Xabier Zapata is arguably the zaniest spinning instructor in the world. Equal parts drill sergeant and pantomimist, Xabi, as he’s affectionately called by his enthusiastic devotees, uses exaggerated body gestures to instruct sweaty spinners at his Happy Hour Fitness on Ensenada off Solano Avenue in north Berkeley. The gym is strategically located a block away from La Farine, whose morning buns replenish about half the 500 calories Xabi claims one burns up in his 40 minute workout, which is followed by 15 minutes on the mat.
The language barrier presents itself because Xabi – who came to this country from Spain in 2000 -- speaks a kind of Basquerized English. Given the pumped-up volume of the music, the sound of pumping lungs, and Xabi’s accent, I usually can’t hear whether he’s telling us to increase or decrease the resistance on our wheel. Instead, I watch which way his hand turns the resistance wheel or wait until someone in the class yells out “up” or “down?”
One word I do understand: relax. When between double-time sprints, he tells us to “Relax,” I know from experience that he wants us to go fast but not at thrombosis-inducing speeds of double-time.
Spinning instructors are like DJs on steroids. Xabi spins a savvy selection of old rock standards, from the Clash to Bob Dylan as well as a scary riff on Ravel’s Bolero, which portends 9 minutes of increasingly more difficult resistance while standing up the entire time. During slower parts, he converts us into fitness fanatics by delivering a series of hypnotic daily homilies.
There’s always a different screed against sloth: “You feel happier when your body is strong, when you exercise every day.” Xabi’s gospels are truisms, but the thing about a truism is that most of the time, it’s true.
And like Mother Teresa, he lays on the personal touch. He knows every spinner by name, as well as each person’s physical abilities, injuries, and fitness goals. If your form is out of whack during a session, he’ll shout out, “Thomas, relax your neck,” “Patricia, not so much resistance, you need to spin faster.” And if you’re having mechanical issues, he jumps off his own bike and runs over to fix yours while barking orders at the rest of the spinners.
The crazy part of the class is Xabi’s showmanship, which is borderline gay, or could just a form of Basque humor. Today, on a slower number, he shook his shoulders from side to side as if he were doing a striptease. Once he pulled off his fluorescent orange top to reveal a matted, hairy chest. “This is why I make a big sweat,” he expounded, as if he were teaching a biology class.
When, near the end of an arduous routine, Xabi emits his soccer-field whistle – in decibels equivalent to announcing a 5-alarm fire – my eardrums seem close to exploding. Some day I know this class will make me deaf.
Is there happiness in Xabi’s spinning sessions? During the class, it’s more like self-imposed immolation, a Spanish Inquisition of the Fittest, but afterwards, there’s a 24-hour surge of happiness, which slowly dissipates until the next class. That's why I think of Xabi's studio as Happy after-an-Hour Fitness.