By Caitlin Maloney
Photos By Alexa Nahas
It was no surprise when The Wall Cycling Studio won “Best Fitness Studio” in this year’s Best Of Manayunk competition or when owner Julie Sabella landed on the cover of this year's Be Well Philly’s Health + Fitness Guide.
But it would have come as a surprise for 18-year-old Julie, an overweight soon to be college freshmen in August of 2003 who had just learned she was pre-diabetic. It was then that she knew she needed to make a change, a drastic one, so she started running. As she ran on the track alone at night and walked on the elliptical in the gym, the pounds began to melt off and Julie started on a path to a healthier lifestyle, never expecting where it would lead.
After graduation, Julie moved to Manayunk where she met her future husband Karl, who can be credited for first really introducing her to indoor cycling. As an avid indoor cyclist, Karl asked Julie to join him for a class early on in their relationship. “It was so bad, I was sitting on a tricycle size bike because my seat was so low and my knees were hitting my chin,” Julie said. “Karl definitely made fun of me for that.”
Julie continued to go to a few classes with Karl, but wasn’t convinced that cycling was really her thing. At the time, Julie was working as a fitness, equipment and apparel buyer for an online fitness store. And just like what happened to many working Americans during that time, she got laid off with no warning.
“When I got laid off, I cried for two weeks,” Julie said. “Then my friend at the time was saying, ‘You know what Manayunk needs? An indoor cycling studio.’ So, I went with her to another cycling class and that’s when it hit me, I knew this was something I had to bring to Manayunk.”
For Julie, starting The Wall did not spur from a dream of having an indoor cycling studio, but rather on a gut instinct. “It was really impulsive and I don’t think I would do it now,” Julie laughed. “I can’t believe I was so ballzy like that, it still gives me palpitations thinking about it. It was really scary because I would sit up at night and think, ‘What am I doing?’”
Julie didn’t know the first thing about opening an indoor cycling studio, so before she could actually open her doors, there was a lot of research that had to be done. Learning about the zoning and licensing regulations in Philadelphia was definitely a struggle, but what came easy to Julie was finding the perfect bikes. Ironically, she purchased those through the same company where she was just laid off. Then of course, was finding the studio space. That happened while she was walking down Levering Street one day and a ‘For Rent’ sign caught her eye. It was large windows that she first fell in love with.
Once documents were signed, equipment was purchased, and the space was found, Julie still had to become officially certified to teach indoor cycling before opening her doors in May of 2012. The first few weeks, Julie admits there were classes with just one rider, and 16 of those classes she taught herself. As Julie brought on more instructors so she could teach fewer classes, they helped spread the word and before she knew it she was filling every bike. “The instructors are the reason we are still so busy,” Julie said. “They are the ones that pull people. It’s as much their studio as it is mine because people come for them.”
All instructors must get certified of course, but before they are ready to fully teach, Julie must mold them into Wall instructors. “Our instructors are all very different, but they all teach in the same high intensity interval style,” Julie said. “And they’re all really welcoming. If it’s your first class, they will come right up to you and introduce themselves and show you how to adjust your bike or how to stand correctly at the bar.”
And as far as those great music mixes they play during class that are so perfectly timed with each workout, those are made by each individual instructor. “It’s their music and their class,” Julie said.
Many of her instructors were also previous students themselves who love what the workout has done for them so much that they want to share it with others. “I always make sure to review the pros and cons though, they need to remember that it’s not their workout anymore,” Julie said.
As word continued to spread and new instructors were brought on over the next three years, Julie soon started to feel like she was outgrowing her 700 square foot space, and she had her eyes set on not only relocating the Manayunk location, but also expanding to a new location and adding barre to The Wall’s class offerings.
Just like indoor cycling, it wasn’t really love at first barre for Julie. After going to a barre class with her sister a few years prior, Julie admitted that she originally hated it. It wasn’t until her friend Jessie begged her to join her at another class that Julie’s love affair began and she knew it was something she had to bring to The Wall.
So, on another impulse move, Julie opened her second The Wall Cycling Studio in Phoenixville and Barre In The Wall was born. After looking at several suburban towns, Julie stumbled upon the Phoenixville studio on Craigslist and knew it would be a perfect fit not only because so many of her Manayunk clients worked out that way, but she had another gut instinct.
“Phoenixville is just like how Manayunk was a few years ago when I first opened,” Julie said. “It has a few fitness businesses, but it’s on the brink of getting more and I knew I wanted to be a part of that, but I definitely couldn't do it alone.”
That’s where long time instructor and friend Cat Stier came in. “I knew that she was just as passionate about The Wall as I am and I wanted another high energy person that loves fitness in the way that I love it,” Julie said. “Cat has a great work ethic and is great at what she does, and I knew she would be the perfect person to help build the new location.”
It was around the same time that she was expanding in Phoenixville that Julie was scrolling through Craigslist again looking for a new Manayunk location, when another listing caught her eye. Though the pictures of the listing were just blueprints of the space, it was the location on Cotton Street that made Julie look twice.
Rewind to 2010 when Julie first met Karl while out with friends at JD McGillicuddy’s. After asking for her number, Karl set-up a date for the following week and told Julie to meet him on Cotton Street before they went to dinner at Winnie’s Lebus. Julie didn’t question the meeting spot, until she turned the corner onto Cotton Street and saw Karl standing in front of the house right next to McGillicuddy’s — the same house that Julie stopped by frequently to say hello to the dog she grew fond of in the window. Julie couldn’t believe that Karl not only lived in that house, but that the boxer, she soon found out was named Beckham, was in fact his. Fate was already in play, but it still had bigger plans for them. After dating for a few months, Julie moved into the Cotton Street house with Karl. She opened the studio on Levering Street, they got married and purchased a home of their own in Manayunk.
Fast forward to October 2014, and you’ll understand why Julie looked twice at that listing. The soon to be developed building was located right in their old backyard, on the same block where they first met and right next door to home where they began their life together. “At that point I knew it was fate,” Julie said. “I knew this was going to be the new home for The Wall.”
Building a space from the ground up was definitely an undertaking, but once construction finished, Julie pulled in her resources to outfit the space into an indoor cycling and barre studio. The actual barre’s that line the upstairs studio were handmade by her father in law, and her sister and brother in law built the chandelier hanging in the studio’s entry. It was Karl though who took the lead on designing the space.
“He would just go to HomeGoods and Target and send me pictures. Decorating is not my thing, but I’m the one who got the French Bulldog statues (in honor of their dog Brooklyn) and picked the paint,” Julie laughed. “It’s Argos by Sherwin Williams, everyone always asks about it!”
Karl didn’t just help with the studio design though, “he helps with everything,” Julie said. “He fixes bikes, signs riders in, and helps with the financial goals and growth of the business.” When they first made the decision to purchase the new studio, which was four times larger and more expensive than our original studio, it was Karl who helped plan out the finances. “I couldn’t do it without him,” Julie said.
Though the building process was the “longest 16 months of my life,” she jokes, the new studio, which opened in February, was definitely worth the wait. “I love everything about the new space, how it smells so new and how bright it is,” Julie said. “I can just sit up in that barre room all day.”
Not only does Julie love welcoming new riders into the space, she also loves seeing the reactions from her clients who took classes in the old studio. “The first week we opened, our clients would get undressed standing and I would have to say ‘spread out’, they were so used to being cramped in the entry of the old studio,” Julie laughed. “People don’t care where they workout, they care about the workout, but I know they all love the new space.”
Now that the new space is complete, Julie’s Manayunk clients now enjoy both indoor cycling and barre. “You get a great cardio fix with indoor cycling and then you get to go upstairs and stretch those muscles out at barre,” Julie said. “You’re getting a great workout with cycling, but with barre, you’re isolating muscles and it shreds your body almost instantly.”
Though most people see the bars and think of ballet, Julie noted that dancers have the most incredible bodies. “They workout muscles you don’t even know about,” Julie said. “Doing isolated movements for 55 minutes 2-3 times a week in a barre class and you’ll see changes really fast.”
And it’s not just for girls Julie mentioned. Though she’s always had some loyal male cycling students, she now has a few male barre students too – and you probably would not have guessed that one was a former football player and one is a current rugby player. Both do it to increase flexibility, Julie said.
Besides traditional barre classes, Julie also started offering a new group of barre classes for new and expecting moms. There’s Baby Bumb Barre for mom’s who are expecting, BYO Baby Barre for new moms who can bring their baby in their carriers, and Baby Barre for moms with children 3+ years of age – while mom gets a workout, their toddlers can workout on their own mini barre.
“You can come in with your kid knowing that you are going to get a workout and teach your child healthy lifestyle,” Julie said. “There are some modifications with all of these, but it’s still really hard. These women are no joke.” Recently added to the schedule is Mommy Core Restore, tailored to new moms who want to get their core back in shape quickly.
Those looking to do indoor cycling can choose from traditional Indoor Cycling, Bardio Sculpt (a more cardio based workout), or Spin and Sculpt, which consists of 22 minutes on the bike and 22 minutes off the bike working with weights and TRX.
Thankfully, Julie has an online system that tracks her class schedule and how many classes each instructor teaches, so we had to know, how many classes has she taught by now? According to Julie, it’s definitely over 2,000.
“Teaching all of those classes doesn’t feel like a job to me, because I really do enjoy what I do,” Julie said. “Looking back, I never thought I would do anything like this and I don’t know if I would have the guts to do it again. But, that’s one thing I learned, you just have to have guts.”
Visit the Manayunk Development Corporation Contact page for full contact information.
Office: 4312 Main Street, Philadelphia, PA 19127