—“we seek to embody the very spirit of sport,” intones its description—trades training tips, troubleshoots common hardware problems, and leaks a steady stream of Peloton news and gossip, to the apparent aggravation of the mothership. On Instagram, fan accounts with names like @pelotonmemes_superimpose caps-locked jokes about difficult classes over stills from Schitt’s Creek and Bridgerton. On Etsy—which counts only tenuously as an online community, but whose offerings are so wonderfully on-the-nose—at least 50 shops sell T-shirts screened with some variation of the phrase “Peloton / Wine / Repeat,” while a store in Texas sells honest-to-goodness Cody Rigsby prayer candles.
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Mega-instructors like Rigsby—who, with more than half a million Instagram followers, has become an influencer in his own right—also cameo regularly in the internet of Peloton, popping up for AMAs in the Facebook groups or sending repeat students DMs and high-fives. For Meghan Valvano, the head moderator of the 82,000-member Peloton Women’s Page, that type of surprisingly personal instructor engagement was her initiation into this world. She’s since met fellow riders from her Facebook group for dinner or drinks, and now counts her four fellow “mods” among her best friends. They talk “constantly, every day”—but have never met in person.
It all sounds like a lot, I’ll admit. And it is. I now belong to several dozen Peloton fan groups, and my desire to screenshot the cringey posts of America’s white, wealthy cul-de-sac class moved me to join at least half of them. But as in any online space, the fandom researcher and theorist Casey Fiesler told me, like-minded people are bound to form deep, enduring connections that have little to do with the topic that lured them online to begin with. Such is the internet of Peloton, where conversations can start with the playlist of Alex Touissant’s last hip hop ride and then veer into engrossingly intimate subjects: miscarriages and menopause, cancer diagnoses and bullied kids, anxiety disorders, unemployment, and racial justice.
Riders have met on the Peloton pages and gotten married. Others have spilled secrets to far-flung, Lycra-clad strangers that they’d never disclose in person. Far from the Pelowinos and Boujee Bs, there are also Facebook groups devoted to riders with alcoholism, eating disorders, and special needs children. “The Peloton community has been a savior for me, honestly,” said 36-year-old Kimberly Abild, who described the pain of her husband’s recent infidelity, and her father’s severe illness, in a post to Peloton’s official, corporate-run group last December. The post promptly racked up more than 6,000 likes; Peloton even sent flowers. “Everyone’s so positive, so encouraging—at first it was really overwhelming, but in a great way,” Abild said. “I’ve honestly never experienced anything like this.”
As the stunt with the flowers might suggest, Peloton is hustling to harness the bonds between its online fans for its own benefit. Many of them are, after all, essentially providing the brand free marketing and customer service at a time when thousands of new riders face infuriating waits just to receive their equipment. Last April, for instance, Peloton launched leaderboard hashtags—an in-platform way for users to work out with off-platform groups—in response to the rapid growth of grassroots communities on social media. Peloton also regularly sends cards and gifts to riders like Abild, said Jayvee Nava, the company’s vice president of community, and encourages its instructors to embrace their online fans, even helping some of its marquee stars manage their social pages.
Here, too, the ardor of the fandom can be intense, acknowledged Matty Maggiacomo, an ebullient former news anchor who teaches running and strength classes on the Peloton platform and serves as the company’s director of instructor engagement. “It’s fascinating what people want to tell you,” said Maggiacomo, especially since the start of the pandemic. Riders have sent him long, heartfelt Instagram messages about their relationships and their children. Like many fitness instructors, Maggiacomo misses the time when he used to stay after class to talk with his regulars. “In lieu of that person-to-person connection,” he said, “this is the substitute.”
But the internet of Peloton does face challenges, much like Peloton itself. If all these heartfelt messages and culty memes are truly stand-ins for in-person interaction, then they’ll fade as normal life resumes again. If the alternative is true, however, and Peloton continues growing—it added almost 1 million paying members in the last year—then both the company and its fandom will have to figure out how to scale their peculiar brand of online intimacy, which by definition shouldn’t scale.
Already, Peloton fan groups brim with comment threads strategizing how to earn instructor shout-outs in increasingly crowded classes. Many groups added new moderators in the past year to keep up with ballooning member counts and to screen out trolls and histrionics. In r/pelotoncycle, which added 130,000 members since the start of the pandemic and now sees more than five million hits each month, four moderators spend hours each day on the subreddit, in addition to the time they spend on the bike itself and at their day jobs.
Still, said moderator Koko Odya, the community keeps them in it—and will long after the pandemic ends. Odya doesn’t even own a Peloton bike; she takes classes on a TV or tablet rigged to her Keiser M3, a popular DIY alternative. “It’s become bigger than becoming better athletes,” she said. “Last year, more than any other, people have really needed that extra connection.” And whether you’re a horse girl or an anesthesiologist, the internet of Peloton can provide it.
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