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Peak Performance

David Thompson pays a visit to the new Athlete Lab cycle hub, to see how its focus on cycling enthusiasts rather than fitness fanatics is giving it a different spin

by David Thompson | Published in Sports Management 2014 issue 4
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British Cycling’s Shane Sutton (second from left) has joined the team at Athlete Lab, bringing elite expertise to the programming
British Cycling’s Shane Sutton (second from left) has joined the team at Athlete Lab, bringing elite expertise to the programming

With its first UK site now open in London, the team behind international indoor cycling brand Athlete Lab is already eyeing up more sites in the capital.

Approaching 50 per cent capacity in the first quarter since opening, the club’s performance indicates a positive outlook and quick growth for the brand, especially as it opened in what the owners expect to be their quietest time of year.

Moving quickly is something founders – Michael Flynn – a former Glencore oil trader – and Neil Franks, head of South East Asia and Australia at Cordea Savills private equity group – know well, both in business and in the saddle.

They met during cycle training sessions in Singapore, where they were both working at the time. Looking for better places to train, but failing to find quite what they were after, they decided instead to open their own studio where cyclists could bring in their own bikes to train indoors in a convenient location.

Within two weeks of the first Athlete Lab opening, the pair already had two sites: the inaugural site in Singapore and a club in Sydney, Australia. Two years later, Athlete Lab has arrived in London with a £1m studio targeting the cycling fanatics of the city’s financial heartland.

“London was the obvious next step for us,” says Flynn. “Cycling is massively popular here, and it’s very difficult to train year-round due to the infamous English weather. Wherever there are dedicated cyclists and triathletes who have busy jobs, there will always be a demand for convenient indoor training.”

London model
Unlike the Athlete Labs in Singapore and Sydney, the London club only has fixed bikes, custom-made for an authentic experience – the other clubs have the option of bringing your own. There are 20 bikes in the main studio and 10 more in the basement studio, along with a stretch and conditioning area. The bikes, called Adjustabikes, are made exclusively for Athlete Lab by Powerwatts, a Canadian company which developed the training hardware for Olympic athletes. They feature clip-in pedals (with shoes available from reception), gears and the rear wheel of a real road bike, mounted on a modified frame which sits in a turbo trainer.

Data from the turbo trainer and sensors fitted to the pedals generate an impressive array of performance information. This data is displayed on a huge screen at the front of the studio, and this is the driving force behind the workouts. By matching power output and cadence (pedal speed) to the targets on-screen, you’re guided through the ride. The system also links up with heart rate monitors and results can be sent to tracking programmes and apps such as Strava. You also get a ride report by email.

There are ride programmes for endurance, sprint intervals, HIIT, five-minute intervals and Ironman triathlon training, all of which make up the club’s regular schedule of 16–18 classes a day. The rides at Athlete Lab have been developed by the in-house team of cycling coaches, and the recent addition of British Cycling’s Shane Sutton will add even more elite expertise to the programming. “We’re very proud to have Shane on board,” says Flynn. “His knowledge and experience in training top level cyclists is invaluable to us, and it’s fantastic to have him not only help with improving our rides with his own methodology, but to join the team as a shareholder of the London club.”

personalised experience
“Our specially designed rides are central to our appeal to dedicated cyclists, covering all the bases across different disciplines,” says Flynn. “Data is hugely popular, so we give all the data we can and it’s extremely accurate.”

Each ride is tailored to individual riders’ ability by using a functional threshold power test (FTP) to produce a score on which to base the target power output. The FTP test is performed by every new member and involves riding as fast as you can on a 2 per cent gradient for 20 minutes, to calculate your maximum power output. For customers dropping in to a class for the first time, the coaches running the class will estimate the FTP based on general fitness level and experience.

Flynn says: “It’s a simple system, but it works well for getting the most effective training for each individual, regardless of ability, while enjoying the same class together. Our coaches are the key here – the FTP can be adjusted manually throughout the ride to make sure each rider gets the most out of the workout.”

Sports performance focus
Athlete Lab London currently has around 100 members, with capacity set at around 250–300. Unlimited access membership costs £129 a month, while ride packs of 12 (£288) and eight (£216) are also available, to be used over a three-month period. Alternatively, drop-in classes can be attended for £30. “Our customers and members are about 50 per cent cyclists and 50 per cent triathletes at the London club so far,” says Flynn.

“We’re not targeting fitness customers, but rather sports performance. Many cyclists look for fitness alternatives during the off-season, and for a convenient substitute during the working week. Group cycling on flywheel bikes is great for cardio, but it doesn’t replicate the true pedal stroke of a real bike. We offer all the convenience of a group cycling studio, but with much more beneficial training for cyclists – ours are real bikes, so you train just as you would on the road. Add to that our personalised cycle coaches, on-hand to fine tune your performance, and I think Athlete Lab is way ahead of the pack.”

He continues: “It’s been a bit of a challenge coming into the London market though, as nearly everyone has a gym membership already. That’s very different from Singapore and Sydney.” Nevertheless, the Athlete Lab team is already starting to think about its next club, with an eye out for sites in prestigious areas such as the West End and Kensington.

“We’re looking forward to building the social aspect in London’s cycling community,” says Flynn. “We have real rides where you can take on the challenges of famous cycling routes and race nights where members can race everyone else in the room, or against riders at other clubs. As soon as we have more clubs, we can host more challenges to make it an even more enjoyable training experience.”

First person experience

David Thompson reports...

David Thompson
David Thompson

Arrive at Athlete Lab and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a Tour de France team’s training centre. Everything is shiny and new: clean white lines and hi-spec finish in everything from the reception desk to the bar stools crafted from professional (read painful) looking bike saddles. After a warm but somewhat perfunctory greeting from the coaching team, I’m fitted out with some cycling cleats and taken through the large glass doors to the main studio.

With 30 bikes set out in three rows facing the huge screen, which takes up most of the front wall, the room still manages to feel spacious. A full class with 30 riders must be a sight to behold, with all those gears whirring and legs spinning in unison, but in my class there were just four of us. The coach meticulously set up my bike position, making adjustments which I’m told they save and set up for members ahead of time when they’ve booked in for a ride.

Then we get down to the serious business of cycling. The characterless but energetic dance music plays, and my legs spin the pedals around, but similarities with other indoor cycling classes end there. This is not the place for supercharged fitness instructors: it’s the place to get your training in because it’s hard to get out for a decent ride when you’re stuck in the office all week.The two riders next to me are prime examples of Athlete Lab’s target market – City boys with money to spend and a keen interest in cycling. They talk the talk, and as I can see from the data on the screen as we match our leg speed and power output to targets, they walk the walk.

The bikes are absolutely authentic and a single-minded determination to keep turning the pedals is required to get you through – just like being out on the road. There are only three things I could have asked for: swapping out their saddle for my own, the wind in my hair and the sun on my back. If you’re married to your bike and addicted to data, then Athlete Lab is the perfect place to train. If you’re after a good workout that happens to be on a bike, consider the nearest Spin studio.

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