“Like I always say: I’ve got 30 minutes of motivation. You’ve got 30 minutes of hustle and dedication. And together, we’ve got 30 minutes of greatness. We’re a unit. We’re a family. Don’t get it twisted, all right? We ride together. We shine together. But, that being said, this is my house, so my rules, so get your ass off the couch and let’s ride today, baby!”
It’s a few minutes to 10 a.m., and they’re starting to file in for Alex Toussaint’s spin class: 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 strong. Scattered among them, clicked in for yet another quarantine ride, are Billy Horschel, Bubba Watson and Charley Hoffman, as well as their boss, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who cycles under the alias “Uncle Snooty,” the nickname a waitress in Iowa once gave him after Monahan – in the midst of cycling across the country following college graduation – wasn’t responsive enough to her questions. Justin Thomas was supposed to join but withdrew with bike troubles. Rory McIlroy was a no-show. The biker gang remained undeterred.
With golf on hiatus for at least another month and players unable to meet with their personal trainers because of the coronavirus pandemic, this is how some of the game’s stars are getting their competitive fix – not on a golf course, but on a stationary bike. Their status isn’t measured in FedExCup points or strokes-gained stats; here, they’re striving to produce the almighty Output, a calculation (measured in kilojoules) of the energy generated using a combination of resistance and cadence. The higher the output, the harder you worked – and the more respect you gain. Just like in their usual arena, there’s nowhere to hide: Everyone’s score is updated on a virtual leaderboard on the touchscreen-equipped bikes, which retail for $2,245 and require a $39-a-month membership.
More often than not, both the pros and average Joes are working out under the direction of Toussaint, a 27-year-old Peloton instructor who, in the age of social distancing, has become the Tour’s de facto trainer.
Today, they’ve signed up for 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a class that features an endless stream of hills and climbs and sprints and, if they’re lucky, a few recoveries.
How much can you really accomplish in a half hour?
“Try to post these numbers before you even comment on it,” Horschel warns. Sometimes, he’ll be so exhausted after a ride that he lays on the floor for 20 minutes to lower his heart rate.
“I’m usually drenched,” Hoffman says. “I did a 20-minute ride an hour ago and I’m still wet from it.”
Horschel and Hoffman have owned a bike for years but only turned up the intensity after the PGA Tour shut down in mid-March. With no way to satiate his competitive desires, Horschel looked up one of McIlroy’s rides on the app and aimed to top his output. Yes, it seems in both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Unofficial PGA Tour Peloton Ranking, McIlroy is the gold standard. “The numbers he puts up, it’s ridiculous!” Horschel says. (Sound familiar?)
Horschel couldn’t match McIlroy in his first attempt. So he challenged McIlroy for the next two rides – and Rory beat him each time then, too. That’s when Hoffman and Watson and Thomas – even The Commish – all got involved, jumping into a text chain together to talk trash and set up group rides.
“When I got beat by the commissioner the first ride we did together, that was very humbling, to say the least,” says Hoffman of the 49-year-old Monahan. “It made me go harder and train harder and have some accountability.” Each social-media video announcing their upcoming ride draws thousands of views and helps bring together the cycling community. “It’s exploded into something where people want to ride with us and see how they stack up,” Horschel says.
Their latest showdown was April 24, in the HIIT class led by Toussaint. Possessing a deep, gravelly voice and no-nonsense approach, Toussaint is a drill sergeant straight out of central casting. He’ll kick your ass and then help you to your feet. Since 2016 he has cranked out eight to 12 live classes a week from the Peloton studio in Chelsea, New York. Now, because of the city’s shelter-in-place order, he’s teaching alone in his apartment, welcoming 20,000 live riders into his living room (and, later, tens of thousands more through the company’s sleek on-demand service).
No matter the setting the expectations for the class remain the same, but early in the ride he’s experiencing technical difficulties – an audio issue that forces him to bark out instructions and motivate riders without music pumping through his headphones. He briefly grows aggravated, tossing a pair of earbuds to someone off camera.
“We’re not perfect but guess what? The hustle is still here. They can’t quarantine the hustle,” he says through gritted teeth. “Might be a little off-rhythm, but the hustle is still on beat.”
HUSTLING, AFTER ALL, has never been an issue for Toussaint. Growing up on Long Island, New York, his parents sent him to Wentworth Military Academy & College in Lexington, Missouri, before the sixth grade because of behavioral issues. “I really didn’t have an identity,” he said by phone last week. “I was trying to find myself, and I made life hard on my own.” His father, Martial, was a machinist mate in the Navy. His mother, Judith, has a doctorate in education. His brother, also named Martial, studied law at Brown. But Alex? “I was the kid who got kicked out of every single school that I’ve been to,” he says. “I was a troubled kid.”
Six feet tall and 195 pounds, he had dreams of hooping in the NBA but peaked as a shooting guard on the state runner-up squad. After graduating high school, he enrolled at New England Tech to study audio and video production. Little did he realize those skills would come in handy for his career, as he’s now essentially starring, directing and producing a perfectly choreographed workout class for millions worldwide.
Music is integral to any workout, of course, but it’s particularly critical for cycling. The beat provides a soundtrack to the pedal strokes. Determining a playlist is exhausting, as detailed a process as a caddie mapping out the greens during a tournament practice round. Combining genres of hip-hop, pop, rock and EDM, Toussaint will rely on his marching-band-drummer background and layer in the music after writing out the format of the class (hills, flat roads, intervals, recoveries). He’ll finalize the playlist by listening to it three times – twice in his apartment, then once in his car on the way to the studio. “It’s a very long process,” he says, “but we do what we do because we’re pros.”
Back in his apartment, Toussaint is starting to feel himself: His head bouncing to the rhythm, his gold chain dancing on his collar, sweat glistening on his skin as Kanye West’s “Champions” blares. “Yo, I told you!” he growls. “Waking up is my pre-workout! I’M ACTIVATED! Come on!”
Of the roughly 20,000 live riders, Horschel and Hoffman are establishing their bona fides. They’re both in the top 150 overall – inside the top 0.8 percent for the class! They’re outpacing Monahan, too, and Watson, a relative novice, who currently sits outside the top 1,300. With McIlroy a late scratch, Horschel is the alpha of the group ... but now feels threatened. “I was like, Man, Charley is going today!” Horschel says. “My legs felt light. I didn’t have a lot of power. I’m going as hard as I can. But I’m not letting him beat me. That’s the competitor in me – I don’t want to lose to anybody today.”
His audio issues sorted out, Toussaint is rattling off his trademark phrases as they enter the stretch run:
Inhale your confidence, exhale your doubt!
Discipline over distractions!
Adjustments, less excuses!
This ain’t daycare!
Occasionally, Toussaint shouts out random riders – those who smash personal records, eclipse 100 career rides, soar up the leaderboard – or implores the group to dig deeper.
“I love the people that yell and cuss at us,” Horschel says. “That’s just what I need to be motivated. If I’m struggling that day and don’t want to hop on the bike, I know I can go to Alex and he’ll put that needle in me.”
“Nobody likes riding a stationary bike, so you want to get something out of it. And he makes you get something out of it every time,” Hoffman says. “I was talking to a couple of my friends, like, This guy is really good at what he does.”
AND TO THINK, only a few years ago, Toussaint was depressed and lost, without a career or a direction. He lasted at New England Tech only a year and a half, dropping out after someone broke into his car. “That threw me into a rock-bottom situation mentally,” he says. “I didn’t give up, but I couldn’t handle it anymore. I had to come back to the source to get my security.”
A college dropout with no job, Toussaint was kicked out of the house in a show of tough love by his father. Determined to make him proud, Toussaint started at Flywheel Sports as a maintenance worker, mopping floors for cheap but steady pay. He’d never been on a cycling bike before, but during shifts he’d hang outside the indoor studio and listen to the inspiring messages from the instructors, marveling at how the sweat-soaked riders seemed to hang on their every word. Finally, Toussaint mustered the courage to ask Ruth Zukerman, the co-founder of Flywheel and SoulCycle, for an opportunity to teach. He knew music. He was an athlete. “Give me two weeks of your time,” she told him, “and I can change your life.” Toussaint remains eternally grateful to the woman he now calls his life mentor. “She saw a light in me at one point that I didn’t see in myself.”
Toussaint was a fast riser in the industry, going from janitor to high-volume instructor, teaching 15 to 25 classes a week and even traveling abroad to help spread the gospel. His inimitable style caught the attention of Peloton executives, who recruited him in late 2015 and helped launch his star. “Now I’m able to teach in a vulnerable way where I feel protected and safe, where I feel like me,” he says.
Over the past few years he’s mushroomed his Instagram following to 150,000-plus, hosted former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for an in-studio ride and received plaudits from Patrick Mahomes, Bryce Harper and the Golden State Warriors. Toussaint’s NBA dreams may have been dashed early but he treats each class “with that Michael Jordan, Game 7 mentality.” Other athletes recognize, and respect, that hustle. “It’s a tough-love, boot-camp, military approach,” he says. “It’s very direct. Some people may love it. Some people may not. But it’s the way I wanted to be a pro athlete myself. So there’s just a little bit of a resemblance in there.”
And the Tour players have flocked to him, too, all needling and pushing each other to the breaking point. Toussaint has noticed the groundswell of support. “Rory has been putting in a lot of work. Bubba has been killing it lately. Billy Horschel has been riding since Day 1, killing it,” Toussaint says. “The best part about this is, these guys are competitors in their own sport, but they’re bringing that aspect to the bike, too. They’re not doing it to say, ‘I’m better than you.’ But they’re competing to inspire each other, and throughout that process they’re inspiring millions of members. What they’re doing is super, super powerful, and I’m thankful for them.”
What’s the benefit of this cardiovascular training? After all, these guys might be on their feet for seven hours a day, but they aren’t sprinting up and down the court for 48 minutes or trying to elude defenders in the open field. Throughout the year much of their training consists of medicine-ball workouts, resistance bands and corrective exercises. One of the traveling Tour fitness trucks is equipped with two Peloton bikes, but players like Hoffman previously just used them for a 15-minute warmup before a full-body workout. Seeing these results, feeling this good, might change his weekly approach.
“We’re pushing ourselves at a time when we’ve got no competition in our blood,” Hoffman says, “and when we get back out on Tour, we’re going to be ready to go. Because guess what? If you’re not doing something, somebody else is, and they’re going to kick your butt out there.”
THE RIDE IS coming to an end, the urgency is growing, and Toussaint wants the group to push through the finish line.
Activate your greatness!
If it’s too light, turn that s--t to the right!
We got the power. We got the purpose. We put passion into our pedal strokes!
The clocks expires and the pace slows, at last, as the elite performers had been riding more than a dozen miles at an average speed of at least 24 mph, burning more than 800 calories.
“Validate!” Toussaint says, clapping. “Yeahhhhh!”
As of last week, more than 90,000 members have taken the class either live or on demand.
The final standings:
• Horschel: 403rd place (550kj output)
• Hoffman: 551st (531)
• Monahan: 1,694th (465)
• McIlroy: 2,791st (436)
• Watson: 6,880th (377)
Another reminder that, on today’s Tour, these are world-class athletes in spikes.
“That golfer stigma that we aren’t athletes and we can’t train, it’s gone,” Hoffman says. “It’s nice to get the validation.”
Toussaint teaches for a living, usually riding multiple times a day, and yet his blue Peloton tank top is ringing wet from the workout. He spends the last two minutes of the class shouting out his hometown crew from East Hampton, those with birthdays and those notching personal milestones. Each ride he’s reminded of his humble entry into the cycling game, and so afterward he overflows with gratitude and appreciation: “If you’re riding live right now, I love you,” he says. “Let me say it one more time, louder: I LOVE YOU! Seriously.”
He makes a cheesy joke about how, next time, the riders need to wipe their feet before (virtually) entering his home. He hopes to resume teaching in the company’s state-of-the-art cycling studio, once it’s deemed safe and responsible. That same hope for a return to normalcy imbues the Tour players, too, who are now targeting a mid-June restart. For now, this biker gang has been a welcome diversion in uncertain times, an outlet for the über-competitive, a shining display of camaraderie and community.
Signing off, Toussaint kisses two fingers and extends them to the ceiling: “Feel good, look good, do better, and how could I forget? Keep spreading that love.”
The screen fades to black, and the search for another ride begins.