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Peloton Got Trapped in Its Trillion-Dollar Fantasy

Fueled by manic demand during the early days of Covid, the company spent the next two years chasing a dream of fitness dominance.

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Illustration: Max Guther for Bloomberg Businessweek

Up until a few years ago, it was safe to assume that someone using the word “peloton” was talking about either competitive bicycle racing (the term refers to the main pack of riders) or a French-speaking country’s military (it means “platoon”).

That assumption no longer holds. Peloton Interactive Inc. has ascended into the pantheon of companies that have eclipsed their names, sitting alongside Facebook (Harvard’s freshman directory), Starbucks (the first mate in Moby-Dick), and Google (a very big number spelled “googol”). Six and a half million people use its exercise bikes and treadmills and take its online classes. Its cultural footprint is even larger: Those classes are plot points in television dramas and are parodied on Saturday Night Live. Peloton’s instructors are celebrities, with wellness consultancies and clothing lines. President Joe Biden fought with his security staff to bring his Peloton bike to the White House. The name has become a verb and a Rorschach blot: for the possibilities of digital communities, for the lifestyle changes wrought by Covid-19, for the cultishness of curated high-intensity exercise, and for the prospect of the rich and fit getting even fitter from the comfort of their pool houses.