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Meet the MD of Peloton – whose exercise bikes were snapped up in lockdown

Andy Martin
·6-min read
Cornils attended Harvard Business School in 2000 (Peloton)
Cornils attended Harvard Business School in 2000 (Peloton)

When all the gyms shut, the online home gym took off. And Peloton, in particular, has flourished during lockdown. But Kevin Cornils recalls he bought the first Peloton bike outside the US way back in 2013. “I logged on and I’ve been riding ever since,” he says. He may have actually been pedalling away in his living room when John Foley, the Peloton co-founder and CEO, called him in 2018 and asked him if he wouldn’t mind becoming MD International for Peloton. If ever there was a no-brainer, this was it. Cornils has given a completely new spin to the old adage, “Get on your bike!”

Cornils, like the Peloton bike, is an American import. He was born in the Napa Valley in California, where his mother was a school teacher and his father was an engineer for the Navy. Cornils met John Foley when they were both students at Harvard Business School in 2000-2001. Later Foley encouraged Cornils to seek out “entrepreneurial experience” rather than investment banking and Match.com brought him to England, which is where he was (by then CEO at Glasses Direct) when Foley called.

John Foley and his wife Jill had been regulars at spinning classes at their gym in New York. But spinning was becoming increasingly popular and the Foleys were juggling jobs and kids –they were finding it hard to book convenient slots in the schedule. So the simple idea occurred to them: why can’t we do this at home? Of course the stationary exercise bike has been around for a long while: even my mother had one (not sure she used it much though). Foley’s vision was to recreate the spinning class online: so the bike incorporates a 22” screen on top of the handle bars that streams classes and hooks you up to trainers and your fellow workout warriors around the globe. Peloton turns your living room into a gym.

Or, in Kevin Cornils’ case, at his house way out in the Cotswolds, the bike takes pride of place in a dedicated studio, overhung by trees, at the bottom of the garden. You don’t have to live in the city any more to stay fit. The brushed black Peloton is way cooler than my mother’s old bike. “It had to be something you’d like to have sitting in your living room,” says Cornils.

There was a time when the top people in any organisation wouldn’t necessarily be of the healthiest. Those times are past. Cornils looks as fit as a flea, or he would if a flea also had a head of abundant silver hair. “Now it looks as if it must have been easy setting up Peloton, but in fact it was a lesson in perseverance,” he points out. Back in 2012, venture capitalists were sceptical. You want to build a bike and train up instructors and have a studio to film them in too?! A Kickstarter campaign got them rolling and contrite venture capital came crawling back later on.

The subscription system allows different members of your family to be added, but each has their own separate profile. It’s not all about the bike: the focus has shifted to fitness and wellbeing. Mrs Cornils loves doing the yoga and their two teenage girls do the dance cardio routine. The Peloton app connects up with your TV, but you can also take it out for a run. You’ll never walk alone again, if you don’t want to. “I strap the iPhone on my arm and I have AirPods in my ears,” says Cornils. If he goes running with one of his girls, they share an airpod each. If you don’t fancy athletic, you can even do meditation classes. “It’s mental as well as physical,” says Cornils. “We like to talk about mental fitness.”

On the one hand, our UK obesity stats look bad. On the other hand, we are right up there in terms of gym membership. We are second only to the US and on a par with Germany. One in six of us belongs to a gym. “After the States,” says Cornils, “the UK was an obvious place for us to start.” They launched over here in September 2018, with studios and showrooms around the country. Back in the day Cornils had to set up his own bike together with a friend. Now a Peloton “ambassador” delivers the bike and installs it all for you, gets it all set up, selects classes – and checks back later on “member experience”. In the States you can buy a Peloton treadmill too (which might be wending its way over here).

We now boast four British instructors as well a host of US ones. Hannah, one of the four, was an athlete, Liane was a dancer, Sam was a former Buddhist monk, and Ben was a private equity analyst. “We don’t just have fitness instructors – they all have an interesting story to tell too.” They give you tips and advice on life generally. “I’ve lived here 20 years,” says Cornils. “The British consumer might say it sounds too positive for me. But once they experience it, they realise it comes from an authentic place.”

Peloton
Peloton

A friend of mine is not only working from home, but working out at home with Peleton too. So I tested out her bike. You can adjust “resistance” on one setting and “cadence” on another. Run the two together and they combine into a lot of huffing and puffing. I randomly chose an instructor from the US called Cody, an ex-dancer who told a rather life-affirming story of ditching his boyfriend on account of him not being supportive enough.

If you’re feeling competitive there’s a leaderboard and you can measure yourself against the other 2.6 million Peloton riders around the world. You can live-stream from London or New York. Or, during Covid, the instructor’s home. I also took a “scenic ride” around New Zealand. I once thought of cycling across the US. But a lot can go wrong in three thousand miles. Maybe I can do it on a Peloton instead and not have to worry about lugging my kit all over North America.

Music is an integral part of the experience. I somehow managed to click on Tamla Motown Xmas tunes. “We have spent a lot of time developing relationships with labels,” says Cornils, who favours Eighties pop to pedal to.

Retention rate is high – over 90%, so they must be doing something right. Cornils dismisses those other pseudo-gym machines you might have around the house (the ones that in reality you never use) as “clothes-hangers”. The Peloton is designed to be more immersive and engaging. “You’re not buying a bike,” says Cornils, “you’re joining a community”.

A new facility, called “tags”, enables you to not only to ride with someone but to high-five them – virtually, via the screen – and they can high-five you back. And you can join a specific group, like “Peloton mums”. “Or,” Kevin Cornils suggests, “everyone at The Independent?” He conjures up a utopian vision of lots of Independent writers all bonding, high-fiving like mad, as they ride off over the horizon together. It’s a beautiful idea. The only problem is, are we just too independent for that?

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