My cycling life with the Apple Watch

I've been getting on my bike to see what the smartwatch has to offer

A lot is made of the Apple Watch and its ability to be an all-knowing, all-powerful smartwatch in the health and fitness realm. It can tell you when to move about, it can follow your every step on a workout and it can tell you when your heart rate is spiking.

And while running is arguably the sport it's best made for, it is by no means a pushover when it comes to cycling – whether that's during your commute to work or a longer ride during your downtime.

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I've been cycling with the Apple Watch on my wrist for the last few weeks in order to gain a better idea of how exactly it works, how it performs on the road and whether it can truly be considered an option for serious cyclists.

Read on to see how I fared. Got any questions? Drop them in the comments below.

Getting into gear: How it all works

On your bike: I tested the Apple Watch for cycling, here's how I got on

Whether you're an Apple Watch newbie or have the Workout app set as a complication for quick-fire sprints to the train station in the morning, there's really not much to be intimidated by when first getting started with its cycling portion.

Simply head to Workout from the menu, and use the Digital Crown to shoot down to the Outdoor Cycle mode. From there, you can decide how to channel your workout by pushing on the three-dot icon; setting an open goal, or one decided by calories, time or distance.

In my experience, I've preferred setting an open goal when out on the road, since reaching a specific goal will then end the exercise — there's nothing worse than getting into your rhythm and then realising you've only got three more minutes left. Of course, this will vary depending on your specific goals, but we just found it easier to keep a mental tab on our aims, rather than being tied into it through Workout.

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Once you've begun your exercise, the watch will give you three screens to swipe between. The middle screen is the big player, giving you a look at your duration, current speed, heart rate and distance. A swipe to the left will allow you to pause, end, lock the device from water or start a new workout, while the far right allows you to control your music. It all works relatively well, despite a couple of flaws (more on that later), but you'll want to head to the Watch app within your iPhone to add the likes of average speed or calorie metrics to the main screen.

On your bike: I tested the Apple Watch for cycling, here's how I got on

It should be said, much of the same applies to the Indoor Cycling mode. However, as is the case with running on a treadmill, things aren't the most accurate here. With the Watch relying on its accelerometer sensor to pick up distance, it can often lag behind or overestimate what the machine tells you. However, if you're simply looking to focus on calorie burn or spending time on the bike, this can still be useful when you don't want to get your gloves on and brave the cold.

And, hey, what if you're just not into Workout? Well, have no fear. The device is able to work with Strava, one of the more complete standalone fitness apps for the Apple Watch, among others third-party offerings. Through Strava, there are audio cues, auto-pause and all the after-ride data points you don't get with the Workout. Naturally, you can use this through your smartphone or through the Apple Watch standalone app, but in our experience the accuracy is solid with either.

In use: On the trail and on the road

On your bike: I test out how the Apple Watch fares as a cycling tracker

It's all a fairly straightforward affair getting things tuned to your taste, but how it actually performs while you're on the bike is naturally the biggest factor here.

Throughout my time with the Apple Watch on the bike, I've been using it for my commute to and from work (around 20 minutes, if the traffic lights of East London are kind) and more routinely at the weekend for bigger jaunts.

However, with the roads being relatively icy and the temperatures dipping to finger-numbing temperatures, things haven't exactly been easy recently. And that's brought up a couple of issues.

Read next: The best fitness trackers for cycling

Once you're in the workout screen, you can only move around using the touchscreen. As you can imagine, that's not ideal if you're operating with gloves on, which those who value their hands' welfare will be, and the Digital Crown is limited to warping you to the menu screen or scrolling through the stats at the end of your workout. Maybe there's some scope to add functionality to slide between screens with the Crown, but we're yet to see it from Apple.

Another issue is the value in logging commutes. Sometimes, with my commute not being too long, it doesn't feel worth tracking in the Workout app. What I'd like to see is Apple add a tab that filters out commutes from my more hardened workouts. Strava has this option, but it also doesn't let you filter your feed, with the third-party app instead focusing on using the data for its work with city planners in order to make roads safer. Still, wouldn't it be great to see your total commute miles from a month, and maybe even how much you saved by not taking public transport?

And for when you're not on a trail, parks or winding country road, having the auto-pause come to Workout, like in Strava, would be a huge bonus. Since touching the screen to pause isn't always easy, and pauses actually happen much more frequently than when running, it's hard to see why this hasn't yet made the leap to Workout's cycling section.

But for these flaws within functionality, it must be said the Apple Watch is as accurate as it gets from the wrist. As with other exercise, GPS lock-on is pretty much instantaneous, and the after-cycle map has remained consistent and on par with what we tested it against.

Let's look at this cycle below, in which we used the Apple Watch through East London and into the Walthamstow Wetlands against the Fitbit Ionic, another smartwatch with impressive GPS chops.

On your bike: I tested the Apple Watch for cycling, here's what I found

(Apple Watch – overview; map; breakdown)

On the watch, the experience is as I've described earlier; it's fairly basic but there's also not too much more you'd need in terms of data. The same is true with the Ionic during your ride, but there are stark differences in what you get post-cycle.

It's not an issue with data disparity, either. Both recorded a very similar total distance, and were near enough in the same area with regard to heart beat and calories. Instead, it's in how that data is interpreted and fed back to you through the companion app that you see the difference.

Versus: Apple Watch v Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit chooses to use the heart data it tracks to give you a breakdown of how long you spent in each zone, something Apple can only match with its small in-app graphic. And though Apple's splits are given every kilometre in the example above (Fitbit's was set to only cue every five miles), there's no indication of your elevation during each sector, or which was your best for speed.

Things have definitely improved with the introduction of deeper heart metrics shown through watchOS 4 (which also includes heart rate recovery – a metric I consistently ruin by taking off my Apple Watch immediately after ending a workout), but there's definitely room to grow, and Fitbit's app is a perfect example of how a company's proprietary system doesn't have to be vanilla.

On your bike: I tested the Apple Watch for cycling, here's what I found

(Fitbit – map; heart rate overview; distance and speed overview)

Thankfully, as I've mentioned, Strava does fill in some of the blanks for Apple. If you're a premium user, the difference is particularly noticeable, as you're given a look into heart rate zones, as well as Power Zone Analysis – a metric which pulls in data from a power meter or gives an estimate.

Below, in a lunchtime ride around the park, you can see the basic Apple Watch's overview (left), and Strava's analysis (middle, right). While there's little to split the pair's findings, as was the case with the Fitbit Ionic, diving in to the afterparty is a little more pleasant with Strava. Even the free version offers more than Workout, with neat features like Segments, and all of the data can still be used to contribute to closing those three daily Activity rings.

On your bike: I tested the Apple Watch for cycling, here's what I found

Final thoughts

So when it's all said and done, would I still use the Apple Watch to cycle with?

In short, yes. Its GPS accuracy is up there with the very best, as it is with running and other sports, and we've had no problems with data syncing or workouts not recording – something which can be a bit of a struggle with other devices, as we know all too well. It's worth noting that this is still, for my money, one of the most attractive smartwatches to wear, too.

The biggest problems it faces aren't in its tracking or app support, but rather the data it gives you back if you choose to invest solely in Workout. There's no reason why things can't be more fleshed out with all the heart rate and distance metrics being tracked in the background. And once you begin to compared the overall package to the likes of Strava, or indeed much of the rest of the third-party crop, there's little reason to stay faithful to Apple's proprietary mode.

With that said, it's still an intuitive, straightforward platform for Apple Watch cyclists to get started with. At least for beginners, it has all the important things here, and with a few small improvements to its data outlay this could easily pull people away from other standalone apps.

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