In recent months, I have – like all of us – watched our social fabric stretch under the pressure of COVID-19. I am impressed and inspired (but not at all surprised) by the resilience of the city of Detroit and the small business community of which I am proud to be considered a member. While a lot of business owners are kind of exhausted by the word “pivot” at this point, the term truly does express not only the logistical shifts but the emotional ones that we have made in order to survive this unprecedented time. From converting a bakery into a corner store, to making a home goods store its own home shopping network, the unwillingness to let you all go unserved is nothing short of commendable. I am proud that I was able to join the ranks of my fellow small business gym owners by renting out our equipment and arranging multiple Zoom rides a week so that you could feel some semblance of normalcy and consistency. I have hope that our communities will emerge even stronger and more connected than ever.
Despite all that is persistent and relentless in the world of small business, the reality is that some of us will not arrive on the other end of this extraordinary time. There are so many reasons why businesses will struggle and ultimately make the difficult decision to close their doors for good, but I assure you that for some business owners, it might be a choice that is best for them and their families.
As the sole owner and operator of Rebel Cycle Studio, I have for the better part of two years worn every hat for the studio: instructor, trainer, book-keeper, innovator, marketer, social media person, manager, and likely a few other titles I can’t even think of at the moment. I have done this while also working as a full-time Senior Lecturer at Wayne State University – a career that I love, remain dedicated to, and have never had any plan to leave.
It is important to note that COVID-19 is not the sole determining factor behind the decisions that I have made in recent weeks. Its existence was part of a present trajectory. For my own physical and mental health, I have chosen to take a step back from owning and operating a gym.
Effective June 2019, Rebel Cycle Studio will close its doors for good.
While there are logistical questions to be answered, all of which will be addressed very soon on the studio’s website, I felt it important to shed light on the human side of business closure. I wanted an opportunity to share what has occurred in my life in the past two years and how those events shaped me as a person and a business owner. It is my hope that this transparency helps us all to remember (lest we ever forget) that the people who own and operate our beloved small businesses are, at the end of the day, humans who – in addition to feeling the joy and fulfillment of owning their businesses and serving their communities – face decisions about persistence and survival on a regular basis.
Personally, I had no clue how I would feel about being a business owner because I had never done it before. How can you know how you’ll feel about something until it happens? You can tell yourself all day long what you would do in any given scenario, but you have no idea what you will do or how you will feel until you are in that scenario. For me, the mission of Rebel Cycle Studio and what I knew it could bring to people’s lives was enough for me to take a leap and assume the risk. So, Detroit’s first body-positive indoor cycling studio became a reality – and it was incredibly rewarding. It was not long after, however, that life began to toss its wrenches into the new gears of entrepreneurship.
In February of 2019, just 5 months into studio ownership and operation, I faced a difficult decision regarding my health. Since being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2012, I had been on a daily injection of a disease-modifying therapy called Copaxone. This is one of the oldest and safest therapies on the market for MS. In recent years, I began to develop painful skin irritation and reactions to the drug which made it difficult (at times impossible) to administer my injections. My neurologist suggested that I switch to a newer medication which consisted of an hours-long infusion twice yearly. I followed her suggestion, even looking forward to no longer having painful daily injections to treat my MS. What I didn’t know is that the change would affect me more mentally than it would physically. For the entire time I had lived with MS, I was able to do something daily that ensured I was preventing my disease from progressing. Imagine every single day for 6+ years, brushing your teeth, washing your face, and doing an injection – and then suddenly… you brush your teeth, wash your face, and… have to trust that whatever was pumped into your veins days, weeks, months in the past is still doing its job. I struggled with it. A lot. Add to that the uncertainty of how your body may or may not react to a new drug that now comes with it the concerns of immune suppression… well, let’s just say that it made for some pretty awful days that turned into weeks that turned into months.
With all that said, I knew that I would nevertheless press on because, at minimum, I had made a commitment to the lease I signed with the DCFC at the Detroit City Fieldhouse. Obligations and commitments are important to me and regardless of how hard it was, I owed it to the loyal member base and to my landlords to stay the course, to keep showing up, and to keep working as hard as I could. Until July of 2019, there was still a part of me who could imagine multiple futures for Rebel beyond our initial space. On July 3rd, my brother passed away. His loss generated a sonic-level wave of grief within me that I had never experienced before. His death was mired by years of familial strain, alienation, and an existing grieving process for the pain of addiction and suffering that preceded his passing. For months, I was thankful that we cycled in a dark room with club-level decibels because I lead too many cycling classes while mixing tears with sweat. To this day I have no clue how I mustered a smile for anyone. On several occasions I likely did not, and I am still sorry about that to anyone who might have hoped for a warmer, more up-beat space in the studio (especially from its owner).
In late August, I began teaching the Fall 2019 semester at WSU where I was entering a second year of piloting a new course model for incoming freshmen. I, along with colleagues, had spent years researching and implementing this course and here I was walking into these classrooms, a grief-stricken, exhausted, shell of a person who was now carrying with her just one good eye (in early August, I lost about half of the vision in my left eye due to chronic dryness that just would not go away no matter what I did – yeah, PILE. IT. ON. life). The months of September-November proved to be most the most difficult of my life. I was over-worked (all my own doing, but still), under-prepared to process the grief, and unable to sink into the support systems around me purely due to the demands of the business and of my career. In October, I had a bout of depression so bad that I started to wonder what it would be like if I just… wasn’t here anymore. I was so tired. I felt so trapped. There was no way out of everything I had placed onto my shoulders and I couldn’t see any proverbial light at the end of any proverbial tunnel. One night in October, I drove to the nearest hospital and sat in the parking lot deciding whether to commit myself. I was terrified of the thoughts in my own head. I had never in my life felt so weak, confused, and afraid. I cried so hard that I couldn’t see. Eventually, I built up the courage to drive home and face it all. The weeks wore on as I buried myself in my work, my dedication to my students and to the members at Rebel. I would steal away to bathroom stalls to cry when I needed to. I would waste entire days in bed watching movies that me and my brother loved as kids. I went mostly radio silent, showing up but offering little. I made it through the holiday season focused on giving to others through the studio. I tried to be a good sister, friend, daughter, wife, and colleague… all the while knowing in my heart that I would not be able to sustain that as both the owner of a small business and a full-time teacher and scholar.
As we turned the corner into 2020, every week simply concretized my decision to either 1) sell Rebel, 2) partner with someone who was interested in the aspects of the business that I could not sustain or help grow, or 3) bring it to a close at the end of our lease agreement. My department leadership at WSU were kind enough to offer me a course release in the Winter 2020 semester (in exchange for shifting those teaching obligations to a future semester). To say that I am grateful for such incredible people in the English department at WSU doesn’t feel like enough. I now had time to breathe and more time to think clearly: and every time I thought of continuing Rebel just as it was, I knew I could not do it. I knew I could not do it and maintain my own physical health and mental health. I pursued several avenues, I met with several mentors, I consulted several experts: I weighed all my options.
Then came COVID-19. I taught my last spin class in our physical studio on Sunday, March 15th. We had all of our bikes rented to members or picked up by instructors before the first shelter-in-place order began. Those first two weeks after the studio closed were a whirlwind of logistics but as soon as every bike was safe in its temporary home, and as the threat of COVID grew in southeast Michigan, it settled in that the likelihood of ever riding in the studio again was slim. While other fitness studios were ramping up their online streaming, I retreated to ensure that my WSU students would have the best quality education that I could possibly provide them for the remainder of the Winter 2020 semester. I wanted to be just as active on social media and just as organized with online classes as my other entrepreneurial peers were, but the most important thing at that time was to be the best teacher I could be. My students deserved nothing less. And while none of us signed up for any of the pivoting and disruption that has occurred since COVID, I allowed myself to accept that fact, to live in that reality: I was not equipped to run an online studio and I did not have the time to make it perfect. Trust me when I say that there is nothing more I would love to do than to have the time and energy to reimagine something as beautiful and unique as Rebel Cycle Studio. The reality is that I no longer possess that time or that energy.
Ultimately and with all of that said, our lease agreement ends in August of 2020. It would always be that date, but in a world with COVID-19, I have come to the conclusion that attempting to “ride out” (literally) the remainder of our time in Fieldhouse will be unwise, regardless of whether our small gym would even be able to re-open per Governor Whitmer’s phased approach to re-engaging the economy. I am including more details about the logistics behind my decision on our website for those who are interested. Regardless, I know that I – as just one woman – am not willing or able to sustain Rebel Cycle Studio especially with so much uncertainty on the back end of it.
It’s funny, people used to ask me, “How are you going to run a small business and be a full-time teacher?” I’d always reply, “Either I am or I’m not – there’s only one way to find out!” I look back on that person and I am so proud of her. Damn it, I am so proud that she took a shot on a dream and an opportunity to help people realize that fitness could be something so much more than weight-loss challenges and that fitness instructors can be people just like them who don’t need or want to use their bodies as their business cards. I am so proud of that girl who knew that if she could positively impact the life of JUST ONE person, that it would all be worth it. And I promise you there were so many days that, after the last member left the studio at night, I would lay on the floor and cry. After every social media post from a member espousing the light and love they feel from our little 800 sq/ft studio, there were tears. We did it. And even if I could only sustain us for just shy of two years, we will always have this time.
My sincerest hope is that every person who set foot in our studio will be a little stronger and a little more confident than they were before Rebel was in their lives. I hope we were able to show you all that fitness belongs to everyBODY – that you belong in every space – that being physically fit has no “look” and that you can demand more of the fitness spaces you choose to frequent. Rebel Cycle Studio will be a blip on your radar, but please let it leave a permanent mark on your heart.
With deepest gratitude to you all,