06/30/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE SWEATING CYCLISTS PUMP their thighs as thumping rhythms pound through their headphones. A coaxing voice, piped in over the music, urges them on. "Don't stop believing in yourself," urges Johnny Goldberg (aka Johnny G), an evangelist promoting peace of mind and healthier lifestyles. "Have faith, strength and courage."
The music speeds up, and the cyclists turn resistance knobs on their stationary bikes to simulate a stretch of uphill terrain. "It takes one moment to change your attitude, and in that moment you can change your life," the lean, curly-haired Goldberg cajoles. The cyclists push harder. By the end of a 40-minute session, exhilarated and some even hugging each other, they have burned off an average of 500 calories and enough mental angst to fill a saddlebag.
This is Spinning, the combination bike ride, pep talk and gym craze that has people across the country enduring weeks-long waiting lists, shelling out up to $25 for a class and $50 for accoutrements like crotch-padded shorts or $99 for a heart-rate monitor. Converts say it's worth it. "The more you ride, the more your tensions seem to clear away," says Phyllis Cohen, a 54-year-old writer. At least they do when it's Goldberg's voice coaxing through the earphones. "At some places Spinning is just people doing aerobics on bikes," says Nathan Oventhal, 52, a computer software salesman. "But Johnny really emphasizes the spiritual side, and you actually gain a connection between your mind and your body."
Goldberg, 40, a former personal trainer and an accomplished cyclist, "invented" Spinning in 1989 after the birth of his daughter Jordan. (He also has kids Jason, 13, and Jackie, 11, from a previous marriage.) Wanting to work out without leaving wife Jodi—who now designs the sports clothing sold at his gym—home alone, he attached his road bike to a set of wheel rollers, pushed the handlebars forward, added a rocking saddle and spun in his garage.
Goldberg took the new bike into his gym and for the next three years used it to teach classes. But it wasn't until he teamed up with John Baudhuin, an accountant and sometime bike racer, to form Madd Dogg Athletics that entrepreneurial wheels began turning. In 1995 the pair opened Johnny G's Headquarters in Culver City, Calif., where an average of 750 people a week show up to ride through a Spinning class. Goldberg and Baudhuin also trade-marked the term Spinning and franchised it out to 1,200 gyms worldwide that now teach the classes on a regular basis.
The sculpted Johnny G of today is a far cry from the ridiculed dyslexic boy who grew up in a small town in South Africa. The only son of Norman, a pharmacist, and Yvonne, who owned a duplicating business, Goldberg says he was the "least likely to succeed" in school. In an effort to improve himself he took up swimming and bodybuilding. He became a personal trainer at 19 and decided to seek his fortune in America in 1979.
His search got off to a shaky start. Two days after arriving in Santa Monica, Goldberg was robbed of $3,000 at gunpoint. Broke, he roamed the streets, stealing food and eating fruit he plucked from trees. Curiously, his desperation inspired him. "I thought if I could get through this," he says, "I could get through anything."
Goldberg sold knives door-to-door for a few weeks before landing a job as a trainer at a local gym. He eventually became a private trainer, and his first client, talent manager Sandy Gallin, referred several of his clients to him. Goldberg soon found himself training the likes of Jack Scalia, Cheryl Ladd and Carol Bayer Sager. "You can't help but like his energy," says Scalia, who has trained with Goldberg for more than 20 triathlons. "And the way he looks is inspiring: He looks like he's cut from marble."
These days, Johnny G travels the country teaching Spinning classes to nascent instructors; at home he gardens, meditates and romps around his Century City home with his similarly athletic wife and children. He claims to sleep a mere two hours a night—quite enough, he says, for "a freaky athlete guy who likes to take things to the limit."
SOPHFRONIA SCOTT GREGORY
ANNA DAVID in Los Angeles