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Fuelled by community

Many clubs talk about building a community. Few are built for – and by – a community. Fuel Cycling co-founders Molly Kennedy and Margarett Gabrielson share their inspirational story with Kate Cracknell.
Published 9. December 2022

What’s the Fuel Cycling back story?

MK: Margarett and I both used to instruct at another studio, but we felt something was missing. We made the decision to leave and create our own welcoming, community-focused space.

We started out as an online platform during COVID, with really loyal followers from our previous club who followed us online and got their friends involved too. And then, as we were coming out of the pandemic, a member of our community told us about a space that was available to rent. 

And that was that. We opened Fuel Cycling in Monterey, California, on 12 August 2021. At the time we had 20 bikes in our studio – what we affectionately call The Tank – with a warehouse-meets-speakeasy vibe where we have everything you need, without the frills you don’t.

Honestly, I had never planned to own a studio. I’m a full-time teacher and that was all I ever intended to be. But we had a community who wanted to ride with their favourite instructors and we just felt we had to make it happen. 

I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, but together with Margarett, our fantastic manager Lindsey and our girl gang of amazing instructors – five of us from our old club – we did it. Crucially, we’ve also done it with the help of our community.

Molly Kennedy and Margarett Gabrielson co-founders of Fuel
Molly Kennedy (left) and Margarett Gabrielson (right) are co-founders of Fuel

Can you elaborate?

MK: When we started, we didn’t have much. Neither did we have it all buttoned down from day one. We were warned that we’d never be able to compete against the big franchises and the corporate studios, but we had five amazing instructors, a great manager and a ready-made community who told us that whatever we did, they’d come. So, we trusted our instincts and we went for it. Our thinking was pretty much: “We have bikes, we have speakers, we have music and we have our community. We’ll be fine!” And where many corporate studios have closed over the past year, we’ve grown and grown.

For the first few weeks, the only décor we had was a sign that said ‘It feels good to be home’, but together with our community, we’ve slowly added things over time. We now have a plant wall to which our members have brought their own plants. One weekend, 10 of us got together to paint all the walls black. When we needed mirrors, we put out feelers to see who could help. We’ve tweaked little details as the months have gone by and we’ve done it together as a community.

We’re also next door to a CrossFit studio and we get great support from them. We operate independently, but we’re there to help each other.

One of my big learnings in creating Fuel Cycling has been knowing what my limits are and how to ask for help. Over the past year, we’ve made connections across our local community – far beyond our original group – as people have come forward to support and help us. 

“We didn’t start a cycle studio and then try to build a community. We’re a community that built a cycle studio”

How is your community so strong?

MG: As our manager Lindsey puts it, we didn’t start a cycle studio and then try to build a community. We’re a community that built a cycle studio.

We do nurture this, of course. We’re there at local events, competing in trivia competitions as Fuel, raising money and making donations to charity, doing beach clean-ups and so on. We also have our own social events, such as our popular Pumpkins & Pinot ride.

But the point is, we were a community before we were a studio and that shows. When new people come to Fuel, it isn’t only our team who welcome them as if into their own home. Our members do the same. They go over and talk to them as if they’ve known them for years and even help them set up. People spend time in our community and just want to be part of it.

Fuel Cycling is where friendships are born and it’s such an honour to be that space. Everyone is there for each other, to the point that members will schedule visits around celebrating milestone rides with their friends, for example, or to be there if someone is coming back for their first ride after an illness. They don’t work out just to work out. They work out to see their friends. If they can’t make the ride, they’ll come to the social afterwards. 

Our riders and our staff see Fuel Cycling as their studio, and rightly so. They were there when we started. They’ve grown with us and helped us when we needed help. They’ve come to class and they’ve introduced their friends. They drive our sense of community. 

Our rides are great, but it’s the people who really make us. 

Fuel Cycle Community
The sense of community is incredibly strong at Fuel Cycling, with newcomers instantly welcomed

What about community beyond the studio?

MK: We saw something really interesting coming out of the pandemic: lots of new local businesses being set up by people – and especially women – who had been inspired to finally do the thing they’d always dreamed of doing.

We spent a lot of time going out to meet them, walking the streets and visiting all the coffee houses, the farmers’ markets, the little artisan shops to see how we could help them. Now, every month, we showcase a local business on our social media and we have a Makers’ Market in our studio: a cabinet where local makers and merchants can showcase their products, from jewellery to home-made soap to CBD tinctures. 

It isn’t even about trying to get them to join our studio. It’s important to us that we’re part of our local community. 

“It’s challenging in The Tank, but also hugely encouraging. There aren’t many places I feel as strong as I do when I’m in that room”

Tell us about your programming.

MG: Fuel45 – our 45-minute cycling class – makes up most of our schedule. We used to do Fuel60 once a week, too, but our community wasn’t quite ready for 60 minutes back then; we may reintroduce it at some point if there’s demand for it.

Alongside this are regular special classes: everything from musical themes to our Cookie Exchange ride, where everyone bakes cookies and you all swap them so you go away with one of each. We do a bingo challenge too, where you tick a box each time you ride a different bike. It gets people out of their back row comfort zones and shows them they can do it.

All our classes are rhythm rides. The lights go down and it’s like dancing on a bike. We do make the rides challenging, but it’s all done in such a fun way that people get lost in the moment and don’t realise how hard they’re working. 

Our instructors get off the bike and dance around, they motivate you and remind you what you’re capable of; there’s no focus on what you can’t do. The riders cheer each other on, too. It’s challenging in The Tank, but also hugely encouraging. There aren’t many places I feel as strong as I do when I’m in that room.

MK: In terms of the programming itself, we’re fortunate to have five amazing instructors, all of whom were itching to get away from the whole corporate ‘this is the recipe’ approach. All our classes have to include a variety of rhythms, and must be adaptable to both newcomers and regulars, but other than that we leave it to our instructors to do what feels right for them.

That includes the playlist, which shouldn’t just be chosen for a good workout. It should also reflect the instructor and what’s going on with them that day. Say I feel like I need a mental boost. I’ll start with that and I’ll pick tunes and design my programme around it. 

For us, music isn’t just music. It’s a soundtrack that people should get something out of at an emotional level.

“We’ve had people tell us coming to Fuel is like going to church, because we say everything they need to hear!”

Fuel Cycle class
Most classes last 45 minutes, as this is what members currently want

How do you train your instructors?

MG: It’s a collaborative and ongoing process. We know it’s in all our interests – and those of the studio – for everyone’s classes to be full, so we aren’t competitive with each other. We do each others’ classes as part of this; it’s fine for us all to have a different flavour, but we can still learn from each other. Nobody knows everything. 

New instructors also co-teach with established instructors until everyone feels they’re ready, and we all bring something – different skills and strengths – to help them in their training. 

MK: The way we connect with our members is also very inclusive: our team knows it’s always ‘we’, never ‘you’ or ‘I’. Everything we do, we do it together with our community. 

We also ask our instructors to open their hearts and their lives, because inevitably there will be people in class for whom it resonates: their experiences and feelings, hopes and fears. In fact, we’ve had people tell us coming to Fuel is like going to church, because we say everything they need to hear!

MG: Crucially, though, being in the saddle doesn’t make it The Margarett Show, and the same goes for all our team. A lot of studios showcase their instructors, but that can be intimidating for riders. At Fuel, it isn’t about what the instructor can do. It’s about making every class accessible, challenging everyone in the room to exactly the right level and doing what we do together.

Fuel Cycle instructors
Fuel’s five instructors all worked together at another club before

Is being women-owned important?

MG: We didn’t intentionally set out to be a women-only team and we’re very open to employing male instructors. However, we are women-owned – and also minority-owned – and I think that matters for a lot of reasons. 

At the age of 45, I became a widow with five children. There was a real moment of doubt, of wondering how I would move forward. Could I do it? Was I strong enough? How would I provide for my children? Purely at a personal level, creating Fuel Cycling… it was so important for me to show my children that their mum was strong. That I could do it.

And then there’s Molly: a full-time teacher who was also studying for her special education credential at the exact same time we were launching Fuel. I think it’s so important for our community, and other women in particular, to see that.

Fuel is part of a wave of new, women-owned businesses that have come out of COVID and it’s been really humbling to be a part of that, working to see how we can lift each other up.

MK: The funny thing is, though, that we hadn’t really thought about all this when we set out to create Fuel Cycling. We did what we did because we felt we had to for our community, and my boyfriend really spurred me on to do it.

It was only afterwards, when people saw what we’d done and talked to us about it, that we realised what it meant to them, to the community, to women. So often, women are told ‘no’ – especially minority women. Fuel Cycling is proof that you don’t have to look a certain way to accomplish what you want. Certainly this year, International Women’s Day felt very different for me, when I was up there on the bike and using our studio to prove that dreams can become reality. 

“We haven’t done it the easy way. We’ve done it in a really meaningful way – a way that matters to us and our community”

How are people responding to you?

MK: I think post-COVID, people are very aware of who they’re supporting and where they’re spending their money. People come into our studio and they love the ride, but even more than that, they want us to be successful. They see the love our studio has been built on, and that we continue to pour into the community, and they want to support us.

MG: I think it’s also true that people see themselves represented at Fuel Cycling. Ours is a very diverse crowd: gender, colour of skin, ages, backgrounds. We have military wives. We have grandmothers. And although 70–80 per cent of our members are women, we have men. Intimidated at first by all the women, they quickly get hooked into the community and bring their friends too, so the number of male members is growing. 

We very much represent the community. Everybody has a seat at Fuel Cycling.

Fuel Cycle team all woman
Fuel’s is a team of passionate women, but all genders are welcome

What are you most proud of?

MG: We’re a community that’s built a studio and the feedback is incredible. People say it’s like Cheers, because everyone knows your name! They say you walk in a stranger and leave a friend. Hearing things like that, it makes me really proud of what we’ve created.

We haven’t done it the easy way, either. We’ve done it in a really meaningful way – a way that matters to us and our community. I think that’s really important.

I’m also incredibly proud of the fact that, just 11 months after opening, we won Best Boutique Fitness Studio in the Best of Monterey 2022 awards. The names we were shortlisted alongside, I felt honoured even to be considered, but we won! It’s meant such a lot to our whole community.

MK: What I’m most proud of is seeing how lives have been changed by being part of our Fuel Cycling community. I always get really emotional when I see people celebrating a milestone, making friends, doing something they’ve never done before – standing up in the pedals during a ride, for example, or coming to class in new gym-wear and feeling great about themselves. I always wonder, would that have happened for them without Fuel Cycling? I’m just so proud of what we’ve all created together.

“A lot of studios showcase their instructors, but that can be intimidating for riders. At Fuel, it isn’t about what the instructor can do. It’s about what we can do together”

What are your plans moving forward?

MG: We may introduce a couple of new cycling concepts over the coming months. We’re fine-tuning what those might be, but ultimately it will be based on what our community is ready for.

MK: Beyond that, the sky’s the limit. We’ve already grown our membership to 70 and our studio to 35 bikes, but we’re just getting started.

We currently offer around 15 classes a week and could easily add more, as well as bringing in new instructors. That’s where we always look to spend our money – on top-quality staff – and we have plenty of space at our current site to grow.

Longer term, I have big dreams for Fuel Cycling. Five years from now, I’d love to be in larger premises where we have a second studio for complementary disciplines – yoga, stretching, barre and so on – as well as a juice bar. All our instructors are multi-disciplinary, so it’s just the extra studio space we’d need.

Would we ever open more locations? I don’t know – never say never. We could also go online again to make Fuel accessible to even more people. The most important thing, though, is that we built Fuel for this specific community. We will first build and grow here before we even consider going anywhere else.

Published 9. December 2022


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